• Sydney Robinson

Where I've Been + The First Black Woman to Grace the Cover of Vogue

What’s up guys. It’s been a minute, and when I say a minute, I mean like three months since I have posted anything on here. It wasn’t an accident either, or laziness. I needed to hit the pause button on pretty much everything except getting through a Benzo taper. I wrote a post about this a while back, and I realized shorty after that I needed to be intentional about where I was putting my energy. And then, in a wildly coincidental move, the Universe decided to delete my Instagram. And that’s when I was like “okay, time to lay a few things down for a while and just focus on getting through this.” It was a good decision. But the mood swings finally passed, and now I am mostly feeling physical symptoms like insomnia, chest pain, migraines, sweating. All the good stuff yano? And I’d much rather have the physical stuff than the mental because now I can actually THINK and be creative! Like what? I haven’t felt creative in over a year! I’m pretty pumped? I’ve even begun working on a HUGE project! Something I’ve dreamed of since I was a little girl. And hint, hint: it has everything to do with fashion! More to come, pinky swear.

In the meantime, and in honor of the #blacklivesmatter movement, I wanted to give the spotlight to Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel that history seems to have forgotten!

Some of you probably already know how obsessed I am with 80’s and 90’s supermodel aesthetic (minus the rampant drug use obvi), but Donyale came before them ALL. Before Naomi and Yasmeen and Janice, before Tyra, before Iman. Donyale set the stage, strutted the runway, and stunned millions when she became the first woman of color to grace the cover of Vogue in 1966. Her beauty was revolutionary, and her legacy is immensely underrated. In a white-dominated fashion industry, Luna paved her own path and laid the foundation for today’s black supermodels to rise to fame.

Luna was born in 1945 in Detroit. Her birth name was “Peggy Anne Freeman,” but she changed it as a teenager when she was scouted by fashion photographer and invited to Manhattan in 1964. Keep in mind, this was right after the Civil Rights act had been passed, and the riots following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination had left large cities in ashes. There were no African American faces on the covers of magazines, but Luna resolved hers would be the first. “I’ll be on top of the world if it takes every breath I have,” she wrote home to her best friend. Within months, she had begun working with Richard Avedon, one of the most, if not the most, renowned photographers of all time. She was ahead of her time, and the world was quick to catch up. She became one of the elite, appearing in candid photos with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and assisting Andy Warhol with his projects.

But it wasn’t all rosy. She was still fighting systematic prejudice, against an institution that was dominated by the eyes and minds of white men. Southern magazines basically cancelled her. I mean literally – people cancelled their subscriptions when they saw her face on the cover. And eventually, Avedon was urged to stop working with her because of all the hate (I am disappointed, Avedon. Thought you were stronger than this). So, Luna made the trek to Europe. She told an interviewer once that in Europe, she didn’t have to worry about waking up and worrying if the police were going to show up at her door, and that the climate was much more accepting.

She started working almost immediately upon arriving in London. First in movies, and then – the Vogue cover that made history. She wore a Chloé dress and statement gold earrings, and peered through her fingers with one haunting and glamorous eye, as if to say “I’ve awakened.” And her spread inside the magazine? Oh my god. She dazzled in a long, glittering silver dress from Yves Saint Laurent. She was unstoppable, and she became an international icon virtually overnight. 1966 was the Luna year, as dubbed by TIME magazine. She was photographed by nearly every well known photographer and graced runways for Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino and Paco Rabanne. Talk about a takeover! I can imagine Lauren Hutton didn’t know what hit her. Luna traveled the world and met the most incredible people (including Salvador Dali who declared her one of his muses). She eventually settled in Italy, and met her photographer husband, Luigi Cazzaniga. They spent their days indulging one another’s creativity, working on projects together, and had a daughter – Dream Cazzaniga. Donyale was creative up to her last day according to her husband. She died of drug complications in 1979, and the world truly lost a historical and fashion icon that day.

It hurts my heart that Donyale Luna’s name is not more widely known. She broke many barriers, and her bravery in the face of prejudice was unprecedented in her industry. She was a glamorous hero-ess. And her name deserves to be remembered. Luna paved the way for black women to become supermodels and role models for girls all over the world, but for all she did, the fashion industry still has a LONG way to go when it comes to equality. Thanks Donyale, for being brave enough to defy your critics and help pave the way for continued efforts for industry-wide equality.