Way before Iman, Naomi or Tyra there was Donyale, Her beauty was beyond definition and her life was full of intrigue and adventure….
Donyale Luna (January 1, 1945 – May 17, 1979) was the first notable African American fashion model and the first black cover girl. She also appeared in several films, most notably as the title role in Salome.
Birth and childhood
She was born Peggy Anne Freeman in Detroit, Michigan. Her parents were Peggy and Nathaniel Freeman; her father, who was reportedly abusive, was murdered when she was 18. Luna’s mother wanted her to become a nurse.
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 Mexican. According to the model, one of her grandmothers was reportedly an Irishwoman who married a black interior decorator. Whether any of this background is true is uncertain. In the mid 1960s, a relative described Luna as being “a very weird child, even from birth, living in a wonderland, a dream.”
After being discovered by the photographer David McCabe, she moved from Detroit to New York City to pursue a modeling career. She became the first African American model to appear on the cover of Vogue (March 1966); earlier, she appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar (January 1965). For several years, she was under exclusive contract to the photographer Richard Avedon.
An article in Time magazine published on April 1, 1966, “The Luna Year”, described the dramatically thin and tall (6′ 2″) model with the hallmark bright blue contact lenses and occasional blonde wig 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.”
In 1967, the mannequin manufacturer Adel Rootstein created a mannequin in Luna’s image, a follow-up to her famous Twiggy mannequin of 1966.
Unprofessional behavior signalled the decline of Luna’s career. As recalled by another black model who came to prominence toward the end of Luna’s heyday, Beverly Johnson, 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.”
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Luna appeared in several films produced by Andy Warhol (including Camp) and Federico Fellini (Fellini Satyricon). She also appeared in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, the Otto Preminger comedy Skidoo (in which she was featured as the mistress of God, who was portrayed by Groucho Marx), and the British documentary Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. Salvador Dali considered her one of his favorite models.
Racial identity issues
According to Judy Stone, who wrote a profile of Luna for The New York Times in 1968, the model was “secretive, mysterious, contradictory, evasive, mercurial, and insistent upon her multiracial lineage — exotic, chameleon strands of Mexican, American Indian, Chinese, Irish, and, last but least escapable, Negro.”
Media interest in Luna’s racial heritage seemed to cause her enormous discomfort and in interviews, she tended bristle when she was described as black or Negro. (“She’s white, didn’t you know?” a boyfriend told Stone.) When Stone asked her about whether her appearances in Hollywood films would benefit the cause of black actresses, Luna answered, “If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, Negroes, groovy. It could be good, it could be bad. I couldn’t care less.”
She was married briefly in the mid 1960s, to a man described as a gigolo. Later she was engaged to the Austrian actor Maximilian Schell, to an unnamed Danish photographer, and to George Willings, a German actor who appeared in European horror films and with the Living Theatre.
Donyale had a daughter named Dream Cazzaniga with Italian photographer Luigi Cazzaniga, who photographed Donyale for Playboy in 1975. Today, Dream is a successful dancer, actress and singer in Italy.She’s working with great artists all over the world, traveling for their live tours as a dancer: Geri Halliwell, Ricky Martin, Kylie Minougue, Lionel Ritchie and more.
Drug use and death
In the late 1960s, in an interview, she expressed her fondness for LSD: “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.”
Luna died in Rome, Italy, in a clinic, after a drug overdose.
Documentary about her life
Filmmaker Jennifer Poe is working on a documentary about Luna and Pat Hartley, who were the only black women to be part of the Warhol studio.