The name Tina Chow may not ring a bell for most millennials; since her death in the early 1990s, she has faded from the younger mainstream eye, and a plethora of models and influences have taken over the spotlight. Yet she's a figurehead of style and sex whose charisma and energy influenced designers, artists, and even religious personas throughout the 1970s and '80s: everyone from Karl Lagerfeld to Richard Gere to Kate Moss and AIDS advocacy felt her influence. While pop culture proffered glitz and disco, Chow held a mimimalist sense of fashion and a short-cropped hair that pre-dated the androgyny that is now so prevalent.
Yet Tina Chow is very much an enigma, too. Aside from a feature on her in New York Magazine in 1992, little has been written about her, though gorgeous photos and images of her abound and her affect has been long-lasting in the fashion world. She was born Bettina Louise Lutz in a suburb near Cleveland, Ohio in 1950; however, life truly began for Tina when her family back moved to Japan when Tina was a child. Her father, an American, had met her Japanese mother when he was stationed in Japan during WWII, and it was most likely in Japan that Tina developed her unique sense of style — mixing old and new, East and West.
After Tina's modeling career took off in the 1970s, she married the man who started the Mr. Chow restaurants, and quickly established herself in the world of art and fashion. She regularly mingled with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Andy Warhol, and Mick Jagger, throwing and attending lavish parties and relishing a diet of ritzy Kir Royale cocktails and espresso. Sadly, her influence was cut short after she was diagnosed with HIV in 1990.
Tina eventually died from AIDS in 1991, but she cemented herself as an invisible hand still guiding many designers, artists, and models today. Would Carrie Bradshaw have ever had her Manolo obsession without Tina Chow's influence? Quite possibly not.
No one has ever officially confirmed that Tina got AIDS from Kim d'Estainville: after Tina's death, her family publicly said that she could have contracted the virus from a bisexual Parisian man who had already died of AIDS. But d'Estainville passed away from AIDS only two years before Tina did, and reports of their intimate flings soon caused people to connect the dots.
Described as a "bachelor-retailer-restaurateur-journalist-sportsman," d'Estainville was in Chow's social circles and knew her peripherally. However, Tina's friends have refused to say anything about her supposed relationship with d'Estainville. He had formerly been attached to Helene Rochas — of Rochas perfumes — but after he had an affair with a man, the relationship dissolved. One of d'Estainville's friends say that he spiraled out of control afterward, going to New York and contracting AIDS there. Before he knew he was infected, d'Estainville had a number of affairs — Tina being one of them.
When Tina Chow succumbed to AIDS on January 24, 1992, she died as the first woman to publicly say she had contracted the disease via heterosexual sex — an anomaly, since AIDS was then seen as something that only affected gay men. She learned that she'd been infected three years earlier; despite the fact that she and her husband were known for hosting wild parties and socializing with those known to imbibe a bit too much, Tina herself "rarely indulged in the lunacy of the times." Despite all accounts saying Tina did not abuse drugs nor sleep around, she died from AIDS anyway. One of her friends said, "Tina slept with four people in her entire life. There's a point to be made about AIDS in that respect. It's the disease that's the villain."
Tina's affair in the late 1980s with Richard Gere cemented the end of her marriage. After meeting in Los Angeles, one of Tina's friends recalled that she was "dazzled by Richard, but she was just another notch in his belt." Another friend said that her affair with Richard was more about striking out on her own, finally, than it was about Richard Gere himself: "...She flew the coop. If it hadn't been Richard Gere, it would have been somebody else."
Before her death, the media still fixated on their brief affair. A tabloid ran the headline "RICHARD GERE HONEYMOON AIDS SHOCKER: FORMER GIRLFRIEND DYING OF GAY PLAGUE." After her illness, Tina borrowed one of Gere's mountain properties as a place of refuge for some time.
After Richard Gere introduced Tina to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism, she became even more enamored with Eastern ideas, including meditation and natural healing. After she contracted AIDS, she and her daughter, China Chow, went to the Himalayas to meet the esteemed religious leader. Though he told her to use Western medicine for her illness, Tina felt otherwise. Only a few months before her death, the Dalai Lama came to New York, and Tina flew from Los Angeles to see him again. He personally got Tina a private box at Madison Square Garden during his appearance there. While there, she was also seen by the Dalai Lama's personal physician before returning to Los Angeles.