Not much is known about Donyale Luna, one of the first black supermodels, except that she was weird and beautiful. It is believed that Donyale created the story of her heritage from her imagination. Born Peggy Anne Freeman in Detroit in 1946 to parents Peggy and Nathaniel Freeman, Donyale was
hardly truthful rather creative about her background. Despite the evidence of her birth certificate, she said her biological father’s surname was Luna and her mother was of Native American, Mexican, and Egyptian descent. She even claimed one of her grandmothers was Irish and had married a black man. Perhaps Donyale created this story to escape her true upbringing — her father was reportedly abusive and was murdered when she was 18. Or maybe she thought the fashion industry would be more accepting of a more “exotic” beauty. Of course, we’ll never know, but one thing that we’re sure of is that Donyale was a pioneering force in modeling and remained strange throughout her short life.Donyale took Europe by storm in the ’60s after her discovery by photographer David McCabe. She was revered for her singular features and angular and lithe body, and was said to be able to change the feel of a photo by only changing her pose slightly. No wonder she ended up being the first black woman on the cover of British Vogue. But her hand obscured much of her face except for her heavily lined eye in the cover photo. Reportedly, Vogue didn’t want to offend their regular readership with a full photo of Donyale.
She also appeared in the American and French editions of Vogue, as well as Harper’s Bazaar, Paris Match and Britain’s Queen, which is now Harpers & Queen magazine. Donyale commanded $60 and up per hour for her bookings. Most models in Europe were paid far less. She was a favorite of designer Paco Rabanne and Yves Saint Laurent. Donyale was the embodiment of the experimentation occurring in fashion at the time. She was also one of only two black women to be considered one of Andy Warhol’s Factory Girls.
Yet she always bristled when it came to her racial identity and influence. She often wore blonde wigs and green contact lenses. And in “Luna Who Dreamed of Being Snow White,” the New York Times described her as secretive, mysterious, evasive, contradictory, and insistent upon her mixed lineage, which she said included American Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Irish, “and last but least escapable, Negro.”
When asked about the impact her modeling and acting career would have on future black women to come, Donyale reportedly 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.”
She discovered and loved LSD in the ’60s and had no problem discussing her addiction. But her weird behavior and unprofessionalism didn’t go unnoticed. Model Beverly Johnson reportedly told the Times that Donyale never wore shoes even in the winter and summer and would crawl on hands and knees down the runways. And when asked where she was from, Luna often replied: “I’m from the moon baby!”
Donyale Luna died of an accidental pill overdose in Rome in 1979. And even though she struggled with racial identity throughout the 33 years of her life, she’s still remembered as one of the first black supermodels. [Afrobella, Time and Fashion Insider] and [MiniMadMuses]
Celebrate National Women’s History Month on The Frisky this month! We’ll be highlighting cool, inspiring ladies and talking about the ways women have gotten ahead over the years.