African American models were seen in black magazines like Ebony and Jet before the Civil Rights Movement in America, but non-white models were never seen on the runway, on the covers of Western fashion magazines, or in advertising. The race-based prohibition began to end with that movement, particularly the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Donyale Luna, the globe’s first black supermodel, defied fashion’s apartheid system by debuting on the cover of Vogue in 1966.
If you don’t recognize Donyale Luna, don’t worry; it’s never too late to learn! We’ve created a tribute to the 60s top model, complete with a profile that tells you everything you need to know about her.
Donyale Luna: Who Is She?
Donyale Luna’s modeling career began in April 1965 when a line-drawing sketch of Luna appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. This magazine had never previously featured a black person on its cover. Richard Avedon, the legendary fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, signed Luna to an exclusive one-year contract.
The African American model was the first to grace the cover of Vogue in March 1966, eight years before Beverly Johnson made history by being the first black model to feature on the cover of the American Vogue in August 1974. Luna was also the first black fashion icon, and her shape and face inspired the creation of the first black mannequin in 1967.
Childhood and Early Life
Luna, first known as Peggy Ann Freeman, was born in Detroit and grew up on the city’s northeast side. Nathaniel Freeman, her father, worked at Ford Motor Company for nearly 40 years, mostly in the foundry. Her mother, Peggy, worked as a receptionist at the downtown YWCA for nearly 30 years.
Her parents had a strained relationship, and her father was frequently abusive, living apart from the rest of the family. He was an alcoholic who returned home in a drunken stupor one night in 1950 and struck her mother, who gunned him down in self-defense in front of Luna, five, and Deborah, four.
Despite her mother’s wishes to attend nursing school, aspiring actress Luna was allegedly spotted walking around barefoot in September 1964 in a Catholic schoolgirl’s ensemble at Detroit’s Fisher Theater by New York photographer David McCabe. She quickly relocated to New Jersey, where she lived with her aunt while her career took off in nearby New York City.
Peggy Ann Freeman attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit, where she sang in the choir, studied journalism, and began her transformation from Peggy Ann Freeman to Donyale Luna. When Detroit photographer David McCabe saw Luna leaving a theater rehearsal one day, he was so taken with the stunning and tall beauty that he suggested she move to New York to become a model.
Even though there were virtually no modeling opportunities for non-white women other than committed African-American publications at the time, Donyale was hired to work with Bob Dylan, Richard Avedon, and Jean Shrimpton within a few months. She rose to prominence overnight, with newspapers proclaiming her the first black supermodel.
Luna was born black, but she denied this was true, claiming her mother was Mexican and had married a Mexican fellow named Luna. She also claimed that her grandmother was Irish and had wedded a black interior decorator. Even though none of this held up to active scrutiny, she quickly rose to fame in the modeling world, with Harper’s Bazaar starring a sketch of her on its January 1965 cover issue.
Due to an exclusive contract with Richard Avedon, a renowned Harper’s photographer, the April issue of that year featured a six-page feature of Luna, causing advertisers in the south to pull advertising and some readers to cancel subscriptions. Following this, the magazine stopped publishing any more photographs of her. Her career had abruptly come to a halt, and she relocated to the more progressive climate of London in December 1965.
Luna quickly rose to prominence as a model in Europe, prompting Time magazine to declare 1966 “The Year of Luna.” On the other hand, modeling for Luna was a way for her to advance her acting career. Luna has appeared in films such as Who Are You, Polly Magoo?, Skidoo, Satyricon, Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dali, and Salomé.
Andy Warhol and his entourage embraced Luna while in New York, and she featured in five of Warhol’s experimental films, including Screen Test in 1964 and Camp in 1965.
Luna rose to prominence as Warhol’s favorite muse, becoming one of the highest-paid models of her era. David Bailey and Helmut Newton photographed Luna. She also posed for many of the world’s most famous designers, including André Courrèges, Yves Saint Laurent, Mary Quant, Rudi Gernreich, and Paco Rabanne. Luna was also a favorite model of surrealist artist Salvador Dali.
When she first moved to New York City, she didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs, but this changed after she moved to London. Luna dated movie stars, rock stars, and a prince during her free-spirited years in the European spotlight, and she also developed a drug habit. Kinski kicked her out in 1969 due to her growing drug use.
As the years passed, she was a professional risk, missing assignments and acting strangely. In November 1968, she was involved in an altercation at the Cavendish Hotel’s all-night restaurant in London that garnered international media attention. After being told that the men were not wearing ties, Mia Farrow, Luna, and three other male celebrities were told to leave the hotel restaurant around 4 a.m.
When the entourage stated that the men at the other tables were not wearing ties, management called the cops. Luna’s date, Canadian photographer/actor Iain Quarrier, was soon arrested for assaulting a “bobby” police officer, for which he was fined.
Heroin, alcohol, and other drugs began to dominate her life. She posed naked for Playboy in 1975 and soon after relocated to Rome, where she married photographer Luigi Cazzaniga for the second time.
Luna was divorced from her husband when she died on May 17, 1979, due to an accidental drug overdose at 32. Dream Cazzaniga, her daughter, was only two years old when she died.