Supermodel Donyale Luna Finds Her Light in New Documentary

Donyale Luna was a groundbreaking figure who shattered barriers and helped redefine the beauty standards of the 1960s as the first Black woman to appear on the cover of two major fashion magazines. Her story had been erased from the catwalk of fashion, until now.

Donyale Luna: Supermodel, a new HBO documentary, sheds much-deserved light on Luna, who was born Peggy Anne Freeman in Detroit, Michigan. With leggy limbs and striking features that blurred her ethnicity, Luna would go on to become the world’s first prominent African American supermodel and leave an indelible mark on the industry.

Director Nailah Jefferson and producer Isoul Harris, an EBONY editor, worked tirelessly to bring Luna’s story to the screen. Here, they share their visions and thoughts on the ethereal beauty.

EBONY: Who is Donyale Luna?

Nailah Jefferson: This film is about the very first Black supermodel who, at one time, was the highest-paid model in the industry. She was the first Black person on the covers of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. And she lived a fabulous life. She was in London, Paris, Rome and other places we could not fit into the film in 90 minutes. On the surface, that’s what it is. But when you get into the film, it’s multi-layered and a true depiction of an artist who desperately wanted to be free to live her life on her terms. That took her from Detroit to New York and into Rome, where, ultimately, her life ends. But she was always in pursuit of freedom, which inspired me. We could have easily just focused on the model part. But we wanted to lean into the human being: who Donyale Luna was and what motivated her.

Isoul Harris: One of the common responses we’ve been getting from people after seeing this is that they are surprised at the story’s scope. So many people are used to seeing a story about a model with a high life and then, ultimately, some trauma. With this story, I think it’s important that we see a Black woman’s search for herself and her dreams and being able to be herself in a world that does not see her. Donyale created this character in high school and was able to take it and live this enormous life. People say that her story is the basis for the movie Mahogany. She was living that life during a time when Black people couldn’t move around freely in America. What’s spectacular about her story is that she was relentless in the pursuit of being herself.

Why don’t people know more about her story and her being the first Black Vogue cover model? 

Jefferson: I think a lot of people may not realize that she was, in fact, Black because of her persona. That was everything, including being otherworldly. And then you have to think about where we were as an African American community. Maybe we weren’t focused on big accomplishments like the first Black person being on the beyond the cover of a fashion magazine. We know that after 1966, Donyale spent most of her time in Europe and wasn’t returning home. That could be the reason. But I have another one. If we celebrate her as the first Black person on the cover of Vogue, then we have to ask ourselves, “Well, what happened to her career? Why did it stop in ’64?” We have to look into who were the gatekeepers back then. And then we have to start asking questions about those people. Perhaps they didn’t want to back then. But we’re offering up the question now.

You took great care in presenting her life to give a full scope of what she accomplished before her untimely passing.

Harris: How the movie’s presented, it’s in a nonjudgmental way. It was very important for the filmmakers; we had multiple discussions on presenting her light and allowing you, the viewer, to have your own questions and judgments. Life, as we know, is very messy and nuanced. There was this 10-year span where she had European covers and she’s working. One of the experts in the film says that Donyale was a creative director. This woman was so ahead of her time. She was pioneering, doing things that are commonplace now that were unheard of back then.

Her story is told in so many different ways, with old archival footage, animation, and of course, personal interviews. How did you decide to share her story in this manner?

Jefferson: We wanted to get to the heart of who Donyale Luna was. And we thought it was most important to talk to people who truly knew her because she’s such an enigma. So we feature her family, her roommates, her very close friends, her former husband and her daughter, Dream Cazzaniga, who only knows her mother’s spirit. But it is her daughter’s longing that drives the story forward and helps us connect to Donyale on a human level and also gives us the healing that we need at the end.  

Harris: We’d meet one person who would introduce us to someone else to interview. Beverly Johnson, who is in the film, introduced us to a glorious man who was roommates with Donyale in Paris. We wanted to feature people who knew her or had some significant connection to her.

How has her life changed the modeling industry for Black models today?

Harris: Fashion designer and activist Aurora James, who’s in our film, says that many of the things that Donyale went through still occur for Black models. When it comes to Black and brown people who are trying to do things that they love in spaces that don’t love them, it’s really hard. But does that mean to stop? No, we don’t. We still go because we want to do what we enjoy and love.

Jefferson: Many people in the fashion industry know of Donyale, whether you are a photographer or model. Her references have been pulled for years. Now we can see the photos and how she left her mark. She just had yet to get the credit. I’m happy that she’s finally getting the credit that she deserves.

Harris: It’s mind-blowing to think that this woman faced so much adversity during her time and still pushed forward just in creating. We put so much emphasis on content and creativity nowadays. But she was doing it at a time when it wasn’t really recognized. I think that’s so revolutionary. 

Watch Donyale Luna: Supermodel, now playing on Max.

The post Supermodel Donyale Luna Finds Her Light in New Documentary appeared first on EBONY.

Updated: September 13, 2023 — 6:02 pm