Last night’s episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, “Manhunt,” aired a scene where its lead character, Versace, is being treated for HIV in the late-1990s.
It was around the time when HIV-positive people saw drastic improvements in their health, thanks to antiretrovirals. Eventually, modern medication suppressed the virus to such low levels that it virtually became undetectable and untransmittable.
The scene created a stir in the HIV-positive community as well as the Versace family themselves. For years, the Versace family have denied that Gianni was HIV-positive.
In a 2006 interview with New York Magazine, his sister Donatella Versace (who would later run the company after his 1997 murder) said he had retreated from the public during 1994 and 1995 not because he was poz, but because he had ear cancer. However, he “was declared cured six months before he was murdered. We celebrated; we drink champagne and everything. Six months later, he was killed.”
Vanity Fair contributor Maureen Orth first reported about Versace’s HIV status after getting validation from Miami Beach detective Paul Scrimshaw, who’d seen Versace’s autopsy results. Orth later wrote about her investigation of Versace’s murder in her book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, which the FX series is based on.
The show’s creator Ryan Murphy defended the HIV storyline on Vanity Fair’s podcast Still Watching: Versace, adding that the Versace family criticized producers for including it: “I think it’s moving and powerful, and I don’t think there should be any shame associated with HIV,” he said.
Actor Max Greenfield, who plays a character name Ronnie in the "Manhunt" episode, a long-term survivor of the AIDS crisis, added, “I don’t think it should ever be something that’s looked on in a negative way at all.”
Ronnie is based on a real-life Miami hustler Orth spoke to for the book. In the show, he's a representation of not only the immense homophobia LGBT people faced in the 1990s, but also the toxic stigma faced by poz folks at that time.
“It was 1997—probably a year and a half, maybe two years out from when they had figured out the correct medication to give to patients with HIV,” Greenfield spoke on the podcast. “That transition was so intense to those who had it, and to those around the people who had it, because for 15 years, you were watching people die from this disease there didn’t seem to be a cure for. Then all of a sudden, people who were very sick, within 30 days, were getting better. These people who lived through that — Ronnie was one of those people — you have this feeling, I would assume, of being the leftovers: ‘I lived my life certain that I was going to die, and now I’m confused by the fact that I’m still here.’”
Orth also suggested in her book that stigma wasn’t the only reason Versace might have been incredibly private about his HIV status. During that time, the family had considered taking the company public, Vanity Fair reports. If people had known that he had what was considered a life-threatening illness, the company’s value might have suffered.
The author also noted that while Versace fell ill in 1994 and 1995, “Gianni’s health improved in the last six months before his death — at a time when many people with HIV were experiencing similar results with new, life-saving medications.”
After Orth’s book was published, the Versace family shamed it publicly, saying they “deplore this mercenary invasion of their privacy and the scurrilous assault on the reputation of someone who was the victim of a horrible crime.”
ACS writer Tom Rob Smith told Vanity Fair it was of vital importance to include Versace’s HIV storyline in the show, adding that he also spoke with sources off the record who confirmed he indeed was HIV-positive.
“We weren’t approaching it as a piece of salacious gossip, nor was Maureen Orth, in all honesty,” Smith said of the scene. “Even if it was not HIV that Versace had, even if it was a form of cancer that he overcame, the fact is that Versace, this great creator and great life force, overcame sickness. And during that sickness, he faced an enormous psychological burden — knowing that getting sick not only has health implications, but could ruin everything that you live for and have built for yourself and your family.”
He added, “Andrew [Cunanan] was defeated by [obstacles],” says Smith. “Versace had many obstacles too. He became a great success, and a great employer, and a great uncle to his nephews and nieces. Versace overcame death, and then for death to come out of nowhere. . . that is heartbreaking.”