Metamorphosis: Peggy Ann Freeman becomes Donyale Luna

9 Sep

(This a long one; I’ve divided it into two parts. Since the only photo extant of Donyale Luna at this time in her life is her high-school graduation photo, I have tried to be creative.)

The child is father of the man
—William Wordsworth

The girl is mother of the woman
—what Wordsworth would have written if she were a woman                                   

During the course of her high-school years, Peggy Ann Freeman undertook one of the most radical personal transformations imaginable. In what her younger sister Lillian still refers to almost 50 years later as “The Great Change,” she shed her childhood as Peggy Ann and bloomed into one of the most unique personae of her time: Donyale Luna. It didn’t happen overnight. Peggy Ann carefully constructed “Donyale Luna” piece by piece. While the metamorphosis was essentially complete by graduation day, the fine-tuning into eccentric diva continued over many years.

Donyle Lun high school graduation pic

Donyale’s high-school graduation photo, published in June 1964 and taken in autumn of 1963. She looks attractive but not extraordinarily beautiful; her height doesn’t show. When I started seeing her a few months after this, she was leagues more stunning, with her hair down and her eyes—the photo only hints at their size. On her face is a subdued version of the perpetual smile that she wore when I knew her. Photo courtesy Burton Collection, Detroit Public Library main branch

The Great Change began as Peggy Ann and Lillian entered their teens. Peggy Ann began distancing herself from Lillian and the family. Except for Church and the outings to museums and movies, they saw her less and less.

For Lillian, part of the separation came because they now attended different schools. Peggy Ann was bright and already ambitious: she applied herself and got into prestigious High School of Commerce, which, along with next-door Cass Tech, were the schools where judges, politicians, professionals—anybody who was anybody—sent their kids. “I wasn’t dumb,” says Lillian; “I just didn’t do my work. I didn’t have the kind of motivation she had.” Lillian attended Central High.

The two sisters also didn’t share the usual gossip about boys. “Donyale withdrew. She had her own way of doing everything. She didn’t need me for anything. I felt hurt about that. Everything changed.”

Donyale wanted “lots of babies”

Donyale did confide in Lillian that she wanted to have lots of babies. “We both did,” says Lillian. “When you’re from a small family, you want to have more family around you.”

Another point of separation, unusual for sisters so close in age: they didn’t share clothes. “That was a big thing with her,” Lillian says.  “‘Wear your own clothes; don’t touch my clothes. My clothes are folded up in my drawer. You leave my clothes alone; you’ve got your own clothes.’”

By childhood’s end Donyale had constructed the barrier between her and the person she was closest to: her sister. Did she ever come back into close contact again?

Donyale Luna in Paco Rabanne dress, by Richard Avedon

“Wear your own clothes; don’t touch my clothes.” This is among the photos Richard Avedon took of Donyale wearing Paco Rabanne outfits.

By the age of 15, Donyale was 5’10” and rail-thin, and on her way to 6’3” by graduation. (Was she really 6’3”? I’ll talk about that in a future blog.) How many items of clothing could she share with Lillian, who topped out at about 5’8”?

Of course, a big part of the metamorphosis was orchestrated by God. Not just any woman can be 6’3,” 110 to 120 pounds, and “so beautiful that people would stop eating if they were in a restaurant and they saw her walking by,” according to her friend in later life, fellow supermodel Pat Cleveland.

From gangly to heartthrob

Peggy Ann Freeman was tall and gangly; “some students made fun of her because of her height and unusual looks,” recalls fellow Condon Jr. High student Kenneth Collier, who nonetheless “had a teen crush on her because she was so beautiful.” By high school, Donyale Luna was unarguably gorgeous. “She was tall and lean, and a very imposing figure,” says ex-beau Sanders Bryant. “The guys were intimidated. Even the girls. People would just back up.”

Donyale wore only the lightest of makeup when I met her; with those features she didn’t need much. Her looks were, besides spectacular, picture-perfect. I don’t remember any jewelry either, though Bryant says she wore her mother’s bracelets up above her elbows.

Earlier on Donyale had one blemish, which she corrected before I met her: a gap in her teeth. “Right in the middle,” says Lillian. “She fixed it herself for awhile, putting some gum or something hard in it and letting it stay there. Then she got her teeth fixed.”

The physical transformation was now complete. Kenneth Collier ran into her at a department store and called out “Peggy.” “But by this time she was Donyale Luna and just smiled at me. She was even more beautiful than before.” She was soon to become the most sought-after, famous and highly paid fashion model in the world.

Donyale Luna from Hawaii

When Sanders Bryant met the unfolding diva at age 15, “she was already radiant and gorgeous.” They were in the Cass Tech high school cafeteria, and our girl was working on a film script. She introduced herself as Donyale Luna, recently arrived from Hawaii. Her parents had been killed in an auto accident and she was adopted. “She continued that story as long as I knew her,” says Bryant, “even after I knew her mother and father and that she was born in Ford Hospital right here in Detroit.”

When I met her at 17, she said she was Polynesian. The car crash and dead parents were still in the story, although a few months later she told me she lived with her mother.

“What’s interesting about the car crash part,” says Lillian,  “is that when Donyale was about 15 or 16, she was practicing driving in the garage. She went forward when she meant to go backward and drove the car right through the garage. It made her afraid to drive. I don’t think she ever drove.”

Besides being the most strangely beautiful woman I had ever seen, Donyale also had the most beautiful voice, a voice like music. Were the vocals part of her makeover?

Donyale’s unique speech

“Some reporters claimed that Donyale made up her accent. It wasn’t an affectation,” claims Sanders Bryant. “It was actually her real self, her true speech. Donyale, her sister and her mother all sounded alike. Often when I called I’d have to ask, ‘Who am I talking to?’ Once I spent 15 minutes talking with her mother when I thought it was Donyale.”

“The way she had of talking, that was made up!” says Lillian. “That was ‘Donyale Luna.’. Lillian does a great imitation: “’My name is Donyale Luna’.

“It was like she was singing. But she never talked that way until she became Donyale. Then her voice changed too. By the time she finished high school, she completely re-made her self. To a T.”

Again, here we have two of the people who were closest to Donyale 180 degrees apart over a basic aspect of her life. Whom to believe? Bryant didn’t meet her until she was 15. I figure she may have completed the vocal component of Donyale Luna before then and had him fooled too.

Donyale stopped going to church with the family. Most teens do. But at about age 16 she also started leaving the house in the wee hours each morning.

“Where you going out every morning with a rag on your head?’” Lillian asked her. (The rag was a scarf.)

Catholic convert

“I’m going to Mass.” Unlike most teens, and certainly unlike most youngsters with a beatnik bent, Donyale converted from the family’s Presbyterian faith to Catholicism. The Catholic church was just behind the Freeman house on Glendale Ave. Sometimes teens will switch churches through the influence of a friend. But as far as anyone knows, Donyale did it on her own.

luna, wrapped

Donyale's youthful conversion to Catholicism inaugurated a lifetime of spiritual exploration. Photo by Luigi Cazzaniga

What could have attracted someone with such avant-garde tastes to Catholicism, which even then was the religion young people left, not joined?  “I think it was mostly the pomp and circumstance,” says Sanders Bryant, who witnessed the conversion— “the formality and the ritual of it.”

The pomp and circumstance and ritual must have appealed to Donyale’s love of theatre. And the formality may have given her a sense of structure that she must have needed sorely as she ventured out alone on her great adventure as a Mythic Being. She never formally left Catholicism, although she eventually “just got too busy” to continue her daily devotions. She continued exploring psychedelic and mystical experiences until her death at 33— the same age as You Know Who when He died.


Sanders Bryant III, conversations, Sept.-Oct. 2008

Kenneth Collier, blog comment—rats, lost the blog

High School of Commerce, Detroit, yearbook, 1964

Barbara Summers, Skin Deep: Inside the World of Black Fashion Models,         Amistad Press, 1998

Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2008


4 Responses to “Metamorphosis: Peggy Ann Freeman becomes Donyale Luna”

  1. miguel stuckey September 10, 2010 at 8:16 pm #

    Who is the other person you’re referring at the end who died at 33?

    • donstrachan September 12, 2010 at 8:58 pm #

      It’s that guy who died for your sins.

  2. Zero November 29, 2010 at 3:32 pm #

    …who do you suppose is ready to DIE for YOUR Sins Evil Person?

    • donstrachan November 30, 2010 at 3:28 am #

      Only me, pal. I believe our friend also said a few things like, Judge not lest ye be judged, and Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone…?

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