Salvador Dali’s muse and a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory 54. Photographed by Mia Farrow’s friend, legendary photographer Richard Avedon.Appeared on the cover of trend and Harper’s Bazaar. So why do so few people know about Donyal Luna, the first black supermodel?
Richard Powell’s Interest in Donyar Luna “goes back a long way”. John Spencer Bassett, Distinguished Professor of Art and Art History, whose research focuses on Americans from the black diaspora, began researching the supermodel in the late 1990s.
Mr. Powell was recently featured in a new documentary on HBO. “Donyal Luna, Supermodel” It debuted on September 13th. He hopes the documentary sheds light on the first black woman to grace the cover of a magazine. Harper’s Bazaar and trend In the 1960s.
Donyal Luna, real name Peggy Ann Freeman, was born in 1945 in Detroit, Michigan. Although her ethereal and somewhat strange beauty was not appreciated in Detroit, she made waves in the New York fashion industry. Luna was the first black woman to appear on the cover of Harper’s She Bazaar. She modeled for Paco Rabanne, appeared in an editorial spread with both Beatles, and in 1966 American Vogue named her “Model of the Year.” During her stay in New York, Luna’s mother shot and killed her father. This incident would affect her for the rest of her life.
Luna moved to Europe in 1965 to explore film opportunities and experimental art. There she became the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue. While filming her Salome in Italy, she met and married Italian photographer Luigi Cazzaniga, with whom she had a daughter. Luna died at the age of 33 from a heroin overdose.
“My first memory of her is as a very unusual-looking African-American woman who made a name for herself in the fashion world starting in the mid-1960s,” he said. “When I started looking into her, there was very little information available about her.”
Powell went to Paris and London, scouring old magazine stores for anything about Luna. He interviewed her contemporaries, including the famous supermodel Veruschka, designer Paco Rabanne, and Luna’s surviving husband Luigi Cazzaniga. He devoted a chapter in her book to Luna’s style and her influence on the fields of fashion and black portraiture.
“My book was published in 2008 and there was some interest from people who read the chapter,” Powell says. “But it wasn’t until HBO got interested that things started happening.”
One of the producers read Powell’s book and wanted him to appear in the documentary. They flew him to New York City in 2021 to talk on camera about Donyal Luna, her beliefs, and politics.
Luna rarely spoke about politics, although it became a hot topic in the 1960s, when black rights were more clearly infiltrated in public life. Powell says he was his own worst enemy. She was not involved in the feminist movement or the black identity movement of the late 1960s.
“She was a universalist,” he says. “She wasn’t really interested in racing. She thought of herself as part of the world. She thought of herself as a child of the universe.”
But Powell insists Luna fought the system in her own way.
“Her figure eloquently speaks of a kind of rebellion against discrimination,” he says. “When she’s modeling, there’s no passivity, she’s looking straight into the camera. She’s using her hands. She’s using her body. She was making a statement for someone who wasn’t necessarily voicing that connection.”
Powell believes Luna represents the brilliance of someone who was able to think outside the box. Despite experiencing trauma in her personal life, she was able to succeed in a time that was not particularly kind to non-white people.
Luna’s experience also illustrates Powell’s interest in black American expatriates.
“I’ve always been interested in African-Americans who don’t get to do all the things they want to do and go overseas,” Powell says. “Through the experience of traveling abroad, they are able to discover themselves. That is the story of Donyal Luna.”
“I remember that when Donyal Luna lived in New York City, America was very prejudiced against black people, even talented black people and beautiful black people like Donyal Luna. “It’s important to keep it that way,” he says. “They couldn’t reach their full potential unless they went abroad.”
What does Powell want people to take away from this documentary?
He wants people to see her as the impact she had, not the impact she could have had. No matter how apolitical she was as a person, just being herself was a political statement in itself.
“If she had lived in a different time, she probably would now be in a world of Beyoncé and great black artists who can do whatever they want and imagine whatever they want,” Powell says. “She didn’t have that opportunity, but considering what she can do, it was pretty extraordinary.”