Gay Italian fashion icon Gianni Versace’s final years were spent in Miami Beach just as the city’s growing LGBTQ population came into its own, politically, socially and economically.
The same year Versace bought the old Amsterdam Palace apartment house on Ocean Drive and renovated it as his personal palace, Casa Casuarina, city leaders in 1992 passed a human-rights law protecting gay people from discrimination — 15 years after singer Anita Bryant led a nationally explosive 1977 campaign to repeal a similar ordinance in Miami-Dade County.
Also in 1992, the city got its first gay chamber of commerce, the South Beach Business Guild, which attracted 102 member businesses its first six months. The Art Deco district, Washington Avenue, Lincoln Road and the rest of South Beach already had become widely known as a mecca for LGBTQ tourists and locals, who partied at gay-and-lesbian owned hotels, restaurants and nightclubs.
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And in 1997, when a young gay man, Andrew Cunanan, targeted, shot and killed Versace on the steps of Casa Casuarina, the international media descended on Miami Beach, spotlighting the crime, the city and its newly powerful gay community.
“The gay scene here was king — or queen,” said Danilo De La Torre, better known as South Florida drag star Adora. “We ruled the beach at the time, along with the artists. At the time Versace moved here, it was a party town. ... That’s why he moved here, to be at the center of it all. That’s why he moved to Ocean Drive.”
De La Torre said he performed at several parties for Versace and his designer sister, Donatella.
“We weren’t friends, but we hung out,” De La Torre said. “Going to his house was like going to a big famous family reunion. They all got along beautifully.”
At Casa Casuarina, De La Torre met pop superstars of the day including model Naomi Campbell and movie star Sylvester Stallone, who along with Madonna at various times had homes in Miami.
“It was hot being in Miami. [Versace] made it hotter,” De La Torre said. “Everything changed right there when he moved in. South Beach became more popular. He brought a lot of different people to Miami.”
De La Torre said that after Versace moved to Ocean Drive, the street became “totally commercial.”
“It changed right there. There were people who never thought about coming here. He came with power. And the city opened its arms.”
Versace didn’t bring the gays to Miami Beach, but he certainly transformed the city into a fashion capital, said Dennis Leyva, who with husband Clark Reynolds and businessmen Ignacio Martinez-Ybor and Stewart Stein held the first Winter Party beach fundraiser for LGBTQ nonprofits in February 1994.
“Miami Beach became the center of the fashion industry throughout the world,” Leyva said. “For a period of time, this became the place to be for fashion. You could go anywhere and see a fashion shoot on Ocean Drive or Lincoln Road.”
Mostly though, Versace kept to himself and his circle of friends and family, said Michael Aller, the city’s retired tourism and convention director and chief of protocol known for two decades as “Mr. Miami Beach.”
“[Versace] wasn’t as influential as you would think he would be,” Aller said. “Everybody had different thoughts about it. He was very big. But it didn’t last long. People were very, very suspicious of him. Of his popularity.”
Aller said the star designer “played very low key. It was just some place that he lived. And he lived very nicely.”
Versace’s low-key existence ended July 15, 1997, a few minutes after he finished breakfast at the News Cafe on Ocean Drive. Cunanan followed him a few blocks north to Casa Casuarina, shot and killed him outside the mansion.
“Being famous, he made Miami Beach more famous,” De La Torre said. “After his death, there was a local panic. And sadness and disappointment. We couldn't believe anybody wanted to kill him.”
Thousands of journalists came to South Beach to cover the murder and the nine-day manhunt for Versace’s killer. Investigators believe that after killing Versace, Cunanan escaped on foot and hid inside a houseboat across from the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel, where he shot himself to death on July 24, 1997.
Until Cunanan’s death, hundreds of tipsters throughout Florida reported to police they might have seen him on the loose. FBI agents even questioned Miami Herald reporter Johnny Diaz, then 24, after a man he tried to interview decided the young journalist looked just like Cunanan, 27.
“The whole thing was blown out of proportion,” Aller recalled. “It just got so much press that there was a point we had to say, ‘Wait a second. Let’s hold off.’ We had to scrutinize everything they did and everything they said.”
And once Cunanan died, life on the Beach went back to normal, Aller said.
“Nobody talked about it much after it was over,” he said. “It didn’t change anybody’s life. It happened. We reacted to it. And it was over.”