Donyale Luna was born in Detroit in 1945 as Peggy Ann Freeman and gained fame as a model in the 1960s. She was discovered by English photographer, David McCabe whilst on assignment in Detroit. With a tall and slim 6 foot frame, she was often described as having feline grace, her enigmatic charm and personality in perfect synch with her stylistic characterisation. She soon became known to Richard Avedon whose images of her remain as powerful today as they were back in the late 1960s.
Luna has become famous for many things, most notably she was the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue Magazine. Beatrix Miller, editor of British Vogue at the time, chose Luna for the cover of the March 1966 issue for “her bite and personality.” David Bailey's now famous image of Luna with a partially obscured face was chosen over an alternative proposal and was groundbreaking at the time for featuring a black model on a fashion magazine cover.
A year before, US fashion magazine, Harper's Bazaar featured a sketch of Luna on their January cover - a first for a US magazine albeit "racially toned down" to satisfy the sales department's fears. 3 months later in the April issue of the magazine, Luna appeared in a feature spread wearing Rudi Gernreich, Paco Rabanne and James Galanos and photographed by guest editor Richard Avedon. His images of her are now legendary but at the time, they stirred up quite a lot of racial tension. In 2009 Vanity Fair reported that “advertisers with Southern accents pulled their ads,” and hundreds of readers cancelled their subscriptions.
As Avedon was to later lament, “For reasons of racial prejudice, and the economics of the fashion business, I was never permitted to photograph her for publication again.”
Against the backdrop of the swinging 60s, social and civil rights movements, Luna found herself thrust into the spotlight of the minority rights debates. It was a role she never wanted and yet one that newspapers and magazines were happy to cast her in. Some called her a Masai warrior, other a reincarnation of Nefertiti. When asked about her new found status as a role model for minority empowerment, she famously replied "“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.” (1968 New York Times) However she was perceived, Luna offered alternate truths, often painting broad brushstrokes of her real heritage. When asked where she was from, she retorted, "I'm from the moon!". Luna was single minded in her ambition, she simply wanted to be a star:
New York is a dream… a man danced me down Fifth Avenue, and all up and down Broadway men were eyeing and whistling at me… As soon as possible I’ll send you a picture of the new me. I’ll be on top of the world if it takes every breath I have, every muscle of my skinny body. I feel it, I know it. I’ll be some kind of star real soon. Real soon.
When Adel Rootstein invited Luna to her studio she must have been aware of the images of her by Richard Avedon and those of Italian photographer Frank Horvat. In them, Rootstein found all of the life and character of a women whose mystique had captivated her audience. Adel instantly spotted the complex character that inhabited the magnetic personality and cast her mannequin with the same dynamic charm. She struck unusual poses, reminiscent of Avedon's images, solely unique to Luna.
Luna's was the first known mannequin of a black woman and as a follow up to the Twiggy mannequin, Rootstein paved the way for a closed loop in fashion representation. London magazines were considered far more liberal than their US counterparts attracting American models to the capital. Pat Cleveland was one of those models and would come to befriend Luna whilst she lived in London.
I was inspired by Donyale Luna and Naomi Sims was my contemporary and those were some fine girls. They were fine in their attitude, their stylishness and the things they wanted to do. They had goals, they had dreams. It was a very fanciful time.
Luna's reputation and ground breaking work has gained a renewed interest in contemporary fashion circles. Whereas her life and acheivements have been lost to history, through Adel Rootstein's collection and Avedon's incredible images, her life's story is being revived and recorded for new audiences.
Donyale Luna died of an accident heroin overdose in Rome, May 17, 1979.