Donyale Luna took the fashion world by storm in the mid-’60s, becoming the first African-American model to appear on the cover of Vogue. She worked with some of the most creative spirits of the time including Richard Avedon, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini.
No wonder she’s now a cult figure, with no shortage of information and misinformation about her on the Internet. I really can’t do any better than begin with this introduction from the Donyale Luna Blog:
Six feet three inches tall and slender as an adder, with eyes the size of demitasse saucers, Donyale Luna was not only the first black supermodel and the highest-paid fashion model of her time: she was a unique phenomenon, arguably the most strangely beautiful woman to grace the planet in the 20th century. The fashion world—indeed the world at large—will never see the likes of her again.
Looking at her photos, watching her movies and reading about her I’m struck by seven aspects of her personality and career.
Donyale Luna, shape-shifter
When asked where she came from, Donyale would reply, “I’m from the moon, darling.” The reality was more prosaic.
She was born in 1945, the daughter of Peggy and Nathaniel Freeman, a working-class couple living in Detroit. They had a tempestuous marriage – they were married and divorced four times. In 1965, after Donyale had moved to New York, it ended in tragedy, Peggy shooting (and killing) her husband as he came home drunk and threatening.
Despite the unhappy ending, Donyale Luna seems to have grown up in a happy, respectable and relatively prosperous home. She was intelligent and ambitious. And as the gangly duckling morphed into a black swan, she turned herself into someone else – parallels here with another ’60s model, Veruschka. She changed her name (Luna is the Latin word for moon), she changed her voice and she changed her life story. The Donyale Luna Blog again:
When Sanders Bryant [a friend and beau] met the unfolding diva at age 15, “she was already radiant and gorgeous.” They were in the Cass Tech high school cafeteria, and our girl was working on a film script. She introduced herself as Donyale Luna, recently arrived from Hawaii. Her parents had been killed in an auto accident and she was adopted. “She continued that story as long as I knew her,” says Bryant, “even after I knew her mother and father and that she was born in Ford Hospital right here in Detroit.”
She dreamed of being a movie star herself (“like Anna Magnani”), a writer, a dancer. At age 16 and 17, Donyale was performing on stage at the Civic Center Theatre in Detroit.
What are we to make of it all? Well, what was a girl to do whose figure and beauty were so extraordinary and mesmerising? Try to be like her contemporaries or step out boldly on her own path? She chose the latter, but perhaps inside the diva there was always a scared little girl.
Donyale Luna, new kid on the block
Donyale Luna was discovered in 1963 by David McCabe, an English photographer (the following year Andy Warhol commissioned him to document his daily activities for a year, resulting in a book called A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol).
I was on a photo assignment in Detroit, photographing Ford cars [and] there was a school nearby. I was struck by this almost 6-foot-tall beautiful girl – around 14-years-old at the time– wearing her Catholic uniform. She stopped to see what was going on.
He told her that he worked for magazines like Mademoiselle and Glamour, and invited her to call him should she visit New York. Her mother was unenthusiastic: “I tried to discourage her from going to New York because I had heard so much that was bad about it.” But Donyale kept insisting and they reached a compromise: she would go and live with her aunt in New Jersey and get a job while pursuing modeling in her free time.
So in 1964, Donyale flew to NYC and called David McCabe. He was as good as his word, sending photos of her to various agencies and introducing her to Nancy White, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar. She and her team immediately decided to tear up their January cover and hire an artist, ex-model Katharina Denzinger, to make the breakthrough line drawing of Donyale that replaced it, together with six full-colour sketches of her for the inside pages.
David McCabe also called Richard Avedon. “I said you’ve got to see this girl. She’s just unbelievable.” Avedon was blown away and had her signed to an exclusive one-year contract.
Donyale Luna, trailblazer
Donyale Luna spent 1965 in New York. Avedon’s first pictures of her appeared in the April issue of Harper’s Bazaar – the one he guest-edited. A caption to one of the photos read, “As worn by Donyale Luna with all the grace and strength of a Masai warrior.”.
But it soon became clear that all was not well in the southern states. Advertisers objected to the photos of Donyale and readers began to cancel their subscriptions. William Randolph Hearst, who owned the magazine, called a halt. Avedon later recalled, “For reasons of racial prejudice, and the economics of the fashion business, I was never permitted to photograph her for publication again.”.
Before moving to London in December, Donyale had a nervous breakdown and spent time in Bellevue Hospital. Two years later she told the New York Times that she fled from New York when she found “they said beautiful things on one side and turned around and stabbed you in the back.”. But that and the racist response to her photo shoots were probably only part of the story. In the space of just a few months she had shot to fame, lost her father, been shocked by the decadence of Andy Warhol’s East 47th Street Factory and had a brief, failed marriage.
In London she became an even bigger hit and made history when a photo of her by David Bailey appeared on the front cover of the 1 March 1966 issue of Vogue – the first ever to feature a black model. It was around this time that she married Luigi Cazzaniga, a photographer. Three years later Donyale moved to Italy, where she would end her career.
Donyale Luna, the heavenly body
According to Bailey, “She was extraordinary-looking, so tall and skinny. She was like an illustration, a walking illustration.”
Donyale certainly made an impression on her friend, the model Pat Cleveland:
She had no tits, but lots of presence. We’d walk down the street and men’s mouths would drop open in awe. When we walked into restaurants people would stop eating and stand up and applaud. She was like a mirage, or some kind of fantasy.
At a New York nightclub in 1966 Jackie Kennedy went up to Donyale and simply said, “You are very beautiful.” An article in the 1 April 1966 issue of Time magazine and titled “The Luna Year”, described her as:
…a new heavenly body who, because of her striking singularity, promises to remain on high for many a season. Donyale Luna, as she calls herself, is unquestionably the hottest model in Europe at the moment. She is only 20, a Negro, hails from Detroit, and is not to be missed if one reads Harper’s Bazaar, Paris Match, Britain’s Queen, the British, French or American editions of Vogue.
Donyale Luna, bohemian
Donyale Luna was drawn to creative people and they to her. And she brought that side of her character to her modeling, developing crazy runway walks including moving like a robot and crawling on all fours like a stalking animal.
In New York everyone who glittered want to know Donyale. She hung out with Miles Davis, she had Mati Klarwein (a psychedelic artist who made record covers for Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix) paint her body (another parallel with Veruschka), and she fell in with Andy Warhol and his crowd. She was one of only two black women to be part of his East 47th Street Factory.
In London, her celebrity friends included Mick Jagger, Michael Caine, Julie Christie, Mia Farrow and Yul Brynner. She dated the actor Terence Stamp, and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. And she was photographed by William Klein, Helmut Newton and William Claxton. It was Claxton who introduced her to Salvador Dalí, who described her as “the reincarnation of Nefertiti”.
Donyale Luna, movie star
Talking of which, Donyale Luna features in Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dali, a documentary biography narrated by Orson Welles. She also appears in a number of cult movies: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, William Klein’s Qui Etes Vous, Polly Maggoo? and Federico Fellini’s Satyricon.
She had begun acting during her time in New York, appearing in four of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. In Otto Preminger’s comedy, Skidoo, she plays the mistress of God; Groucho Marx got God’s role.
Donyale Luna, lost soul
Given the pressure of her chosen career, her probable insecurity and the circles in which she moved from her time in New York onwards, it’s hardly surprising that Donyale Luna went off the rails. As time went on, she became more and more flaky and her behaviour got more eccentric. Beverly Johnson was a black model who broke onto the scene toward the end of Donyale’s career:
[Donyale] doesn’t wear shoes winter or summer. Ask her where she’s from — Mars? She went up and down the runways on her hands and knees. She didn’t show up for bookings. She didn’t have a hard time, she made it hard for herself.
At the age of 32 the drug-taking finally did for Donyale. Estranged from her husband and living in Rome, she died of an accidental heroin overdose in May 1979, leaving behind an 18-month-old daughter, Dream.
Want to know more about Donyale Luna?
There’s so much myth and misinformation around Donyale Luna that you have to be careful where you look. By far the most interesting, thorough and well-researched source I’ve come across is the Donyale Luna Blog. It’s a work in progress.
If you’d like to read a book, you could take a look at Ben Arogundade’s Beauty’s Enigma – Donyale Luna – The First Black Supermodel. Articles on which I’ve drawn include:
- The tragic tale of Donyale Luna by Ben Arogundade
- Donyale Luna: the world`s first black supermodel and the first to grace the cover of Vogue
- The First Black Supermodel, Whom History Forgot by Keli Goff
- Luna Space Model by Philippa Burton
- Donyale Luna in Formidable Magazine