Model behaviour - Naomi Campbell at 50

Naomi Campbell model tells Michael Odell why she’s inspired by Black Lives Matter and the young people taking action against racial injustice 
Model behaviour - Naomi Campbell at 50
In vogue: Some of the iconic magazine covers that Naomi Campbell has appeared on over the course of her career.

Naomi Campbell is in her dressing gown watching TV in her Los Angeles apartment.

On-screen is the funeral of George Floyd. It has been a tumultuous time for racial politics across America and the UK, but Campbell sees reasons for hope.

“What I’m watching disgusts me — a funeral which is the result of violence against black people that never seems to end. Added to that, a Korean friend of mine was spat at in the supermarket yesterday. It’s wrong! It’s sick!

“There is such aggression out there! But news from the UK makes me think young people there can be proud of how they’ve handled things. The Black Lives Matter demonstration in Bristol, when they took down the statue, was inspiring.

“This young generation, black and white together, decided they’re sick of injustice. No more excuses.”

In the mid-90s, Campbell met the South African president Nelson
Mandela and the pair became firm friends.

She has been re-reading his book, Long Walk To Freedom, and wondering what he would think of recent events. 

“I think he would be dismayed, but not surprised.” Campbell, who turned 50 at the end of last month, grew up in south London and, after being scouted by a model agency while walking through London’s Covent Garden, was on the cover of Elle magazine aged 15. 

But even after 35 years in the business, nothing makes her more angry than the suggestion that her celebrity status makes her immune to racism.

“It makes me fucking furious,” she says. “Last year I was refused entry to a hotel in the south of France because of my skin colour. It’s rude. It’s wrong. And there are still certain countries where I don’t appear on the cover of magazines for that same reason.” 

In the rarefied world of fashion magazines, a parallel controversy with racial overtones is currently being played out. The former US Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley recently published a memoir last month titled The Chiffon Trenches, in which he recounts many adventures, but also egregious racism within the fashion industry.

Naomi Campbell sports a green open coat during French legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent's farewell show Tuesday Jan.22, 2002 in Paris.AP PHOTO/Remy de la Mauviniere
Naomi Campbell sports a green open coat during French legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent's farewell show Tuesday Jan.22, 2002 in Paris.AP PHOTO/Remy de la Mauviniere

Quite separately, he seems to have had a vexed relationship with the US Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Talley says he suffered “huge emotional and psychological scars” at her hands, claiming, among many things, that she grumpily told him to “take care” of an annoying bouquet at her wedding and staged an intervention so that he’d go to fat camp (last month, without mentioning Talley by name, Wintour apologised to staff for years of “hurtful and intolerant behaviour”).

All of which puts Campbell in a difficult position. She has been friends with Talley since she was 16. And a few weeks ago Wintour was a guest on her YouTube chat show No Filter with Naomi. 

“I have my copy of The Chiffon Memoirs, but I haven’t started it yet,” she says diplomatically. 

“I can’t speak for André and his experiences, though whenever I see bad things happen, I like to think I stand up and be counted. And actually I think Anna Wintour has been very brave recently. She has admitted the fashion industry is too wasteful. 

"And she also told me she had to fight with the powers-that-be to get me on the cover of US Vogue first time round, for which I am grateful.” 

Campbell exudes zen-like calm, which hasn’t always been the case. Her temper has got her into trouble in the past and she is a veteran of court-ordered anger- management courses. 

She once told Oprah Winfrey that when she didn’t get what she wanted she just saw red. She broke down, explaining that this was a result of suffering childhood abandonment issues, (her single mother, Valerie, left her with a grandparent so she could work). That angst seems to have dissipated.

Supermodel Naomi Campbell leaves the 18th precinct in New York, Thursday, March 30, 2006. Cambell was arrested at her Park Avenue home after getting into an argument with her housekeeper Photo: AP Photo/Shiho Fukada
Supermodel Naomi Campbell leaves the 18th precinct in New York, Thursday, March 30, 2006. Cambell was arrested at her Park Avenue home after getting into an argument with her housekeeper Photo: AP Photo/Shiho Fukada

Prior to lockdown, there had been talk of lavish dinners with the scions of fashion in London or Paris to celebrate her 50th birthday. In the end, lockdown meant she spent it in her back garden with a friend, drinking a glass of barley water. 

“It was very simple and peaceful. Seriously, I’m not high-maintenance. In fact, when I felt the grass under my feet in the garden I started crying because, after lockdown, feeling the natural world again made me so emotional.” 

I met Campbell in the early 90s. She had just published her first novel, called Swan, but this was no encounter with a nervous first-time author. 

She was a bit sketchy as to the book’s plot, however. She was wearing thousands of euros' worth of couture, and Adam Clayton, the bass player from U2, was waiting for her (they were briefly engaged).

“I spoke that novel into a Dictaphone over a few days and someone else typed it up,” she says. 

“It was a hectic time of my life, and yes, I could take on projects and be a bit rushed and a bit rash. Lockdown has made me work on myself a bit. I always wanted to be an artist as a young girl and I’m actually learning to draw flowers at the moment. I wouldn’t have spent an evening at home doing that in the Nineties.” 

Of course not. She was one of the original supermodels. As well as Clayton, she dated Robert De Niro and Mike Tyson. Or should I say, they dated her.

“Yes, why don’t you say it the other way round?” she demands. “Surely it was their privilege just as much as mine to be with them? But yes, I had some wild and exciting times until I changed my life aged 29 (Campbell sought help for cocaine addiction).

"Whatever they say about me, I have remained friends with all my exes . . . except the last one.” 

Wasn’t that the British rapper and producer, Skepta? 

“A lady never discusses the details of her private life,” she insists. 

“But I do know that friendship is the thing that lasts. I saw Robert De Niro just before lockdown and I’ve talked to Mike [Tyson) on the phone. It’s such a waste to lose people.” 

But, at middle-age, female friendship is where it’s at, she says. These days she is far more likely to spend an evening with the actress Sharon Stone.

“You get to the point where the best thing and most nurturing experience is a deep conversation with a woman’s woman,” Campbell says. 

“I’m telling you, for laughs and wisdom, an evening with Sharon Stone is the best night out there is.” 

Not at the moment, though. Campbell is taking lockdown seriously. Each morning she wakes, says her “recovery prayer” and then works out. 

After a light breakfast, she spends a couple of hours making calls and attending to business.

Lockdown has forced her to familiarise herself with technology, producing quite astonishing results. 

Her No Filter with Naomi celebrity interviews on YouTube have become a hit since she started doing them in April. Her guests, in addition to Wintour and Stone, have included P. Diddy, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford. 

Campbell sits at her dining table with her iPad and dials in with all the casual warmth of a family catch-up on Zoom.

“I don’t dress up and, to begin with, I had the iPad leaning against a stack of books. My only diva moment was: ‘I need to order an iPad standoff Amazon!’ Which I’ve now got. 

"I don’t want my show to be showbizzy. Sure, they’re friends, but we’re all trapped at home, so I’m just saying, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ ” 

This afternoon she is going to deploy more new skills. Obviously, with traditional photoshoots being impossible, she has ordered a posh tripod plus a stash of make-up from her close friend the British Forbes-listed make-up artist Pat McGrath and has begun doing self- portraits. 

Today she will take some for a Valentino charity fundraising campaign in aid of a hospital in Rome that is at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19. 

Gwyneth Paltrow and Turlington are taking pictures too, but Campbell, full of friendly rivalry, wants hers to be the best.

Naomi Campbell hides her breast while presenting a red sequinned beret and a black dress during Jean-Paul Gaultier spring-summer 2002 Haute Couture's collection Sunday Jan.20, 2002 in Paris. Photo: AP Photo / Michel Euler
Naomi Campbell hides her breast while presenting a red sequinned beret and a black dress during Jean-Paul Gaultier spring-summer 2002 Haute Couture's collection Sunday Jan.20, 2002 in Paris. Photo: AP Photo / Michel Euler

“Hearing about the UK on the news makes me miss it. I think there is a great tradition that, if we don’t like something, we take to the streets and say it. 

"Right now, it feels like a new world is emerging. I want to get out there and embrace it.” 

Afterwards, she’ll call her mother back in the UK. She’s eager to hear news of more tumbling statues.

Naomi Campbell’s perfect weekend London or New York? 

"I’m a citizen of the world."

Hershey bar or Flake? 

"British chocolate all day long. I have a drawer of Flake, Crunchie and Galaxy bars."

Gym or country walk? 

"Gym."

Cinema or TV box set? 

"Cinema."

Gucci or Dior? 

"I need both."

High heels or sneakers? 

"Sneakers off-duty."

I couldn’t get through my weekend without...

"A Crunchie."


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