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Donyale Luna: The Life & Death Of Fashion's First Black Supermodel & British Vogue Magazine Cover Star 1966: Her Real Name, Parents, Daughter & Other Facts
DONYALE LUNA WAS THE FIRST black supermodel to bypass fashion's apartheid system when she debuted on the cover ofBritish Vogue magazine in March 1966 — but things soon began to go wrong. By Ben Arogundade. Feb.15.2023.
FIRST BLACK MODEL: Detroit-born Donyale Luna was fashion's first black supermodel, featuring on the covers of both 'Harper's Bazaar' and 'Vogue' during the 1960s. Her death came tragically early, from a drug overdose at the age of 32.
DESTINY OFTEN STRIKES WHEN you least expect it. For Donyale Luna it happened in 1964 when she walking along the street in her hometown of Detroit, when she was spotted by 24-year-old English photographer David McCabe. He was struck by her tall, skinny, gangly frame, her wide smile and her startled, owlish expression. He invited the 18-year-old to New York City to take up fashion modelling. At the time she had ambitions to be an actress, and was doing bit parts in Detroit’s repertory theatres, but she did not hesitate at McCabe’s offer, and said “yes” on the spot.
LUNA: BACKGROUND, REAL NAME, PARENTS
Donyale Luna was not her real name. She was born Peggy Anne Freeman in Detroit on August 31, 1946. Right from the start she was different. “I wasn’t accepted because I talked funny, I looked funny, and I was a weirdo to everyone,” Luna recalled. The young beauty was a dreamer and a fantasist who invented her alter ego, Donyale Luna, while at school, as part of her own self-driven makeover.
McCabe, though young, and relatively new to fashion photography, was well-connected. He had assisted legendary ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ magazine art director Alexey Brodovitch, and was shooting regularly for Conde Nast, publishers of ‘Vogue’. He was also artist Andy Warhol’s official photographer. Within a year Luna was working with the pop artist, as well as Fellini and photographer Richard Avedon, and hanging out with Miles Davis and James Earl Jones in her spare time. “I started at the top,” Luna recalled.
In January 1965 ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ sketched Luna for its cover. It was the first time the fashion magazine had featured a black cover model since its inception in 1867. Later, Avedon featured her extensively in the April edition of the fashion bible. She was “a girl of staggering beauty and magnetism,” he recalled.
BRITISH VOGUE MAGAZINE COVER 1966
But despite Donyale’s early modelling successes she left America for Europe, where her look was more in demand, and became an instant hit there. By 1965 she had moved to London, and was soon in David Bailey’s studio, where she was photographed for the March 1, 1966 cover of British‘Vogue’— again, the first time in its history that the magazine had used a black model on its front page. “She happens to be a marvellous shape,” said then editor Beatrix Miller. “All sort of angular and immensely tall and strange.” At the time this historic cover went unnoticed by the African American press back home, who instead focused on the first black cover of the American edition of ‘Vogue’ magazine, which featured Beverly Johnson in August 1974.
CIVIL RIGHTS & SUPERMODELS
By the end of 1966 Luna’s success as a fashion model was at its peak. TIME pronounced her “unquestionably the hottest model in Europe.” To Salvador Dali she was “The reincarnation of Nefertiti.” Her success in London brought her a new corral of celebrity friends, including Mick Jagger, Michael Caine and Mia Farrow. Everyone who met fashion's newest celebrity seemed to have an engaging anecdote; “She had no tits, but lots of presence,” quipped fellow flat-chested supermodel Pat Cleveland. By the end of 1968 Luna had become the biggest international black beauty since Josephine Baker.
But why was this African American beauty the one to have broken through fashion’s apartheid system, and not another black model? Timing was key. Luna's promotion was assisted by the winds of the civil rights movement, (the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964) which brought the issue of black rights into sharp focus amongst the white liberals who controlled fashion, and so during this period in the mid-60s they began actively using African American models for the first time in history.
LUNA LIFE, CAUSE OF DEATH, DAUGHTER
But Luna’s fortune’s soon began to sour. Life’s “firsts” — the first ones to break through society's barriers — are often casualties of their own pioneering success. Unfortunately for Donyale, success opened her up to the temptations that so often accompany rapid fame and success — in this case, drugs. In a‘New York Times’ profile she once confessed to taking LSD. “I think it’s great,” she said defiantly. Luna’s liking for narcotics would eventually lead to her downfall. She died in the early hours of May 17, 1979, of an accidental heroin overdose, taken at a friend’s house in Rome, while separated from her then husband, Italian photographer Luigi Cazzaniga. She was 32. She left behind an 18-month-old daughter, Dream, who would never know her famous mother who’d pioneered black beauty across the international stage. ‘When she died, my main concern was, how am I going to tell our daughter?’ said Cazzaniga. ‘I didn’t for many years, until one day she found out from somewhere else and got very upset.’
Hi there. I am a London-based author, journalist and broadcaster. Donyale Luna features in my illustrated book, ‘Black Beauty’, released in 2000 (now sold out). Discover more about me and my work at Ben Arogundade bio.
MODEL FACE IN FASHION: Donyale Luna was the first black model to feature on the cover of 'Vogue'. Top: The African American beauty wears an outlandish metal dress in a still from the 1966 movie 'Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?' Following on; Donyale Luna, photographed by Richard Avedon, models a metal dress by French fashion designer Courrèges. Donyale Luna and artist Salvador Dali pose during a photoshoot at his Spanish villa in 1966. Donyale and American pop artist Andy Warhol were great friends. The African American beauty featured on the cover of the October 1974 edition of his magazine, 'Interview’.
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MODEL DONYALE LUNA APPEARS IN THE 1966 FILM, ‘WHO ARE YOU, POLLY MAGGOO?
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