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Donyale Luna

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TIME Magazine

The Luna Year

Friday, April 1, 1966  

If there is anything in the world of high fashion more vulnerable to whim than clothes, it is the models who wear them. They seem to emerge from nowhere, sparkle brilliantly, then plunge into Stygian darkness, the victims of too much deja vu. Now rising into ascendancy is a new heavenly body who, because of her striking singularity, promises to remain on high for many a season.

Donyale Luna, as she calls herself, is unquestionably the hottest model in Europe at the moment. She is only 20, a Negro, hails from Detroit, and is not to be missed if one reads Harper's Bazaar, Paris Match, Britain's Queen, the British, French or American editions of Vogue. "She happens to be a marvelous shape," says Beatrix Miller of British Vogue. "All sort of angular and immensely tall and strange. She has a kind of bite and personality."

Gauguinesque to Egyptian. Last month Paris Match published photographs showing the way eleven photographers saw her. From a pose out on the landing gear of an airborne helicopter to an underwater dive with her diaphanous robe streaming behind her, Donyale never seemed the same. The slight hardening of a soft smile and a lift of the chin transformed her from Gauguinesque to Egyptian. Far more than the sum of her long (5 ft. 10 in.), model-spindly parts (31-21½-36), she is a creature of contrasts—one minute sophisticated, the next fawnlike, now exotic and faraway, now a gamine from around the corner.

From the beginning, she has been under a lucky star. "I started at the top," she says. Having played small roles in a Detroit repertory theater, she was spotted leaving a TV rehearsal and invited to New York by Photographer David McCabe. Her mother was against it. "She told me, 'He's trying to get you to New York to make a bad girl of you.' " But she went anyway, got an appointment through him with Harper's Bazaar. The editors were so impressed when she walked into the office ("An extraordinary apparition," said one) that they put a sketch of her on the January 1965 cover, and she was soon signed to work with Photographer Richard Avedon.

People Who Hurt. Such instant success was hard on her personally. A month after hitting New York, she married a young actor, divorced him after ten months, and now will not even give his name. "I love New York," she says. "But there were bad things. People were on drugs or hung up on pot. There was homosexuality and lesbianism and people who liked to hurt." Unhappy with that world but unwilling to give it all up and head back to Detroit, she fled to London and Paris last December.

There she is happier, fills her days with work and eating ("I eat more than most men"), her nights with discothèques. Though young, she is a thorough professional, arrives on time made up and ready to go. She is also a perfectionist down to her fingertips, which she enhances with nails imported from the U.S. because she thinks they suit her best. Most models make less money in Europe than they do in New York. But not Donyale, who despite her rate ($60 per hour and up) has hardly been out of a pose since she arrived in Europe. "Being what I am, I can get what I ask," she says.

"Back in Detroit I wasn't considered beautiful or anything, but here I'm different," she adds. "And a year ago they were looking for a new kind of model, a girl who is beautiful like you've never seen before." That is her secret, the reason why she may last longer than most in the fashion world. For she is not really beautiful; but like her namesake, the moon, she is different in every phase, yet always recognizably the same and herself.

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Excerpt from the book Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties by Joel Lobenthal:
 
Donyale Luna broke high fashion's color barrier in 1964, when Richard Avedon began photographing her for Harper's Bazaar. While playing small parts in a Detroit repertory theater, Luna was spotted leaving a TV rehearsal and invited to New York by photographer David McCabe. Avedon's photos of Luna's sinewy, spidery limbs, cobra-shaped face, and hermetic poise evoked thunderclaps of attention, and the model enjoyed a windfall of employment. "Back in Detroit I wasn't considered beautiful or anything," she said in Paris in 1966. "But here I'm different." Paris Match had just published a portfolio containing eleven different photographers' views of Luna; later in the year she modeled the couture collection for British Vogue and appeared in William Klein's Qui Etes-Vous Polly McGoo, a satire of the fashion industry. On the way to international notoriety, Luna had exorcised her past, at least externally. She conjured a persona that was not confined to what the camera recorded. "Her speech related to no one else's at all," recalls photographer Emeric Bronson. "She spoke not with a broad A or a French R, but in an accent she'd invented. I had an assistant, a very bright fellow, a real Yankee from New England. One day we came across Donyale on the street, and after leaving her he asked me: "Is she a countess?"

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From the April 1975 issue of Playboy:
 
Armageddon is coming: some humans will fly - spiritually - and the rest will...uh...die; that's the gospel according to Luna.
 
Donyale Luna started acting in her native Detroit, where a New York photographer spotted her leaving a TV rehearsal; in 1964, she walked into the offices of Harper's Bazaar - she now claims that she was only 15 at the time - and wound up on the January 1965 cover, thus becoming the first black girl to make it big as a fashion model. Then things tightened up - "For reasons of racial prejudice and the economics of the fashion business," says Richard Avedon - who shot her for one issue of Vogue, soon after that groundbreaking cover - "I was never permitted to photograph her for publication again" - and she ran away to Europe. Life there was beatific: "I could have fresh food, I wouldn't have to be bothered with political situations when I woke up in the morning - I could live and be treated as I felt, without having to worry about the police coming along. I like class, I like taste, I like style and, most of all, I love respect - and there's very little respect in America." But now Donyale has come back to America. "There's a great division coming about on this planet," she says. "There are going to be a lot of people who will die because they just don't know how to live. They don't know what life's about, they don't know how to give, how to love - nor do they want to. And those who are beautiful enough - I don't mean physically but something beyond that - they will have the chance to learn how to fly, to be beautiful, to rise above the level of the normal human - to be superior beings first and eventually gods and goddesses. They are very few, because 99 percent don't want to listen; they are too busy. Then again, there are the children - maybe some of them will be the chosen ones. The others, they will die, through all ways, but they are already dying. I've come back not to help but to show America a different kind of beauty." This is, then, your own vision of what is to come? "No, it is the truth.." When did you first become aware of the great division? "When I was three-years-old. I had many visions...I had great teachers...their names I cannot mention, but they are all from the East - Tibet, China, India." Do you continue to have visions? "Yes, I do, but they're a bit personal." One more question: Is there hope for America? "Oh sure - America is the youngest country on this planet." It seems very old. "Yes - that's because it's been going backward. People are getting into their own little groups - and no one is communicating."

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Excerpt from the book The Women We Wanted to Look Like by Brigid Keenan:
 
  The oddest woman ever seen in fashion )or out of it for that matter) exploded into the glossy magazines in 1964. Six foor tall, snarling, crouching, hands crooked into claws, eyes rolling - this was Donyale Luna, the first black model girl to become an international star. She crashed through the colour bar that however unwittingly, had existed in the fashion business.
  The six-page feature in American Harper's Bazaar that launched her got off to a bad start by captioning the pictures 'as worn by Donyale Luna with all the grace and strength of a Masai warrior'. In a serious article about the problems of the negro working girl, the New York Herald Tribune condemned this as prejudice of the worst kind. But that didn't spoil the fact that a sort of breakthrough had been made. Fashion magazines that were quick off the mark booked Ms. Luna instantly, and those who missed her cast desperately around for other black girls with similar exotic looks. After her initial stunning appearance, on journalist wrote that Donyale Luna was only the tip of an iceberg: 'The iceberg is the completely new image of Negro women . . . the Fashion Negress.'