HBO's 'Donyale Luna: Supermodel' Reveals The Woman Behind the Enigmatic Veil

By Bianca Gracie | September 15, 2023

dea7434c-2270-4398-bfb1-809ed4217142-donyale-luna-1.jpgDonyale Luna photo by Luigi Cazzaniga/HBO via WarnerMedia

Donyale Luna is well-known as the first Black model on the cover of Vogue but for many, that’s where her story starts and stops. The enigmatic supermodel’s life story has remained a mystery for decades. Yet Donyale Luna: Supermodel, HBO’s latest documentary, gives a heartfelt insight into who the model truly was.

The documentary features Luna's husband Luigi Cazzaniga and daughter Dream Cazzaniga (who serves as co-executive producer); supermodels Beverly Johnson and Pat Clevland; and industry changemakers like former Essence editor-in-chief Constance C.R. White, Richard Avedon’s assistant Gideon Lewin, Vogue global editor-at-large Hamish Bowles; photographers David Bailey, David McCabe and Gideon Lewin; and fashion designers Zandra Rhodes and Aurora James. It is directed by Nailah Jefferson and co-produced by former EDITION editor-in-chief Isoul H. Harris and Melissa Kramer.

"As a Black storyteller, to be able to tell stories of other Black women is an incredible gift," Jefferson shared during a Q&A panel for the film at Hudson Yards on Sept. 7. "As a Black woman, to highlight and uplift, and love Donyale Luna as she couldn't be when she was here with us... I'm just so grateful."

The documentary, which premiered on Sept. 13, details Luna’s life and career in various chapters: Detroit, New York City, London and Rome. Born Peggy Ann Freeman in 1945 in Detroit, the model crafted her identity as “Donyale Luna” which was equal parts fantastical, avant-garde and downright stunning. She moved from the Midwest to New York City in 1964 (thanks to the advice of photographer David McCabe) and quickly made history. In 1965, she became the first Black model on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar via illustration. The next year, she made history once again, gracing the March cover of British Vogue.

Luna lived through performance art, from creating her stage name, claiming various ethnic backgrounds like Mexican and Polynesian, putting on a European-sounding accent and even donning signature ice-blue contact lenses. The traces of her Detroit upbringing were gone: as she ascended in her career, her persona (which her sisters stated initially sparked in high school) became intriguingly more alien-like.

The model’s rise in the industry came during the American Civil Rights Movement, and the socio-political tension partly impacted her career. Following the Harper’s Bazaar cover, the magazine received backlash from subscribers who couldn’t stomach having a Black woman on the coveted pages. And even with securing British Vogue, she was rejected by American Vogue. The documentary makes a good point leaving the criticism of Luna up to the viewer. Some may feel that she remained too silent and should’ve been more vocal in her activism instead of seemingly dismissing her Blackness, while others may think her fashion “firsts” were her way of combatting the industry’s racism. Any way one chooses to interpret it, there’s no question that Luna helped pave the way for Black models following her, and her unique approach to modeling is still felt to this day.

While we learn a lot about Luna’s modeling career, the most beautiful moments throughout the documentary come from her daughter, Dream. Dream was only 18 months old when her mother passed away in 1979 in Rome, yet she speaks through her daughter with a shared calm and gracious demeanor. Luna chronicled her life in great detail through her journals, which Dream excitedly narrates. Grief is a major theme in the documentary and through her mother’s stories, not only does Dream get to learn even more about her mother’s true feelings but also gets to heal.

a601c57e-11f4-4a80-9e45-10eced59ed1e-donyale-luna_0.jpgDonyale Luna photo by Luigi Cazzaniga/HBO via WarnerMedia

During Luna’s final years in Rome, there seems to be a sense of loneliness. She transitioned from modeling to acting, starring in films like Otto Preminger's Skidoo (1968) and Federico Fellini’s Fellini Satyricon (1969). But there was an emptiness, with Luna falling into depression. She died at age 33 in 1979 in Rome, which was due to heart failure as a result of a drug overdose. The documentary isn’t solely rooted in tragedy, though; it’s also a celebration of a legacy that helped break down barriers in fashion—which some are still fighting against to this day. Thanks to Supermodel, Luna’s story now gets its just due.