A Woman to Know: Donyale Luna

She was just one of those extraordinary girls. — Stephen Burrows

(image via British Vogue)


In March 1966, Donyale Luna's face hit newsstands around the world. As the first black model to grace the cover of British Vogue – a full eight years before Beverly Johnson would break the same barrier at American Vogue – Donyale made a name for herself in contemporary fashion circles. Soon, she was walking in high-end shows, posing for top designers and partying with the Rolling Stones.

But Donyale wrestled with the accolades. In a 1968 interview with The New York Times, she danced around the the interviewer's questions about being a "black model," emphasizing in her answers that she wasn't "just African" but instead descended from Mexican and Irish ancestors. Photographer Brian McCabe said she did so for business reasons – to redefine herself as an "ethnic" model, hoping she'd appeal to bigger names in the fashion industry. "The magazine world really wasn't ready to photograph beautiful black women," he said.

Just 13 years after her landmark Vogue cover, Donyale died of a heroin overdose in Italy, several decades before black models like Naomi Campbell and Alex Wek would follow in her footsteps. Her husband told the Times that his late wife "felt rejected by both the black community and the white one."

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