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There’s a haunting scene about halfway through FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story where Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) dreams that he’s being fitted for a suit by Gianni Versace (Édgar Ramírez) — the man he will soon murder on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion. [Ed. note: While this story contains some light spoilers based on historical fact, they shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of the series whatsoever.]
“This world has wasted me,” Cunanan says, “while it has turned you, Mr. Versace, into a star.” His expression is steely, the scene bathed in lurid red light. “Was it the world, sir?” Versace asks quietly, implying that perhaps Cunanan’s own behavior might be to blame. “Oh, you think you’re better than me?” Cunanan shoot backs. “You’re not better than me. We’re the same. The only difference is you got lucky.”
Much like The People v. OJ Simpson, American Crime Story’s critically lauded first installment, Versace uses a famous murder as a jumping-off point to explore broader truths about our society and culture. Using Maureen Orth’s nonfiction bestseller Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in US History as its guide, the season examines Cunanan’s cross-country killing spree that culminated in the designer’s death. And in doing so, it paints a terrifying portrait of the dark underbelly of the American Dream.
The timing couldn’t be better for a series about the reckless, relentless pursuit of prosperity. Consider our current president, elevated on the political stage not for his experience or qualifications, but rather for his presumptive affluence and reality-TV fame. Not too long ago, about half of our country — many of them white and working-class — was sure that Donald Trump could bring back lost jobs and make America wealthy again. So focused were they on restoring the financial success they felt was their birthright, in fact, that they were able to overlook Trump’s habit of telling frequent, flagrant lies.
Our country’s millennials aren’t faring much better. We’re the first generation in modern history to be poorer than our parents, with a financial future crippled by debt, unemployment, and inflation. We’re getting married later, having children later, and buying homes later — that is, if we can afford to buy a home at all. The traditional American Dream has never felt further out of reach. What remains in its place, however, is the glimmering possibility of celebrity.
According to a 2017 study cited by Forbes, more than a quarter of millennials would quit their jobs in exchange for fame. Nearly a third would rather be famous than pursue a career as a doctor or lawyer. The barrier for entry to fame has never been lower thanks to social media, so it’s little wonder why many young people see it as a ticket to overnight success. Call it the new American Dream.
Cunanan, according to both the show and the book, desperately wanted to be famous. He grew up in a working-class San Diego suburb; his parents struggled to make ends meet, but lavished him with attention and praise to the exclusion of his three siblings. They sent him to an exclusive La Jolla private school, bought him a sports car well before he could legally drive, and even gave him the master bedroom in their home. “Every morning when you wake up, and every evening when you go to sleep, I want you to remember that you’re special,” Cunanan’s con-artist father, Modesto “Pete” Cunanan (Jon Jon Briones), tells his young son in one particularly memorable scene. “And that when you feel special, success will follow.”
A witty conversationalist with a reported genius-level IQ, Andrew Cunanan was special. But he was also a narcissist and a pathological liar who spun elaborate (and rather Trumpian) yarns about his upper-crust upbringing, first to his classmates and later to the older, wealthy men he wooed. Relying solely on charm and fanciful fabrication, Cunanan singled out high-rolling types who could finance the extravagant lifestyle he truly felt he deserved. His father, after all, had taught him that appearances — not accomplishments — were the key to success in life. But it wasn’t long until Cunanan’s combined superiority complex and materialism set him on a destructive (and, eventually, murderous) path.
While Cunanan’s precise motive for shooting Versace may still be unknown, the fashion giant’s fame and success in many ways made him the spree killer’s perfect target. With his grand homes in Milan, Miami Beach, Manhattan, and Lake Como, the designer had the real estate portfolio of Cunanan’s dreams. He dined in the finest restaurants, surrounded by boldfaced names; Cunanan, too, had a weakness for high-end cuisine, and would often treat his friends to fancy meals bankrolled by his older lovers. Versace had loads of famous friends and fans, too, from Princess Diana to Madonna — but more than that, he was famous in his own right.
Even the clothes Versace created oozed luxury. Marked by bold prints and bright colors, his designs referenced art, celebrity, and sex, all things Cunanan adored. Some found Versace’s signature aesthetic vulgar, but it’s precisely what contributed to his brand’s aspirational appeal — these were clothes clearly made by a rich person, for rich people. (It’s telling that in Showgirls, Elizabeth Berkley’s character splurges on a “Ver-sayce” dress in order to impress the Las Vegas crowd.) It’s not necessarily that Cunanan wanted a closetful of Versace to call his own — he preferred preppier, more conservative looks — but rather that he fetishized the qualities with which Versace’s clothes were synonymous: money, fame, and success.
“No other major fashion house in the world,” Business Week wrote at the time, “is so closely identified with the life-style of its marquee name designer.” Indeed, Versace’s larger-than-life persona is not only what taunted and tempted Cunanan in the ’90s, but what makes him just as captivating to revisit now, two full decades after his death. That same mythologizing, however, has also created conflict. Earlier this month, the Versace family issued a pair of statements denying its involvement with, and authorization of, Ryan Murphy’s show, calling Orth’s book “bogus” and “full of gossip and speculation.” FX responded with a memo of its own: “We stand by the meticulous reporting of Ms. Orth.”
Orth’s contention that Versace was HIV-positive — and the series’s subsequent portrayal of the designer as such — seems to be a particular point of contention for the family. Still, Murphy’s show paints Versace in a markedly positive light, showing how he overcame both humble beginnings and illness to become one of the world’s most celebrated couturiers.
As Orth reports, Gianni Versace and Andrew Cunanan “started out at roughly the same economic place,” setting him apart from the other famous figures the killer idolized. Born in Calabria, then one of Italy’s poorest regions, Versace developed an interest in fashion as a young boy, studying his dressmaker mother, Francesca, as she worked. In a later episode, we see Francesca offering to teach her son the tricks of the trade in the form of a pep talk that couldn’t be more different from Pete Cunanan’s: “You must do what you love, Gianni,” she says. “But it takes hard work and practice. You must learn how to sew, how to understand the fabrics.”
Versace did just that, and by the time he launched his namesake label in 1978, he already had two decades’s worth of design experience under his belt. With his sister Donatella (played on the series by Penélope Cruz) as his creative director and his brother Santo (portrayed by Giovanni Cirfiera) as his CEO, Versace built his family business from the bottom up, smartly tapping celebrities to fill his fashion shows and star in his campaigns. By the time he was slain in 1997, he’d created an $807 million fashion empire — based on talent and connections, yes, but also hard work.
Cunanan, of course, saw only the fruits of Versace’s labor, not the labor itself — nor the endless public scrutiny the designer faced as he grew more and more famous. According to Orth’s book, rumors swirled for years that the Versace family was tied up with the Mafia. “How else, the international fashion community wanted to know, could they have managed to come from nowhere, spend so lavishly, and keep open so many ‘empty’ boutiques?” she writes. The brand’s profitability, as well as Versace’s personal, profligate spending habits, were often questioned.
The designer’s sexuality, too, made him a target. Versace offers a harrowing, heartbreaking reminder of just how much America’s attitude towards LGTBQ people has shifted since the ’90s, and not even icons like Versace were immune to discrimination. A pivotal scene in the series deals with the designer’s decision to publicly come out during a magazine interview, an incredibly bold move at the time; Donatella urges him to consider how his confession could damage their brand, pointing out how Perry Ellis’s sales slumped after it became clear he suffered from AIDS.
But in the opening sequence of Versace’s first episode, we don’t see a man defeated by press scandals or pushed into the closet by a homophobic society. All we see is a fashion genius striding down the halls of his opulent mansion, greeting his beautiful, uniformed staff, pausing on his balcony to admire the city he’s single-handedly transformed into a fashion capital. All we see is the dream.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story premieres Wednesday, January 17th at 10 p.m. EST on FX.