Illustration by Monica Ahanonu.

The Model Who Broke Barriers as Vogue's First Ever Black Cover Girl

Pioneering model Donyale Luna was one of the hottest "it girls" of the 60s. But she ended up an obscure fashion footnote.

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Feb 12 2018, 7:00pm

Illustration by Monica Ahanonu.

Before Iman and Grace Jones dominated the runway, Donyale Luna was the 60s It Girl. Yet today, her groundbreaking legacy is an obscure fashion footnote.

During the early 20th century, Black models were limited to magazines like Ebony and Jet, aimed specifically at African-American audiences. But, along with hard-won civil rights victories, the mid-1960s saw a slow shift in mainstream beauty standards. At the time, Luna was a teenager in Detroit experimenting with high school theater—until a chance encounter transformed her life.

Born Peggy Ann Freeman, Luna took on her chosen name as a high school student. In a 1966 profile for the New York Times, a relative observed that she was “a very weird child, even from birth, living in a wonderland, a dream,” and that her retreat from reality was likely related to the fact that her father was a “brutal” man. Later in life, Luna began to insist that he wasn’t her father at all, the same profile notes.

At 5’10 inches tall and just over 100 pounds, teenage Luna cut a striking figure. (She eventually grew to be 6’ 2.) Her face was equally unique with high cheekbones and wide eyes. When she was 18 years old, photographer David McCabe, snapping photos in Detroit on an assignment for Ford, spotted her turning a corner in a plaid skirt. He was captivated. “She was so striking that I couldn't let her pass without giving her one of my cards,” he said, according to Richard J Powell’s Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture.

Following McCabe’s advice, Luna moved to New York and soon met Nancy White, then editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar. Moved by Luna’s looks, according to Powell, White decided to toss out the planned January 1965 cover of the magazine and replace it with a sketch of the unknown teen in a lemon-chartreuse shift, seated on the edge of a wicker chair. Donyale Luna’s star was rising. Soon after, she signed a one-year, exclusive contract to celebrity photographer Richard Avedon, and later that year, modeled Rudi Gernreich, Paco Rabanne, and James Galanos couture in a six-page feature for Harper’s Bazaar.

By December 1965, Luna decided to ditch New York for London. Come March of the next year, she was gracing the cover of British Vogue, making her the first Black cover model for any of the magazine’s editions. (It wasn’t until 1974 that Beverly Johnson became the first Black cover girl for American Vogue.) Luna followed that success with appearances in Andy Warhol’s arthouse Screen Test series, the movie Camp and, later, a cameo in William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Magoo? as an otherworldly model wearing a dress fashioned out of aluminum sheet metal. TIME declared 1966 “The Luna Year,” in an April article calling her “unquestionably the hottest model in Europe at the moment.”

Donyale Luna in 1968. Photo Jack Garofalo via Getty Images.

Lithe, Luna prowled down catwalks, even dropping to her hands and knees on some occasions. Her gesticular poses in print magazines emphasized her angular frame, while her assertive body language—including a powerful stare called “the Look” by fashion magazines and later described as “ocular assault” by Powell—became her signature.

Luna was a personality, counting Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol among her friends. Her self-styled, moonchild persona embodied the zeitgeist of the 1960s, including experimentation with bright blue contacts and a gold bindi to mark her third eye “for pure fun,” as she told the New York Times.

Though initially coy on the subject of drugs in interviews, Luna’s increasingly open enthusiasm for LSD contributed to her avant garde persona and experimental image both on and off the runway. “I think it’s really great,” she told the Times. “I learned that I like to live, I like to make love...I love flowers, I love the sky, I love bright colors.”

As is the case for any boundary-breaking It Girl, Luna wasn’t universally revered. When a New York Times reporter suggested to Beverly Johnson in 1975 that Luna had paved the way for her success as a Black model, Johnson made clear that she didn’t find Luna’s quirks so whimsical or helpful in the fight for visibility. “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. She didn’t show up for bookings. She didn’t have a hard time. She made it hard for herself.”

In addition, Luna rose to success at the height of the American civil rights movement, but she seemed to want to transcend it all, often choosing to distance herself from racial politics. “Yeah, I’m an American on black and white, but I’m me, I’m me…” Luna told the Times.

In an email to The Cut for a 2013 piece on Luna, her widower, Italian photographer Luigi Cazzaniga, said that she felt “rejected” by both the Black and white communities.

In the 1970s, Luna decided to retreat from fashion and turn toward creative pursuits off the runway, appearing in Federico Fellini’s Satyricon and Otto Preminger’s Skidoo. Then, in 1979, she died of a heroin overdose in Rome at the age of 33. She left behind Cazzaniga and their three-year-old daughter, Dream.

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Luna’s premature death could be a factor as to why the significance of her story is so often overlooked: She was removed from pop culture’s fleeting attention span far too early. In addition, the American fashion industry wasn’t quite ready for a Black supermodel. That's one of the reasons that Luna preferred to live in Europe. "Back in Detroit, I wasn't considered beautiful or anything, but here I'm different," she told TIME in 1966 of living abroad.

By the 1970s, though, there was finally an uptick in Black models being featured on mainstream magazine covers and in runway shows. Assertive and inventive, Donyale Luna was a vanguard of that industry change.