It’s no secret that Naomi Campbell doesn’t like interviews. After 33 years in the business, and a string of tabloid-baiting moments, the model has acquired a reputation for being surly, formidable, downright difficult. Our original meeting is cancelled an hour or so before we are due to meet – Campbell cites “terrific illness” – but a promise is made to reschedule, with the possibility that she might be free over the weekend. Or that we might end up speaking by phone. But then the text arrives: we are on, for Sunday at 4pm. Give or take an hour, Campbell keeps to her word. Her publicist and I chat in the lobby of The Dorchester hotel in London, while I mentally prepare for the full force of her legendary froideur.
It is almost alarming, then, to find Campbell making jokes in a suite at the hotel, where she is alone, resting an injured leg on the sofa, smoking a cigarette, full of pussycat charm. At 49, she still looks otherworldly: a body, as Bono once put it, handmade by God, and skin so glowing it looks airbrushed. The era-defining cheekbones are framed by a sweep of immaculate hair; in the golden-hour light she looks luminous, dressed in a green chiffon Sacai jumpsuit and tractor sole Chelsea boots. She shows her publicist and me her leg: her knee is swollen like a melon, the result of tumbling on the stairs at an art party earlier in the week. She is worried that she won’t be able to fly if it doesn’t heal soon. “Clots are no joke,” she says. “[Doctors] stopped me from flying for six weeks two years ago. I do not want that again.”
Inexplicably, she loves being in the air, where she spends an astonishing amount of time. Campbell’s fortnight has already included at least half a dozen flights, with several more in the coming days: New York (where she lives) to Paris to London to Paris to New York to Arizona to Los Angeles, and so on. Earlier this year, a YouTube video of Campbell’s “flight routine”, which includes thoroughly disinfecting every surface and carrying her own seat cover and blanket, went viral, to the delight of a growing army of younger fans.
Propping her leg back up on the velvet seat, she looks me over and then tells her publicist to leave. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I don’t need you,” she says, putting out her cigarette. Once we’re alone, she starts by thanking me for my journalism. “I wanted to meet you in person. I’ve watched and read what you’ve done in the past. I like that you’re very honest and seem transparent and straightforward.” It’s a bold move: I can feel any difficult questions being expertly manoeuvred out of the room. “I like what you wrote when you defended me, without me having to speak,” she adds.
I can only manage an embarrassed thank you. Campbell is referring to a column I wrote two years ago, in response to an interview with the former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman. Speaking in the same week that her successor Edward Enninful published his first Vogue, Shulman denied that she had held any unconscious bias, despite the fact that in the course of more than 300 issues and 25 years as editor, only a dozen covers had featured a black person. Two were Beyoncé and Rihanna, suggesting that a black star would need to be one of the most famous women on the planet before they were under consideration. Campbell, one of the world’s top five models for more than three decades, featured on only five. In the interview, Shulman described Campbell as aggressive, before arguing that it was offensive to call her racist, “because actually my son’s grandfather was one of the civil rights leaders”. Campbell raises an eyebrow at the drama that interview unleashed. “You really get to see people’s colours,” she laughs. “Literally.”
Enninful’s appointment at Vogue, and his subsequent hiring of Campbell as a contributing editor, is part of a sea change in the mainstream. As the TV writer and producer Lena Waithe (Master of None, Dear White People) put it: “People of colour are in a very interesting position right now. We’re more than just in vogue. We are the culture.” Campbell would agree. “I feel a difference on many levels now – but someone I know recently called it a ‘cult’,” she says, visibly irate. “It wasn’t that way when you had everything, was it? You wouldn’t say that when you were getting everything handed on a plate, and things were coming your way constantly.” She puts out another cigarette. “I’m the kind of person where, with my friends – and I take that word very seriously – I’m happy for what they get. So to hear this called a ‘cult’, that was like, ‘Wait a second: so you want me to feel bad now that things are turning the other way?’” She makes an incredulous face. “No. We just want balance, end of story. I won’t do an all-black show, for instance, because it would be hypocritical given what I’ve stood for, for so long.” Which is what? “Balanced inclusion.” Campbell says she was offered “tons of money” to do an exclusively black show recently, but turned it down. “I can see clearly when brands want diversity because they get it and think it’s the right thing to do – and the ones who just think it will look bad if they don’t.”
She tells me her shoot for this magazine marks the first time she has ever worked with a black photographer “on a mainstream publication”, including the Vogues and other glossies. She wanted to be shot by 26-year-old Campbell Addy, she says, because she is continually excited by the new. “I embrace young people and their creativity, it’s fun for me. I’m happy for all the new talent and proud to be here right now, witnessing all this music and culture and the lifestyle, and the way it moves in fashion. Gianni [Versace] always said it would mix like this, and it finally did.”
In the past, Campbell was pitted against rivals such as Tyra Banks, and made to feel as if the slice of the pie available to a black model was so small that only one could succeed. “Some people think I wanted it to be that way,” she says. Her cat-like eyes blaze. “I did not want it that way. If I wasn’t there, there would be no one, and we have to have presence.” Would it be fair to say that she campaigns more for diversity now because she is more comfortable in her skin? “It’s not that I feel comfortable. I don’t think I’ve been speaking about it more – I think I’ve just been doing more. Everybody knows Africa is not new to me and I’ve been working on projects there since 1994.”
She talks at length about being “a global changemaker” in a programme pushing French luxury company the Kering Group and others to invest in fashion colleges in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya. “So many companies call themselves a global operation and they’re not. They’re not, because they’ve missed out a continent of 54 countries with extremely educated people, who deserve to be able to learn the same skills and have the opportunities we do.”
Campbell is of Chinese-Jamaican heritage and was raised by her grandmother and aunts in south London, while her mother toured Europe as a professional dancer. Despite this, she says she is happiest when in Africa. “I feel at peace on the continent,” she says, regal and beatific. “A very real inner peace.”
She is a complex, fascinating mix of a character, at times seeming to play up to her own legend as both fabulous and flawed. On the one hand, she founded Fashion For Relief in 2005, a charity catwalk show and high-profile auction that rallies the industry to cough up for her causes; she has raised more than $15m to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina, the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and the ebola epidemic across west Africa. On the other, she has been convicted of assault four times: for throwing a phone at her assistant, another at her housekeeper, for kicking a police officer and for hitting a paparazzo with her handbag. She was also made to take the witness stand in the infamous “blood diamonds” trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Part of the prosecution’s case rested on a dinner at Nelson Mandela’s home, after which Taylor gifted Campbell what she told the court she thought were “dirty rocks”.
At the same time, she inspires fierce loyalty. Younger models, such as Adut Akech and Anok Yai, routinely cite her as a mentor and protective role model. Her close friends, such as the photographer Steven Meisel, and designers Marc Jacobs and Kim Jones, say they can count on her for unconditional support. She was mentored and adored by Mandela and couturier Azzedine Alaïa, who named her their honorary granddaughter and daughter, respectively. Yet she has also been ambushed by criticism in her television interviews, most notably by Oprah, Tyra Banks and Barbara Walters, who, respectively, have chided her for being “a petulant diva”, “a bully” and “a bitch”. To her credit, Campbell responded each time with measured grace, sticking to a script that she stands by years later: that she isn’t perfect, that she isn’t proud of everything she has done, and remains a work-in-progress. As she emphasises again now, eyes coolly narrowed: “I will not be held hostage to my past.”
It’s the same line she delivered, quietly seething, in a recent video statement on Being Naomi, her YouTube channel (308K subscribers), responding to what she describes as a character assassination by the Mail On Sunday this August. On learning that Campbell would be receiving the British Fashion Council’s prestigious icon award in December, the paper went to town on her alleged history of keeping “very rum chums”, linking her to disgraced sexual predators Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, both of whom she has been photographed with.
It felt like a snide and unfair reach, I say. “Thank you!” says Campbell. “I’ve met thousands of people at events and been photographed with them – there are pictures of me with everyone. Are you going to single me out, when there are hundreds of people pictured with the same people, who you don’t care to mention?” Campbell rolls her eyes. “Do me a fucking favour. I won’t sit there and roll over and take that shit. We all know what that’s about… I’ve seen how they treat Raheem Sterling, how they speak about Lewis Hamilton and Serena Williams. I don’t know how Meghan Markle deals with this and I’m really glad she’s taken action to defend herself.” The Duchess of Sussex is currently suing the Mail On Sunday for infringement of her privacy; in 2004, Campbell successfully won her own privacy case against the Daily Mirror, when the then editor Piers Morgan published pictures of her attending Narcotics Anonymous. She says she hasn’t met Markle yet, “and I don’t have plans to”, but “when I heard [she was taking legal action], I was like ‘Bravo. Good for her.’” Campbell never uses the word “racism”, but it is an elephantine presence in the room.
Thirty-three years is a remarkable stint in any industry, and in modelling much more so. But Campbell says she is looking forward to turning 50 next year and has already planned her party. “I’m not afraid of being 50. I’m looking forward to a good old dance, too. I want to make sure I dance the night away, surrounded by people I love and who have been with me through thick and thin. I just want us to be in a beautiful place I have chosen.” She smiles. “Now it’s about working out the logistics.”
She is likely to invite old friends, who she credits for helping her along the way, like Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista, who told designers Dolce & Gabbana they wouldn’t work for them unless they hired Naomi, too. There were others: Yves Saint Laurent, who threatened to pull advertising unless French Vogue gave her a cover. She rose through the ranks at a time when “designers and models worked together, had dinner together and with each other. All the designers I loved, Azzedine and Gianni and Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen and Vivienne [Westwood] all loved each other and enjoyed each other’s company. I chose right – I chose creativity first. I didn’t choose them for money and I learnt so much. Being Papa [Alaïa]’s daughter was an incredible experience – he taught me about art and furniture and so much about his craft. It was unique.”
But her rise also came at a time when the predatory excesses of powerful men was the industry norm, and one wonders how much she might have seen or known over the years. John Casablancas, the late founder of Elite Model Management who signed “the supers” (Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and Campbell) was notorious for sleeping with his teenage models. He moved in social circles with Epstein and Donald Trump, who founded his own modelling agency, ran beauty pageants and has admitted using both to pick up women. Even before #MeToo, the three men had faced allegations of exploiting vulnerable young girls.
How does Campbell think the fashion industry has dealt with sexual abuse since then? “Of course I have empathy and concern for those it did happen to and I feel for their trauma, psychologically how it affects them,” Campbell says. “But it never happened to me.” (We catch up later on the phone, and when I ask her more about how the industry enabled the abuse of beautiful women, Campbell grows frustrated. “I didn’t see any of that shit, because thank God for my armour, my being called a bad bitch – I was lucky it never happened to me. I was protected by my angels Azzedine Alaïa, Gianni [Versace] and Yves Saint Laurent.”)
Campbell was represented by Elite from 1987 to 1993 and was reportedly dismissed by Casablancas for being rude and impossible. She denies this. “I actually have to tell you something: I was only with Elite for a very small period. And [Casablancas] didn’t fire me – I left. But I will say that when I was with him, I didn’t see him with Trump. I didn’t witness that behaviour.”
Perhaps it is fair to say that when it comes to her friends, including Michael Jackson, to whom she dedicated a recent post on Instagram, Campbell’s real blind spot is fierce, unwavering loyalty. “You come for someone that I love and care about, I’m defending them,” she says. Loyalty and discretion come up a lot. It’s why, she says, she’s on good terms with all her exes “except one”; the candidates include U2’s Adam Clayton, Robert De Niro, and multi-millionaire buisnessmen Flavio Briatore, Vladislav Doronin and Rihanna’s current boyfriend, Toyota heir Hassan Jameel.
At the beginning of the year, she was rumoured to have been seeing Liam Payne, former One Directioner and Cheryl Tweedy’s ex. Is she in love at the moment? “Yes,” she says coyly. How does that feel? “Fucking hectic!” She doesn’t like talking about her personal life, she reminds me. “And it’s actually not someone that you know, but my heart… my heart is happy. I love a lot of people for different reasons. And the other thing that’s taken me a while to understand in my growing up is that you have to accept and love yourself first, and not be validated by someone else.”
Campbell can drift in and out of self-help vernacular, from poised motivational speaker to south London realness. She’s been in the Narcotics Anonymous programme and therapy for years, which seems to have done her enormous good. “I want to stay in the light,” she explains. “I don’t want to be in darkness. I don’t have depression, but mental health is something that I care about a lot and it makes me happy to know that [the UK] is taking mental health seriously now. I think it’s great what [Princes] William and Harry have done in bringing that to the forefront. In the 90s, saying you had a shrink – people would look at you like you’re nuts. They are such old cliches but, whatever career you do, you need to have someone you can talk to. It’s healthy. Recovery is healthy. That was my first fight and I stand by it.”
She has mellowed in recent years, and says people would be surprised to know that “I don’t really react any more”, and that she is vulnerable, “but only in my [shoots] and with the people, my friends, I feel safe with.” Nonetheless, she still sets off a distinctive, electric ripple in every room she enters. Is she aware of how beautiful she is and the reaction she gets? “No. I mean, people say: ‘Oh, you bring light or a presence, blah blah’, but that’s their point of view. It’s not easy to be…” She skips over saying “beautiful” and instead says: “It’s harder for a woman to be strong and put on a pedestal. I want to be approachable! I mean yes, it’s a blessing.” She cackles. “But it’s also a curse.”
I tell her that at the launch of Vogue Arabia in Qatar a couple of years ago, I watched her glide through the room. Lauryn Hill performed a rare set at the party, and while Campbell was at the front, singing along to Ready or Not and filming it on her phone, dozens of people were simply taking pictures of her. “Haha, Lauryn is a real one. An original. You know, afterwards we asked her if she would do Fashion For Relief in Cannes and she came and did 12 songs.” Hill is famous for not turning up to her own gigs, so there’s an appealing irony in the fact that she and Campbell, two perennially late stars, showed up for each other. “We’re all growing here, trying to get it right this time round,” says Campbell. “No one is perfect.”
She munches on her second shortbread biscuit. Does she worry about staying relevant? “I hear that word a lot. People talk about it a lot.” She looks unimpressed. “I’m not trying to stay relevant, I’m not trying to keep up with anyone or compete.” Her pivot to vlogging and an energetic Instagram presence are, “because I like the fact that I can express myself and have control of my content. It belongs to me, and I can be me, and not have to worry about how it’s edited.” There is a lot more in the pipeline, including two books, which she promises aren’t memoirs, but won’t reveal more.
“I don’t want to write a story just to write a story,” she says, smiling, switching smoothly back to humanitarian, Miss World mode. “I want it to be for young women, to inspire them, or help them in some way. I’m blessed at the opportunities I still have – but how many times was I called a bitch, because I stood up for myself back in the day? Finally it’s balanced out. But it’s not changed me. This is the way I’ve always been.”
Styling: Jenke-Ahmed Tailly. Styling assistants: Nafissatou Niang and Preeti Bhambri. Hair: Lorenzo Barcella. Makeup: Daniel Sallstrom at M+A using Pat McGrath Labs. Manicurist: Helen Burton-Ward. Set design: Jabez Bartlett at Streeters.
• The Fashion Awards are on 2 December at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
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