In September 2023 as a conclusion to New York Fashion Week, HBO released a documentary about the life of a little-known pioneer in the fashion industry, Donyale Luna. Luna is known as the first Black supermodel, who made huge strides in the 60s, despite intense racial discrimination at the time. Although she had a complicated relationship with her racial identity, she was still a trailblazer for more Black models who came after her. Here is her life.
Peggy Ann Freeman, who later changed her name to Donyale Luna, was born in Detroit in 1945 to Nathaniel and Peggy Freeman. Her father worked in Ford Motors manufacturing, and her mother was a Young Women’s Christian Association secretary. Donyale was called “Little Peggy.”
Luna grew up with two sisters and her sisters explained in the HBO documentary that Donyale always knew she would be famous. In Detriot, she was never called beautiful due to her unique features and being extremely tall at a young age. Her parents had a tumultuous relationship and made a strict household, so much so that they didn’t even celebrate birthdays.
Changing her identity
Donyale was obsessed with theater and wanted to be a movie star. When she became a teenager she started to separate from her born identity, making up the name Donyale Luna, claiming to be of multiple races and ethnicities, and started speaking in a signature accent. Her father didn’t approve of her identifying as anything other than Black.
One day, Donyale stopped by a photoshoot near her Catholic school out of curiosity. Fashion photographer David McCabe saw the six-foot-tall Donyale and knew that she had to be a model. He gave her his number and said that if she were to come to New York one day she should call him. She was only 14 at the time and didn’t call him until she came to New York when she was 19.
In the 60s discrimination stopped many Black models from having a career outside of working for Jet or Ebony magazines. However, McCabe helped Luna, and within three months she was featured on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in 1965, photographed by Richard Avedon. She became a star overnight.
Fun with celebrities
Luna was soon partying alongside Sammy Davis Jr. and Miles Davis and taking on jobs alongside Bob Dylan and Jean Shrimpton. She also did screen tests for the iconic Andy Warhol, being featured in his film Camp (1965).
Avoiding conversations about race
Luna was doing well in America but due to discrimination, her career wasn’t reaching its full potential. She was also uncomfortable with her race being a constant topic of conversation. She admitted to not being one “down for the fight” saying in an interview with the New York Times in 1968, “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.” At times she would wear blue contacts to make herself look more racially ambiguous.
Moving to London
In 1965 she left America for London and started hanging out with more celebrities including the Rolling Stones.
First Black supermodel
In March 1966 Luna became the first Black supermodel on the cover of British Vogue. Her popularity and demand grew significantly after the cover was published. Time called the year 1966 the “Luna Year” due to her virality.
Editor of American Vogue Diana Vreeland rejected Luna from gracing the cover. She told photographer Richard Avedon, “You can’t take Luna to Japan. She’s nobody’s idea of what anybody wants to look like.”
While she lived in Europe, Luna went to the famed Salvador Dali’s home in Spain and he instantly made her one of his muses. One of the most famous photos she has by him was of her posing on a piano in the middle of a lake and another of her holding Dali’s pet ocelot.
Marriage and motherhood
Luna met her husband Luigi Cazzaniga, who was a photographer, in the 70s. The couple had one daughter together named Dream Cazzaniga. Unfortunately, Luna was rejected by Luigi’s conservative family because of “religious reasons”, and only wanted a relationship with Dream. As a result, Luna became very lonely and depressed.
She died in 1979 at only 33 years old of an accidental drug overdose in Italy. Her daughter was only 18 months old at that time. Luna did dabble in alcohol and drug use throughout her lifetime, but not enough for her friends and family to believe that she would’ve overdone it. Many are still in denial of an overdose being her cause of death.
In 2023, an HBO documentary titled Donyale Luna: The Supermodel was released in September 2023. The documentary features the model’s closest family and friends, as well as appearances from prominent figures in the fashion industry. Dream is the executive producer of the film.