Meet Donyale Luna, First Black Woman to Appear on the Cover of British Vogue
Fashion model Donyale Luna, who was discovered by renowned photographer David McCabe, was the first Black woman to appear on the cover of British Vogue in March 1966.
Largely forgotten today, Donyale Luna was one of the first women to carve the aesthetic space into which today’s non-white models exist. There has never been a better time in history to be a black model. Naomi Campbell is worth a reported £30 million, and the Puerto Rican-born Joan Smalls – a face of Estée Lauder – is the number-one model in the world this year, according to. Yet until the advent of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s the fashion industry operated its own kind of apartheid, which entirely excluded non-white models from its magazines, advertising, and catwalk shows.
She was born into a turbulent Detroit household, with an abusive father who was murdered when she was 18. Her mother encouraged her to become a nurse. A relative once described her as being “a very weird child, even from birth, living in a wonderland, a dream.” Donyale Luna was the first black model who really began to change things; to enable more diverse beauty paradigms to break through. Aptly, perhaps, she was discovered on a Detroit street in the same year as the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination based on race, colour, religion or national origin.
And all the while, alongside her achievements and controversies, lay the spectre of drugs. In a New York Times profile, she once confessed to taking LSD. ‘I think it’s great,’ she said defiantly. Soon after she moved in with the actor Klaus Kinski in 1969 he threw her out for excessive drug-taking. Inevitably, her work was affected. ‘She didn’t show up for bookings,’ remembered her fellow black model Beverly Johnson. ‘She didn’t have a hard time, she made it hard for herself.‘ And at the age of 32, the drug-taking finally caught up with Donyale Luna. Estranged from her then husband, an Italian photographer, she died in Rome in the early hours of 17 May 1979 of an accidental heroin overdose. She left behind an 18-month-old daughter, Dream.