When you think of who was the first Black supermodel to grace the cover of Vogue Magazine — who comes to mind? Is it Beverly Johnson?
Historically, Beverly Johnson is one of the most notable Black female figures in the modeling industry. However, she’s not the first Black female to grace the cover — and technically not the first Black supermodel either. That title belongs to Donyale Luna, a woman you’ve probably never heard of.
Filmmaker Nailah Jefferson has unpacked the story for audiences in a documentary scrutinizing the life of this unknown in her latest film Donyale Luna: Supermodel. Many of the Black female models of today sit on the shoulders of Donyale Luna as she paved the way for opportunities for so many to have their faces on the cover of magazines. Along with Vogue, Luna also appeared in animated form on the cover of Europe’s Harper’s Bazaar. Unfortunately, like many Black models, she was not immune to colorism and racism in her line of work. Although Luna was light skinned herself, the Bazaar cover was purposefully drawn to a lighter hue than Luna’s natural complexion.
Born Peggy Anne Freeman in Detroit, she came from humble beginnings. Both her mother and father were African-American, and although Peggy was Black, she never publicly claimed that she was. By going under the moniker Donyale Luna, she wanted to be seen as otherworldly. And Luna did have an extraordinary appearance that was beyond normal beauty standards. She stood out from other models of all races because of her unique look.
However, when broached on the issue of race, and living during the height of the Civil Rights era, Luna was evasive about her identity, even when it came down to her eye color. In one particular scene in the doc, in an interview, Luna — who is clearly wearing contact lenses — is asked by the TV host about her eye color. She informs him, “It is a secret.” She also shares with colleagues and the general public that she is a mixture of all different ethnicities.
By some accounts, when watching this documentary, it is easy to be angered by Luna’s own self-hatred of her racial identity or, to put it more authentically, her denial and wish to pass to seek approval from white society. It’s easy to think how irresponsible it is of her to ignore and not address issues of systemic racism, civil rights injustices, or just embracing your Blackness so young women and girls can feel empowered.
However, as the documentary progresses and the layers of the onion peel off, the modeling industry and its treatment of Black women really begins to stink. Luna is denied one opportunity after the next because of the color of her skin, and it is from the same publishers she did covers with years before. This breaks Luna, and she questions her self worth and wonders why no one wants to photograph her. This is my own conjecture here, but perhaps this is also why she chooses to be evasive about race and uses it as a shield to be viewed as a model and not a “Black model.”
Jefferson’s film takes personal accounts from family, like Luna’s daughter, who didn’t get to know her mother at all. Sadly, she was only 18 months old when her mother passed, and she only remembers fleeting glimpses of skin, freckles, and hands. She reads from her mother’s journal throughout the documentary, which gives us introspective look at what the climate was like during the time Luna was on this planet as well as some of the idiosyncratic aspects of her personality.
Beverly Johnson also appears as a commenter in the documentary and gives her thoughts and observations on how Donyale Luna paved the way for her to become the supermodel she became when she started her career. Johnson even admitted in the documentary that she had never heard of Donyale Luna.
In 1979, Donyale Luna passed away at the tender young age of 33. There’s speculation throughout as to what exactly was the cause. While Luna did dabble in recreational drugs here and there, there was a period when she moved to harder substances like heroin. While the medical examiner ultimately ruled out that heart failure was the cause of her death, her daughter believes that she died of a broken heart.
The doc dives into the last years of Luna’s life, and it’s infuriating and sad at the same time. While it could be said that Luna’s denial of her Blackness showed weakness, the act of being a Black woman working in a predominantly white industry was a defiant act in and of itself. Her work as a pioneer in the modeling industry should always be remembered.
Donyale Luna: Supermodel, directed by Nailah Jefferson, is an HBO Documentary Films and Lightbox production in association with Jeff Friday Media and the American Black Film Festival. It is produced by Melissa Kramer and Isoul Hussein Harris, and co-produced by Melanie Sharee. Executive producers are Jonathan Chinn, Simon Chinn, and Jeff Friday.
The film premiered at the 2023 American Black Film Festival and debuts on HBO later this year.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.