Donyale Luna, the real First Black Supermodel

25 Oct
Charlotte March's shoot for Twen magazine, 1966Donyale Luna, ph. Charlotte March, Twen magazine, 1966


.Donyale Luna was the first black Supermodel, though many long established fashion-watchers don’t even know her name.  At the height of her career, the New York Times called Luna “a stunning Negro model whose face had the hauteur and feline grace of Nefertiti.” The designer Stephen Burrows recalled that “she was just one of those extraordinary girls.” And in 1966, when Beatrix Miller, the editor of British Vogue, chose her as the first-ever black model for that magazine’s cover, it was because of “her bite and personality.” Bethann Hardison, another ascendant model, remembers that “no one looked like her. She was like a really extraordinary species.”

Donyale Luna, first black model on cover of Vogue. ph. David BaileyPh. by David Bailey 
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David McCabe, known for photographing celebrities like Twiggy and Andy Warhol, recognized that Luna had something special the first time he saw her in 1963. “I was on a photo assignment in Detroit, photographing Ford cars [and] there was a school nearby,” he recalled. “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 was a photographer for magazines like Mademoiselle and Glamour and that, if she was ever in New York, she should call him. In 1964, he got that call, and sent the ensuing photos to various agencies. “I also called Richard Avedon,” he remembers. “I said you’ve got to see this girl. She’s just unbelievable. Soon Avedon began photographing her, too, eventually signing her to a one year contract.

Harper's bazaar, Donyale Luna

In the mid-sixties, “the magazine world really wasn’t ready for photographing beautiful black women,” McCabe says. Luna’s first major cover, for Harper’s Bazaar in 1965, was a sketch in which her racial identity remained ambiguous. Luna’s face, most notably her lips and nose, are also obscured on her British Vogue cover, also somewhat hiding her race.

Despite all that, Luna’s role as a trailblazer is largely forgotten. Luna’s name is still a rarity on many “black firsts” lists. And Beverly Johnson is routinely referred to as “the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue,” for her turn on the American edition eight years after Luna’s British cover.

Donyale Luna

Short Biography

Donyale Luna (August 31, 1945 – May 17, 1979) was born Peggy Ann Freeman in Detroit, Michigan, to Nathaniel A. and Peggy Freeman (née Hertzog). She was the youngest of three daughters. In January 1965, her mother fatally shot her father in self-defense as he was reportedly abusive.

Despite the parentage stated on her birth certificate, she insisted that her biological father was a man with the surname Luna and that her mother was Indigenous Mexican and of Afro-Egyptian lineage. According to Luna, one of her grandmothers was reportedly a former Irish actress who married a black interior decorator. Whether any of this background is true is uncertain. Luna’s sister later described her as being “a very weird child, even from birth, living in a wonderland, a dream”. She would routinely create fantasies about her background and herself (like Coco Chanel did).

As a teen, she attended Cass Technical High School, where she studied journalism and was in the school choir. It was during this time that she began calling herself “Donyale”. She was later described by friends and classmates as being “kind of kooky”.

After being discovered by the photographer David McCabe, she moved from Detroit to New York City to pursue a modeling career. In January 1965, a sketch of Luna appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. She became the first black model to appear on the cover of a Vogue magazine, the March 1966 British issue, shot by photographer David Bailey.

Luna was under exclusive contract to the photographer Richard Avedon for a year at the beginning of her career.

Photographs by Richard Avedon

Donyale Luna, shot by Richard Avedon, 1966.

Donyale Luna by Richard A vedon

Donyale Luna by Richard A vedon

Donyale Luna, ph. Richard Avedon, HARPER'S BAZAAR APRIL 1965

Donyale Luna, ph. Richard Avedon, HARPER'S BAZAAR APRIL 1965

Donyale Luna, ph. Richard Avedon, HARPER'S BAZAAR APRIL 1965

Donyale Luna, ph. Richard Avedon, HARPER'S BAZAAR APRIL 1965

Donyale Luna, ph. Richard Avedon, HARPER'S BAZAAR APRIL 1965

Donyale Luna by Avedon

After being discovered by the photographer David McCabe, she moved from Detroit to New York City to pursue a modeling career. In January 1965, a sketch of Luna appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. She became the first black model to appear on the cover of a Vogue magazine, the March 1966 British issue, shot by photographer David Bailey.

Luna was under exclusive contract to the photographer Richard Avedon for a year at the beginning of her career.

Photographs by David Bailey

Donyale Luna, Peggy Moffit and Moyra Swann by Bailey. UK Vogue 1966

Donyale Luna, Peggy Moffit and Moyra Swann for UK Vogue 1966

Donyale Luna, Peggy Moffit and Moyra Swann for UK Vogue 1966

Donyale Luna and Moyra Swann by David Bailey, 1966.

Donyale Luna, Peggy Moffit and Moyra Swann by Bailey. UK Vogue 1966 2

Donyale Luna by David Bailey, 1966

Donyale Luna , photo by David Bailey , 1966

An article in Time magazine published on April 1, 1966, “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.

By the 1970s, however, Luna’s modeling career began to decline due to her drug use, eccentric behavior and tendency to be difficult. A designer for whom Luna once worked said, “She took a lot of drugs and never paid her bills”. Fellow model Beverly Johnson later said, “[Luna] 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.”

‘Fur on Ice’, Twen magazine, 1966, ph. Charlotte March

Ph. Charlotte March, 'Fur on Ice', Twen magazine, 1966

Ph. Charlotte March, 'Fur on Ice', Twen magazine, 1966

Ph. Charlotte March, 'Fur on Ice', Twen magazine, 1966

During the late 1960s Luna appeared in several films produced by Andy Warhol. These included Screen Test: Donyale Luna (1964), Camp (1965), and Donyale Luna (1967), a 33-minute color film in which the model starred as Snow White.

In the 1969 Federico Fellini film Fellini Satyricon, she portrayed the whitch Oenothea, and Luna also appeared in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, the Otto Preminger comedy Skidoo, the documentary Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London and  starred as the title character in the 1972 Italian film Salomé by director Carmelo Bene.

Donyale Luna on the set of SatyriconDonyale Luna on the set of Satyricon
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Donyale Luna was married, engaged or romantically involved many times, like to Austrian-born Swiss actor Maximilian Schell and in 1969 with German actor Klaus Kinski. This relationship ended when Kinski asked her entourage to leave his house in Rome: he was concerned that their drug use could damage his career. Another one of her liaisons was with Rolling Stone Brian Jones

Luna married the Italian photographer Luigi Cazzaniga. In 1977 they had a daughter, Dream.

At the age of 33 the drug-taking finally caught up with Donyale Luna. Estranged from her husband, she died in a Rome clinic in the early hours of 17 May 1979 of an accidental heroin overdose. She left behind her 18-month-old daughter, Dream.

Luigi Cazzaniga.Donyale Luna, ph. Luigi Cazzaniga

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Rootstein mannequin

Donyale Luna & her Rootstein mannequin

Donyale Luna, the first notable African American fashion model and cover girl, was also the first African American to have a mannequin created in her likeness. It was produced in 1967 by the leading mannequin manufacturer, Adel Rooststein, as a follow-up to their famous Twiggy mannequin of 1966.

 

eBook

Beauty’s Enigma – Donyale Luna – The First Black Supermodel

Beauty's Enigma

They called her “the reincarnation of Nefertiti,” and “a girl of staggering beauty and magnetism.” She was Donyale Luna, the startling, owl-like beauty who crashed through fashion’s apartheid system in the mid-1960s to become the world’s first black supermodel, and the first to grace a Vogue cover. In a short but action-packed career, she worked with Salvador Dali, Frederico Fellini, Andy Warhol, David Bailey, Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon, before her untimely death from a drug overdose in 1979. This new biography by Ben Arogundade, author of Black Beauty, details her amazing life story in all its dramatic glory.
eBook
ISBN: 978-0-9569394-4-9.

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Donyale Luna

 

Info:

Wikipedia &

http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/07/first-black-supermodel-whom-history-forgot.html

 

2 Responses to “Donyale Luna, the real First Black Supermodel”

  1. Soul Safari 25 October 2015 at 12:13 #

    thanks for this wonderful extensive post. Grace Jones, eat your heart out!

  2. Andrea McKitty 14 March 2017 at 19:50 #

    I am always amazed when black history is reported and I wonder “What took so long to release it?” I’m not a follower of fashion but I am very interested in pioneers.

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