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The Supermodel Of Our Dreams

When you hear the name, Donyale Luna, what comes to mind? What resonates in your thoughts? Despite being the first well-renowned Black model to grace the cover of both Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, Luna’s journey to stardom has remained a relatively obscure narrative. Following her untimely departure, the world has seemed to overlook the trailblazing editorial photographs that not only revolutionized the fashion scene of the ‘60s but also stood as the earliest depictions of Black women and Black bodies in print.

In the recent HBO film, Donyale Luna: Supermodel skillfully directed by Nailah Jefferson, the life of Peggy Anne Freeman unfolds - a tale aspiring to be recognized for her undeniable, ethereal beauty, and her profound humanity. This narrative portrays a soul capable of both loneliness and pain in such a promising, yet bustling world. It is evident this remarkable cinematic adaptation not only pays homage to Donyale Luna but also boldly confronts the status quo of Black beauty, representation, and humanity in the realm of beauty and art.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is the captivating evolution of Luna's career, tracing her journey from the enigmatic girl from Detroit with ambitious dreams to the supermodel who effortlessly commanded success and acclaim wherever she set foot. In the Autumn of 1964, a nineteen-year-old Luna, once a peculiar presence, propelled herself into a realm of fame and stardom that surpassed even the wildest imaginings she had once dreamt of. It was in New York, that Luna’s trajectory shifted, marking a pivotal moment in her rise to prominence. The phrase “The arms sell sweaters, and the face sells dreams,” [01:11:54] found its vivid embodiment in Luna’s inaugural global appearance on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar - a moment that left spectators in sheer awe. Her marvelous physique and distinctive allure swiftly garnered her collaboration with esteemed photographer Richard Avedon, hailed as “...the greatest fashion photographer of his time” [01:07:58], thus anointing her as the industry’s first Black star model.

Seldom represented in the world of fashion publication, such an accomplishment became a cornerstone that shattered the “ ceiling for beautiful Black women…” [01:04:32] and broke the mold of Black figures in high fashion. When delving into the early works of Luna amidst the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, one can not ignore the revolutionary and radical change these images carried, particularly in a historical moment when Black people and communities found themselves displaced and excluded not only from the ballot, neighborhoods, and schools but also the pervasive reach of television and print to further eradicate the humanness and overall existence of Black bodies. As the first Black woman to appear on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, she rendered Black beauty visible in a world that long denied the legitimacy of perceptible Blackness. In doing so, she broke the mold of using Black models, and transformed the linear experience of beauty, opportunity, and possibility for Black women, instilling hope in her peers to pursue their aspirations with unwavering determination. Yet, regardless of these strides, Luna confronted a poignant reality - the realization that being seen is one thing, but true acceptance is another.

As the movement surged, the adverse racial reactions from Harper’s readers, coupled with the prompt decision for Avedon to cease features of Luna stood out as stark indicators of the prevalent racial climate. Her proven and undeniable potential faced immediate dismissal, serving as a harsh testament to the times when her capabilities were overshadowed solely by the color of her skin. In exploring these challenges, fashion designer Aurora James delves into the complexities of “...putting a Black woman in a role where you are asking the reader to find her aspirational,” thus emphasizing the enduring reality that no matter the effort invested individuals would continue to face “...[substantial] backlash, back then…[and] also still today” [01:03:40]. For centuries, Black women have systematically been denied the privileges of femininity, virtue, and respectability, leaving them bereft of the opportunity to define such things for themselves. Disruptive in its essence, Luna’s impact posed a direct challenge to the exclusion of Black lives and its rich cultural contributions, causing discomfort to those who resisted integration. Once Luna acknowledged this unique obstacle, she made a decisive choice to reimagine her fairy tale of a modeling career in London, unencumbered by the constraints of a society resistant to change. 

In December 1965, London bore witness to Donyale Luna in her totality. Like many African Americans of the time, Luna escaped abroad to be recognized for her Black beauty, Black genius, and Black accomplishments on her terms. In this vibrant city, she expanded her artistic pursuits into another dynamic medium: film. Appearing in Antonioni’s Blow-Up in 1966 and The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in 1968, these motion pictures elevated Luna’s otherworldly grandeur, allowing her unique frequency and aura to be felt through the silver screen. Truly resetting the paradigm of allure and artistry Luna’s first real breakthrough had finally unfolded. David Bailey, the renowned English photographer, and director, captured Luna for British Vogue in March of 1966, adorned with dramatic gold Mimi de N earrings and a Chloé dress, becoming the first Black woman on the cover. This groundbreaking achievement not only elevated Luna’s status but also reverberated across the fashion industry, setting the stage for a new era of diversity. 

London showered boundless love and admiration upon Luna, as Dr. Powell asserts, “People were kind of taken aback by the splash she makes,” [54:03] hinting at the brilliant sparkle that left editors, photographers, and her audience impressed and inspired. Luna, a creature of contrast, revolutionized modeling - appearing delicate one minute, the next faun-like, then exotic to sophisticated. Putting her chameleon-like talents to the test, her remarkable versatility shines through in Paris Match spread collaborating with eleven photographers with creative control to capture their unique visions. From Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, and André Courrèges, no two portraits looked the same proving her exceptional performance as a model. 

Her fearless disposition extended to the catwalk, where she accentuated her long, statuesque figure, sharp shoulders, and the oh-so-valid face card that captivated fashion enthusiasts and journalists alike. TIME Magazine’s 1966 article, “The Luna Year,” further affirms her power of adaptability cover to cover, publication to publication, stage to stage, noting she “ not to be missed if one reads Harper’s Bazaar, Paris Match, Britain’s Queen, the British, French or American editions of Vogue.” In this moment, Luna’s work in Paris becomes a landmark moment for the fashion industry, truly trailblazing the limits bestowed upon her identity. 

As the 1960s came to a close, Luna moved to Rome for a role in Fellini’s Satyricon (1969), and later, Carmelo Bene’s Salomè (1972). It was not long before she fell in love with Luigi Cazzaniga, a promising photographer, and birthed her only daughter, Dream Cazzaniga. From then on, Luna and her lover traveled the world, indulging in the liberty of creation and producing striking visual narratives that served as a defiant statement against the restrictive norms of the time. Through the lens of her partner, Cazzaniga photographs Luna for Playboy as various characters - a mystical mermaid perched upon a rock or a promiscuous panther in the darkness of the night. 

These beautiful, diverse portrayals for Playboy challenged stereotypes which further offered a glimpse into a world where Black women could be both enchanting and empowered. Void of shame and doubt, she achieved what many Black creatives have dreamt of; paving the way for future generations. Luna broke through the barriers of racial prejudice in a world of fashion and entertainment, leaving an indelible mark on an industry that had long been dominated by Eurocentric standards of beauty. Luna is truly the symbol of resilience and audacity, transcending boundaries with each photo and a reminder that true creativity knows no racial bounds.  

Today, we celebrate the young Peggy Freeman from Detroit who dreamt dreams bigger than her imagination, and a matured, evolved Black supermodel by the name of Donyale Luna who showed the world what unbridled creativity could achieve. Luna’s impact has transcended the confines of her era, and as Nalilah Jefferson and Dream Cazzaniga revive and retell the legacy of Luna, they breathe life back into the history of Black accomplishments and trailblazers. 

Marked by overnight success and the constant ebb and flow of highs and lows, Luna serves as a beacon for aspiring individuals, encouraging them to pursue their dreams unapologetically. In honoring her legacy, we recognize the responsibility of the community to preserve and celebrate the rich history of those who broke barriers, defied societal norms, and left a mark on the world. Despite her passing on May 17th, 1979, we must remain diligent in honoring and reflecting on her extraordinary life and indomitable spirit that is etched in the annals of the industry. Let it be known that her influence cannot and will not be erased - a reminder that the beauty of diversity and the boldness of individuality will forever be integral to the essence of fashion. 

Starring: Donyale Luna, Dream Cazzaniga, Luigi Cazzaniga, Beverly Johnson, Pat Cleveland, Harnish Bowles, David Bailey, David McCabe, Gideon Lewin, Zandra Rhodes, Aurora James, Richard Powell, Constance White, Kyle Hagler

Director: Nailah Jefferson 

Producers: Melissa Kramer, Isoul Harris, Melanie Sharee, Jonathan Chinn, Simon Chinn, Jeff Friday, Dream Cazzaniga, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller


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