The Assassination of Gianni Versace: separating fact from fiction in BBC’s new true crime drama

Season two of American Crime Story focuses on the murder of the fashion mogul - but how much of it actually happened?

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 20/02/2018 - Programme Name: The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story - TX: n/a - Episode: The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (No. 1) - Picture Shows:  Gianni Versace (EDGAR RAMIREZ) - (C) © 2018 Fox and its related entities. All rights reserved. - Photographer: unknown/FX

Like any good true crime tale, BBC’s upcoming drama The Assassination of Gianni Versace, a nine-part drama which delves into the fashion mogul’s murder, has not been without controversy.

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The series is the follow-up to American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, and once again creator Ryan Murphy has turned to a non-fiction account of the case for inspiration. The Assassination of Gianni Versace is inspired by Vanity Fair journalist Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favours.

The 500-plus page work draws “on over 400 interviews and thousands of pages of police reports” to tell the story behind the killing of Versace.

The Versace family has challenged the book’s account of the late fashion designer, calling it a “work of fiction”, and Versace’s former lover Antonio D’Amico (played by Ricky Martin in the series) told Radio Times that the series featured an “inaccurate portrayal” of events.

However, when the series began airing in the United States, broadcaster FX issued a statement strongly defending the “heavily researched and authenticated non-fiction best seller Vulgar Favors”, adding, “We stand by the meticulous reporting of Ms. Orth.”

With all this in mind, viewers have to remember that the version of the story presented on screen is a combination of fact, fiction and investigative reporting. Certain elements have been imagined for dramatic effect, while other events in the series – such as Versace’s alleged encounters with his murderer and the personal affairs of the Versace family – are inspired by accounts in the book.

What do we know to be true in the series – and what is imagined by showrunner Murphy and writer Tom Rob Smith? Read on to find out more about the key moments in the drama and the events that inspired them.

For our analysis of episode 2, click here.

*Warning: contains episode one spoilers*

Episode 1: The Man Who Would Be Vogue

Gianni Versace/ Edgar Ramirez
Gianni Versace/ Edgar Ramirez

The Assassination of Gianni Versace

The series kicks off on in Miami on the morning of Versace’s death: 15th July 1997. We see the fashion mogul (played by Edgar Ramirez in the drama) get up, sip on an espresso, and stroll down to the shops to pick up some magazines, turning down a fan’s request for an autograph along the way. Upon his return home he is shot in the head by a man in a red baseball cap and glasses, who proceeds to flee the scene. A dove, caught in the crossfire, lies dead beside him.

What we know to be true: Versace was indeed gunned down in plain sight on the morning of 15th July, on the footsteps to his Miami home. And, incredibly, so was the dove.

As law enforcement scrambled for clues as to the motive behind the murder, the dead bird was initially seen as a clue that the killing could be a Mafia hit from Sicily; a calling card of sorts. But, as CBS Miami reports, the dove just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: “a bullet passed through Versace, struck the metal gate, splintered and one of the bullet fragments struck and killed the dove.”

The murderer: Andrew Cunanan

Cunanan
Andrew Cunanan as a teenager / Darren Criss

The drama shows the man in the red baseball hat go on the run, exhibiting psychotic levels of glee at having killed someone of Versace’s fame: he picks up every newspaper plastered with headlines about the murder. The police soon figure out that the suspect is Andrew Cunanan (played by Darren Criss), a 27-year-old half-Filipino/half Italian socialite, who is already wanted for the murder of four other people.

Later scenes delve into Cunanan’s past, exploring his relationship with married roommates Elizabeth Cote and Philip Merrill, and a college friend who accuses him of lying about his sexuality.

What we know to be true:

In the spring of 1997, Andrew Cunanan went on a killing spree, slaying his friend Jeffrey Trail, ex-lover David Madson, 72-year-old Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin, cemetery caretaker William Reese and finally Gianni Versace. 

American Crime Story finds him at the end of his spree, having sparked one of the biggest manhunts in US history.

But things get a bit greyer when it comes to the depiction of his personal life. In the book, journalist Orth devotes much of her time to a character portrait of the murderer, speaking to Cunanan’s family, friends and acquaintances from his youth through to his spell as an alleged drug dealer and kept man in San Francisco in the mid 1990s. She suggests that a financial crash (and likely a drug spiral) led him down a murderous path.

There are numerous accounts of the various lies he told about his upbringing, his sexuality and his social stature. The man and woman he is seen boarding with at the beginning of the drama (Lizzie Cote and Phil Merrill) were a wealthy couple who allowed him to live with them rent free. Despite living openly as a gay man in other social circles, he hid his homosexuality from them.

Versace meets his killer

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 20/02/2018 - Programme Name: The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story - TX: n/a - Episode: The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Gianni Versace (EDGAR RAMIREZ) - (C) © 2018 Fox and its related entities. All rights reserved. - Photographer: unknown/FX
Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace

In episode one, a flashback sees Andrew Cunanan approach Versace in the VIP area of a gay club in San Francisco, striking up a conversation by falsely suggesting that the two had met before in Lago di Como. The next morning Cunanan lies to Lizzie and Phil, saying that he had quipped to Versace: “if you’re Gianni Versace, then I’m Coco Chanel”.

Later on, the two share a flirtatious drink together on stage at the San Francisco Opera following a performance of Capriccio – Versace had designed the costumes.

What we know to be true:

In Vulgar Favours, Orth alleges, based on multiple eyewitness accounts, that Versace and Cunanan did in fact meet in the VIP section of the Colossus night club, though it is suggested that it was actually Versace who struck up conversation.

“He noticed Andrew standing with Eli, cocked his head, and walked in their direction,” Orth reports. “‘I know you,’ he said to Andrew. ‘Lago di Como, no?'”

Whether or not the two actually met again at the Opera is less clear. There are no actual eyewitnesses, only Andrew’s word, which, as we’ll learn over the course of the series, is highly suspect.

Donatella takes the reins

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 20/02/2018 - Programme Name: The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story - TX: 28/02/2018 - Episode: The Man Who Would Be Vogue (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Donatella Versace (PENELOPE CRUZ) - (C) © 2018 Fox and its related entities. All rights reserved. - Photographer: Jeff Daly/FX
Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace

Hours after his death, Gianni’s sister Donatella (played, rather icily, by Penelope Cruz) arrives and tends to business, after making clear her dislike for the distraught Antonio D’Amico. She cancels the company’s plans to go public on the New York Stock Exchange.

What we know to be true:

The company was indeed set for an initial public offering (IPO); Versace was in the US in the summer of 1997 to sign the papers. After his death, this was delayed.

As for her relationship with D’Amico, Donatella told the New York Times in 1999: “My relationship with Antonio is exactly as it was when Gianni was alive. I respected him as the boyfriend of my brother, but I never liked him as a person.” Ouch.

The manhunt unfolds

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 20/02/2018 - Programme Name: The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story - TX: n/a - Episode: The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Andrew Cunanan (DARREN CRISS) - (C) © 2018 Fox and its related entities. All rights reserved. - Photographer: unknown/FX
Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan

The police quickly lose track of Cunanan’s trail soon after the murder. Later on, it is revealed that Cunanan had given a local pawn shop owner his real name, address and thumb print eight days prior to the shooting. This information was passed on to the police (Cunanan was already on the FBI’s most wanted list as a murder suspect at the time).

What we know to be true:

This is true. Miami police officials were heavily criticised for missing this crucial bit of evidence ahead of Versace’s murder.

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The Assassination of Gianni Versace begins Wednesday on BBC2 at 9pm