'The Assassination of Gianni Versace': The True Story of His Tragic Death

The much-anticipated second season of 'American Crime Story' examines the events leading up to Versace's death and explores the cultural context of his murder, including the homophobic climate of the 1990s.
'The Assassination of Gianni Versace' Photo

Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace in 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace.'

Versace founder and international fashion guru Gianni Versace dominated the fashion world. His work graced runways, movie screens, and concert stages across the globe. Openly gay and well situated among celebrities including Eric Clapton, Diana, Princess of Wales, Naomi Campbell, Duran Duran, Madonna, Elton John, Cher, Prince, and Sting, Versace and his partner Antonio D'Amico were regulars in the international party scene. Versace’s life was cut short when he was tragically murdered outside his Miami Beach home at the age of 50 by serial killer Andrew Cunanan.

Versace’s Murder

On a summer morning in mid-July in 1997, Versace was returning home from a morning walk after purchasing an Italian newspaper at his favorite café when he was shot twice at point blank in the head on the steps of his mansion. In this horrific execution-style murder, Versace’s murderer looked him in the eyes moments before he fired the .40 caliber weapon through his left cheek at close range. The killer’s goal was to leave his victim’s faces unrecognizable and disfigured. Inside their home, Versace’s partner D'Amico heard the shots and quickly ran outside:

"My heart just stopped to beat," D'Amico told Dateline in 2017 in his first time speaking out about the murder. "So I ran out and then I saw Gianni laying down on the stairs in blood."

Versace had just been murdered on the front staircase of his Miami mansion by serial killer Andrew Cunanan who was on a three-month killing spree. Versace was Cunanan’s fifth known victim. Cunanan had been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list since May 1997 after he killed 72-year-old Lee Miglin, a prominent real estate developer in Chicago. Dateline’s Keith Morrison writes:

“What Cunanan did was: bludgeon to death a close friend, shoot a former lover in the head, torture, and viciously stab to death a pillar of Chicago society, shoot — merely for the sake of a getaway car — a kindly cemetery caretaker in New Jersey, and blow away — execution style — an icon of modern fashion design.”

Twenty-seven year-old Cunanan killed himself a week after Versace’s murder just blocks from Versace's villa using the same .40 caliber S&W gun he had used to kill Versace. The intelligent Filipino-Italian American may have suffered from antisocial personality disorder but left no indication as to why he began killing. Speculations that he was HIV positive were later debunked. Police found no suicide note and few personal belongings to help them discern why this young man murdered five innocent people.

Versace's body was cremated. He is buried in his family’s vault at Moltrasio Cemetery near Lake Como in Northern Italy’s Lombardy region.

'American Crime Story'

In the much anticipated second season of American Crime Story, The Assassination of Gianni Versace draws from Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth's book about Versace’s murder, Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History. Much like season one's People vs. O.J. Simpson, the second season examines the events leading up to Versace's death and spends a great deal of time exploring the cultural context of the murder including the social climate of California in the 1990s. Cunanan's mental breakdown across his five-person killing spree is situated in the larger culture of homophobia.

"We're trying to talk about a crime within a social idea," screenwriter Ryan Murphy told reporters. "Versace, who was [Andrew Cunanan's] last victim, did not have to die. One of the reasons [Cunanan] was able to make his way across the country and pick off these victims, many of whom were gay, was because of homophobia at the time."

The nine-episode series critically examines Versace’s murder as the climactic end to a series of under-examined murders by serial killer Cunanan. Homophobia, discrimination against LGBT crime victims, health care disparities, the cultural obsession with fame, law enforcement biases, and the disturbing social climate of anti-LGBT negativity in the 1990s are recalled in this vivid sociological crime drama.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace has an all-star cast featuring Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace, Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, Ricky Martin as Antonio D'Amico and Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace. It premieres on FX on January 17, 2018.

Versace’s Legacy

In less than twenty years, Versace built a fashion empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars and became an internationally known icon. He revolutionized the fashion world with his avant-garde approach to gender and sexuality. His work has been described as vulgar, brash, trashy, raunchy, and over-sexed. From leopard prints to sequins to leather bondage, Versace took risks that challenged the status quo. Iconic models including Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, Stephanie Seymour, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington adorned his bold fashions demarcating Versace as the fashion powerhouse of the 1990s. Beyond being a fixture in the fashion world, his emboldened presence as an openly gay man broke barriers. His untimely passing did not end his legacy. The beloved fashion designer is survived by his sister, Donatella, who took the helm of the Versace fashion empire. Today, there are more than 1500 Versace boutiques worldwide.