Another week, another Zendaya cover? Well actually, there are, in total, four versions of Zendaya’s December-January collector’s edition cover for Essence. But there’s also more than one woman being immortalized in this series of highly stylized black-and-white images conceived by Zendaya’s longtime stylist and creative director for the shoot (and 2019 The Root 100 honoree), Law Roach and African American photographers AB+DM Studio (Zendaya continuing her consistent use of all-Black creative crews). The cover story pays homage to Donyale Luna, the Black supermodel who conquered the fashion scene of the 1960s and ’70s and was the first Black woman to be featured on a cover of Vogue, starring on the British edition in March 1966 (Beverly Johnson holding the distinction of being the first to star on an American Vogue cover in 1974).
“I had so much fun on this shoot paying homage to Donyale Luna, the first Black supermodel,” Zendaya told writer Sylvia Obell in her cover story, titled A Work of Art. “A lot of what I do, specifically within fashion, is a tribute to fashion icons who came before me—many of whom are Black women. I love the way it turned out. I’m very proud of it. It’s one of my favorite cover shoots I’ve ever done.”
“It was such an honor to pay homage to a woman that was such a groundbreaking and polarizing figure in the 60s. Hope she would be proud,” added photographers Ahmad Barber and Donte Maurice (AB+DM Studio) in another post.
As part of Essence’s ongoing 50th anniversary celebration, it’s a fitting tribute, though Luna seemingly never modeled for the magazine. Fifty years ago, she was already a legend in the fashion world, having departed New York City, where she’d become a regular (and the rare African American) at Andy Warhol’s Factory, and taken up residence in Europe, expanding beyond the modeling world to appear in now-revered films like Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Fellini’s Satyricon (1969). But as Luna’s daughter, Dream Cazzaniga reminded us in a 2019 British Vogue tribute to her mother in recognition of 40 years since Luna’s sudden death, the preternatural beauty was originally born Peggy Ann Freeman in 1945 Detroit, adopting the name Donyale Luna as a teenager.
“I’ll be on top of the world if it takes every breath I have, every muscle of my skinny body,” Luna wrote to a childhood friend soon after moving to Manhattan at 19. “I feel it, I know it. I’ll be some kind of star real soon. Real soon.”
“It seems glamorous, except that my mother could never quite escape prejudice,” Cazzaniga later wrote of Luna’s swift rise to fame; a rise that ended tragically, due to an accidental overdose at age 33, when her daughter was only 18 months old. “On the one hand, people longed for her become a symbol of the African-American resistance; a role she struggled with as someone who identified as mixed race,” Cazzaniga added.
At 24, the also mixed-race Zendaya is almost exactly the age Luna was 50 years ago—and is no doubt the embodiment of the dream the supermodel and actress had for herself. In addition to being a revered beauty with an already well-established career in Hollywood, this year, Zendaya became the youngest ever to win the Lead Actress - Drama Series Emmy for her work in Euphoria, on which she is also a producer. However, unlike Luna, Zendaya does not shy away from engaging with conversations about race and colorism, or acknowledging the persistent racism and tokenism in Hollywood—a trend she is happy to help shift, as she tells Obell.
“I think what’s slowly starting to happen is, artists like Issa Rae and Lena Waithe have created opportunities that have resulted in more of us being in these rooms,” she says. “That’s such a special feeling, and I think it’s definitely changing the idea that there can only be ‘one at a time, which is false. I love to see that genuine love and respect for each other’s work. I hope that we continue to expand that in all kinds of beautiful ways, because I think we’re on a really good path.”
Zendaya’s path, which began as a child star on Disney, will next see her starring opposite John David Washington (star of Tenet and son of Denzel and Pauletta) in the quarantine-produced and very grown-up Malcolm & Marie, another black-and-white cinematic moment which was teased on Wednesday and will air on Netflix February 5.
“It was a dream, because I’ve always wanted to be able to just strip everything away,” Zendaya says of the film, which she also produced and reportedly commissioned. “I love what I do—and like most people, I was finding ways to stay inspired and stay creative, and luckily I know people who are the same way. It was great sitting in a room with John David Washington, Marcell Rév and Sam [Levinson], literally writing scenes as we went, coming up with ideas as we moved through the characters, and finding new things every day. That was the coolest part. That is why I do this.”
Zendaya has several other projects in the works, including a rumored biopic on Ronnie Spector, lead singer of the Ronettes. But after seeing her channel Luna, we can’t help but wonder how a biopic on this lost legend would translate to the screen—and while the resemblance may be questionable, after her multilayered performance in Euphoria, I don’t think any of us would be mad to see Zendaya bring Luna’s fantastical yet ultimately tragic journey from Detroit to the heights of the fashion world back to life. It might be yet another fitting tribute to a woman and enduring muse who arguably never got the chance to enjoy the breadth of her impact and power; power Zendaya says she wishes for all Black women.
“For us to continue to fully realize our power and harness it to do great things, because we are incredibly powerful,” she tells Essence. “We’re often convinced that we’re not, and taught to shrink—but we have to believe in our collective power. I always think of that Beyoncé song, ‘They’ll never take my power, my power, my power.’ Let’s take that energy into the new year.”