Richard Powell Helps Revive the Legacy of Donyale Luna

Richard Powell
Richard Powell, John Spencer Bassett Distinguished Professor of Art and Art History.

A muse of Salvador Dalí and a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory 54. Friend of Mia Farrow and photographed by legendary photographer Richard Avedon. Featured on the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. So why do so few people know about Donyale Luna, the first Black supermodel?

Richard Powell’s interest in Donyale Luna goes “way, way back.” The John Spencer Bassett Distinguished Professor of Art and Art History, whose research focuses on Americans from the Black diaspora, started looking into the supermodel in the late 90s.

Powell was recently featured in the new HBO documentary “Donyale Luna, Supermodel,”  which debuted on September 13th. He hopes that the documentary sheds light on the first Black woman to be featured on the covers of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue in the 1960s.

Donyale Luna, born Peggy Ann Freeman, was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1945. Her ethereal and somewhat strange beauty, which wasn’t appreciated in Detroit, sent waves through the New York Fashion industry. Luna was the first Black woman to appear on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. She modeled for Paco Rabanne, appeared in an editorial spread with two of the Beatles, and was named “Model of the Year” in 1966 by American Vogue. While in New York, Luna’s mother shot and killed her father, an incident that would impact her for the rest of her life.

Luna moved to Europe to explore film opportunities and experimental art in 1965. There, she became the first Black model to appear on the cover of Vogue. While filming Salome in Italy, she met and married Italian photographer Luigi Cazzaniga, with whom she had a daughter. Luna died of a heroin overdose at age 33.

“My earliest memories of her are as this very unusual-looking African American woman who made a name for herself in the fashion world starting in the mid-1960s,” he said. “When I started to do deep research on her, there was very little available.”

Powell went to Paris and London, scouring old magazine shops for anything he could find on Luna. He interviewed her contemporaries, such as famous supermodel Veruschka, designer Paco Rabanne and Luna’s surviving husband, Luigi Cazzaniga. He dedicated a chapter in his book to Luna’s style and impact on the field of fashion and Black portraiture.

“My book came out in 2008 and there was some interest from people who had read the chapter,” says Powell. “But it wasn’t until HBO took interest that things began to happen.”

One of the producers had read Powell’s book and wanted him to appear in the documentary. They flew him to New York City in 2021 to talk on camera about Donyale Luna, her beliefs and her politics.

Despite coming up during the 1960s when Black rights entered the public sphere more visibly, Luna rarely talked about politics. Powell says she was her own worst enemy — she did not connect to either the feminist movement or the Black identity movements of the late 1960s.

“She was a Universalist,” he says. “She was not really into race. She saw herself as part of the world. She saw herself as somebody who was a child of the universe.”

However, Powell maintains that Luna fought the system in her own way.

Donyale Luna
Donyale Luna, Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

“Her image speaks volumes about a kind of defiance in the face of discrimination,” he says. “When she models there's no passivity there, she's looking straight at the camera. She's using her hands. She's using her body. For someone who didn’t necessarily vocalize her connectedness to the movements of the late sixties, she was making a statement.”

Powell thinks that Luna represents a glimmer of someone who was able to think outside of the box. Despite going through trauma in her personal life, she was able to achieve success at a time that wasn’t particularly kind to those who weren’t white.

Luna’s experience also speaks to Powell’s interest in Black American expatriates.

“I’ve always been interested in African Americans who are not able to realize all of the things that they want to do, and they go abroad,” says Powell, “and it's through their experiences traveling abroad that they can discover themselves. That’s the Donyale Luna story.”

“It’s important to remember that when Donyale Luna was living in New York City, America was very prejudiced against Black people, even Black, talented people, or Black, beautiful people like Donyale Luna,” he says. “They were not able to realize their full potential unless they went abroad.”

What does Powell want people to take away from the documentary?

He hopes that people see her for the impact that she had, not for the impact she could have had. That despite how apolitical she was as a person, simply being herself was a political statement.

“Had she lived at a different moment maybe she would have been in the world of the Beyonce's and the incredible Black artists right now, who can do whatever they want and imagine whatever they want,” says Powell. “She didn't have those opportunities, but from what she could do, it was pretty extraordinary.”