At a glance, Gianna “Gigi” Caruso’s life might appear carefree. The 19-year-old USC sophomore is the co-founder of Gigi C, a swimwear and activewear line she created with her mother, Tina, a former swimsuit model and fashion designer.
She’s also the daughter of multibillionaire real-estate mogul Rick Caruso, owner of the Grove, Palisades Village and the Americana at Brand. However, Caruso’s story isn’t that of your average L.A. heiress.
Caruso was born with bilateral hearing loss. Diagnosed at birth, she was fitted with custom hearing aids at 3 months old and underwent countless hours of speech therapy two to three days a week until she was in middle school. By 14, she was fitted with a Phonak Lyric hearing aid, which rests inside both of her ear canals and improves her ability to hear and communicate.
“I want to be an advocate for kids with hearing loss,” she said, seated on a couch inside a private room at Palisades Village in Pacific Palisades. “I want them all to have the opportunities that I’ve had.” Caruso said she was surprised to learn that hearing aids were considered elective and weren’t covered by insurance companies in California. “Why wouldn’t you? It’s crazy,” she said.
Caruso and her parents spent months advocating for Assembly Bill 598, a.k.a. the Let California Kids Hear Act, and reaching out to Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The bill, which was introduced by state Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) in 2019, would have required private health insurers to cover the cost of hearing aids for infants and children in the Golden State. As a result, California would have joined about two dozen states that offer various levels of coverage for children or adults. The proposed legislation states that hearing devices typically cost up to $6,000 per pair and likely would need to be replaced every four years for children.
In an email on Tuesday, Vicky Waters, Newsom’s press secretary, said the administration is seeking to secure an estimated $10 million per year in funding through this year’s budget process, which is currently ongoing, for the measure. Under the current proposal, the program would begin July 1, 2021, and help families with incomes up to 600% of the federal poverty level with the costs of obtaining hearing aids for children up to 17 years of age if their health insurance does not cover them.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Assn., hearing loss affects a child’s development and ability to speak and make friendships. The Carusos, who also have three sons, learned firsthand the effects of hearing loss when their daughter was diagnosed in 2000.
“We’re so grateful that we were able to catch it early,” Tina Caruso said last summer after a press conference about the bill at the Grove, which was attended by “Frozen II” actress Idina Menzel. “I was really on top of it, so it helped with the way [Gigi] talks to this day and the way she experiences things and environments. … Every child should have the opportunity to be able to hear, and they shouldn’t have to …” Her voice broke. “Every baby needs …” She couldn’t finish her thought as she teared up.
A few days later, Rick Caruso recalled first learning about his daughter’s diagnosis. “It was heartbreaking,” he said, “and worrisome and confusing. [There was] this feeling that it can’t be true.” However, the businessman sprang into action. “I immediately called somebody in my office that I knew was connected to the House Ear Institute. I said, ‘Find me the best doctors. I’ve got to get this figured out.’”
Despite his access to leading doctors, Rick Caruso said the path proved daunting. “If it’s been this complicated for Gianna with every resource in the world, I can’t imagine what it’s been like for [other families],” he said.
In 2016, as a show of thanks to the doctors who treated Caruso at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, Caruso’s father donated $25 million to endow the USC Caruso Family Center for Childhood Communication and the USC Tina and Rick Caruso Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery, the latter of which is working to find a cure for hearing loss.
Caruso said her hearing loss has informed her sense of identity. “It’s shaped who I am today because I grew up with a lot of difficulties especially in social settings and in school,” she said. “I was always looked at differently. I used to have those big hearing aids that went behind my ears so everyone knew about it, and kids were so quick to judge — even teachers.”
Caruso grew up learning to lip read but often felt isolated as a child. She struggled to follow conversations. Her world opened up once she was fitted with her Lyric hearing aid, a moment she captured on video and recently shared on social media. “It changed my life,” she said. “I never fully heard my voice; it was muffled before. … Being able to hear my voice more clearly, I feel like it gave me more of a voice. Literally. I was speaking up more. I was able to carry on conversations better and connect with people better and form relationships, so that was a big game changer for me.”
She was also surprised to hear birds chirping, rain falling and her bed sheets rustling. “I heard sounds I’d never heard before,” she said. “I was like, ‘What is that?’” She said she’s “still finding new things that I can hear every day.”
Although Caruso said she had a great support system of family, doctors and audiologists, she said she wishes there was a support group when she was growing up. “I couldn’t find anyone who was on the same page as me,” she said. “One thing that I want to do is make sure that there are more support groups for people to go to because I didn’t have that, and I still wish I did.”
Caruso has been sharing her story in hopes of eliminating any stigma that may be attached to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. “I used to be way more reserved about speaking about all of this,” she said. “I didn’t tell a lot of people. I was always worried about if people would judge me.” She said attending college and being “exposed to more” helped her to realize “that I’m not the only one going through something.”
In addition to studying communication and business at USC, Caruso is an avid horseback rider and water-sport enthusiast, the latter of which inspired her to launch her swimwear business, Gigi C Bikinis, in 2017. “I love the water because I can’t hear in the water. I’m relaxed,” she said, explaining that she decided to create her label because she wanted a comfortable bikini that worked with her affinity for wakeboarding.
Caruso and her mother reference her mom’s old modeling photos when designing each season’s collection. “We’ll take a suit that she wore and we’ll put a modern twist on it,” Caruso said of her brand, which will be releasing its spring 2020 collection on March 16. The pieces, which include seafoam green, chartreuse, and black-and-white striped one- and two-piece swimsuits, retail for $88 for a bikini bottom to $220 for a one-piece on gigicbikinis.com.
Gigi C Bikinis will have a pop-up shop at the Grove in May with a portion of its proceeds benefiting Para Los Niños, a South Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that aids children and families living in underserved Los Angeles County neighborhoods. (The organization is celebrating its 40th anniversary in May.)
On her list of plans is opening a bricks-and-mortar store in a few years, but first, Caruso is focused on expanding Gigi C Sport, a collection of form-fitting nylon tank tops and leggings, which retail for $120 for a bike short to $275 for a bodysuit.
In addition to Gigi C, Caruso said she’s interested in working with her father’s real estate company in the future. “I am definitely interested in this family business,” she said, sharing that she plans to take real-estate classes. “I think it’s amazing what he’s created and I want to learn more about it.”
For his part, Rick Caruso said, “Gianna has an incredible passion for business and design and she’s great at it. If that translates into her being part of the company, fantastic, but I want that to be her decision and I’ll support her any way she wants.”
He said he would always be his daughter’s biggest cheerleader. He also shared a story about when Caruso was 7 years old and had stage fright before a spring sing-along at school. The show was delayed, and Caruso was asked to speak with his daughter. “I said to her, ‘Listen, I’m going to sit behind the drapes,’” he said. “‘As the drapes open, nobody is going to see me, but you’ll be able to see me. That will give you a little bit of extra courage, and you go do your thing.’”
Caruso still reminds his daughter of that story to this day. “I will always be the guy behind the drape,” he said, tearing up behind dark sunglasses. “I see her at her lows and I see her at her highs, and I get it. And it’s taken a while to really get it because I don’t think early on I fully understood the profound nature of the impact of not being able to hear something. All of us just take it for granted.”
Despite his commitment to the hearing health community, Rick Caruso believes he’s not doing enough. “It’s the one thing that keeps me up at night,” he said. “I promised Gianna, ‘I’m going to keep at it. I’m going to be relentless. I’m never going to give up, and we’re going to cure hearing loss — not only for you, but for everybody that has it — especially kids.’”
Gigi Caruso hopes to carry the torch in her own way. “So many moms have reached out to me saying their kids are going through something similar and asking for advice,” she said. “It was really difficult growing up but it’s also given me a sense of confidence now. … I feel empowered with these hearing aids, and it makes me want to give that to other kids and make them feel empowered.”