Donyale Luna: The First Black Supermodel

Let’s see if you are familiar with the next woman we want to present to you this week. She is six foot tall, has big blue eyes and is the symbol of the Swinging Sixties! Yes, we are definitely talking about the first black supermodel Donyale Luna. 📝

Her legacy does not only go back to shaping the look of the Sixties, by being all over the fashion world and starring in several movies, but she also paved the way for today’s BPOC models. It was hard work and took a lot of strength to come where she was back in the day. Unfortunately, she died very early in her life which led to a short but intensive period of fame. 🌟

We want to shine a light on this woman who had such a great impact, in many ways, on the fashion world with the full article here. Go check it out for yourself!

Donyale Luna (Peggy Ann Freeman)| *31-08-1945 | †17-05-1979 | USA | Supermodel

Six foot tall, big blue eyes and the symbol of the Swinging’ 60s. We are talking about the first black supermodel, Donyale Luna.  She was discovered in Detroit, USA by a model-agent and after that things started to roll. She dominated the model industry of the sixties and starred in a few films. Despite this success, people still forgot her through the years. This probably had to do with her early death in the seventies. This article will shine a light on this icon again and will hopefully inform you about Luna.

First of all it is important to know that her real name is actually not Donyale Luna, but Peggy Ann Freeman. She was born in Detroit, USA in 1945, a child of three. It was in middle school when she gave herself the name Donyale Luna and from this point she started to develop her own ‘moonchildpersona’. Her life revolved around school, church and theatre, acting was one of the things she really loved to do. According to family members she always pictured herself living in a fantasy world when she was younger and this had to do with her tumultuous childhood that she tried to escape. 

It was in 1963 when fashion-photographer David McCabe discovered Donyale Luna while walking on the streets in Detroit. She was eighteen years old at that time and a year later she decided to move to New York on advice of McCabe, right after racial discrimination was officially prohibited in the United States. For a nineteen year old black woman with no income yet and no clear plans for the future, it was a bold move to go to the big city. 

She wrote to her childhood friend while living a few months in New York: “I’ll be on top of the world if it takes every breath I have, every muscle of my skinny body. I feel it, I know it. I’ll be some kind of star real soon. Real soon.” And she was not wrong. In a few months she was on the cover of multiple newspapers calling her the first black supermodel. Harper’s Bazaar even cancelled their planned cover in 1965 just to have Luna on the cover instead, because everybody was so overwhelmed by her appearance. She went to a lot of parties and could count artists like Andy Warhol and Miles Davis to her group of friends. 

Despite this fabulous life she still felt limited in the United States because she could not escape the prejudice of her skin colour. There was a group who saw her as the frontgirl of a rising blackgirl-movement but there was also a group, more in the South of the States, that were not too happy with a black girl covering big magazines. This led to Luna leaving her birthplace and moving to Europe. In a later interview with her late husband Luigi Cazzaniga she said: “I wouldn’t have to be bothered with political situations when I woke up in the morning – I could live and be treated as I felt, without having to worry about the police coming along.”

She moved to London and was immediately drawn to the radical creative scene at that time. Her skyrocketing modelling career definitely did not stop in America. In March 1966 she became the first black supermodel on the cover of the British Vogue, which was also the first time in all the editions of Vogue. With her big success she also became an international superstar, Time magazine even called 1966 the Luna Year. 

She modelled for big names such as Paco Rabanne, Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino and when she was on the runway she stole the show. She did not only walk, she would crawl like a lion, dance to the music and make direct eye-contact with the audience and photographers. The look she gave was called an ‘ocular attack’ because she wore blue contact lenses and a golden bindi as a third eye. She opened a new fashion-era in which the runway almost looked like a Broadway show. This European success of Luna also intrigued Salvador Dali, he promptly called her his muse. This avant-garde moonpersona was also heavily influenced by the drugs she took. She often spoke enthusiastically about using LSD on and off the runway, because it made her feel everything and enjoy every second. Her drug use eventually became fatal when she took an accidental heroin-overdose in 1979 at the age of 33, leaving behind her husband Luigi and daughter Dream Cazzaniga.

When you are a famous supermodel, your life is publicly exposed and people create this kind of image around you. What you stand for, where you come from, it is all filled in by different people. A lot of top-models nowadays update their audiences on their interests, political opinions, brands etc. It’s a way to stay relevant. Donyale Luna was not someone to be put in a box, she was unpredictable, a mix between sophisticated and wild, and she definitely did not want to be defined by the colour of her skin. She wanted to be Donyale Luna and no one else. Her early tragic death caused the pop-culture to quickly forget her story. Even though she wanted nothing to do with the racial politics in America she still played a big role in the rise of black models in the seventies and later. Luna paved the way for them and that is something we should be thankful for until this day.


Author: Nora Marica
Image: Alamy

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