“New York is a dream,” wrote 18 year old Donyale Luna to her best friend back home in Detroit. “A man danced me down Fifth Avenue. I’m really getting the works from head to toe by Harper’s Bazaar’s best! I’ll be on top of the world if it takes every breath I have, every muscle of my skinny body. I feel it, I know it. I’ll be some kind of star real soon.”
She was right. In photographs of cosmic power, or hip playfulness, Donyale Luna reimagined the world and her place within it.
The daughter of a violent, alcoholic household, Donyale fizzed with a love of acting. In possibly the most dizzying ascent in the history of modelling, she was plucked from Detroit’s arty streets and given a one-year contract to be photographed for Harper’s Bazaar, in 1965, by Richard Avedon. Racial apartheid had been outlawed by the Civil Rights Act in 1964. It seemed like perfect timing. With her talent for visual drama, extravagantly large eyes, elastic, almost extra-terrestrial limbs, America’s greatest black beauty had arrived.
But was she black? The civil rights movement wanted her to be blacker. Meanwhile, the white and powerful predictably fetishised Donyale’s Indigenous-Mexican, Indonesian, Irish and African descent. Alongside space-age mini-dresses and metallic gowns, Donyale, in films and shoots, was cast as the ‘exotic beauty’ in cloaks, in mesh, in turbans.
She was something the world had never seen before. The supposedly forward-facing worlds of fashion and art, falling back on antiquity, swathed her in hyperbole. “The reincarnation of Nefertiti,” said Salavador Dalí. “The strength of a Masai warrior,” wrote Harper’s Bazaar. The leading fashion magazine first presented Donyale as human artwork, painting over her offending ‘Negro’ flesh, mounting her on their cover in a ladylike, paler-skinned sketch.
Southern companies, repulsed nonetheless, withdrew their advertising revenue. When her contract ended, Harper’s Bazaar owner William Randolph Hearst forbid Richard Avedon from photographing Donyale for Harper’s again. Avedon remembered Donyale with regretful admiration: “a girl of stunning magnetism and beauty.”
Donyale’s father was an abusive alcoholic. After her mother shot him to death, the pain of this family catastrophe must have mixed uneasily with being an object of rarification. Boyfriends included actors Terence Stamp, Klaus Kinski and Brian Jones from The Rolling Stones. Donyale tellingly described her experience with LSD as a reminder that her that was capable of loving and being loved. She was swiftly, however, introduced to more damaging drugs and stellar company containing those with psychological problems of their own. Her friends included Andy Warhol, Mia Farrow and Miles Davis, a well-known abuser of women.
Donyale moved to London. Her career as a human artwork flourished, for a while. In 1966, she became the first black woman on the cover of British Vogue, photographed by David Bailey. In this seminal shot, strangely lost from the canon of the Swinging Sixties, Bailey constructs a curiously seductive evasion of blackness. One eye obscured, Donyale is both so much more and less than a person; a fleshly ornament of filigree and caramel. Model Pat Cleveland reported to The Telegraph that when Donyale walked into London restaurants, people stopped eating, stood up and applauded. “She was like a mirage… or a fantasy.” Jackie Kennedy was hypnotised by Donyale, in a nightclub, walking up to her and murmuring, “You are very beautiful.”
If this mixture of awe and prurience felt overwhelming, Donyale didn’t reveal her feelings to the press. When asked if her (predictably otherworldly) appearances in films, like Fellini’s Satyricon, would help black actors, by The New York Times’ Judy Stone, she said, “If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Asians, Native Americans, Africans, groovy. It could be good, it could be bad. I couldn’t care less.”
Fantasy creates new worlds but also removes us from the burden of being human. Donyale played with her myth, allegedly telling friends, when they asked about her heritage, “I’m from the moon, darling.”
Walking on the moon is a lonely business. The images Luna created rival – I would say, triumph over – those of celebrated Sixties’ beauties; mainly blonde, white women like Marianne Faithful, Jane Asher, Twiggy. And yet, perhaps because she transcends our expectations of how women might look, Donyale Luna has largely slipped from the pages of fashion history.
In her ‘panther’ photo-spread for Playboy in 1974, draped on a sofa in black cords and a white boho crochet tunic, Donyale, fond of going everywhere barefoot, looks whacked-out and far from restful. Never has reclining looked more precarious.
She died five years after this shoot, in Milan, of an accidental heroin overdose. She had separated from her Italian husband and left behind an 18 month daughter, Dream. Her unprofessionalism and addiction were criticised by those who survived the excesses of her celebrity world, like fellow supermodel Beverly Johnson. But one wonders how any young woman from violent Detroit, rocketing to the heights of fashion, could survive Donyale Luna’s vortex of pain and adulation. Dark beauty is a wonderland – for those who do not have to live within it.
By Soma Ghosh
Main photograph Roy Milligan/Evening Standard/Getty Images.