Being Naomi Campbell
Many know her as a supermodel but this doesn’t do justice to the force that is Naomi Campbell. Activist, trailblazer, golden-hearted, party girl, global changemaker, humanitarian, mentor are some of the words that have been used to describe her.
On her Instagram account, she identifies herself as a model, actress, cultural innovator, activist, and “privacy law pioneer.” For this interview, she describes herself as “busy.”
This description is quite apt when one pauses to reflect on all that she does. Beyond being just another pretty face modeling brands’ product, Naomi has built a name for herself in the fashion industry and beyond, working as hard as when she first started.
Born in London in 1970, she began her career at the age of seven when she appeared in a music video for Bob Marley for the song ‘Is This Love’
Things moved quickly from there, and before 16, she had already appeared on the cover of Elle and at 18, became the first black model on the cover of French Vogue and later the first black model on the cover of Time Magazine.
In 1989, Naomi became the first black model to appear on the cover of US Vogue for the September issue, which is the publication’s most important edition.
With over 500 magazine covers, features in countless campaigns for designers like Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Burberry, Valentino among many others, Naomi alongside other great models namely Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patiz, and Christy Turlington, is considered one of the most iconic supermodels of all time and is grouped into that infamous group of ‘Supers’.
It was not a smooth sail ride to the top when Naomi started as she faced racism in the fashion industry, an issue that is still very much plaguing the industry. In the past, she has recounted facing discrimination and having the support of others especially Yves Saint Laurent and Azzedine Alaia.
In a chat with The Guardian UK, she said that longtime friends and colleagues Turlington and Evangelista “told designers Dolce & Gabbana they wouldn’t work for them unless they hired Naomi, too.”
Yves Saint Laurent threatened to pull advertising unless French Vogue gave her a cover.
With over 33 years in the fashion industry, Naomi muses the slow progress in eradicating racial discrimination.
“It was only in the last few years that I worked with a black photographer for Vogue and the same thing with the UK newspapers. It’s frustrating to see how slow the process is. There are plenty of very talented black photographers out there, but they never get the opportunity. The struggle goes on.”
Despite the slow progress, she admits that there “have been positive steps like Olivier Rousteing becoming the first black designer to run a major Paris house when he took over Balmain in 2011, aged just 25; the Gap deal with Kanye West and Rihanna becoming the first woman of colour at the top of an LVMH Maison. But there is still quite a way to go.”
Being Naomi, she is not sitting around for others to effect the change she desires hence why she is vocal about racism. Alongside models and activists Bethan Hardison and Iman, she organised a pressure group called Diversity Coalition, to help combat racism in the fashion industry. The group has sent letters to four international fashion weeks calling for an end to runway racism.
Unwilling to allow racism to continue to be chucked down the sides, Naomi adds,
“I’d rather have racism be right in front of my face and know what I’m dealing with than to have it suppressed.”
With her wealth of experience, Naomi is considered a mentor by many and she inspires fierce loyalty from her mentees.
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 affirm that they can count on her for unconditional support. Yai describes Naomi as “my family…my idol”
Speaking of Naomi’s influence, model Ugbad Abdi tells Vogue:
“Modeling can be a scary world, and getting support from anyone, let alone the trailblazers, means everything. Ms. Naomi has taken so many models under her wing. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her being who she is unapologetically. She is the blueprint.”
On her part, she says she is inspired by the creativity of young people and finds it fun.
“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.”
Campbell may have earned her name thanks to her legendary walk but her influence extends beyond the runway. The daughter of a Jamaican-born dancer, Campbell is a proud Jamaican and her enthusiastic support of African people and cultures is unmatched. She told Vogue this year,
“I feel Jamaican, but I also feel African. I just felt very content, very comfortable, very at peace on the African continent.”
Although she says that her relationship with Africa goes a long way back, she credits Azzedine, the legendary Tunisian couturier, who has played a fatherly presence in her life since her teens, and the late iconic Nelson Mandela for cementing her love for Africa. She thanks Mandela for “opening my eyes to the African continent. He gave me the courage to speak up and fight for causes I believed in.” She refers to the two men as papa and grandad respectively.
It is no surprise therefore that Campbell is constantly using her celebrity influence for causes that promote Africa. When Nigeria’s Burna Boy lost out at the 2020 Grammy Awards, she penned a letter to the Recording Academy pushing for an African Grammy’s category. Her love for African music is also evident as Burna Boy and Wizkid receive constant celebration on her social media platforms.
“I’m a massive Fela Kuti fan. I visited the shrine again only a few days ago. I also love new artists like Burna Boy and WizKid, so Africa is on my mental turntable all the time!”
Besides music, she has also shown an active interest in the future of African fashion by lending support to African designers like Tiffany Amber, Thebe Magugu, and Ize, and backing events on the continent from Lagos to Cape Town.
“I am constantly speaking to politicians, business leaders, diplomats, entrepreneurs and anyone who can help build up a sustainable fashion industry in African countries. For example, I have been 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 on 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.”
She says she is currently learning more about the work of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council that supports local businesses.
“They facilitate trade and investment throughout the 54 member nations of the Commonwealth. They are creating a powerful platform for meaningful engagement between business leaders and Government. They are giving new entrepreneurs help and connections in Nigeria and Ghana amongst other countries.”
Outside of modeling, these days, Naomi spends most of her time fundraising through her charity Fashion for Relief, which was founded in 2005. The Fashion for Relief events has raised millions for various environmental and humanitarian causes. It has supported survivors of Ebola in West Africa, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and COVID-19 in the U.K.)
What if Campbell had not ventured into modeling? Well, we have seen her try her hands at acting, singing and writing. She currently has a show on her YouTube channel, “No Filter.” She believes that she could have had a full-time career as an interview on TV.
“I’ve loved talking to great people like Puffy, Mariah, Cameron, Mary J and Whoopi. I was also a coach on the model competition “The Face”, which was fun and a learning experience. It’s been really interesting doing the research and then getting to ask them directly. So maybe I could have a full-time career as an interviewer on TV!”
Campbell turned 50 this year, an age that many would begin to take things slowly but there is no slowing down for her. She says she doesn’t think about age anymore although she takes time off now and then before coming back.
“I don’t think there is an age limit to what we do anymore. That’s been proven by so many people before me who still work. Last year I received the Fashion Icon Award at the Albert Hall. I couldn’t believe it, I was so honoured and moved. I cried! Hopefully that it’ll inspire me to keep going for another 50 years!”
In the 50 years of her journey, Campbell has made mistakes like everyone else and she owns up to them, learns from them, and refuses to be held hostage by them. She has had two convictions for assault – in 2006 when she threw a mobile phone at her housekeeper and in 2008 when she was ejected from a flight for assaulting two police officers. She has been very open about her past drug addiction and overcoming it.
“Look, I’m not perfect any more than anybody else. I’m not proud of everything I’ve done and I’m a work in progress for sure. I’ve made my mistakes. At the end of the day, 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 the situation.”
On how she relaxes when she is not working as a “busy woman,” she concludes,
“The obvious things, like taking things a day at a time and trying not to get too stressed by unimportant things. Having good positive people around me is very important too.”