The hard-living black supermodel Donyale Luna made the 60s swing on her own fierce terms
Taken from the October 2009 issue of Dazed:
During the 60s and 70s, the fashion world was in thrall to the one-woman phenomenon that was Donyale Luna, an impossibly tall African-American model who managed to enchant the overwhelmingly white worlds of fashion, film and art with her uniquely arresting visual presence. An accidental drug overdose in Rome brought an early end to the love affair, but it’s only now, 30 years after the Detroit girl’s death, that the resonance of her incredible life is being felt.
The mass infatuation with Luna, who was born the youngest of three children to working-class black parents in 1945, started at an early age, according to former boyfriend Don Strachan. “In Detroit every artist wanted a piece of her, every writer wanted to write about her and every director wanted to direct her,” he says of the 17-year-old Luna, an aspiring actress who used to hang out with Strachan and his older, artsy college friends. It was not long after charming the college boys of Michigan that Luna, donning a schoolgirl plaid skirt, was discovered by photographer David McCabe in downtown Detroit, who marvelled at her tall, willowy body and Nefertiti-like face.
In 1965, Luna went off to New York to become a model, disappointing her mother who had wanted her to go into nursing. It only took three months for the Luna effect to take hold at Harper’s Bazaar, where she became the first African-American to feature in a mainstream magazine. In December 1965, Luna moved to London where she became an even bigger hit and history was made at Vogue when David Bailey took her photograph for the front cover of the 1966 March issue, making her the first black Vogue cover girl.
A black model gracing the cover of a mainstream magazine was of great cultural significance back in 1966. David Bailey, a connoisseur of beautiful women if ever there was one, remembers his first impressions of Luna. “She was extraordinary-looking, so tall and skinny,” he says. “She was like an illustration, a walking illustration.” He is quick to play down his part in Vogue’s landmark decision. “It was just another beautiful girl,” he says cockily. “I didn’t care what she was – she could have been a fucking Martian for all I cared.” He reckons the editorial folk at Vogue House were just as laid back about using a black model, although he does concede “the sales people always had a problem”.
It is quite revealing that this milestone was made in the UK and not America, where Harper’s Bazaar, who were happy to have her within the pages of their magazine, had only dared to feature drawings of Luna, with a misleading pinkish complexion, on their January 1965 cover. Luna grew up in an America that rendered black skin second-class, and the only black faces she would have seen in the media would be those of actors playing servants or maids in films. The few black models who did make it – mostly possessing features that could easily be mistaken for something more ‘acceptable’, such as Mexican – were confined to appearing in black women’s magazines like Our World and Ebony. Luna’s meteoric rise took place against the backdrop of Martin Luther King’s assassination and blood being spilled on the streets of her hometown of Detroit during clashes between African-Americans and the police. Admittedly, Luna was not on the frontline of civil rights battles, but she did make a significant contribution to the canon of black visual history. In 1967, the world’s leading mannequin manufacturer, Adel Rootstein, created a mannequin in Luna’s image, which was a follow-up to the company’s famous Twiggy mannequin of 1966. The perfect mannequin was now made in the image of a black woman and, for the first time, black was beautiful. Vogue had said so.
“In Detroit every artist wanted a piece of her, every writer wanted to write about her and every director wanted to direct her” – Don Strachan
Luna, however, was not interested in being a black icon and was pathologically averse to participating in race-centred discourse. A New York Times interview with her in May 1968 makes for uncomfortable reading; the interviewer’s obsessive probing of her multiracial lineage jarring with Luna’s obvious displeasure at talking about it. When asked whether her high profile would open up more film roles for black actresses, Luna answers in what became a characteristically nonchalant attitude towards matters of race. “If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, negroes, groovy,” she tells the interviewer. “It could be good, it could be bad. I couldn’t care less.”
Luna’s cavalier attitude to racial identity, as well as her penchant for wearing blue contact lenses, was seen by some as race betrayal, but it was probably part of a process of reinvention that had begun in her teenage years. In fact, constructing a new identity seemed of paramount concern to Luna, who was born Peggy Ann Freeman but started calling herself Donyale in high school and adopted the surname Luna when she was 18. Self-invention might have been her way of dealing with a turbulent home life. Italian photographer Luigi Cazzaniga, who was married to Luna in the 70s, admits she “never talked about her past”. Until recently, Cazzaniga was unaware that, in January 1965, Luna’s father had died from a gunshot wound to his chest fired by Luna’s mother in self-defence. This tragic event had happened in the same month that their daughter had made her Harper’s Bazaar debut.
In Europe, Luna became a highly sought-after model, working for a coterie of international designers including Yves Saint Laurent, Mary Quant and Paco Rabanne. Luna was so feted that, in the documentary London Is a Swinging City (1967), she alone represents the film’s idea of the most swinging model of the time. However, Luna was not satisfied with just being the darling of the fashion world, and had an obvious yearning for artistic experimentation that had been cultivated in New York. There she had spent her non-modelling days acting in numerous productions, hanging out with Miles Davis and being painted by psychedelic artist Mati Klarwein (who made record covers for Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix). Her rare beauty and kookiness had also piqued the interest of artist and collector of the Big Apple’s finest eccentrics, Andy Warhol. Luna became one of only two black women (the other being Pat Hartley) to be part of Warhol’s East 47th Street Factory. Warhol deemed her fascinating enough to make one of his Screen Tests of her, in which she displays a queenly assurance, teasingly bobbing in and out of shot.
Luna also got to pursue her first love, acting. Film roles came in thick and fast from distinguished directors, who used her towering physique and intense presence to full effect. One of her most curious roles was in Federico Fellini’s Satryricon (1969), the master of Italian cinema’s vision of the decline of the Roman Empire. In the small but unforgettable part, her character’s vagina becomes the only source of fire in the village. Her final scene shows villagers thrusting their unlit torches between her legs.
“She was extraordinary-looking... She was like an illustration, a walking illustration.” – David Bailey
Fire also featured heavily in a less profound endeavour when she played a torch-wielding assistant to a fire-eater in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1968), during which she was rumoured to have had an affair with the Stones’s most fragile member, Brian Jones.
It seems creativity was the underlying force in Luna’s short life. She even applied it to her modelling, where she developed crazy runway walks including moving like a robot and crawling on all fours like a stalking animal. Even a 1975 foray into Playboy was rather artistic. Taken by husband Luigi Cazzaniga, the images show her long, boyish form in poses that emulate quasi-religious figures and mythical creatures, completely defying the overtly sexual and voluptuous Playboy prototype. The shoot took place during the most creative period in her life, when she lived in Italy from 1969 until her death ten years later. There she found her creative homeland, becoming involved in adversarial art actions in Rome and Milan.
Rome, especially, suited her temperament. “In Rome she was loved very much. Rome was very good to her,” says Cazzaniga. He describes how Luna, when she was not being harassed by polizia over her visa status, would collaborate with him on art projects, books and photographs that mostly remain unpublished. “She was the one pushing for creativity,” he says.
While Luna was being avant-garde in Rome, other black models had begun storming the catwalks. Clean-cut models like Beverley Johnson and Iman, whose lives were not to end murkily through an overzealous use of heroin, were louder and prouder ambassadors of the “black is beautiful” message. Their more palatable versions of black womanhood loom large in the public consciousness today. Eccentric Luna, on the other hand, who was eternally cagey about her racial identity, waxed lyrical about LSD in interviews and had an endearing habit of not wearing shoes, has, for the most part, been forgotten.
Johnson, who was American Vogue’s first black cover girl in 1974, made no secret of her disdain for what she saw as Luna’s unprofessionalism. “As for Donyale Luna, she doesn’t wear shoes, winter or summer. Ask her where she’s from – Mars? She went up and down the runways on her hands and knees and didn’t show up for bookings,” Johnson said in a 1975 interview with the New York Times, vehemently denying that her career had been made easier because Luna fought the battles of racial prejudice before her. Eventually, the shoeless one’s reputation was usurped by the goody two-shoes of the catwalk.
“Ask her where she’s from – Mars? She went down the runways on her hands and knees” – Beverly Johnson
Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in Luna – Jennifer Poe is making a film about her life, Don Strachan is writing a book about her, and American academic Richard J Powell has devoted a whole chapter to her cultural impact in his book Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture. There is a new school of thought that believes Luna’s innate rebelliousness, which until now has besmirched her chances of attaining iconic status, might also just be what makes her so damn fascinating. And strangely, if not depressingly, the biggest triumph of Luna’s career – her groundbreaking Vogue cover of 1966 – represents a war that is very much still being waged.
Sarah Doukas, founder of Storm model agency and the woman who discovered Kate Moss, grimly admits that a black model gracing the cover of a mainstream publication is “still unusual”. Doukas mentions Vogue Italia’s “All Black” issue (July 2008), which was the brainchild of photographer Steven Meisel. Such a rarity is it to see so many black models in a glossy fashion magazine that, as Doukas points out, it has now “become a collector’s item which you can buy on eBay for £300.”
It seems turning Luna into an icon, quirky and imperfect as she was, might be a good idea after all. Jennifer Poe, a young New York filmmaker, is determined to do just that, and wants to “make Donyale somewhat of a household name in the fashion industry”. She has chosen her as the subject of her first feature film, believing firmly in the Luna phenomenon. “We owe it to her to sing her legacy,” she says. “I believe everyone should know about her because it is important to preserve, not only black history, but the history of the rare individuals that defy convention and beat the odds.” It looks like Luna’s unsung legacy is about to be sung.