Supermodel and philanthropist Naomi Campbell is making her mark on the Middle East while juggling motherhood – in her own inimitable style.
“Have you been to Msheireb?” Naomi Campbell is asking me on our Zoom call. When I confess it’s on my list of places to go to, her silky voice rises a few notches. “You must go! And stay there all day because the design of it is incredible. It’s an art form in itself.”
Campbell’s love for Qatar runs deep, having visited for the first time over a decade ago. Instantly captivated, she’s returned countless times, including her guest appearance at the star-studded print launch of Vogue Arabia. The global icon delights in telling me about the beautifully designed wonders of Downtown Doha. “It’s not a huge country but there’s so much to see, so much to stimulate the mind, and so much creativity. What HH Sheikha Moza has done for her country is so inspiring,” she continues. “I love that it’s so authentic, all about families, and very kid-friendly. My daughter loves Qatar.” Almost on cue, the joyful sounds of her 18-month-old happily living her best life can be heard in the background. Campbell is more in demand than ever, and not least because she’s “at the mercy” of her lively toddler. This season Campbell proved she’s still one of the most sought-after models, making showstopping appearances at fashion weeks in Paris, Milan, and London. From commanding the runway for Burberry to rocking a bejeweled jumpsuit for Alexander McQueen, she still turns heads with her famous walk that catapulted her to success. The powerhouse that is brand Campbell shows no signs of slowing down.
Behind the scenes, Campbell juggles motherhood and her game-changing philanthropy projects – the latest of which brings her to the Middle East. The launch of the global initiative Emerge is a unique partnership between her charity Fashion for Relief and Qatar Creates. It aims to empower the next generation of talent through apprenticeships and after-school and university programs focused on various creative industries such as fashion, art, technology, and sustainable innovations.
This was a no-brainer for Campbell, who welcomed the opportunity to introduce Fashion for Relief to the region. Of course, she’s famed for hosting spectacular fundraising galas around the world, and Doha’s couture fashion show will be no exception. The event, led by high-profile fashion houses such as Valentino, Burberry, and Dolce & Gabbana, will feature award-winning designers from emerging regions and is held under the patronage and presence of Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who Campbell is friends with, and “who is very passionate about art. She’s seen what we’ve done in other parts of the world, and we thought it would be great to do something in Qatar,” Campbell says. “More importantly, the purpose was to support those emerging markets and give them a platform. We want to provide more support – rather than just a helping hand – to young creatives in all aspects of art. That’s what Emerge stands for.”
Promoting young creative and business talent with a focus on Africa, the diaspora, and developing communities around the world is something Campbell has been passionate about for years. The late former South African president Nelson Mandela inspired her to use her gift to benefit others. “I think it’s so important to be unified, and for creatives to come together without borders or boundaries to express themselves and what they do. It was very important for me to bring the two cultures together,” she says. “Everyone’s now looking towards Africa [for the next big thing] but I’ve been visiting and working in the continent since 1993. When you have the passion to do something it’s from the heart, it’s not a trend. I’ve always believed in the continent. I’m so proud of what I see, and I want to share that with the world so I’m excited that Sheikha Al Mayassa was open to embracing and supporting this initiative.”
Emerge will unfold in three main events. The Art Exhibition will highlight acclaimed young artists led by the likes of New York-based contemporary Kehinde Wiley, who is credited with changing the face of portraiture with his vibrant and political portrayals of African Americans, including his famed portrait of former US president Barack Obama against a backdrop of exuberant flowers. The Fashion Exhibition will showcase a selection of talented artists from developing regions and the creative business, and event Emerge Talk will feature high-profile guest speakers sharing their inspirational journeys. “We’ve got all different walks of life in terms of occupations,” Campbell offers. “It’s just so important that we get to hear it from professionals that are living there because people’s misconceptions of the continent can be so wrong. It’s great that we can give funds and scholarships, but to have a mentor as part of the deal is invaluable.” While the guest list for the fashion show remains a closely guarded secret, it will undoubtedly boast A-list faces from the worlds of fashion, music, entertainment, and sport, and there are always a few surprise runway stars too. “The atmosphere is always so much fun,” Campbell enthuses.
Flicking on that legendary supermodel switch for Vogue Arabia’s shoot, Campbell encapsulates that star quality that has kept her at the top of her game for over three decades. At 52, her flawless skin, chiseled cheekbones and honed body defy age and gravity. She captivates in clothes by Bianca Saunders, Kenneth Ize, Thebe Magugu, Nkwo, Mason Art, and El Tayeb Nation, the cherry-picked designers showcasing their collections in Qatar. It’s hard to believe the original super turned 50 two years ago. It was a low-key affair during the pandemic. “I spent it on the West Coast of the United States with two of my friends. We were in lockdown, so I was just happy to be sitting outside, catching up with family and friends over the phone, and counting my blessings,” she says thoughtfully.
Just a year later in May 2021, Campbell announced she’d become a mother with an Instagram post of her daughter’s tiny feet in the palm of her hand. While she’s kept her daughter’s name and details of her arrival private, Campbell is open about discussing the joys of motherhood during our call. “She loves traveling and gets excited about getting on a plane,” laughs Campbell. This is just as well with the mother-daughter duo being regular globe-trotters. “My family is in London so we’re in and out all of the time so that my daughter gets to spend time with them,” she offers. Would she consider quitting her New York base to move back to London full-time, I ask? “I’m a citizen of the world,” is her well-versed answer. “When you have to start thinking about schools and look at what’s happening in the world, or where you feel the safest place for your child to grow up is, there are lots of things that will come into play that you may not have thought of before.” Alongside her London-based mother Valerie, Campbell’s support network features a roll call of strong women. We glimpsed a snapshot during her No Filter YouTube series, which quickly became a lockdown obsession for fans, featuring candid interviews with close friends such as Mariah Carey, Serena Williams, and Diane von Furstenberg, to name but a few. “For me, it wasn’t like an interview, it was more a chat with my friends that I was letting the viewers have a peek into,” she adds. “I love and respect strong women, I always have. They’ve gone through their journeys and they’re still going,” she says defiantly.
Campbell’s commitment to female empowerment, social responsibility, and championing diversity remains unwavering. A stalwart in her profession, she made it her mission to become a mother figure and mentor to the next generation of Black models. Riding on the waves of success, African stars such as Adut Akech and Ugbad Abdi are just a couple of names whom Campbell has reached out to and supported over the years. I ask her how it makes her feel to see more Black and mixed-race models shifting beauty ideals and dominating the fashion world. “I’m so proud but I want it to be something that stays consistent and balanced,” is her measured response. Valentino’s Fall 22 Couture show, which turned Rome’s iconic monument technicolour, reduced her to tears. “I was just so overwhelmed to see 42 diverse models come down the Spanish Steps, I started crying. It was such a beautiful sight. I want it to stay that way and I will be an advocate for that until the day I’m gone.”
Does she think her daughter will follow in her footsteps and become a model? “Oh, I don’t know about that,” laughs Campbell. “She doesn’t even like clothes. Right now, she doesn’t even want to wear shoes.” No one has ever dared to run rings around Campbell, but she’s finally met her match, and is loving every minute of it.
Style: Robert Behar
Fashion director: Amine Jreissati
Hair: Kiril Vasilev
Junior fashion editor: Mohammad Hazem Rezq
Production: Ankita Chandra, TrueNorth Qatar
Originally published in the November 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia