Long before Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, and Beyonce were covergirls, and before Naomi, Tyra, or Iman first set foot on a runway, there was this black woman. They called her “the reincarnation of Nefertiti,” and “a girl of staggering beauty and magnetism.” She was Donyale Luna, one of the most famous, and tragic, women in model history, 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 arguably the first African-American supermodel, and was the first to grace a Vogue cover. She helped usher in the acceptance and celebration of black beauty in the world of fashion.
It is believed that Donyale created a story of her heritage from her imagination. Factually, the stunningly beautiful supermodel with the height of 6ft 2inches was born Peggy Ann Freeman on August 31, 1945 in a troubled home in Detroit, Michigan. Her parents were Nathaniel and Peggy Freeman. Despite the evidence of her birth certificate, she said her biological father’s surname was Luna and her mother was of Native American, Mexican, and Egyptian descent. She even claimed one of her grandmothers was Irish and had married a black man. Perhaps Donyale created this story to escape her true upbringing.
Donyale attended the prestigious Cass High School. Her mother wanted her to become nurse but Donyale was much engaged in theatrical art. She left her past behind her once discovered by photographer David McCabe. She arrived in New York City in 1964 to much success, and was soon traveling the world, appearing in Paris Match, walking for Paco Rabanne, and appearing in several films. Of her success, she said, “Back in Detroit I wasn’t considered beautiful or anything, but here I’m different… They were looking for a new kind of model, a girl who is beautiful like you’ve never seen before.”
With long limbs, wide eyes (played up by blue or green contact lenses), and a regal stance, she attracted lots of attention. A 1966 article in Time Magazine called, “The Luna Year,” described her as, “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.”
Luna’s career continued on an upward trajectory for most of the late 60’s and early 70’s. In January 1965, a sketch of Luna appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. That same year she signed an exclusive contract with photographer Richard Avedon. In 1966, she appeared on the cover of British Vogue (she allegedly covered her nose as not to offend readers).
During that time she also appeared in several Andy Warhol films, starred in Italian film Salomé, portrayed a witch in Fellini’s Satyricon, and appeared in the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll circus. In 1975, she did a nude photo layout in Playboy. During this time, Luna also admitted she liked to use LSD, saying, “I think it’s great. I learned that I like to live, I like to make love, I really do love somebody, I love flowers, I love the sky, I like bright colors, I like animals. [LSD] also showed me unhappy things — that I was stubborn, selfish, unreasonable, mean, that I hurt other people.”
Drugs and unprofessional behavior eventually ended her storied career. Luna would show up late for casting calls, and sometimes wouldn’t show up at all.
Donyale died in Rome, Italy in 1979 at the age of 35 from a drug overdose. She left behind one daughter, Dream Cazzaniga whom she had with Italian photographerLuigi Cazzaniga.
“Donyale Luna: The World’s First Black Supermodel and the First to Grace the Cover of Vogue”, Trip Down Memory Lane, November 1, 2012.
Cassandra Spratling, “Remembering Donyale Luna, world’s first black supermodel”, USA Today Special, February 17, 2016, reposted in Detroit Free Press, February 21, 2016.
Ben Arogundade, “The Tragic Tale of Donyale Luna”, the Daily Telegraph, November 11, 2012.
Keli Goff, “The First Black Supermodel, Whom History Forgot”, The Cut, July 10, 2013.