“It starts as a celebration,” Donatella says. “You don’t do drugs because they’re not fun … they are a lot of fun. But you know, the celebration gets too often celebrated.”
Like Princess Diana, who poured tea for aggrieved family members after Gianni Versace’s funeral and was herself killed just six weeks later, being struck down in his prime has served to gild Gianni Versace in myth. Fashion people gush about his talent, museums hold exhibitions of his work, and everyone who knew him adopts a glazed look and a reverential tone when they speak of him. But the Sun King’s brilliance seems, at times, to have fried his sister.
Rumor has hardened into accepted wisdom in the fashion world that Gianni arranged Donatella’s marriage to the male model Paul Beck because he wanted an heir for his throne. It is also widely believed that Gianni’s feelings for his sister’s husband were more than platonic. It is certain, at least, that Gianni had a role far more powerful than uncle in the life of Donatella and Beck’s children, particularly for their daughter, Allegra, whom Gianni called “Little Princess” and to whom he left the majority share of his company.
“My cheeldren were his cheeldren,” says Donatella. “He was always with Allegra. Since she was 9 years old only, she would listen to him, she was going to see museum, she knew all the museum in America, in France, in England, and Gianni loved art. She would sit with him and go through art books, and she knew the art of Picasso ... it was adorable. She was such an amazing, special leetle girl.”
Donatella always knew Allegra would someday hold the controlling stake in Versace: It was, she says, a kind of parental incentive the king created for her. “ ‘I want to leave everything to your daughter because I want to make sure you take care of her so well.’ This is what he was telling me. ‘Do such a good job, because everything goes to your daughter.’ ” She did not question the king’s decree: L’Etat, c’est Gianni. “Gianni was amazing,” Donatella says ruefully. “He really was amazing. But if he wasn’t like that, he wouldn’t have reached what he reached in such a short time.”
Though his murder was, of course, a shock, he had already been preparing for his own death. “Gianni was sure he was going to die,” says Donatella. “He was sick with cancer in his ear before he was murdered. The last two years of his life, Gianni was hiding, hiding up in his apartment in Via Gesú, because his ear was so big. It was impossible to do a surgery because of the position, because to do a surgery, part of his face was supposed to drop. That’s why the will and everything was done, and I knew everything about, because he thought he was going to die. But then it was declared cured six months before he was murdered. We celebrated; we drink champagne and everything. Six months later, he was killed.”
After the regicide of Gianni Versace in July 1997, Donatella was catapulted into the throne. At the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute gala a few months later, at which an exhibition of Gianni’s work premiered, guests counted the number of times Donatella ran to the bathroom with Kate Moss. “I don’t want to act like a victim, because I hate women who acts like a victim, but I had a lot of responsibility when my brother died,” Donatella says. “He was my best friend. I really loved him. I couldn’t find a reason why he was killed. This was a horrible murder, and this company he created, they were looking at me like, ‘What’s she gonna do? The king is dead.’ ” Donatella lights a cigarette and laughs out a stream of smoke. “So I realize that all the eyes of the world were on top of me, and really, people didn’t believe I was going to pull through. All these people depending on me, their jobs on my shoulders, to live up to Gianni’s dream. I’m going to fuck up everything Gianni did?”
It would have been a failure too epic to contemplate; the opera would have become too tragic to sit through. “The thing that killed me the most was to show this strong façade in front of everybody because I wasn’t strong at all. I was going home and crying tears. I also had my cheeldren to be strong for ... Why Uncle Gianni die? Why? Why? Why? Why? It was a lot. It was a lot of things together, my marriage falling apart at the same time.” She doesn’t talk about what happened with Beck except to say, “I have been living with a lot of pain in my life: private problems, family problems. I found an easy way to numb everything ... drugs.”
Now, of course, cigarettes are her last vice, the only remaining fix in a clean new world of light food and heavy exercise. A trainer comes to Donatella’s vast apartment every morning. “But I don’t get this ‘feel better after,’ ” she says. “After I feel tired. I’m waiting, waiting all day to feel better.”
“I like beauty,” Donatella says the following evening, over a plate of prosciutto and a little pile of melon balls. “Hair that moves. I don’t like anything stiff.” She is talking with her team about the way she wants the precollection styled on the runway—everyone eats dinner together, family-style, in a room on the ground floor of the palazzo on Via Gesú.