On this day in 1966, a revolutionary issue of British Vogue hit newsstands, the first featuring a woman of color on the cover. Never mind that editors had the model cover most of her face (rumors later flew that she was specifically asked to hide her nose and mouth) or that the image didn’t run on American editions, but history had been made. The mystery woman was Donyale Luna, a 20-year-old beauty who was anywhere from five-foot-ten to six-foot-two, depending on the source and what the often contradictory model felt like saying she was. Whatever her height, Luna was having the best year of her career. Having only left Detroit for New York City about 16 months prior, her face was so prevalent that Time magazine ran a story in its April 1966 issue titled “The Luna Year” that described her rapid rise to fame. “She happens to be a marvelous shape,” British Vogue’s Beatrix Miller told Time. “All sort of angular and immensely tall and strange. She has a kind of bite and personality.”
The March Vogue wasn’t Luna’s first cover appearance—nor was it the first time a black woman appeared in a major fashion magazine—but it was the model’s first cover photograph. The year before, Harper’s Bazaar was so wowed by Luna’s looks from just a single meeting that they featured a sketch of her on its January 1965 cover before she ever appeared within the magazine’s pages. But Luna’s success was short lived. Though she was supposedly in an exclusive contract with Richard Avedon, she didn’t receive a warm reception from Seventh Avenue, and jobs were few and far between. She was ready to call it quits but, like many black models at the time, Luna moved to Europe instead. There, designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior were more apt to work with black models than in the United States. Nineteen sixty-six was a good year, but then her career faltered. She reportedly loved to party and was often unreliable and late to modeling gigs. She appeared in a few Andy Warhol films and Fellini’s Satyricon and posed for Playboy in 1975. Eventually she met and married the Italian photographer Luigi Cazzaniga and they had a daughter in 1977. But that happiness was short-lived as well. In 1979 she died of a heroin overdose in Rome.
It’s a shame that Luna’s life was so defined by her race—I challenge you to find an interview with Luna that doesn’t home in on the color of her skin as a central topic—because she was clearly a lovely model regardless of skin color. Race was a topic she was reluctant to discuss, but one she was aware was a focal point for others. In London, she was involved in a messy courtroom drama with Mia Farrow and three other men, after a manager at the Cavendish Hotel removed the group for unexplained reasons, though Luna accused the hotel of racism. To the media, she dodged the questions of race so often that she developed a reputation as flakey and strange. Though her career was short lived, its impact was long lasting; Luna helped pave the way for nonwhite women in the world of fashion, and it all began with a cover.
Credits: Vogue cover by David Bailey. Harper’s Bazaar illustrator unknown. Donyale Luna in Paco Rabanne by Richard Avedon, December, 1966.