African American Models

African American Models

New Year’s Day in 1945 heralded the birth of a brightly shining star in African American history and the fashion industry as well. Peggy Anne Freeman was born in Detroit, Michigan, and hers became a glamorous world of beauty, fame, international stardom, and groundbreaking moments for African American women and men. Unfortunately, this brightly shining star quickly burned herself out and met a tragic end that many think came all too soon.

Her early life is marred with tragedy, rumor, and scandal but it’s undeniable that African American models who came later can thank her for paving the way for their place in the fashion industry. By 1966, Freeman had changed her name to Donyale Luna, invented an aura of mystique hard to penetrate, and was the first of a long line of African American models to grace the covers of prestigious fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar (January 1965) and Vogue (March 1966).

In April of 1966, Time magazine referred to “The Luna Year” and devoted an article to the strikingly beautiful young woman who was becoming famous around the world. Referring to her as “unquestionably the hottest model in Europe,” the magazine article about the very thin and very, very tall model (she was 6’2”) with the bright blue contact lenses anticipated a long and prosperous career and claimed she “is not to be missed.”

Adel Rootstein, the leading maker of fashion mannequins at that time, created a black mannequin after Luna’s image in 1967.

She appeared in several avant-garde films which sealed her reputation as a unique individual. Andy Warhol’s Camp was one such movie as were Federico Fellini’s Fellini Satyricon, Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (where Groucho Marx portrayed God and Luna portrayed God’s mistress), and she appeared in The Rolling Stones Rock and Role Circus as well as a British documentary called Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London.

The ethereally beautiful Luna was a favorite model of Salvadore Dali’s.

Fame on a grand scale that came at a young age, a traumatized childhood (her abusive father was murdered when Luna was only 18), evasive stories about her lineage, and a string of very public romances with famous men from Europe may have all taken their toll on Luna’s emotional fabric. Bizarre behavior on and off the runway was leading to a decline in her fashion career as a growing fascination with LSD was taking control of her thoughts and actions.

The April 1975 issue of Playboy magazine featured a nude photo spread of Luna. Within weeks, Luna died in a Roman clinic of a drug overdose.