The Versace Experience

Here, this is the spot," Jeffrey said as he guided Karen a few inches to her right. "That camera there is CNN."

Settling into the prescribed position, the 28-year-old part-time model adjusted her tight black top so that her considerable cleavage could indeed be considered by millions of viewers around the world. She then straightened her short white skirt, ran her fingers through her long raven hair, and smiled into the camera. A few feet in front of her, Miami Beach Police Det. Al Boza, the supposed focal point of the camera's interest, was briefing more than 100 reporters on the latest developments in the previous day's murder of Gianni Versace.

As Boza answered questions from the throng, Jeffrey fielded calls on his cell phone. "We're on in California," he told Karen as he talked to a friend on the West Coast. "We're on CNN right now." Karen's formidable smile brightened. On the ground in front of the CNN camera was a monitor displaying the picture that was being beamed around the world. "There we are," she squealed, recognizing herself in the background of the shot. "You're in the screen talking on your phone," she told Jeffrey. "How funny is that? That is cool. That is cool."

After receiving his third call, Jeffrey noted that apparently the picture was so clear that one of his friends had commented on the amount of chest hair he had billowing over his tank top. For nearly twenty minutes, Karen and Jeffrey barely moved.

Of course, it would have been easy for the photographer to tighten his picture of Boza to exclude Jeffrey and Karen. But in the same way that Karen obviously had a desire to be on television, the producers at CNN were just as interested in having her shapely figure in their shot. After all, sex has always been an integral part of selling Versace.

Following the police press conference, Karen explained why she was there. "I just find it all very interesting," she said. "It interests me just knowing that there is somebody out there like that who is killing people. It's a weird feeling."

The pair said they respected Versace. "He was very generous," Jeffrey said. "A very soft-spoken guy," Karen added, though later she admitted that she had never actually met him. "I've seen him around the News Cafe," she said.

Both Jeffrey and Karen also claim to have seen Versace's alleged killer, Andrew Cunanan, hanging around South Beach. "I first saw him three weeks ago," Jeffrey said, as Karen nodded in agreement.

A reporter for New York's Newsday then interrupted the conversation, asking, "Are you a model?"

"Yes," Karen smiled.
"Did you model for Versace?"
"No," she admitted. "I never worked for him."
"Oh," the Newsday reporter said as he quickly walked away.

Ironically, nobody understood the power and the draw of celebrity better than Gianni Versace. It was never enough to simply introduce a new line of clothes; his fashion shows had to be events unto themselves with celebrities such as Madonna and Elton John lining the front row, and a specially commissioned rock and roll soundtrack blaring for each affair. As a result, his shows were dubbed "The Versace Experience."

"He relished media attention, and masterminded it," Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue told the New York Times last week, "and everybody followed in his footsteps."

In life, or at least on the runway, Versace was known for celebrating what many considered the more garish and vulgar elements of society, marrying the elegance of fashion with the crassness of pop culture -- from the pastel T-shirts and linen jackets worn by Don Johnson on Miami Vice to the sultry dresses desired by Elizabeth Berkeley's character in the hideous movie Showgirls. Now, after his death, the Versace experience has turned into a festival of bad taste. Call it Gianni-palooza.

Lured by the blood-stained marble steps and the klieg lights of more than 30 television crews from around the world, the curious come to gawk at the spot where Versace fell. In front of the mansion at Eleventh and Ocean, tour buses now stop to allow their passengers a chance to take pictures, and young women in convertibles drive by holding video cameras to capture the macabre moment.

Many of those who have flocked to the scene admit that before the shooting they had never heard of Versace, whose fashions were far too expensive for the average person's closet. They're here, they explain, because this just seems like the place to be. Besides, it's free entertainment.

Others, though, appear more sincere in their grief. Eleven-year-old Giovanna Scavone and her twin brother Pascual asked their nanny to bring them to the Versace mansion the day after the shooting so they could say a prayer. "We wanted to come yesterday," Giovanna explained, "but it was too crowded."  

"We used to live in Italy," Pascual said, "and one time our grandfather took us to see one of Versace's mansions there, so we felt like we knew him a little bit."

"It was very shocking for all of us when we heard that he had been killed," Giovanna offered. "He was a very talented man."

Because of the angelic features of the two children, coupled with their solemn nature, they quickly became popular subjects for newspaper and magazine photographers who jockeyed in front of the mansion for the right angle to snap their picture. The attention confused Pascual and Giovanna. "I think this place should be calm, a person died here," Pascual said later. "And yet look at all the people, the photographers, the TV people crowding around."

About ten feet behind the boy, WTVJ-TV (Channel 6) reporter Geri Helfman was standing at the base of the marble steps, in the midst of the crowd, arguing with her producer about an upcoming live shot. Should they cut directly to her from the studio or zoom down on her from the helicopter buzzing overhead? As Helfman grew increasingly anxious, Giovanna, now whispering as if in a church, said simply, "It's too much."

Craig Trentecosta and Mike Philipson never got close enough to see the makeshift shrine. By 8:00 p.m. on that second night the number of onlookers had become so large as to make it impossible to pass by on the sidewalk. Standing about 30 yards behind the crowd, neither man could believe the scene playing out before them. "It's like a carnival atmosphere that is borderline morbid," Trentecosta said.

"I just want to pay my respects, and I'm not going to come back here for several days," Philipson said. "That's what all of these people should do, they should just pay their respects and leave. They should leave the family alone." As Trentecosta and Philipson lamented the circuslike nature of Versace's death, a man with a notepad walked up to them. "Hello, I just arrived from Switzerland," he said. "I work for a Swiss newspaper. Can I ask you a few questions?"

Suddenly the respectable distance -- both physically and morally -- they had managed to place between themselves and the sideshow had shrunk considerably and a pained expression appeared on both their faces as they realized how easy it was to join the circus. After answering only a couple of questions, they turned and quickly Rollerbladed away from the mansion.

Half a block away, David Williams and Greg Mohr were sitting at the bar on the porch of the Adrian Hotel, their regular neighborhood hangout. "These cocksuckers, they have no respect for the dead," spit Williams, age 25, as he motioned toward the press encampment that had sprung up in Lummus Park, directly across the street from the mansion.

"They are desecrating the spot where a man died," said Mohr. "I walked by and there was a photographer who fought to get in position to take a picture of one of the blood trails, and when he was done he just stepped in it to take a picture of a different blood spot. It's just a story to them; they have no feelings."

As they talked, a friend joined them at the bar. He's worked for Versace for the past two years and asked that his name not be printed because ever since the shooting he's been hounded by reporters. "They are like snakes," he said of the press. One reporter from Germany offered him $5000 if he could provide exclusive pictures from inside the house. "Mr. Versace was my friend," he said. "I don't want to make money from his death."

He was just as angry at those who have been trying to get on TV by claiming to have been close to Versace when in fact they barely knew the man. "That's not right," he said shaking his head. A few minutes later a reporter from the Associated Press pulled him aside and tried to get him to agree to an interview, but he refused. When he returned to the bar he reached into his pocket and pulled a picture from his wallet. It was a picture of him and Versace. "Mr. Versace was a nice, nice man," he said. "I don't want to say or do anything that might hurt his family."

Al Boza has the same fear when it comes to saying something that might harm the police investigation. Every day since the murder, sometimes three times a day, Boza holds a press conference in front of the police station on Washington Avenue, just two blocks from Versace's home. Fifteen minutes after one recent briefing officially ended, Boza was still having trouble getting back inside the building. Reporters kept coming up to him, wanting to ask just one more question. Calmly, politely, Boza answered each of their questions, many of them repetitious of queries he had already responded to. With each answer he tried to take a step toward the sanctuary of the station house, but his path was always cut off.  

After another fifteen minutes, Boza appeared to finally break free when a woman from the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran up and explained that her plane landed only a few minutes earlier and that she had missed the press conference. Boza gave her a quick rundown of what he had said, and then added nervously that he really had to go inside. Just a few questions, she begged. Boza attempted to end the interview after her sixth question. "I don't mean to be rude," he explained, "but I have to go to the bathroom."

"I'll follow you and close my eyes if I can keep asking questions," she replied.

Instead, Boza, who has been with the Miami Beach Police Department for 26 years, answered three more questions in front of the station and then briskly headed for the men's room. "Actually, the media have been very civilized," he said several minutes later. "When I compare it to the things I saw on TV during the O.J. Simpson case, I really don't have any complaints." The day Versace was killed, Boza estimates, he got more than 300 calls from newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations around the world.

During the first 48 hours after Versace's death, more than 30 still photographers stood shoulder to shoulder trying to capture a unique and memorable image. Initially they congregated around the front steps of the mansion, which quickly became a shrine for mourners to drop off flowers and candles. As each person approached the steps with an offering, the pack of photographers would quickly encircle them, clicking off frame after frame, everyone taking basically the same picture. "It's times like this that make me proud of my profession," veteran photographer Bill Cooke said sarcastically.

With the arrival of Versace's sister Donatella on day two, the attention shifted to the alley behind the mansion, where there was a back door and a waiting limousine. At one point during the day she emerged surrounded by bodyguards holding bright yellow umbrellas, in an effort to shield Donatella from photographers.

A shoving match ensued as she tried to move to her limo, which eventually drove her to a funeral home in North Dade where her brother's body had been taken. Later that night a small band of photographers remained in the alley, hoping that members of the family might reappear. "I can tell you that I hate doing these things," declared Robert Duyos, a staff photographer for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. "But this is our job, man, this has to be done. People are interested."

"A lot of people who think what we are doing is intrusive probably buy the newspapers and magazines that our pictures run in," agreed Jeffrey Boan, who was on assignment at the mansion for the Associated Press.

Other photographers in the group agreed and said it was really the family's fault that they were camping out in the alley. If Donatella had simply walked out of the mansion and stood still for a few pictures, everyone would have gotten what they wanted and they would have left the family alone.

"We're looking for something that tells the story," Boan said. "We're not looking to hurt anybody. We're just trying to get a picture."

All of the photographers agreed that it was amazing that a tourist hadn't taken a picture of Versace while he was still on the ground bleeding. There was reportedly one blurry Polaroid image taken by someone as Versace was being loaded into the ambulance, but its value was minimal.

"Robert, how much do you think a shot of the body in front of the mansion would go for?" Boan asked. "Six figures," Duyos responded. "A hundred thousand dollars easily, maybe more."

One photographer, who asked not to be identified, said that less than an hour after Versace had been shot he was contacted by a supermarket tabloid wanting to know if he could get inside Jackson Memorial Hospital and take a picture of Versace's corpse. "They were really pressing for it," he said. "But I wasn't interested in doing that."

He estimated that a photo of Versace laid out on a gurney would have sold for $50,000. "That would have been $50,000 from each newspaper or magazine that wanted to use it around the world," he said.  

The only picture of Versace after the shooting was taken by WPLG-TV (Channel 10) photographer Mario Hernandez as paramedics wheeled the designer from the ambulance into the emergency room. "Before the shooting I had sent Mario and reporter Liz Cho to Jackson because at 9:00 a.m. there was supposed to be a photo op of that little girl, Greta, who needs a kidney transplant," recalled Steve Boyer, the assignment desk manager for WPLG.

Just before 9:00 a.m. Boyer learned that there had been a shooting on Ocean Drive and that the victim was being taken to Jackson Memorial. Boyer didn't know who was shot, but he said he guessed there was a good chance it was a tourist. "I figured the shooting would be better than the photo op with the little girl," he said, "so I paged Mario and Liz and told them to go over to the entrance of the trauma center."

Hernandez, an award-winning photographer who has been with the station for nineteen years, arrived just ahead of the ambulance. "The doors flung open and the paramedics were working on this guy, pumping his chest, and you could tell that he looked bad," Hernandez remembered. "We had no idea that it was Versace. We just thought it was another random shooting in Miami."

Within an hour, though, all that had changed as they learned the victim's identity. Since WPLG is an ABC affiliate, the pictures immediately went out to all of the ABC stations across the country. WPLG also has a cooperative agreement with CNN, which was allowed to use the footage. "We got the money shot and no one else had it," Boyer boasted. "ABC and CNN were just beside themselves thanking us for getting it. It must have played on CNN a million times already. It's been on Good Morning America, Nightline, ABC World News."

A still photograph taken from the WPLG tape ran on the Associated Press wire service and has appeared in newspapers throughout Europe. "We've never had a shot that went around the world like that," Hernandez said. "It's pretty cool. At the same time it is sad that it had to happen this way, that somebody like Versace had to be killed."

Boyer said he has received a few complaints from viewers who think the videotape is in poor taste. "I agree with them that it was a horrific shot," Boyer said. "And I think at WPLG we've tried to be conservative with the use of it. We haven't played it over and over again. Still, it is a part of the story and it is the only video of the last few moments of the guy's life. Who didn't want to see that?

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