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Two pioneering black supermodels finally get their flowers

Two pioneering black supermodels finally get their flowers

Documentaries about the modeling industry are apparently all the rage.

Not only will Apple TV+ debut The supermodels—a docuseries about the A-list crew that dominated runaways of the ’80s and ’90s, including Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford—next week, but there are two more new documentaries celebrating the pioneering titans , largely anonymous, in the fashion world.

On Wednesday, HBO fell Donyale Luna: Supermodelabout the inscrutable figure that In 1966 she became the first black woman to appear on the cover of the British magazine. Fashion. And on Friday, Magnolia Pictures was released. invisible beauty, a film that explores the career and activism of ’70s model Bethann Hardison. The two films address her complicated themes in different ways, but each offers a rich analysis of the politics of beauty and the loneliness of being a pioneer.

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In it charming and fascinating invisible beauty, Hardison serves as co-director and insightful narrator of her landmark biography. The 80-year-old Brooklyn native bluntly recounts her breakthrough in the 1973 “Battle of Versailles,” where top French and American designers faced off on a runway, boosting the profiles of several American names. The fabulous showdown also highlighted an atypical number of black models at the time, including Pat Cleveland, Toukie Smith, Billie Blair and, of course, Hardison.

Compared to her dark-skinned peers, Hardison was considered the first “black-black looking” model with especially dark skin and a short afro, something that made her success seem even more extraordinary. Her New York colleagues, including Fran Lebowitz and fashion designer Stephen Burrows, attest to a kind of charisma and confidence that instantly won people over.

Still, Hardison always understood that her unique opportunities, while other models who looked like her struggled to break into the industry, were deeply unfair. In response, she founded Bethann Management Agency, which represented famed Ralph Lauren model and male vixen Tyson Beckford, among others. Later, in 1988, she founded the Black Girls’ Coalition, along with her friend and fellow model Iman, which grew from an organization celebrating emerging black talent, including Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks and Cynthia Bailey, to becoming more of a a surveillance group. as black models reported substantially lower salaries than their white peers. In 2013, she sent an open letter to designers condemning her exclusion of black models after fashion journalists reported on a wave of Eastern European women dominating the runways.

A photo featuring Bethann Hardison with the 1991 Black Girls Coalition in Invisible Beauty, a Magnolia Pictures release.

Bethann Hardison with the 1991 Black Girls Coalition

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Oliveira Toscano / Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Hardison’s participation in the film spares the audience a tedious history lesson, as the model and activist offers her quips and observations about humanity (“The lighter the burden, the freer the journey”; “I don’t think people change, I think they just become who they are”) throughout the film. One of the most fascinating parts of the documentary involves a current story in which she and her son, actor Kadeem Hardison, have a fight. From Kadeem, who played Dwayne Wayne in A different world, we learn that Hardison was a tough mother who had a hard time connecting with her only son. However, images of Hardison mentoring younger models show a caring side to her that she could not provide to her own offspring, and one can infer resentment at Kadeem’s privileged upbringing.

It can also be theorized that the fashion icon overextended herself in her career, having to constantly take care of others without having an elder to turn to for guidance. As much as invisible beauty tells a triumphant story, it also makes being a pioneer seem downright exhausting.

A harder biography to digest is Luna’s, not simply because she is no longer around to tell her own story, but because even the people closest to her apparently had no idea who she really was. Born Peggy Ann Freeman, the six-foot-tall Detroit-born model began mythologizing herself at a young age. Luna’s younger sister, Lillian, tells us that the model’s awkward but stunning beauty was not appreciated by her black classmates at school, even though her light skin earned her the designation “pretty.” She considered herself an outcast and began using her exotic professional name and even adopting a vaguely European accent that she maintained throughout her career. Additionally, she told her classmates that she was multiracial and each time claimed a new non-black ethnicity.

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We learn that Luna’s active imagination may have been a traumatic response to growing up in a violent home. After leaving the Midwest for New York, her mother had shot her physically abusive father in her own defense. In the era of segregation, Luna probably found it easier to capitalize on her light skin and her “exoticism,” so she was immediately recognized in the modeling world. Likewise, the documentary can’t help but paint a “tragic mulatta” narrative for the model, who was caught between two worlds and ultimately couldn’t find a place to call home.

A photo of model Donyale Luna.

For example, Luna fled New York for London in the late 1960s after white readers objected to her numerous appearances in harper’s bazaar. At first, it seemed like a better place to live than the United States, as she was warmly received by a mostly white artistic crowd, including the Rolling Stones and Salvador Dali. But it’s hard to say whether her British peers, or any white people, saw her as a human being and not just a fascinating object to gawk at, which is possibly how several talking heads talk about her. Since one of the white men interviewed, British photographer David Bailey, casually refers to her as “negroid” in the documentary, one gets the sense that Europe’s interest in her image did not necessarily translate into respect for her as black woman

Likewise, we hear many heartbreaking diary entries, read by Luna’s daughter, Dream Cazzaniga, where she laments her feelings of unwantedness and isolation. The documentary shows, in part, Cazzaniga coming to terms with the most important person in her life whom she will never really know. (Luna died of a heroin overdose in 1979, 18 months after Cazzaniga was born.) It’s devastating to watch Cazzaniga inherit her mother’s feelings of disconnection, but it’s satisfying to watch her gather fascinating details about the life of Luna, the being more vital than her. did subtly change the fashion industry, whether she could perceive it while she was alive or not.

Overall, both documentaries are refreshing because they paint a truly ugly portrait of the fashion industry, although it doesn’t touch on the obvious fatphobia that permeates modeling. (Super model indirectly touches on colorism.) Still, in a time when all brands are patting themselves on the back for inclusivity, the sacrifices that had to be made for that to become an expectation should not be forgotten. Both films ensure that viewers don’t forget.



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