Supermodel Naomi Campbell is merging fashion and philanthropy through her charity, Fashion for Relief, and spotlighting humanitarian causes in the Arab world. Originally printed in the November issue. Words by Rebecca McLaughlin-Duane.
Naomi Campbell made the high-heeled leap from the world of fashion to philanthropy nearly 19 years ago. As to which of her seemingly contrasting careers has afforded her the greatest satisfaction thus far, Campbell is unable to say. “That’s tough, because I’m never satisfied. Ha!” she remarks. “For me, when you go back and see what you’ve accomplished, that is what is most rewarding. In my 47 years, the kids who’ve come up to me and said such amazing things have helped me start to understand how my culture and helping people in general – black, white, green, yellow – have created such positive change. I’m not someone who takes compliments very well, but if I’ve been able to have a positive effect on someone then that makes me very happy.”
In 1998, the British beauty famously rallied her runway cohorts, including Kate Moss and Christy Turlington, for a Versace show and fundraiser at president Nelson Mandela’s Cape Town home in South Africa. She remains a loyal supporter of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and credits her “honorary grandfather” with ushering her down the path to altruism. “At the time, I didn’t know what the word ‘philanthropy’ meant. It wasn’t even spoken about,” says Campbell. “It was very simple, you go there and you feel it, you see it, and then you decide. I was very fortunate to be shown this by this great man, and for me, it is still a work in progress. Everyone does the best they can but what’s most important is that you do your part.”
Campbell’s philanthropic dreams were realized in 2005 when she founded the charitable organization Fashion for Relief. Since then, her humanitarian reach – and millions of dollars raised from star-studded runway shows, auctions, and VIP gala dinners – has extended to tackling the Ebola crisis in west Africa, helping victims of Hurricane Katrina in the US, and aiding those affected by earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. Most recently, Campbell’s attentions have turned to the Middle East, and in May she raised funds for Save the Children and its Syria Crisis Appeal at a glittering benefit in Cannes. “It’s something that had been on my mind for about three years prior to the event,” she says. “When I said I wanted to do it, people told me it’s ‘too political’ and ‘too risky’ but the issue just wouldn’t leave my mind. There was no way I wasn’t going to do it.” The glamorous French Riviera fundraiser saw Hollywood heavyweights Leonardo DiCaprio and Antonio Banderas lend their support to her cause alongside the guest of honor – and Campbell’s friend – Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan.
In February, ahead of the exclusive gathering and keen to witness the plight of displaced Syrian families for herself, Campbell visited Jordan’s Za’atari camp, which is home to an estimated 80 000 refugees. “There were a few things about my time with the children that moved me,” recalls Campbell. “There was an incredibly intelligent little girl who explained to me how traumatized she was from hearing bombs all the time, and how she feared going back to Syria. Then there was another little girl, about three years old, who just stopped speaking. The opportunity to go to nursery and interact with the other children – even for just a few hours a day – helped her find her voice again. There was also a 13-year-old boy who held down about three jobs. He had incredible dreams for his life. He wanted to take care of his family and build a house one day; he had such a drive to learn and there was nothing like his work ethic. I found this more than inspiring. It was their unconditional love for each other and their strong constitutions that really blew me away.”
Particularly humbling for Campbell was the extraordinary generosity that her hosts of limited means extended to her. In true Middle Eastern marhaba fashion, refugees offered the supermodel and activist refreshments, and turned on their valuable heating supply so she wouldn’t feel the cold. The experience strengthened her resolve to bring the plight of disadvantaged people around the world into public focus. “Fashion for Relief does not discriminate,” says Campbell. “We serve all crisis situations and we do not single out what part of the world we choose to help. If something we have a passion for is brought to our attention, then we do it.”
This commitment is matched by the determination she has shown throughout her prodigious 30-year modeling career. Having burst upon the scene aged 15, she became the first black model to grace the cover of Vogue Paris in 1988, and was featured on the cover of Vogue US’s September issue just 12 months later. As Campbell made forays into the industry in Paris, she lived under the watchful eye and strict guidance of Azzedine Alaïa. “He’s not my friend, he is my papa. He has been my papa since I was 16,” says Campbell of the Tunisian-born designer. “I was so fortunate to meet him when I started and to have his care as a daughter. He brought me into his home and helped raise me, and I am so lucky to have him in my life. He truly got me through so many things and I was very protected by him, and still am.”
In the ensuing decade, Campbell sashayed the runway for every luminary in the ready-to-wear and couture cosmos – and her walking days would appear far from over. In Milan, at Versace’s Spring 2018 show, it was a resplendent, statuesque Campbell who strode before the fashion pack, flanked by her contemporaries from the Nineties: Carla, Claudia, Cindy, and Helena. Editors watched agape as some of the original supermodels, with sass now rarely seen on the ramp, stole the limelight and showed the younger generation – Cindy Crawford’s daughter, Kaia Gerber, included – how it’s done.
As for where Campbell stands on the burgeoning beauties of today, and specifically their willingness to give back, she believes that many millennial megamodels have philanthropic sensibilities that run deep. “I think they are mindful,” she says. “All of the models who have done Fashion for Relief are supportive and giving of their time. They are aware, and everyone does it in their own way.”
Campbell wrote the manual on doing things her own way. She’s pushing boundaries, challenging taboos, crossing borders, and endeavoring to use her position and voice for good. Moreover, she’s in it for the long haul. Whether she’ll soon return to the Middle East with Fashion for Relief to spotlight another humanitarian issue is to be seen. “I feel very relaxed in the Arab world,” says New York-based Campbell. “It’s very authentic, with a strong sense of community and family. The region has been extremely embracing to me, and as a woman of color, I feel that I am looked at as one of them. I feel very blessed.”