It’s been a dance of in and out of fashion steps, forward and back, since Donyale Luna became the first black supermodel just over 50 years ago.
Len D. Henry for FashCam | The New York Times once called her “a stunning Negro model whose face had the hauteur and feline grace of Nefertiti.” She was remarkable in her time though today many fashion-watchers may not recognize her name. It’s been a dance of in and out of fashion steps, forward and back, since Donyale Luna became the first black supermodel just over 50 years ago.
In 1966 Beatrix Miller, then editor of British Vogue, chose Luna for the magazine’s March cover because of “her bite and personality.” Though her face, most notably her lips and nose, was atypically obscured in an attempt to camouflage her race. Luna was still, however, identifiably non-white. “No one looked like her. She was like a really extraordinary species,” said Bethann Hardison, also a notable black model of the time. “She was just one of those extraordinary girls” adds designer Stephen Burrows. Luna went on to become one of the first black models to attain superstar status in Europe and photographed by the legendary David Bailey of Beatles and Rolling Stones fame.
Despite her stint at the top, Luna’s role as an audacious trailblazer is largely forgotten. Her name is a rarity on many lists of black firsts. Instead, Beverly Johnson is often referred to as “the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue.” But that was the American edition in 1974, eight years after Luna’s British appearance. Also notable, Johnson’s appearance was preceded by Naomi Sims’ cover for Life Magazine in 1979, with the by line ‘Black Models Take Center Stage’. American Vogue had to take note.
“I was on a photo assignment in Detroit, photographing Ford cars,” recalls David McCabe of when he first met Donyale Luna in 1963. “I was struck by this almost 6-foot-tall beautiful girl – around 14-years-old at the time – wearing her Catholic uniform (from a school nearby). She stopped to see what was going on.” Famous for his work with Twiggy and Andy Warhol, McCabe quickly recognized that special something in the young girl. He told her he was a photographer for magazines like Mademoiselle and Glamour and if she were ever in New York to call him. She was and she did. But “the magazine world really wasn’t ready for photographing beautiful black women,” McCabe adds.
On Donyale Luna’s arrival to New York, McCabe introduced her to his friend Richard Avedon. In January 1965 she appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar but in an illustration by Katharina Denzinger where her racial identity was virtually erased. Months later, Avedon made his own career milestone as the magazine’s first guest editor and was given carte blanche for its April 1965 issue. The sixties were about to explode and Avedon was on top of it all with photos of everyone from Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Roy Lichtenstein, artwork by Stan Vanderbeek and writing by Tom Wolfe and Renata Adler to Jean Shrimpton as ‘Galactic Girl’ in a designer astronaut jumpsuit. He also took the opportunity to change fashion history giving Luna star status, featuring her in 11 full-page photos wearing clothes by Rudi Gernreich, Paco Rabanne and James Galanos.
It’s important to note, that was a critical time in the US Civil Rights Movement. The Selma to Montgomery March had happened on March seventh, less than a month earlier, likely happening right around the same time they were shooting. Heady and dramatic times and here is Luna, the first woman of color featured boldly in a major fashion bible. It was reported that “Advertisers with Southern accents pulled their ads,” hundreds of readers cancelled their subscriptions and publisher William Randolph Hearst, Jr. expressed his displeasure to then editor Nancy White. Less than a year later Luna became the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue UK.
Donyale Luna was born Peggy Ann Freeman in Detroit, Michigan. She created her model alter ego as a teen when her beauty began to blossom. Her dreamt up character was of Indigenous Mexican, Indonesian, Afro-Egyptian, and Irish heritage and she spoke with a fabulous accent. Peggy ambitiously yearned to make it in an industry that had never before embraced a poor black girl. In high school, she was known as “a very weird child…living in a wonderland, a dream,” and classmates thought she was “kind of a kook.” This eccentricity would make her the icon she became.
Luna celebrated her ambiguity. She flaunted her alter ego heritage in a 1968 interview with The New York Times. The interviewer asked afterwards if claiming to be a quarter black during the civil rights era was a bit like someone claiming to be a quarter Jewish in Nazi Germany, Luna replied, “That’s America’s problem.” When asked about if her presence in Hollywood films would benefit Black actresses, Luna replied, “If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Asians, Native Americans, Africans, groovy. It could be good, it could be bad. I couldn’t care less.” Luna’s widower, Luigi Cazzaniga, who photographed her for Playboy, says that Luna identified as “mulatta” and “felt rejected by the black community as well as the white one.”
McCabe believes, like Josephine Baker before her, racism fuelled Luna’s decision to remain in Europe for much of her career. “Europeans didn’t have that kind of racial phobia that Americans had,” he adds. “I’m sure that in Paris [or] Milan seeing this amazing person walking around, she was treated like a celebrity.” In a 1966 Time Magazine interview Luna offered “Back in Detroit I wasn’t considered beautiful or anything, but here I’m different.” Though she first began acting in America, appearing in films for Warhol and Otto Preminger, she would spend the seventies appearing in various Italian films, including Federico Fellini’s Satyricon.
For a number spectacular years Luna was one of the highest paid models in the business. She died tragically of a drug overdose, in Italy in 1979, thirteen years after her milestone Vogue cover. She boldly, though vulnerably, pioneered in an industry that is somewhat more welcoming of models of color today. Unfortunately though, it still has some way to go. Fast forward to now, for the same Christian Dior show where Raf Simons cast six black models, Jordan Dunn tweeted that she was dismissed because of her chest size: “I’m normally told I’m cancelled because I’m ‘colored’” she wrote “so being cancelled because of my boobs is a minor:)” Dunn continues “The people who control the industry… they say if you have a black face on a magazine cover it won’t sell – but there’s no real evidence for that. It’s lazy. You always hear, “There aren’t enough black models”, which is bulls***. It’s all about these dead excuses.”
In my own personal experience building FashCam it has been demonstrated that color still indeed does matter to audiences. In posting on social media resonance does tend to result an increased response with ‘fairer’ imagery. For some moviegoers, the decision to make Rue and Thresh African-American weakened the impact of the 2012 release of Hunger Games. “Why does rue have to be black not gonna lie ruined the movie,” one dismayed fan tweeted. “EWW rue is black?? I’m not watching,” bemoaned another. “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad #ihatemyself.” There were many more tweets that clearly indicated fans had not paid close enough attention to the book, in which the character Rue was described as ‘dark-skinned’.
Yes there are going to be a few bad eggs amongst us. These uninformed opinions stem from the legacy of enslavement, greed and colonialism. These atrocities continue to play on the minds of the public today. Everything changes. But change must be exemplified and led by the creators and decision makers who generate the images the world will come to iconize. Recent scandalous hacked emails from Hollywood elite expose them ridiculing President Obama that his taste in movies is exclusively confined to racial stereotypes not befitting the President of the United States. “Should I ask him if he likes’ DJANGO?’” asked Amy Pascal, a Sony Pictures’ co-chair. Scott Rudin, a movie producer, responds: “Or ‘The Butler’… or ‘Ride-Along. I bet he likes Kevin Hart.”
This same racial divide persists in fashion today. Tireless champions like Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell are continually moved to remind those in power to assume responsibility to advance equality via the images they promote to inspire lives and sales. Although Donyale Luna never claimed an identity as a black woman and insisted on her multiracial lineage, she has without a doubt, paved the way for many. It was too painful to be exclusive in her time, but perhaps unwittingly mindful to be inclusive.
We are comforted in the knowledge that race, body shape, language and ideas on beauty and attraction will lessen in import as the Internet continues to diminish our differences and celebrate our global similarities as human beings.