She changed the face of fashion and is championing diversity. Naomi Campbell opens up about being the world’s most fabulous supermodel, motherhood, and finding calm in the Middle East.
Originally printed in the November 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia
It’s a mild fall afternoon in New York and Naomi Campbell has just returned home from yoga, which could explain the innate sense of calm of her silky voice. It’s been a few weeks since her cover shoot at Chris Colls’s Soho studio, which was a production in itself. The 25-strong team included West African stylist Jenke Ahmed Tailly and Pat McGrath. Campbell was late, but given her reputation for timekeeping, it would have been disappointing had she been punctual.
When she did appear, it was non-stop action. She was poised and direct – in her work mode. There’s no denying that Campbell is striking both in looks and stature; at 48 and with skin like velvet, she appears ageless. There are few who can boast an impressive three decades at the top of their game. But Naomi Campbell isn’t most people.
With a walk worth millions and a face that appeared on hundreds of magazines and launched lucrative global campaigns, Campbell has always been in a league of her own. Quietly changing the landscape of diversity before it was a whisper, much less a movement – she was the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue Paris in 1988 and on Vogue US’s coveted September issue in 1989 – the 1.78m Londoner has been paving the way for the next generation in her own imitable style.
Campbell doesn’t shy away from discussing the issue of diversity in the industry. “I’m never going to say I wasn’t picked because of the color of my skin and I’d never go down that route, even if it was the case,” she says defiantly. “It would just give me more strength and perseverance for me to go out there and get what I want.” Teaming up with fellow veterans of the modeling world Iman and Bethann Hardison, the trio champions inclusion to ensure that the number of black and Asian women on magazine covers, on runways, and in campaigns is balanced.
“We didn’t want the girls to hinder their careers in any way or be singled out, so we said that we would speak out about it. Honestly, I’m so proud and happy that finally what we’ve been saying is now coming to fruition. And most importantly – that it stays that way. Now, we need to see consistency and commitment.” Donatella Versace heralds Campbell’s sense of purpose and strength in character, sharing, “She pushed fashion forward as a woman who believes in very precise ideals of inclusivity and diversity rather than a celebrity.”
Campbell was born in South London in 1970 and raised by her mother, Valerie, a former dancer of Jamaican heritage. Scouted at the age of 15, she quickly took the modeling world by storm. The industry was captivated by her sultry almond eyes, high cheekbones, famously full lips, and Amazonian body – and the attention has yet to waver. Editor-in-chief Manuel Arnaut comments, “Naomi’s spirit is as powerful and compelling as her beauty. And while she embodies the aura of a supermodel, I believe that her staying power is due to her ability to always remain at ear-level to the global issues facing the less fortunate with humility and dynamism.”
Three decades later and she’s busier than ever. No one is more amazed at her career longevity than Campbell herself. “It’s an absolute honor as I’m not a new girl… I’m always surprised when I’m asked to do a show at this point in my life,” she says. “But I still love doing them and I still get nervous! I always shut my eyes and say a quiet prayer before every runway. It helps calm my nerves.”
Backstage is a peaceful sanctuary before shows, although Campbell’s quick to add that the items on her dressing room rider aren’t things she’s ever requested. “It’s just been passed down through the years. It’s simply white flowers – I love lilies and orchids – and gorgeous smelling candles. Oh, and some gummy bears!” Hardly rock ’n’ roll behavior for the model who has become as prolific off the runway as she is on it.
Living in the spotlight since she was a teenager, Campbell is the first to admit it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but one that she’s survived. “I’ve made my mistakes. I’ve owned them, and I’ve learned from them, so I won’t be held hostage by them,” she says unapologetically. “Being in denial is a very dangerous place to be and I’m not someone who’s ever been in that place. I don’t live in fear; I try to live in faith. I’m an optimistic person and I always want to see the best of a situation.”
One of the original “supers” alongside Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford – and later Kate Moss and Helena Christensen – Campbell speaks with genuine affection when asked if she is still close to the models. “Yes! I spoke to Linda this morning. You grow up together, you go to the same things, and you confide in each other.”
She adds, “I’ll always be eternally grateful for the support from Christy and Linda, especially, towards me. When we all come together, the connection is still there. We’re happy for each other, whatever we’re all doing. It’s full-on support.” And of course, Campbell and Moss are still very tight. “Absolutely! We’re South London girls,” she laughs.
“All the decades have been good to me but the Nineties were just amazing,” she remembers. “We were working really hard but we had fun. We’d shoot until 4am and no one ever complained. It was the merge of editorial and runway girls so it was an exciting era, especially with all the shows like Gianni Versace and Azzedine Alaïa,” she recalls fondly.
It’s evident that some of her most treasured friendships are with those she met along the way. Her bond with the late Tunisian couturier was so close that she called him “Papa.” His death last year shook her to the core. “I miss him so much,” she says quietly. “People say the business is fickle but I’ve found a second family. I cherish my friendships of 32 years and I’m so happy that I can pick up the phone and go to dinner with people I’ve known for that long. It’s the trust and bond that’s unconditional.” The feeling is mutual. Versace hails Campbell as “one of the true icons of our time.”
Campbell credits the late Nelson Mandela, who she refers to as her “honorary grandfather,” as being one of the driving forces behind the philanthropic path she now devotes her time to. “I am eternally grateful and blessed to have had this amazing man open my eyes. I wasn’t even aware when I first met him at 23 years old what he was guiding me to do,” she says fondly.
Now, Campbell – who founded Fashion for Relief in 2005 to raise emergency funds for appeals such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan and the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan – is an advocate for women and girls’ issues. She also regularly visits the Kenyan orphanage that she was first introduced to by her ex-partner, former Formula 1 boss Flavio Briatore many years ago. “I get pictures sent to me every month,” she says excitedly. “The kids have grown so much.”
Notoriously guarded about her private life, Campbell is coy about whether or not she’s in a relationship, but is refreshingly honest on the subject of children. “I’d love to have kids. I don’t discount anything in life. I love kids and always will,” she confides. “When I’m around children, I become a child myself. That’s the little girl I don’t ever want to lose.”
Now based in New York, Campbell splits her time between the US and London, jetting around the globe for work and charity endeavors. The Middle East is a territory she especially enjoys exploring. “I went to Dubai for the first time in 1994 and I love Lebanon. I’ve also been to Saudi Arabia. So much has happened there since my last visit in 2016, when the late Vogue Italia editor and my dear friend, Franca Sozzani, invited me to speak to a wonderful group of women about providing an international platform for female fashion designers. It was uplifting. Those are the things that I enjoy doing. I will travel around the world to obscure places if I know that I can make a difference – even to one life.”
The runway queen adds that she has her own Gulf sanctuary. “Oman is one of my secret places that I run off to when I need a break,” she reveals. “I’ve always loved that part of the world and I feel very calm there.”
Blessed with strong role models who mentored her through the years, Campbell often reaches out to up-and-coming runway stars. “I’ve always made a point of going over to the new, young models as they’re not going to come over to me. I let them know that I’m here if they need me.” Crawford’s daughter, 17-year- old Kaia Gerber, is one who’s benefitted from Campbell’s advice.
“She’s so adorable and calls me Aunty Naomi. I remember when Kaia started coming to Paris and we all sat down in Azzedine’s kitchen with Riccardo Tisci and told her what she needed to do,” she says. “It’s great seeing my friends’ sons and daughters all grown up and on the runway. It’s crazy as I’ve been backstage with Kaia telling her how nervous I am!”
Campbell’s evidently in a good place in her life and yoga plays an integral part in her newfound zen. She took a solo trip to India in 2012 and recalls, “I wanted to find out more about yoga’s origins. It’s something I’ve never done before. Only two people knew I was there.” She was keen to learn more about the calming, spiritual part of the practice. Campbell now combines yoga with regular gym sessions. “I got into working out about a year ago,” she laughs when asked to clarify that she in fact began going to the gym only in her forties. “I don’t do machines, I do circuit training – and I like it.”
Life’s all about choices and Campbell now makes ones that are right for her. “This year I chose not to go to the Met Ball. Instead, I went to Lesotho with UNAids and met young women who have terminal diseases,” she says. “I left there so inspired.” She’s heading to South Africa imminently, where she will help produce the Global Citizen Festival Mandela 100. Music’s first couple, Beyoncé and Jay Z, are headlining, with fellow A-listers flying in to support the cause on December 2. “It’s a great line-up and everyone is coming out of the goodness of their hearts. No one will be paid.”
“I am the kind of person who will reach out to people to say, ‘I need you.’ All I’m going to get is a yes or a no,” she says. Something tells us there are very few who would dare say no to Naomi Campbell.
Photography: Chris Colls
Fashion director: Katie Trotter
Style: Jenke Ahmed Tailly
Makeup: Pat McGrath
Hair: Ro Morgan
Styling assistants: Rudy S Betty, Leah Leona, Daisy Oldfield, Michelle Blary, Aziza Rozi
Photo assistants: James Hernandez, Tim Shin
Makeup assistant: Adam Master
Nails: Andy Seo
Digital tech: Jeanine Robinson
Producers: Phoebe, Cole, Carly Louison at Serlin Associates