December 7, 2023 | Tara Collum

Otherworldly Facts About Donyale Luna, The First Black Supermodel

Donyale Luna was lightyears ahead of her time. This ethereal beauty often had her head in the clouds, and found it difficult to come down to planet Earth. When people asked her where she was from, she famously quipped, “From the moon, darling". Sadly, for all her success in the fashion industry, she also faced rampant, brutal discrimination. Ultimately, her futile search for where she belonged led to a tragic end.

1. She Grew Up Middle Class

Luna was born “Peggy Ann Freeman” in Detroit, Michigan, on August 31, 1945, one of three daughters. Her parents Nathaniel and Peggy called her “Little Peggy” to differentiate her from her mother. They had little idea just how much their daughter was meant to stand out from the pack. Luna may have grown up in a middle-class neighborhood, but things weren’t as idyllic as they seemed.

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2. Her Parents’ Marriage Was Bad

While Nathaniel Freeman would occasionally take his daughter to the movies or swimming, he also had a terrifying dark side. He was an alcoholic, and it caused a lot of problems in the family. Luna’s mother Peggy would get frustrated and leave, only to get back together with him again. This cycle repeated—until finally, Peggy reached her breaking point.

Peggy walked away for good and decided to raise her girls on her own. It was a freeing move—but it would come back to haunt them all.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

3. She Was A Theater Nerd

In high school, Luna seemed like any other overachieving child of a single parent. Her love for performing arts and community theater was in contrast to her practical side, which drove her to study languages and business. But then, the artistic side began to overtake her—and at the age of just 18, Peggy Ann Freeman underwent a radical change.

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4. She Changed Her Name

As her time as a student came to a close, her dreamy side emerged. First, she changed her name to Donyale George Luna. The meanings seemed obvious—after all, Luna is Latin for moon and Luna was the ancient Goddess of the Moon in Roman mythology. The transformation didn’t phase her sisters, they always thought Luna was, “living in a wonderland, a dream".

Her family trauma may also have influenced her choice of name. By taking on a new last name, Luna was also able to distance herself from her absentee father. But it wasn’t just her family who noticed Luna’s eccentricities.

Donyale Luna FactsFlickr, Confetta

5. She Was a Bohemian

Luna’s theater friends never shied away from calling her a kook—and if you know what she was getting up to, you’d understand why. She walked barefoot everywhere, even in the streets, and fed popcorn to the pigeons. Quirky? Sure. Disgusting? Definitely. Luna often frequented Beatnik coffee houses, wore all black, and didn’t care if people thought she was strange. If she wasn’t a hit in Detroit, she knew she’d find her niche elsewhere.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

6. She Was Strikingly Beautiful

Donyale Luna was jaw-droppingly stunning, but she didn’t fit the beauty mold standard of the time. As if that wasn’t bad enough, no one had ever complimented her appearance, so she didn’t even know she was beautiful. All it took was one fateful discovery to set things off—and it was one for the ages.

Donyale Luna FactsFlickr, Confetta

7. She Was Discovered

In 1963, Luna caught the eye of English photographer David McCabe, sporting her plaid schoolgirl skirt near Detroit’s landmark Art Deco Fisher Building skyscraper. Blown away by her bone structure, McCabe made Luna a jarring offer. He convinced Luna to move to New York and try her hand at modeling. Luna was onboard—but there was just one problem.

Her mother was not, at all. She wanted Luna to be a nurse, but Luna wouldn’t take no for an answer—and as we’ll soon learn, she was quite the unstoppable force.

Donyale Luna FactsShutterstock

8. She Had Admirers

Soon enough, Donyale Luna was turning heads in New York City, and receiving the kind of attention she never dreamed of in Detroit. In a letter back home, Luna wrote about how men were catcalling her and whistling at her on the streets. She even made a prophecy about her own future. She wrote that, “I’ll be some kind of star real soon".

Well, Luna didn’t have to wait long for her prediction to come true.

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9. Her Star Quickly Rose

David McCabe wasn’t just talking out of his hat. He introduced Luna to his connections, including magazine editors and the legendary photographer Richard Avedon. Luna was so impressive that he even took on a side gig as her manager. By 1964, Luna was under contract, and able to secure work without having to traipse to a zillion open-call auditions.

It was a level of success many girls dream of—but for Luna, it was just the beginning.

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10. She Made History

Luna’s high cheekbones and elegant elongated legs caught the attention of a very important figure. Upon seeing Luna, the editor-in-chief at Harper’s Bazaar, Nancy White, threw the completed January cover in the trash, and decided to use a picture of Luna instead, making Donyale Luna the first black cover girl in the publication’s almost 100-year history.

Luna caused a huge stir, but a shocking tragedy quickly overshadowed her time in the sun.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

11. She Lost Someone

While celebrating one of her greatest achievments, Luna received devastating news. Her father, Nathaniel Freeman, met his end and the situation was utterly disturbing. He'd arrived at her mother's home under the influence, and Peggy Ann had unintentionally shot him in the chest while attempting to protect herself. Luna’s sister Lillian had sadly witnessed the whole thing.

Perhaps even more chilling than the details of the incident was Luna's reaction to it.

Purple Crocus in Bloom during Daytime in a graveyardPixabay, Pexels

12. She Didn’t Know

In 1965, when her father was dying, Donyale Luna was living it up in New York City, with a burgeoning career in the wild world of modeling. She had no clue what was happening back home in Detroit—and she wouldn’t for another three months. It took that long for the news to reach Luna. And when she heard, she didn’t return to Detroit to mourn with her sisters or support her mother.

Instead, Luna refused to acknowledge the tragedy. It was a strategy, that of course, would only make things worse.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

13. She Couldn’t Face It

After learning of her family’s tragedy, Luna dried her tears on the shoulders of her famous friends—people like Andy Warhol and Miles Davis. But she didn’t let on too much to them, or anyone else. The incident shook Luna so badly that she began to make up stories about her parents. She never told the real story to anyone—not even her husband.

She compartmentalized and concentrated on the modeling world. Regrettably, she was entering a world saturated with hostility and malice.

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14. She Experienced Intense Discrimination

The modeling world was often an inhospitable climate. So, when Spanish designed Paco Rabanne staged a show in Paris with all black models, it seemed like a step in the right direction. Tragically, Luna was about to learn a hard lesson. The public’s reaction was horrific, and Luna witnessed angry reporters literally spitting on Rabanne.

The entire incident added to the trauma she was already trying to work through. It wasn't the first time that Luna faced discriminatory behavior as a model, and sadly, it wouldn't be the last.

Donyale Luna FactsFlickr

15. Things Soured With Her Manager

Donyale Luna’s close collaboration with iconic fashion photographer Richard Avedon seemed like any model’s dream—but behind the scenes, it was really a nightmare. As her career took off, Avedon became controlling and possessive of his young protege. His artistic vision often perpetuated racialized and discriminatory stereotyping.

Luna had many reasons for complaint, and things between the pair grew contentious—but the worst was yet to come.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

16. She Met The Beatles

There were some bright sides to working with a man like Avedon. In the spring of 1965, he arranged for her to appear in an editorial shoot alongside one half of the Beatles—specifically, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. However, it wasn’t all fun and laughs. Avedon dressed her in animal prints, and the captions of the photos described Luna as having “the tall strength and pride of movement of a Masai Warrior".

This kind of treatment was typical. Xenophobia tainted Avedon’s depictions of Luna. Well, as it turned out, it was nothing compared to the backlash she was about to face.

Ringo Starr FactsGetty Images

17. They Cut Ties With Her

Luna’s Harper’s Bazaar cover was iconic—but not everyone thought so. The backlash was absolutely brutal. Angry advertisers were pulling their ads from the magazine, and readers were canceling their subscriptions over the prominent inclusion of Luna in their glossy pages. Then, the hammer fell. Hearst Communications, which owned the magazine, ordered Richard Avedon to stop working with Luna.

Sadly, Luna’s popularity wasn’t enough to eclipse the barriers in 1960s America—but the fashion world wasn’t ready to give up on her, and Luna wasn’t ready to give up on herself.

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18. Her Photographers Were Up In Arms

David McCabe, the shutterbug who first discovered Luna in Detroit, was furious. He knew that Luna was too ahead of her time, and that her career prospects would only suffer under discrimination. Not only did magazines receive backlash for featuring Luna, but many American designers also refused to allow Luna to wear their garments.

McCabe lamented that “the magazine world wasn’t ready for photographing beautiful black women". Luna’s stalled career was pushing her to the brink—but it wasn’t the only setback.

Donyale Luna FactsFlickr

19. She Had Personal Issues

Between historic magazine appearances and dire family tragedy, Donyale Luna had carved out enough time for a whirlwind romance with an anonymous German actor. The pair actually tied the knot, but after a few months, Luna’s fairy tale began to fall apart. Sadly, they couldn’t make it last, and the marriage only made it ten months. The split absolutely devastated Luna—and the consequences were dire.

Divorce FactsShutterstock

20. It All Fell Apart

Donyale Luna had experienced a meteoric rise in the modeling world—but as soon as people began to realize that the world wasn’t as ready for a black supermodel as they’d predicted, her career floundered. She couldn’t command a high enough paycheck to fund her high-flying lifestyle. This setback, along with the loss of her father and her impending divorce, sent her over the edge.

Luna suffered a nervous breakdown and needed to be hospitalized. Luna needed time to recover before taking her next step—and it would be a drastic one.

Donyale Luna FactsShutterstock

21. She Ran Away From It All

Donyale Luna’s family had left Georgia for Detroit in search of a better life—one less tainted by prejudice. Well, like many others, Luna was learning the hard way that life in the north wasn’t that much better. Many black celebrities, artists, and writers began to leave the US altogether, during this period. Luna was done dealing with a fashion industry that had no vision for the future—so she also decided to make the jump. It would be a life-changing decision in more ways than one.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

22. She Moved To London

When Donyale Luna made the jump to England, she found acceptance and popularity in Swinging London. Youth culture, Beatlemania, miniskirts, and explosions of new and vibrant trends in fashion was changing the city in new and exciting ways—and Luna was excited to soak it all up. She soon found work with top fashion photographers, including Helmut Newton.

Luna thrived in the new city, and soon she and her Maltese dog Christianne were living in a pad by the Thames. She also made a host of new famous friends—but it wasn’t all glitz and glamour.

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23. She Embraced The Art Scene

Luna was the toast of London, and her circle included icons of the Swinging 60s like actress Julie Christie, Mick Jagger, and Iain Quarrier, near-victim of the Manson family. After the close call he retired from acting, but first, he played a very important role in Luna’s life. You see, Luna had her sights on the silver screen, and famous friends like Quarrier would help her get there.

But there was a dark side to the scene in London. Drinking and controlled substances abounded, and threatened to take over both Quarrier and Luna’s lives. Still, she was able to strike a fine balance—after all, she had unfinished business in the modeling world.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

24. She Called Them Backstabbers

Donyale Luna once summed up the heartbreaking side of the fashion industry for the New York Times. She told them that people in fashion would say “beautiful things on one side and [then] turn around and stab you in the back". She relished the liberty she experienced in Europe and the hiatus from constantly facing obstacles rooted in ethnicity. Nevertheless, the industry’s same old ghosts came back to haunt her.

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25. She Reconnected With Her Ex

She may have moved halfway across the world, but the fashion industry was still a small one. Luna once again wound up face to face with Richard Avedon, the photographer and manager who’d abandoned her. He’d left Harper’s Bazaar in order to work for American Vogue, and was keen to reconnect with his ex-muse. It, unfortunately, was an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.

Donyale Luna FactsFlickr

26. She Couldn’t Escape Stereotypes

A lose-lose situation followed Donyale Luna throughout her modeling career. They would either represent her through the lens of primitivism and depict her as exotic—or they wouldn’t represent her at all. Her next collaboration with Avedon forced her to choose the former. Somehow, that wasn’t even the worst part. Editors didn’t want Luna to be the sole face of the campaign. They forced Avedon to include a second—white, obviously—model.

Despite any reservations, the gamble worked—and Luna’s major success overseas had photographers from all over knocking on her door again. That wasn’t the only surprise.

Donyale Luna FactsShutterstock

27. She Found Renewed Fame

In 1966, American Vogue named Donyale Luna their Model of the Year. Then, Jet Magazine called her, “the most photographed girl of 1966". And while she wasn’t landing magazine covers, she was getting much cooler work, as the star of covers for many Blue Note Record jazz albums. Luna’s modeling gigs were consistent and afforded her a Transatlantic lifestyle. She jet-setted between the discotheques of the Greenwich Village Scene and Europe.

If people hadn’t known Donyale Luna’s name at the beginning of the year, they certainly weren’t about to forget it after seeing her face.

Donyale Luna FactsFlickr, Confetta

28. Her Eyes Were Her Signature

If you look at a photo of Donyale Luna, you’ll notice something haunting and otherworldly. Luna liked to use startling colored lenses to make her stand out, and they eventually became one of her signature trademarks. Luna and her big blue—or green, or yellow, or purple—eyes were so iconic that contact lens companies came knocking on her door to get her to model for their ads.

Luna’s career was finally showing some long-term promise—and not only that, she had a jaw-dropping surprise around the corner.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

29. She Landed The Big One

In March of 1966, Luna appeared on made the cover of British Vogue. When she appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, it had been an illustration. This time, it was an actual photograph. Not only that, it was a groundbreaking moment. Luna became the first African-American woman to cover any Vogue magazine. After so much struggle and backlash, Luna was finally getting everything she wanted—but behind the scenes, things weren’t always so easy.

Donyale Luna FactsShutterstock

30. They Panicked

Photographer David Bailey stated very adamantly that he didn’t care about her race. For all he cared, she could have been, “a Martian". However, he did report that using her on the cover caused a panic in the advertising sales department. The editor at British Vogue mused she was, “all sort of angular and immensely strange and tall". While it was a huge accomplishment for Luna, and a groundbreaking milestone, it too came with a catch.

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31. They Covered Her

Inside the magazine, there was no shortage of fashion designers jockeying to dress her, and she wears outfits by top courtiers Christian Dior, Chloe, and Yves Saint Laurent. Yet on the coverLuna’s hand obscured her face. All you can see is her hand, her eyes, and her massive earrings. Many speculated that there was a disturbing reason for this. They thought that it was the editors attempting to conceal Luna’s race.

Years later, her family set the record straight. They believe that editors chose the shot because Luna was making a V for Vogue. It could very well also have been a V for victory!

Donyale Luna FactsWikimedia Commons

32. She Turned Heads

One of her friends claimed that when Luna walked into a restaurant, “people would stop eating and stand up and applaud". Back when she lived in Detroit, no one had ever told Luna that she was pretty. Now, no less a figure than Jackie Kennedy approached her at a New York nightclub and told her: “You are so beautiful". Luna looked like a dream—and she was living one too. And the highs didn’t stop coming.

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33. She Was Captured Forever

After Luna’s landmark Vogue cover, many other covers followed, including Harper’s Bazaar UK edition. But let’s face it: Most magazines are destined for the recycling bin or a birdcage. Luckily, Luna was immortalized forever in a very unique way. Drawn by her “feline grace,” the producers of a new fiberglass mannequin selected Luna as their model. They even produced it in both black and white.

This was a major stride toward progress for black representation. Luna was at the top of her career—but no good thing can last forever, sadly.

Donyale Luna FactsShutterstock

34. She Couldn't Escape Prejudice

Everything in Donyale Luna’s life had been turned upside down. She’d gone from career lows to career highs—but off camera, she was about to suffer from a majorly scandalous setback. In the winter of 1968, she was at a party with her pal actor Iain Quarrier and Mia Farrow at the landmark London hotspot the Cavendish Hotel.

At 4 AM, hotel staff asked the party to leave, and offered the lame excuse that the men weren’t wearing ties. Well, these desk clerks and concierges had no clue just who they were dealing with.

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35. She Fought Back

Not buying that for a second, Luna and her friends pointed out that literally no one else was wearing a tie either, and Luna demanded to know if it was because of her race. She certainly wasn’t breaking the dress code; she was resplendent in her yellow Mongolian wool coat and knee-high electric blue boots. Regardless, the hotel had law enforcement eject them from the establishment.

Luna whisked off in the night in her maroon Rolls Royce—but that wasn’t the last they’d see of her.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

36. She Had Her Day In Court

Luna had fought back against prejudice before, and she wasn’t about to take the incident at the Cavendish lying down. Luna asserted that she and her friends were not causing a commotion and accused the law enforcement officers of falsehood. She also argued that she and her friends were denied service at the hotel because she was multiracial. It seemed like a slam dunk—Luna also had her friends Iain Quarrier and Mia Farrow, both witnesses, ready to testify on her behalf.

Unfortunately, her luck was quickly running out.

Donyale Luna FactsWikipedia

37. Everyone Was Against Them

After a fiery performance by Quarrier on the stand, the judge fined him for disturbing the peace. It was up to Mia Farrow to save the day—but they were all in for a major disappointment. Farrow’s testimony was disjointed and less than helpful. Luna found the entire debacle disheartening, and informed journalists that her gathering was denied service and removed from the hotel on the basis of her being of color. She described the ordeal as a nightmare, with the hotel personnel and security personnel treating her rudely.

Luna did not get the outcome she wanted from the case, but she had fought back seriously against the prejudice she faced for the very first time. Sadly, the cycle would just keep repeating itself.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

38.Prejudice at French Vogue

The streets were not the only ground where Luna encountered such prejudice, an abundance of which was present in the European fashion industry, particularly at Vogue Paris. Luna was posed to grace the cover under editor Edmonde Charles-Roux, one time fighter in the French resistance during WWII. But even with that serious experience, the editor couldn’t win a battle with her own magazine.

When she tried to put Luna on the cover, Charles-Roux felt their full wrath for daring to even suggest it.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

39. How Long Before A Black Woman Graced the Cover Of Vogue Paris?

Edmonde Charles-Roux stuck out her neck trying to get Donyale Luna on the cover of French Vogueand she paid a disturbing price for it. Vogue management were so infuriated they scrapped Luna’s cover, and instead opted for a cover featuring two white models. They also, in a fit of pique, fired Charles-Roux! They didn’t even bother to tell her—instead, the bookkeeper let her know when she picked up her last paycheck.

While Luna had many people in her corner championing her success, it would take the fashion industry decades to catch up. French Vogue didn’t feature a black model on their precious cover until Naomi Campbell in 1988—and there’s a heartbreaking side to the story. Luna may not have lived to see it happen, but Campbell namechecked Luna as one of her inspirations.

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40. She Was Daring

Donyale Luna wanted to change the modeling world—but she wasn’t going to play it safe in order to break ground. Luna’s appearances got increasingly more weird and avant-garde. There was the Paris show of “unwearable dresses". Then, she modeled for Paris Match on the landing gear of a helicopter in flight! She modeled fad paper dresses, and walked in her own fashion show called the “Donyale Luna Spectacular".

The model also had her own sharply honed Blue Steel move, dubbed the “Look” or the “Ocular Assault". She was also a high-profile model on the catwalk, and had a…very unique walk.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

41. Her Model Walk Was Weird

Smizing, striking a pose, are all part of a model’s bag of tricks, and one of the most important is how they strut down the fashion runway. Luna drew on her experimental community theater background and pioneered an unconventional technique dubbed “method modeling". She could hip-pop and strut with the best of them, but she also turned the catwalk into her own one-woman show with bizarre theatrics. 

They included crawling like a lion, dancing like a robot, slithering on the ground, rolling from one end of the catwalk to the other, and flapping her arms like bird wings. Her performance art moves for the top fashion houses were met with adoring gasps and thunderous applause. Everyone was into it, except for Luna, who, for the first time, was getting bored.

Sofia Vergara FactsShutterstock

42. She Called It Quits

After a career of incredible highs and heartbreaking lows, Donyale Luna shocked the world. In 1971, she announced she wanted to retire from modeling and focus on other projects. Having set her intentions on a pivot to art and acting, she sealed the deal. The jet-setting star uprooted once again, and settled into her last and final home in Rome, Italy—but that wasn’t the only change.

While still modeling occasionally—only for top dollar, of course—Luna settled down and tied the knot with photographer Luigi Cazzaniga. It was a whole new Donyale, but would her gamble pay off?

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

43. She Got What She Wanted

In Europe, Luna worked with avant-garde art house heavy hitters like Federico Fellini. She had a small but pivotal role in Fellini’s Satyricon. In the film, which depicted the fall of the Roman Empire, Luna’s character was the only source of fire in the village—but there was a strange twist. The villagers actually had to light their torches from her nether regions! As was the case with her modeling career, race was a constant topic of conversation, and one Luna couldn’t escape, despite her discomfort with the subject.

Donyale Luna FactsWikimedia Commons

44. She Didn’t Want To Get Involved

Luna’s relationship with race was understandably complicated. Luna supported the Civil Rights movement but didn’t want to share her opinions publicly. When she pursued film, she was asked if her appearances would benefit Black actresses, and Luna responded, “If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Asians, Native Americans, Africans, groovy. It could be good, it could be bad, I couldn’t care less".

This remark could seem flippant or insensitive, but there was a heartbreaking side to Luna’s apparent indifference. She was trying to pave her own path, and didn’t need the additional pressure of being a spokesperson or role model for others. Her widower Luigi Cazzaniga said in a recent interview that Luna “felt rejected by the black community and the white one".

Donyale Luna FactsShutterstock

45. She Moved On Quickly

Donyale Luna didn’t find the creative fulfillment she was searching for in film or modeling—but she did find it in art. She collaborated with her photographer husband on a number of unpublished works, including hand-illustrated fairy tales. Despite her reluctance to speak publicly on the subject, Luna also wrote at length about the invisibility of most black women in contrast to her life of high visibility.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

46. She Was Dali’s Muse

Move over, Andy Warhol. Luna not only made a powerful friend in Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, but she also became his muse. They collaborated on many projects together, including one where Luna emerged from a human-sized egg. Dali, of course, referred to Luna as the reincarnation of Nefertiti—because people in the 60s just could not stop with the racialized tropes. While thriving artistically, Luna came up with an idea—and it was an explosive one.

Salvador Dali factsGetty Images

47. She Stripped Down

For Donyale Luna, there was one final, scandalous frontier. That would be, of course, the magazine known for its bunny logo. Luna took her visions to the pages of the iconic magazine and collaborated with Luigi Cazzaniga, her photographer husband. He captured her in characters of her own invention, including a soaring angel and a seductive mermaid. According to insiders at the time, "Luna seemed not only comfortable being unclothed, but completely beyond societal structures and moral rectitude".

With her tall stature and small bustline, she was a refreshing change from the customary Bunny-type model. Around this time, however, her star began to dim.

Hugh Hefner factsShutterstock

48. Her Career Was In Decline

Luna modeled sporadically in the 1970s and commanded top dollar, but by 1975, her career was on a downward trajectory—but there was a disturbing reason behind it. Luna loved to experiment, and it went beyond her method modeling. Like many stars of the 1960s and 1970s, she experimented with mind-bending hallucinogens, and later, opioids.

One anonymous designer commented, saying "Luna had a habitual reliance on illicit substances and constantly neglected her bills". But despite her problems, Luna seemed ready for her next chapter.

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

49. She Had A Dream

In the springtime, in the Tuscany countryside, Luna and her husband welcomed a daughter into the world. They named her Dream, after Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech. Sadly, their familial bliss was short-lived. Only 18 months later, Luna found herself estranged from her family, alone in a clinic. What happened?

Hattie McDaniel FactsWallpaper Flare

50. Her End Was Tragic

Luna’s issues with substance misuse had come back to haunt her. In 1979, at the age of 33, the ethereal Donyale Luna tragically lost her life due to an accidental excess intake of medication at a medical clinic in Rome. Now, people remember Luna as the first black supermodel. Many think her story and name should be known, and strive to maintain her legacy as a woman whose work paved the way for more representation of black women in the fashion world.

For the 50th anniversary edition of Essence, Zendaya posed on the cover in a tribute to Luna and her iconic style. Zendaya said of Luna, “A lot of what I do, specifically within fashion, is a tribute to fashion icons who came before me—many of whom are black women".

Donyale Luna FactsGetty Images

Sources:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7


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