Dream Cazzaniga Gazes on Her Mother’s Legacy for Donyale Luna: Supermodel

Image by Luigi Cazzaniga | Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc.

In the spring of 1966, Time Magazine published an article titled, The Luna Year. That January, the Soviet Union succeeded in a soft moon landing and months later NASA sought out to accomplish the same feat — but the article makes no mention of lunar progressions or even the space race. Rather, Time’s commentary cemented the promise of an otherworldly star; the ethereal Donyale Luna. To the world, she was the first Black supermodel but to family and friends she was Peggy Ann Freeman, the imaginative middle daughter of Nathaniel and Peggy Freeman. She’d created the moniker while attending Cass Tech, a magnet school known for instructing talent like Alice Coltrane, Della Reese and Diana Ross (the two likely attended school together) and as fate would have it, the forces of the world acknowledged the brilliance of her new name.

One month before TIME’s article, Luna appeared on the cover of British Vogue with her hand covering half of her face and soon after JET ascribed the twenty-year-old as the “most photographed girl of 1966.” Towering elegantly with high cheekbones, almond shaped eyes, and a crane-like neck she gracefully donned the futuristic imaginations of Pierre Cardin, André Courrèges, and Paco Rabanne. Undeniably, Donyale Luna was the quintessential It-Girl of the swinging 60s; she was heralded by Salvador Dalí and featured in the cinematic universes of Andy Warhol and Federico Fellini. Fevered with a fierce desire for creative exploration, she melded her work as muse and active creator—her experimental artistry ultimately yielding a perennial influence that shifted the norms of fashion and art history. Despite Luna’s impact, her story has been sparsely documented compared to contemporary 60s icons like Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. Yet, the release of MAX documentary, Donyale Luna:Supermodel seeks to keep her memory luminescent, chronicling her life in Detroit, her global ascent and shedding light on her personhood. To gain more insight on the icon, Models.com contributor Nia Shumake spoke to Donyale Luna’s daughter, Dream Cazzaniga about working as one of the film’s executive producers and connecting to her mother’s story.

Interview by Nia Shumake | Editor Irene Ojo-Felix

Image by Luigi Cazzaniga | Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc.

So many outlets and producers have had an interest in your mother’s story. Why did you choose to let HBO take this story on?
It took us 40 years to decide to tell my mom’s story. My dad spoke to me about it but I had very few people telling me the story. Everything I heard from the media was very narrow, related to the fact that she died because of drug related complications. The only information that came from magazines was related to that and it was just very insensitive. I wanted to protect her so I didn’t want just anyone to tell her story. It took me a long time to acknowledge how famous my mom was. Then I started to think, “Okay, we should tell her story,” but who could tell her story right? Melissa Kramer, the producer, reached out and I first said no because I didn’t want to risk it. But then I could feel the genuineness and she had an extremely good heart. It made me say, yes— she’s the person who will have to lead on this. I was sure that she would attract the right people for producing an inspiring and celebratory piece of art.

What was the process like with your extended family’s part of the production?
I didn’t speak to them during the interviews because that was managed by production but I moved the family towards this project and shared with them my vision and let them know the team chosen was trusted. The first time I met my aunties, I was in my twenties. When I met them we spoke about my mom and the family, but we didn’t [talk about] the dramatic fact (of Luna’s mother, Peggy fatally shooting her father, Nathaniel) so I’m really grateful that they took the energy to explain from a sensitive place. I’m happy they were able to explain where my mom came from. It must have felt empty that she was missing for so long, and went out into the world, but then it was beautiful to understand how proud they were of her. It’s amazing that they were able to bring the Detroit perspective, because we cannot look at her story just by thinking, “Oh, she’s a girl, she went to the art [world] and she modeled.” Her origins, the family, where she came from, and the life she had there in Detroit is a very important part of the story.

“Even if I don’t have vivid memories of my mom, I know who she is…she left a distinct mark on fashion history, art history, Black history, and world history.”

In reading press articles, personal essays, and seeing your mother captured as she ascended to larger than life, how do you personally separate your mother from what you’ve read about her?
I think there’s different factors. One is what do I think is the truth that is relevant for me? What do I think is the truth that is relevant for the world? Even if I don’t have vivid memories of my mom, I know who she is. When people were telling me stories, it’s like this truth was living in me and this awareness of how beautiful her story is. All the facts are kind of peripheral to her true essence. History wise, she left a distinct mark on fashion history, art history, Black history, and world history. There’s some other information that I would like to share in other projects but I think with her choices, her lifestyle, even her mistakes there’s so much coherency in what she did and how she did it.

My favorite thing about your mother is her capacity to dream. Can you attest to this?
Yes, she was a dreamer, but she had this double personality of being naive and pure and on the other end, she was focused and determined in achieving what she wanted to do – a perfectionist, bright, factual, and concrete. It’s incredible how she managed to keep those two personalities together, but I know how she was able to because it’s part of how I am. She was beautiful, but she had this mind and spirit that guided her and also attracted people to her. She was hanging out not just with the artists, but I recall my dad saying she was also conversing with Gianni Agnelli, one of the most important entrepreneurs in Italy.

Image by Luigi Cazzaniga | Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc.

What were your own hopes and aspirations?
Dance was a part of who I was, even [when I was] very little it was kind of a connection to the universe. I was so lucky that in my twenties I happened to realize this dream. I was a professional dancer from 19 to 27 years old, mostly in Italy and Europe. I was scouted by one of the best choreographers in Europe, Luca Tommassini, and I worked mostly with him. It was a really good career and I worked with singers during tours, music videos and TV shows. I danced with Geri Halliwell, one of the Spice Girls. I did a show in London with Ricky Martin. I met so many talented artists, mostly in Europe and Italy. It was such a blessing to be able to realize this dream, and make it come true. It’s like my mom gave me this special name and it happened to be the truth of my life.

What was childhood like for you?
I think everyone has problems in their childhood because I had mine, but I wasn’t really aware of it growing up. I knew something was missing. I was growing up without a wing. The people that loved me loved me so hard and consistently that I was able to fly anyway. I could focus on who I was and my dreams. I didn’t have to focus on my missing wing, because even if my mom wasn’t there the most beautiful gift she gave me of unconditional love made it so [she] knew in her heart that they were going to take care of me. I didn’t miss anything, I was deeply happy and really loved.

In the last years of your mother’s life, she started creative works alongside your father, photographer Luigi Cazzaniga, are there any you feel comfortable sharing?
There’s two projects for now, but we’re getting a lot of attention these days and some requests for showing her archived pictures which are amazing. We would like to publish books, one that inspired the film [called] Luna Flylabye and we’re working on that. She wrote the script and it’s an autobiographical fairy tale that explains her vision and real goal of life. It’s powerful, a beautiful story, and they worked on the images for ten years.

Image by Luigi Cazzaniga | Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc.

What inspired you to become a keeper of the Donyale Luna legacy?
It’s important and it’s a part of history. It needs to be remembered and not just by my daughters. I really wanted to protect her because her soul needs to be protected by all the unpleasant [things] that could affect the memory of her. I wanted to make sure that we get the story right. Something clicked after I had my first child and then it was really clear to me. Becoming a mom healed a lot of my wounds as a daughter who grew up without hers.

In British Vogue, you wrote that your mother became a symbol almost against her will, could you further elaborate on what you mean by this?
She just wanted to be true to herself and follow her own vocation. So she became a symbol, but she didn’t expect to receive so much feedback from the world by being herself. That’s what I meant. She was carrying so much richness with her that people were just drawn to her. They were following her and wanted to do things with her professionally and as friends. In her diaries, sometimes she wrote, “So many people are trying to get me professionally and personally. But I only want to be close to pure hearted persons.” It’s also what she said about my dad. She wrote [in her diary], “I have so much attention by all the stars, John Lennon and David Bowie, but I chose Luigi because he’s the pure hearted.”

History declares Donyale Luna as the first black supermodel, and you mention in British Vogue that she was African American yet there are accounts of her identifying as mixed race/more ambiguous for other outlets. Why do you think she chose to identify as ambiguous?
My mom felt that she was otherworldly in some regard. I think it was not about a denial of being Black but more so figuring out how to navigate within the norms of society. My dad told me that her mission was ultimately all about love and that for her the focus was about the human race as a whole. She lived and operated in a very unique way from most and that was often misunderstood. My understanding is that she was also very sensitive and really just didn’t live within any standard boxes.

Image by Luigi Cazzaniga | Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc.

Donyale Luna: Supermodel is available on MAX

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