Long before revered melanin goddesses Grace Jones, Iman, Naomi Campbell swept hearts, taking centre stage in the modeling industry, trailblazing exquisite beauty Donyale Luna forged the path for black models on the world stage nearly 50 years ago by making history as the first black supermodel.
Black history in the modeling world has forever been plauged with obscurity following lack of inclusion and diversity which accounts for Luna not being given due recognition for her groundbreaking role, largely forgotten amongst black pioneers.
Born Peggy Ann Freeman August 31, 1945 in Detroit, Donayale Luna’s mesmerizing beauty and striking features easily stamped her as one of the world’s most beautiful women in the 1960s earning her the nickname “Nefertiti’s reincarnation.” Luna’s modeling career kicked off fully in 1965 after catching the eye of legendary photographer David McCabe who discovered her in her native Detroit two years earlier:
“I was on a photo assignment in Detroit, photographing Ford cars [and] there was a school nearby,” he recalled. “I was struck by this almost 6-foot-tall beautiful girl – around 14-years-old at the time – wearing her Catholic uniform. She stopped to see what was going on.” He introduced himself and left his contact saying, if she was ever in New York, she should call him. In 1964, Luna made that call, that would lay the foundation for a successful career.
David McCabe known for photographing celebrities like Twiggy and Andy Warhol and magazines like Mademoiselle and Glamour recognised raw talent first hand, Luna was special, made for the limelight. After the call, David sent her photos to various agencies including Richard Avedon who would eventually sign her to a one year contract.
Donyale Luna’s career skyrocketed, soon after she met the then editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Nancy White, and starred in the first cover illustrated by a black model in 1965, but was met with racism as the time favoured “white passing models.”
While in London, she achieved great success and had the pleasure of being photographed by notable photographers in her lifetime including: David Bailey, William Klein, Helmut Newton and William Claxton.
Yet again in March 1966, history was made when Beatrix Miller, the editor of British Vogue, chose her as the first-ever black model to grace the magazine cover. She was photographed by David Bailey known for The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
A brilliant career, Time magazine in her honour declared 1966 to be “The Luna Year.” Luna also got her hands in the acting world: appearing most notably as Enotea in the 1969 Federico Fellini film Fellini Satyricon as well as Otto Preminger’s Skidoo in the role of ‘God’s Mistress’.
Sadly, May 17, 1979, Donyale Luna who helped pave way for acceptance and celebration of black models met a fatal end at age 33. She died from a drug overdose.