SUPERMODEL FLASHBACK: DONYALE LUNA

6 Jun

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She was declared the “reincarnation of Nefertiti” by Salvador Dali. She partied with the best of them at Studio 54. She appeared in several films produced by Andy Warhol and obtained a one year contract to be photographed by Richard Avedon. She was the first black model to grace the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and British Vogue. Donyale Luna took the fashion industry by storm, and although it was brief, her legacy of exotic features and quirky personality transcends for generations.

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Born in Detroit as Peggy Anne Freeman,  Luna was known to stand apart amongst her peers, in looks and attitude. She created her own world, a new name and a different race and heritage to go along with it. Her new persona brought her fame and fortune fast. Discovered in 1964 by photographer David McCabe, she left Detroit for New York. While in New York, McCabe introduced her to Nancy White. White was so stunned by her look she had Luna sketched immediately, and that illustration landed on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in January 1965.

The January 1965 cover.

The January 1965 cover.

Luna’s name and face had catapulted her into “IT” girl status very quickly. After the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, Luna was given a one-year contract with Bazaar’s staff photographer, Richard Avedon. The first pictures of Luna debuted in a historic six-page spread in the April 1965 edition of the magazine. Time magazine had also begun to take notice of Luna, by publishing an article titled, ‘The Luna Year’. The article described, the blue, sometimes, green- eyed contact lenses and blonde wig wearing model 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.”

Shot by Richard Avedon.

Shot by Richard Avedon.

Shot by Richard Avedon.

Shot by Richard Avedon.

Just like Pat Cleveland, racism in America was starting to catch up with Luna. Avedon’s photos of Luna had prompted southern states to pull their advertising in Bazaar, readers had cancelled subscriptions, and even the owner of Bazaar, William Randolph Hearst did not approve, Avedon “was never permitted to photograph her for publication again”. So she fled to London, where she received even more success than she had in the states. Soon photographers were lining up to get a shot of the exotic beauty. The March 1966 cover of British Vogue was a turning point in the fashion world. Shot by David Bailey it featured Luna, the first black model to ever grace the cover of Vogue.

A Picasso-influenced composition shot by David Bailey.

A Picasso-influenced composition shot by David Bailey.

Drugs are what ultimately led to Luna’s demise in the fashion world and eventually in her life. She partied tremendously and found a love for LSD. She became unreliable and hard to work with. Her unprofessional behavior, prompted fellow black model Beverley Johnson to complain by saying ” “[she] 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.”

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Donyale Luna. There are still very many holes in her biography, such as, her heritage. Luna tried  her best to not be seen as black and even though she clearly suffered insecurity issues, I still have admiration.  Her meteoric rise to the top of the fashion world is very inspirational and her inevitable fall is a cautionary tale that needs to be told.  She is largely forgotten in the fashion world and that is not fair. Even though her career was brief, she still made a name for herself and cemented historic moments in fashion and black history, all of which deserves to be recognized.

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