The slimming disease is rampant in the fashion world. And this week it emerged that the daughter of one of the industry's biggest names is suffering from the condition. PETER POPHAM reports
Rumours have long circulated, but now it is official: Allegra Versace, daughter of Donatella and heiress of half the Versace empire, has anorexia.
This week Donatella and her estranged partner, Paul Beck, the father of her two children, did what they could to contain the rumours.
"Our daughter, Allegra, has been battling anorexia, a very serious disease, for many years," they said in a statement. "She is receiving the best medical care possible to help overcome this illness and is responding well... We ask that her privacy be respected at this time."
After months in which the fashion industry has done everything in its power to deny any connection between its skeletal models and eating disorders, anorexia has come home.
Anyone who has ever had anything to do with an anorexia sufferer, or witnessed the torment of parents and family, will wish the Versaces all the luck in the world to see 20-year-old Allegra through it, and all the privacy she may need.
To those who have only learnt of the illness at a distance, it may seem a bizarre, self-inflicted condition, the reductio ad absurdum of Dorothy Parker's dictum: "It is impossible to be too rich or too thin" - less an illness than a fashion accessory of the rich and pointless.
As the Versaces have discovered at first hand, however, there is nothing remotely trivial or laughable about anorexia. Just ask the parents of Luisel Ramos, the 22-year-old Uruguayan model who died at a fashion show in August last year after suffering a fatal heart attack thought to be the result of anorexia. Or the family of Ana Carolina Reston Marcan, the Brazilian catwalk queen who died three months later.
Obsessive fear of gaining weight is the dominant pathology; voluntary starvation, often aided by vomiting, purging and diet medicine, can continue for years, destroying the constitution and causing osteoporosis in up to 50% of cases, as well as weakening of the heart, immune dysfunction and low levels of essential hormones. Ten per cent of victims die.
Allegra Versace has had far too much in her young life - too much money, fame, excess, loss. Now something in her is thrusting the world away, shutting out nourishment. Or maybe it's not that complicated. Maybe she just wanted to be as thin as a supermodel, and it got out of hand.
Allegra was born in Milan in 1986 of the marriage between Donatella and Beck, one of Donatella's brother Gianni's favourite American models. Donatella is no typical mother. "I worked until half an hour before the birth [of Allegra]," she said recently. Once the Caesarean had been performed, Gianni was immediately on the phone: "Why aren't you back? We've a show to do."
Little Allegra grew up in the midst of the fashion world's most extraordinary characters. The Versaces are identified with Milan, but Gianni and Donatella were born and raised in the far south of Italy, in Reggio Calabria, only moving north for their university studies.
They brought a lot of Calabrian baggage: the hunger for success and chip on the shoulder of migrants from the south; a tin ear for the irony and subtlety of Milan born-and-bred designers such as Miuccia Prada; in its place a volcanic gift for the stunning, the luxurious, the over-the-top. Their tastes and impulses were Neronian.
Allegra's good fortune was that Gianni was besotted with her. "My children were his children," Donatella told New York Magazine. "He was always with Allegra. Since she was nine years old she would go to museums with him, she knew all the museums 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 little girl."
Gianni called her "my little princess" and the affection was reciprocated; her parents might have split, her young life was bobbing about on the crazy oceans of fashion, but at least she had Zio Gianni's love. But then in 1997, the founder of the firm was shot dead on the steps of his villa in Florida.
Yet Gianni was true to her in death as in life: ignoring the more obvious claims of his sister, Donatella, and brother, Santo, both involved in running Versace, he chose instead to bequeath 50% of it to Allegra, to inherit when she turned 18.
Today Donatella says Gianni's decision was no surprise: he was suffering from cancer for the two years before he was killed, and he told his sister (as Donatella related last year): "I want to leave everything to your daughter because I want to make sure you take care of her so well... Do such a good job because everything goes to your daughter."
Certainly Donatella has protected Allegra from the media. On June 30 2004, Allegra came of age and was photographed next to her mother. She had grown from a studious, solemn schoolgirl with her hair in bunches to an equally serious-looking teenager with heavy mascara round her eyes, gold loops in her ears and a black and gold Versace T-shirt.
She had nothing to say about the amazing change in her fortunes, about the loss she felt towards her dead uncle, about what she planned to do with the family firm. Allegra did not talk to the press. Becoming the Versace heiress made no difference to that.
With the knowledge we have now that she has been suffering from anorexia "for many years", it's obvious why. It's clear from the photograph that she was already in trouble: the dreadfully thin legs and arms, the cruel sculpting of jaw and neckline, the disproportionately large head. Allegra was suffering from anorexia when she came into her fortune.
But at age 18 her appearance conformed with the look of the catwalk. More recent pictures show that the process has gone much further: her eyes sunk in their sockets, the flesh of the jaw eaten away.
She looks "heartbreakingly shrunken", as Ariel Levy wrote in New York Magazine last year, before it was permitted to speak of Allegra's anorexia.
Perhaps some good will come out of this desperate turn in the life of the young fashion heiress. Ever since last September, when the city of Madrid banned unhealthily thin models from the catwalk, the volume of chat about the connection between size zero models and eating disorders has been rising.
But the fashion world has been uninterested in doing anything about it. Letizia Moratti, the Mayor of Milan, said something should be done and was promptly shot down in flames by the head of Italy's national chamber of fashion, Mario Boselli, who said the Milan models displayed healthy, voluptuous, Mediterranean looks.
The minister of youth, Giovanna Melandri, persisted, however, and before Christmas the government and the chamber signed a "manifesto" requiring models to present a doctor's certificate declaring them to be free from eating disorders before they would be allowed to model in Milan.
But the measure looked short on substance, and so it has proved: models interviewed in Milan during the recent fashion week said no one had asked them about doctor's certificates. The models on the catwalks were as stick-thin as ever.
And designers continue to insist on their freedom as creators. "Fashion must be excessive," Nathalie Rykiel, the daughter of the designer Sonia, says. "The woman who parades on the catwalk is the artistic vision of the creator."
This week in Rome a 27-year-old model died of anorexia after an illness of 10 years. She weighed 35kg - approximately what Allegra Versace weighs. It's time the fashion world woke up.The shocking facts about anorexia
Anorexia nervosa is known as the slimmer's disease and usually begins in adolescence, affecting 1%-2% of teenagers and university students, though it can occur at any age.
It is defined as a body weight of at least 15% below that expected for the individual's height and age and which is maintained at that level.
The disorder has the highest death rate of any psychiatric condition. It is 10 times more common among women and is commonest among daughters of professional couples.
There is no single cause but social pressure to be as thin as size-zero models and celebrities is an important factor.
There may also be a genetic cause. Sufferers become obsessed with the idea that they are fat and overweight, and develop a distorted idea of their body image. They secretly starve themselves, inducing themselves to vomit after eating, and usually combine this with excessive exercise. They may take laxatives.
Psychologists say the condition may be driven by a fear of adulthood or of losing the attention of parents. Treatment is often difficult and prolonged, involving cognitive behaviour therapy and setting targets for the consumption of calories.
About half of sufferers recover fully within four years, a quarter improve and a quarter remain severely underweight.
After 10 years, recovery is rare and 3% die within that time, half of them by suicide. Many scientists say that some people are born with a biological predisposition to anorexia, which may run in families.
This is not the same as being born anorexic but it does mean that for those who live in societies that promote thinness as the ideal they may be more prone to develop it.
Bulimia, the binge-eating disorder, is a more common condition than anorexia, affecting about five times as many people. The binges are typically followed by self-induced vomiting and misuse of laxatives.
It is thought to be linked to dieting and a fear of being fat, although it does not necessarily lead to weight loss. Sufferers say that despite feeling depressed and guilty after bingeing, the buzz and relief after vomiting and purging are addictive.
Bulimia, unlike anorexia, rarely leads to serious physical illness or death but may cause burns to the oesophagus, or dehydration and chemical imbalances in the blood.
- Jeremy Laurance