If Donyale Luna stepped onto the scene today, she would be an instant It Girl. An ethereal beauty over six feet tall with doe eyes and an otherworldly charisma, the model and actor was a muse of Salvador Dalí, a favorite of famed fashion photographer Richard Avedon, a collaborator of Federico Fellini, and a part of the glamorous group of art world iconoclasts that orbited Andy Warhol’s Factory in the ‘60s. HBO’s Donyale Luna: Supermodel, now streaming, explores her life and influence via a trove of diary entries, archival footage, and interviews with those who knew Luna best. But unlike the supermodel documentaries of late, which detail the careers and legacies of various household names from Bethann Hardison to Naomi Campbell, Donyale Luna: Supermodel seeks to explain to the viewer why exactly it is that they aren’t familiar with Luna, given that she was the first Black model to cover Vogue.
Donyale Luna is the invention of Peggy Ann Freeman, a Black girl born in 1945 Detroit, the second of three daughters in a middle class family. She moved from the midwest to New York City in the fall of 1964 and by January 1965, an illustration of her appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, her first “first” in what would be a number of color barrier breaking moments. The next year, she secured the March cover of British Vogue. The creation of Luna’s supermodel persona was nothing short of performance art: her accent, beguiling and exotic, had no roots in Michigan or really anywhere else on earth. She sometimes wore blue contacts over her naturally brown eyes. She encouraged people to see her as racially ambiguous, suggesting both in interviews and in chats with acquaintances that she had Polynesian or Mexican lineage, presumably with the idea that it might add to her overall mystique.
The film confronts the notion that the persona Luna inhabited could be interpreted as a denial of her Black heritage, but, rather as trying to strike out on her own in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, when the casting calls for a model of color were far from free-flowing. And after being prominently featured in several prestige magazines, backlash was swift from sponsors and subscribers who reviled seeing a Black woman presented as a paragon of beauty. Luna couldn’t hide her Blackness, but it seems clear she took measures to make herself more marketable, or palatable, to a racist audience of Americans barely removed from the Jim Crow era.
As much as Supermodel is about heralding the incredible successes of Luna’s career in a landscape rigged against her, it is largely defined by tragedy: that of her premature death from drug-related complications at the age of 33, and the loss of what she would have accomplished had she not hit that inevitable glass ceiling in the years preceding her passing.
This two-pronged grief is one that Luna’s daughter, Dream Cazzaniga, has carried with her as long as she can remember. Cazzaniga, who is an executive producer on the film, was only 18 months old when Luna died. The result of Cazzaniga’s partnership with director Nailah Jefferson is as much an excavation of Luna’s career and an indictment of a prejudiced industry as it is a tender portrait of a mother-daughter relationship that transcends time. Luna chronicled her life in great detail, framing herself as the beautiful yet misunderstood protagonist of a fairytale, and, years later, Dream connects with her through these stories and lends her own voice to her mother in the form of narrating the entries that shape Supermodel. Through her daughter, Luna speaks. And she shines; in her musings about taking New York high fashion by storm, and in her laments about being passed up for opportunities, a fuller picture is painted of a fun-loving creative in constant pursuit of her audience, a community that would understand her.
The more images of Luna you see, the more it becomes apparent that her influence has been everywhere this whole time, her face reflected back in fashion editorials decades after her passing. The thesis of the project is the question of why Luna doesn’t have a more widely known legacy, and in making the film, Cazzaniga and Jefferson right the historical wrong by giving her one—bolstered by Luna’s own words, film from her shoots, and insights shared by fashion world fixtures including Aurora James, Beverly Johnson, Pat Cleveland and more, all told through the dreamy, fantasy-inspired storybook style that Luna used in her memoirs. Despite knowing a life colored by her mother’s absence more intimately than she could ever have known her presence, Cazzaniga says Luna remains a pillar of her world. “I feel my mom, she’s still with me in another, on another level,” Cazzaniga says. “So [working on the documentary] reconnected me to her. 44 years without her and I can feel closer to her now.”
Though the film seeks to deliver the most comprehensive account of Luna’s life on record, it exhibits an intentional lack of resolution. Jefferson wanted the project to function as the jumping off point for a cultural reexamination of Luna’s legacy, and she felt it was crucial not to give the impression of all loose ends being tied up nicely. “[Luna] didn’t get her due, and I think for a lot of the people in the film, they never got to say their goodbyes,” Jefferson says. “For them, this is an opportunity to finally uplift and love Luna, to say that one last goodbye. Within that, you might not feel a total resolution, but I don’t think that was my role as the filmmaker; I wanted to make space for the voices and for people to ask questions. And there’s so much misinformation out there about Luna that I think the film will start to correct. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
The tip of the iceberg is still enough to reveal the rot of prejudice that ran through the modeling industry. Secondhand accounts detail gallingly racist remarks from iconic fashion editors and depict a shameful lack of courage on behalf of the powers that be, who turned their backs on Luna after they felt the reaction of a racist readership who preferred not to see a model of her complexion on the pages of their legacy publications. Hatred closed doors for Luna even after she had wrenched them open, and she chased her modeling (and later, experimental theater) dreams from New York, to London, Paris, and finally to Rome, in search of a crowd that would truly see her. Luna’s arresting countenance and determined nature allowed her to live and work in an incredible atmosphere alongside art world elites, but while the names of her collaborators, models like Veruschka and filmmakers like Fellini, were inscribed in the historical record, Luna faded away.
“She put herself out there and she realized that the industry was not pure, I think for her it was in a way, traumatic,” Cazzaniga says. “But she went on trying to look for the best environment to be true to herself, and to be in harmony with what she really felt. … She would want people to feel her magic.”
Still, Luna’s achievements in the face of the world she lived in merit a retrospective such as this. “Ahead of her time” is a phrase that often gets thrown around when looking back on the stories of a figure like Luna, a euphemistic way of acknowledging a spectacular, singular talent wasted on the vast majority of their contemporaries. But the time may be right in this day and age for people to truly feel Luna’s magic. Perhaps now, 44 years after her death, the wider world has evolved enough to embrace her.