Donyale Luna (January 1945 – 17 May 1979) was the first notable African American supermodel and the first black cover girl. She also appeared in several films, most notably as the title role in Salome. She was born Peggy Anne Freeman in Detroit, Michigan. Her parents were Peggy and Nathaniel Freeman; her father, who was reportedly abusive, was murdered when she was 18. Luna’s mother wanted her to become a nurse.
Despite the parentage stated on her birth certificate, she insisted that her biological father was a man with the surname Luna and that her mother was Mexican. According to the model, one of her grandmothers was reportedly an Irishwoman who married a black interior decorator. Whether any of this background is true is uncertain. In the mid 1960s, a relative described Luna as being “a very weird child, even from birth, living in a wonderland, a dream.” After being discovered by the photographer David McCabe, she moved from Detroit to New York City to pursue a modeling career. She became the first African American model to appear on the cover of Vogue (March 1966); earlier, she appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar (January 1965). For several years, she was under exclusive contract to the photographer Richard Avedon.
An article in Time magazine published in April 1966, “The Luna Year,” described the dramatically thin and tall (6’2″) model with the hallmark bright blue contact lenses and occasional blonde wig as “a new heavenly body who, because of her striking singularity, promises to remain on high for many a season. Donyale Luna, as she calls herself, was unquestionably the hottest model in Europe. She is only 20, hails from Detroit, and is not to be missed.”
In 1967, the mannequin manufacturer Adel Rootstein created a mannequin in Luna’s image, a follow-up to her famous Twiggy mannequin of 1966. Unprofessional behavior signaled the decline of Luna’s career. As recalled by another black model who came to prominence toward the end of Luna’s heyday, Beverly Johnson, Luna “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.”