On this day in Detroit history: Model Donyale Luna dies

May 17, 2015 at 2:48 pm

Born Peggy Ann Freeman in Detroit, the woman who would later be known as Donyale Luna was the first African-American supermodel, appearing on Harper’s Bazaar in 1965 and British Vogue in 1966. After being discovered as an awkward teen in Detroit, Luna would become a muse for the likes of figures like Andy Warhol and Richard Avedon, though drug use would lead to her untimely death at 33.    

Her big beak came when photographer David McCabe spotted her while on assignment in Detroit in 1963. “I was on a photo assignment in Detroit, photographing Ford cars [and] there was a school nearby,” he recalled. “I was struck by this almost 6-foot-tall beautiful girl — around 14-years-old at the time — wearing her Catholic uniform. She stopped to see what was going on.” Luna later moved to New York and got back in touch with McCabe, and her fashion career was born. 

If Luna's legacy as a fashion first is somewhat unknown, it could be that she was herself ambiguous about her ethic identity, often emphasizing non-African ancestry in interviews. And her identity was obscured in those early fashion magazine covers — Harper's used a sketch of her using lightened skin, and the Vogue shot showed her covering her face with her hand. She was known to invent stories of her origin, insisting that her invented surname was in fact her biological father's real name, despite documentation that stated otherwise.

She eventually left New York for Europe, and married photographer Luigi Cazzaniga, with whom he had a daughter. In a 1966 Time Magazine interview, Luna shed light on the appeal of Europe: "Back in Detroit I wasn't considered beautiful or anything," she said, "but here I'm different.” Cazzaniga later explained that Luna “felt rejected by the black community and the white one."

At the age of 33 Luna's drug habit caught up with her, leading her to an accidental heroin overdose on May 17, 1979 in Rome, Italy.

Further reading: "The First Black Supermodel, Whom History Forgot"

Staff writer Lee DeVito opines weekly on arts and culture for the Detroit Metro Times.