Twenty years removed from her brother’s tragic death, Donatella Versace is more comfortable in her own skin than she’s ever been and seems sick of others trying to tell both her story and the story of her family. Especially because when they do, they often get it wrong, according to Donatella, at least. Following the 20th anniversary of Gianni Versace’s murder, this past July, a new batch of documentary specials, news stories, and, most notably, Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace have purported to give audiences the inside story of what happened. Versace, meanwhile, has been on her own tear of candid interviews; in her latest, which also touches on her struggles with addiction, her love life, and succession plans, she drops a stunning detail about the days following Gianni’s murder that none of the books, documentaries, or fictional takes have included before: Madonna was there.
“After identification, I drove to Gianni’s villa on Ocean Drive. Madonna was waiting for me inside,” Versace tells fashion journalists Michael Ebert and Sven Michaelsen in a new no-holds-barred interview with Ssense. “I will never forget that she was trying to comfort me during these hours. There were FBI agents everywhere in the house. They interrogated each of us and opened all the drawers, a nightmare. My brother had just been murdered, and we were being treated like suspects. But that’s probably what FBI agents have to do.”
Of course, American Crime Story did show its take on the exact moments Versace describes. They were pivotal scenes, and, obviously, Madonna wasn’t anywhere to be found in their telling. Had Ryan Murphy known that the Queen of Pop was there, he surely would have figured out a way to include her in the narrative (after all, he managed to controversially shoehorn the Kardashian sisters into the anthology series’ first season, about O.J. Simpson, even though the then-young sisters were only tangentially related).
The reason for Madge’s presence? Somewhat amazingly, this wasn’t widely known by the public before, though it had been hinted at. On the day of the murder, Donatella was in Rome preparing for an upcoming fashion show. Madonna was in a recording studio, presumably in Los Angeles, working on her album Ray of Light. During interviews about the making of the album, producer William Orbit revealed that indeed Madonna was one of the first people Donatella called, on the very same day she recorded the vocals for the album track “Swim.”
“We were recording ‘Swim’ on the day Versace was murdered,” Orbit told Q magazine in 2002. “Madonna was very friendly with him and his sister, Donatella, who was in the street, distraught, on her cell phone to Madonna. But she did the vocal, which is probably why it has such an emotional impact.”
The Huffington Post e-mailed Orbit earlier this year for elaboration on the story, and while Orbit declined an interview he did write, in an e-mail, “There’s quite a story around that.”
Quite a story, indeed.
At the time, Madonna had an expansive house on the Miami mainland, and was a frequent guest at the Versace mansion. It would not have been a stretch to imagine her stopping work on the album upon getting news of a close friend’s death and flying to Miami. But how would she have gotten into the home without anyone knowing until now? One of the things the show did get correct is that it was a media circus outside of Casa Casuarina following the murder. Yet the scene in which Donatella Versace walks into the house through the front doors at the main steps was complete fiction: The home had far more private entrances in the back. It’s likely Madonna was able to sneak in, and if someone had found out then, we all would have known about it by now. If they hadn’t, well, we would only know when someone inside the actual house told us, which appears to be the case now.
Versace, no surprise, wasn’t too thrilled with the show.
“I still get as angry as I did on the first day when people want to make money with lies about Gianni,” she said. “My lawyers tried to file a lawsuit against this television series, but they lost because my brother is a person of contemporary history and therefore has limited personal rights.”
“Why does this TV series about my brother have to come now? The murder was 20 years ago. Can’t people leave Gianni alone?”
However, she doesn’t hold it against Penélope Cruz, the actress who played her.
“Penélope called and told me about the project. She said that she has great respect for me, so I should write her if there are untrue things in the script.”
Reportedly, one of Versace’s more urgent requests was that they leave her children out of the series, though she did communicate other gripes with the producers that weren’t honored.
“I had not heard of the book until last year. After reading it, I sent a list of factual mistakes to the production company working on the TV series. They replied that they were filming the book by Maureen Orth, so they could not take my findings into account. Viewers should know that the series is fiction, not a documentary.” (The book being Orth’s Vulgar Favors, and while Versace herself claims not to have heard about it, representatives for the family did dispute its claims when it was originally released.)
Apparently, while Versace was eager to correct any mistakes in the show, she didn’t let the writers in on information they hadn’t uncovered, like the fact that one of the most famous women in the world was there among the family in the immediate aftermath of the murder. Dropping the details now only proves what she’s been saying about others attempting to tell the story for the past two decades. It’s her own way of saying, “You think you know, but you have no idea.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Versace holds court on any number of other subjects. And while there’s a lot to get into, we’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight some of the other nuggets.
On checking into rehab in Arizona to deal with her cocaine addiction:
“I had no idea what a rehab clinic was like, and I wasn’t exactly sure where Arizona was, either.”
On the fact that Gianni left 50 percent of the company to her then 11-year-old daughter, Allegra, in his will:
“The will was crazy, but all creatives are crazy. Gianni idolized my daughter and always called her ‘my little princess,’ but he put a tremendous burden on her with his will. Making headlines at the age of 11—I wouldn’t wish that on any child.”
On her noted style evolution after her brother’s death:
“My hair got blonder and blonder, my makeup thicker and thicker. I felt like the whole world was looking at me with daggers in their eyes, and I created a mask that would give me protection. I didn’t want anyone to see what I was going through.”
On her former career goal of becoming a college professor:
“I was a very good student, so professors suggested that I pursue a career at the university. I had a great desire to become a lecturer, but Gianni told me I should design fashion with him.”
On Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell:
“They are rightly revered as role models because they made the leap from celebrity to globally successful businesswomen. I know few men who are as smart and enterprising as Cindy or Naomi. Their biographies can make any women’s rights activist proud.”
On how younger designers with egos just need to chill out:
“Ridiculously inflated egos only exist with the old guard. A designer under 50 who thinks he’s a god would make a fool of himself. A scientist who invents a drug to cure cancer can exalt himself and feel like the greatest, but we’re just making fashion. We love it, but it’s not a deity worth worshipping.”