Donatella Versace Has Long Been a Gay Icon. Now It’s Official.

Donatella Versace said she hasn’t seen a movie since “A Star Is Born” last year. She’s hooked on the HBO series “Big Little Lies,” devoured Netflix’s “The Society” and has a new favorite book: “The Mueller Report.”

Ms. Versace had trouble understanding parts of the conclusions and findings of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. She keeps underlining things, wondering (as she often does) whether her English is getting in the way.

But, she said of Robert Mueller, the special counsel, “There’s something about lawmen I find fascinating. You look at him and know he’s telling the truth.”

And, she admitted, “he is good-looking.”

“Ugh,” she added. “Don’t print this. I’ll lose my visa.”

It was Thursday afternoon, and Ms. Versace was perched on a sofa in the gilded Versace-esque Midtown Manhattan hotel suite where she is staying while in town as a Stonewall Ambassador.

She wore checkered orange and blue Pucci-like pants from the Versace spring 2019 collection. Her white T-shirt was emblazoned with a rainbow flag made from Swarovski crystals, in the center of which was her company logo. Her jewelry was basically all gold.

Last year, she sold her company to Michael Kors for a reported $2.1 billion, but she got to New York via Emirates airline. “Commercial,” said Ms. Versace, who remains the chief creative officer of her label. “Always commercial. If there aren’t 12 rows of windows, I don’t get on.”

On Friday, she was scheduled to appear at the Stonewall Inn for an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the uprising there. Sunday, she had a commitment to ride around the Pride parade on a float. That evening, Ms. Versace “of course” had plans to see Madonna perform at the Pier Dance.

Madonna has history with the company.

She first appeared in a Versace campaign in 1995, when Steven Meisel photographed her looking just like Donatella.

CreditRose Hartman/Archive Photos, via Getty Images

Back then, Ms. Versace’s brother Gianni was Versace’s chief designer. His baby sister was the party girl/front row fixture who marshaled celebrities to fashion shows and helped conceive Versus, the company’s bridge line. She had hair down to her waist, wore slinky metallic gowns and showed off her cleavage. So that’s how Madonna was styled.

In 2015, 18 years after Gianni’s death, Madonna returned for another campaign. This time she paid tribute to boardroom Donatella, licking envelopes and putting her feet up on the desk as she tapped away at an Apple computer.

What is true power in fashion if not the ability to hire one of the world’s biggest celebrities to impersonate you?

Anyway, other people do it for free.

Ms. Versace can barely step outside without having a drag queen approach to thank her for providing them with inspiration. Ms. Versace attributes this in part to her “acceptance” of other people, who know instinctually they can walk up to her and that she’ll be nice. “I say, ‘Hi, I’m Donatella,’ and they go, ‘Aaaah!’” she said.

But it’s her appearance, too. “The hair and make up and clothes,” she said. “I do not blend.”

Gianni was the one who set her on the path.

When she was 11, he told her two important things: that he was gay and that she needed to become a blonde. Once she acquiesced to his wishes, their history together was secured. After it became clear that being gay was an impediment to having a life in Calabria, Italy, he moved to Milan. She followed him there.

In the 1980s, fashion was a business in which gay men could work with a fair amount of acceptance. But living life openly still wasn’t easy. “Our father was a very distant man,” Ms. Versace said.

So Gianni never came out to him.

When Gianni was alive, he and Donatella went to gay nights at big clubs. “Palladium, and what’s the one in the church?” Ms. Versace said, referring to Limelight.

After his death in 1997, Ms. Versace took over the company and became the unapologetic maven of Italian opulence.


CreditScott Gries/Getty Images

Maya Rudolph impersonated her to great effect on “Saturday Night Live,” and Ms. Versace rolled with it. They stood on stage with each another at the 2002 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards, wearing nearly identical sequined gowns, basically competing to show the world which one of them was the most Donatella — the real or the fake.

Lady Gaga later did a tribute song to her. The lyrics went: “I am so fab. Check out: I’m blond, I’m skinny, I’m rich, and I’m a little bit of a bitch.”

Ms. Versace put her in a campaign.

Even in rehab, where Ms. Versace went in 2004 to deal with a cocaine problem, her biggest complaint was about wardrobe. “I said, ‘The only thing I miss are my high heels,’” said Ms. Versace, sober ever since.

She didn’t love that Ryan Murphy chose last year to revisit the past in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.” So she hasn’t seen Penélope Cruz play her. Ms. Versace said there are some “errors” in the show but offered no specifics as to what they were.

“I know what happened,” she said. (The show, a limited series for FX, won seven Emmys and two Golden Globes.)


CreditLuca Bruno/Associated Press

In person these days, Ms. Versace’s act is considerably toned down.

The tan has gotten less pronounced, and her famous hair goes just about to her shoulders. Even the cigarettes are gone. “Two packs of Marlboros a day,” she said.

Ms. Versace quit five years ago, after seeing a doctor in New York who told her not only that she was going to die from them, but also that he wasn’t going to see her again for checkups unless she stopped.

Ms. Versace was terrified at the certainty with which he spoke to her.

But there was also something appealing about someone with the nerve to say no to her. “No one else did,” she said.

Ms. Versace still misses the feeling of nicotine hitting her throat. She still thinks cigarettes look great and misses having her trademark Medusa lighter. “I want to go back,” she said, laughing.

But she didn’t seem to mean it. The recent deaths of two close friends who had cancer have made Ms. Versace more contemplative. She is aware that nothing is forever.

The first was Ingrid Sischy, the longtime editor of Interview Magazine, who died in 2015. The second was Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue.

They were the ones Ms. Versace called for advice. “Any time I had a problem,” she said.

Ms. Versace, 64, doesn’t know how much longer she’ll run her own company.

In 2015, she starred in an ad campaign for Givenchy, whose designer Riccardo Tisci was an obvious steward to carry the Versace brand into the social media age. After his resignation from Givenchy, Ms. Versace and Mr. Tisci had what many believed was a long negotiation about him taking over her company. It seemed a fait accompli.

What happened?

“Nothing,” Ms. Versace said. “I stayed where I am, and he went somewhere else.” (Mr. Tisci is now the designer of Burberry.)

She doesn’t want to remain in her job for life, as Karl Lagerfeld, who worked all the way to his death this year at the age of 85, did. “At some point, you understand you need help,” she said. “But at the moment, I feel totally full of life.”

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