On August 31 1945 in Detroit, Michigan, Peggy Ann Freeman was born. She had a reportedly abusive father, whom her mother shot in self defence in 1965. She later distanced herself from him, claiming that her real father was in fact a different man, a Mr. Luna. Her sister described her as “ a very weird child, even from birth, living in a wonderland, a dream”. She studied journalism in high school, where she began calling herself ‘Donyale’.
She was soon spotted as a model. In March 1966 she became the first African American model to appear on the cover of British Vogue. By April of that year an article in Time magazine dubbed 1966 “the Luna year” and described her as “a new heavenly body who, because of her striking singularity, promises to remain on high for many a season.“ She quickly went under exclusive contract for a year with legendary fashion photographer Richard Avedon, helping to create some of the most famous images of the 1960s.
However she did not “remain on high for many a season”; by the 70s her drug use and eccentric behaviour were damaging her career. A fellow pioneering African American model Beverly Johnson said of her “(Luna) doesn’t wear shoes winter or summer. Ask her where she’s from — Mars? She went up and down the runways on her hands and knees. She didn’t show up for bookings. She didn’t have a hard time, she made it hard for herself.” However while her modelling career failed she starred in many films produced by Andy Warhol and also in Fellini’s 1969 film Satricon.
She was romantically involved with many men prominent in the media, including Brian Jones, but eventually married Italian photographer Luigi Cazzaniga. In 1977 they had a daughter called Dream.
Throughout her short life Donyale suffered from racial dysphoria. She repeatedly spoke of her multiracial lineage which included strands of Indigenous-Mexican, Indonesian, Irish and Afro-Egyptian genes. However few believed or listened to her claims and labelled her simply as a black woman. Once, when asked about whether her appearances in Hollywood films would benefit the cause of black actresses, Luna answered “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.”
Tragically her drug problems continued to get worse and worse, and in 1979 she died in a clinic in Rome, leaving behind her 18 month old daughter and her (by then estranged) husband.
It seems an unsatisfying end to the life of a truly unique individual, but she will live on through the beautiful photographs she has left behind her, which continue to captivate 35 years after her death.