Like the character Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s classic novel “The Bluest Eye,” Donyale Luna, the world’s first Black supermodel, believed proximity to whiteness would blunt the traumatic effects of her dysfunctional family life and protect her from rejection by the white community. Like Pecola, Luna remained a tragic character throughout her life. Further, her seeming quest to downplay her Blackness probably played a part in muddling her legacy.
Luna is the subject of the new HBO documentary “Donyale Luna: Supermodel.” Directed by Nailah Jefferson, it is a compassionate yet unsparing portrait of a multiracial Black woman (a grandmother was Irish) of somewhat ambiguous features, making her way in the upper echelons of the unforgiving modeling industry in the 1960s. The 6-foot 2-inch tall Luna became the first Black woman to be on the cover of both Harper’s Bazaar (in illustration) and British Vogue, in 1965 and 1966 respectively.
As “Supermodel” illustrates, Luna veered from evasive to outright prevaricating when asked about her racial background. She told people she was Polynesian or Mexican. One of her peers in the documentary said he believed she was Indian, and apparently she did nothing to correct him. In one of the many archival clips from “Supermodel,” an interviewer inquires if her blue eyes were real. Luna, who was naturally blessed with large almond-shaped brown eyes, answered, “That’s a secret.”
One commentator, art history professor Dr. Richard J. Powell, revealed that, with the Civil Rights Movement in full swing, Luna had expressed a desire to be white, blonde, and blue-eyed.
In a 1968 New York Times profile of Luna, reporter Judy Stone reflected that other journalists found Luna “mysterious, secretive, contradictory, evasive, mercurial, and insistent upon her multiracial lineage—exotic chameleon strands of Mexican, American-Indian, Chinese, Irish, and last, but least escapable, Negro.”
The same article details Luna’s meeting with director Otto Preminger (“Carmen Jones”), where she arrived wearing a blonde wig and blue contacts.
Luna fashioned an otherworldly, ethereal, alt-Goddess persona for herself, originally created as a child to deal with the turmoil in her family; in later life, it also inclined toward distracting from her race.
“Donyale Luna: Supermodel” is broken up into chapters whose titles reflect Luna’s restlessness and her vain search for acceptance and inner peace. The first is set in Detroit, Luna’s hometown, where she was raised in a chaotic, although staunchly middle-class, household. Other chapters are set in New York, London, Paris, and Rome.
New York is where Luna first achieved success in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar. The fashion magazine likened her to a “Masai warrior.” Still, it was an extraordinary feat that met inevitable racist backlash: white subscribers and advertisers pulled their business.
In New York, Luna also made her first foray into what was ultimately her biggest passion: avant garde film. She appeared in pop artist Andy Warhol’s film “Camp” and eventually in Preminger’s “Skidoo,” and in films by surrealist Salvador Dali and Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini.
David McCabe, who discovered the teenage Luna on a Detroit street, is one of the documentary’s featured participants. Luna’s sisters, various friends, and peers from her modeling days also appear, including model Pat Cleveland. Beverly Johnson, the first Black woman to grace the cover of American Vogue in 1974, is also featured. In fact, Johnson appears in one of the most shocking and gut-wrenching scenes in the film. The scene reveals the kind of racism Luna was up against and uncovers some of the complexities of the personality of Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland.
At the heart of the film is Dream Cazzaniga, Luna’s daughter, who lost her mother when she was just 18 months old. It is clear that the soft-spoken Cazzaniga inherited her mother’s sensitive nature, and still feels the impact of the loss after all these years. She lovingly recites passages from Luna’s journals that chronicle her many professional and personal triumphs and challenges. Dream gently interrogates her father, Italian photographer Luigi Cazzaniga, about the circumstances of his relationship with Luna, made more difficult by his mother’s violent rejection of Luna.
Luna tragically died at age 33 and the circumstances around her death are still debated, although most now believe it was a heroin overdose. It is quite possible that age and maturity would have brought a greater acceptance of her identity, as well as of the realities of society. She remains, however, a complex figure who, regardless of her very human faults, broke down the doors that enabled other extraordinary women, such as Johnson, Naomi Campbell, and Tyra Banks, to step through.
Ultimately, Luna’s relationship with her racial identity (frankly, a conundrum those with unambiguous features aren’t confronted with) certainly could not have endeared her to the Black community, nor to those of any race who valued sincerity and authenticity. This, in all probability, is the reason she failed to receive her due for so long as the trailblazer she was.
Aware of the multitude of ways racism can ravage the soul, many of us extend empathy and grace to Morrison’s Pecola Breedlove. With “Donyale Luna: Supermodel,” we can start to do the same for the very real Donyale Luna.