As a child, Patricia Burns found it fun to flip through fashion magazines and ogle the stylishly dressed models. One stood out so much that Burns would eventually name her second daughter after her. Donyale.
“Just like we’re proud of Barack Obama, I was so proud of that lady,” says Burns, 71, of Toledo, referring to Donyale Luna, the world’s first black supermodel.
Burns’ daughter, Donyale Dukes, 48, was an adult before she decided to dig into the life of the woman behind her beautiful and unique name. She didn’t find much about Luna, whose real name was Peggy Ann Freeman.
And sadly, despite the beauty and uniqueness of Donyale Luna herself, too few people know her name or the groundbreaking role she played on the world’s stage.
Donyale Luna became the first black woman in the world to appear on the cover of a major fashion magazine. Her lithe body and mesmerizing features took her to first to New York and then to London, just two years after legendary photographer David McCabe discovered her in Detroit. A sketch of her appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in January 1965 and the following year, her face — at least part of it — graced the cover of British Vogue.
She’d go on to appear in numerous fashion shoots and movies and she became friends with the likes of Miles Davis, Mia Farrow and Andy Warhol, who were among the artistic glitterati who took her in.
But little more than a decade after her seductive eyes peered through her fingers on the iconic March 1966 Vogue cover, she was dead.
In recent years, there has been renewed interest in her spurred in part by vintage images and social media that makes it easier to post and spur hot topics. Several Pinterest pages and blogs tout her beauty, and images of her now appear on t-shirts and earrings.
Still, she’s not a household name like other fashion and film trailblazers, a sad fact given her record-breaking contributions.
“Even when people buy her earrings, they say, ‘That’s cool! That’s hot! But they have no clue who she is,” says Version Young, jewellery artist and owner of Shionne Designs in Detroit, who began making a line of vintage-style earrings with Luna’s face on it about 18 months ago.
Fashion blogger Kori Fields learned of Luna only recently. “The first African-American woman on the cover of Vogue, that’s huge,” Fields says. “She may have hurt herself by becoming involved with drugs, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know about her,” says Fields, a 28-year-old visual stylist for Saks Fifth Avenue who along with her blog, http://www.colourbynumbr.com, is featured in the January issue of Marie Claire.
Beverly Johnson frequently called the first black woman on the cover of a major magazine for her 1974 American Vogue cover, readily acknowledges Luna as someone who “made it possible for models like me and others.”
“Why don’t we know her name? Because we don’t have people writing her story,” Johnson said. “I feel it’s really important to tell our stories; warts and all. The good and the bad. It inspires me to know that I’m not the only one with challenges and I made it through.”
Luna, one could argue, did not make it through.
Her 1966 appearance on the British Vogue cover came mere months after her move to London. Legendary mannequin-maker Adel Rootstein, who had created a Twiggy mannequin the year before, made one of her in 1967. Luna’s was the first well-known, if not the first, mannequin of a black woman, according to an article in Dazed magazine.
She would later move to Italy and marry a photographer named Luigi Cazzaniga. The two had a daughter, Dream.
But her fast rise also introduced her to the fast world of LSD and heroin, which killed her in 1979.
One reason that Luna’s too-short life remains a mystery is that she had a penchant for hiding parts of her past. According to Dazed, her husband learned only after her death that Luna’s mother had killed her father in self-defence in Detroit just about the time her star was rising high in Europe on the strength of her Harper’s Bazaar debut. Even her age is uncertain. Various accounts report she died at 34; others say she was 33.
Verna Green, who graduated in 1965 from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, where Luna was a student, remembers Luna well.
“She was such a striking image, I couldn’t forget her,” Green recalled. “She looked like an oddball to the run-of-the-mill student. Not enough people had told her how strikingly beautiful she was.”
But that would soon change. McCabe tells of discovering her on Detroit’s streets in 1963.
“I was on a photo assignment in Detroit photographing Ford cars (and) there was a school nearby,” McCabe states in a New York magazine article, “The First Black Supermodel, Whom History Forgot.” “I was struck by this almost 6-foot-tall beautiful girl … wearing her Catholic uniform.”
Cabe photographed her and eventually invited her to New York, where he introduced her to photographer Richard Avedon. Within a couple of years, she had relocated permanently to Europe where she likely found an audience more accepting of her skin colour, though she preferred to describe herself as multi-ethnic.
In a 1968 New York Times article she downplays any role she may have had as a trailblazer for women of colour. “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.”
Luna may have been ambivalent about her historic role, but Johnson said Luna is one of several black models everyone needs to know.
Despite the presence of more African and European women of colour in fashion, and collectives run by former models Audrey Smaltz and Bethann Hardison, black women – particularly African Americans — still rarely grace the cover of major fashion magazines.
“She was one of those legends in our industry; one of the shoulders I stood on,” Johnson said.
She recalls they were once at the same industry party in New York. While Johnson doesn’t know if they even spoke, she remembers seeing Luna. “She was an exquisite beauty. She was an ethereal, beautiful creature floating around the party. . . I remember she didn’t have shoes on.
“She’s a fascinating character,” Johnson said. “I wish I’d gotten to know her.”