Naomi Campbell is hard at work in a photographic studio overlooking the rooftops of Paris. Even the accidental flash of a nipple doesn’t put her off her stride. She’s sleek, smouldering, feline, the Elizabeth Taylor of the modelling world, strong as a panther in a pair of thigh-high patent boots and a crotch-skimming shirt. And she’s doing her stuff, facing down the barrel of the lens, lifting her chin, narrowing her eyes, tossing her mane. As the camera flashes, you can see why, at nearly 47, Campbell is still one of the most desirable women in the world.
Yet even after a 31-year career as powerful as hers, Naomi still fights prejudice within the beauty industry. She’s says it’s a moot point that she’s never been given a beauty campaign. ‘I’ve never done one for anyone. People say, “Oh you’ve got beautiful skin” and yet I’ve never done one.’ Why? She gives me a look that says, ‘You know why.’
Although a founding member of the original ‘Supers’ — Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, Linda Evangelista and later Kate Moss and Helena Christensen — Campbell was the only woman of colour among them, the only one with boundaries to crush. Her firsts are many: the first black woman on the cover of French Vogue in 1988, of US Vogue’s famous September issue in 1989, of the European edition of Time magazine in 1991.
Now she campaigns with Iman and Bethann Hardison, both veterans of the modelling world, to keep the numbers of black and Asian girls on covers, on catwalks, in campaigns balanced and fair. ‘The reason why Iman and Bethann and I open our mouths for girls like Jourdan [Dunn] is because we don’t want them to be affected as we were.’
Diversity is an issue that Campbell fights hard for — black models are paid less (in her experience), less likely to be given beauty contracts, less likely to be used in runway shows. ‘There are a few shows that didn’t use black models at all,’ she says of recent fashion weeks. ‘So I will not be wearing their clothes I can tell you that.’
The issue is reflected across the board — even in a post-Obama world. ‘We need to see better representation of our communities in politics,’ she says. ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to see a black leader again in my lifetime. I would like to, but I don’t know.’
She is ecstatic that Edward Enninful has been appointed editor of British Vogue. ‘Of course he is also a man of colour, but it was nice to read The New York Times, which just said ‘a man’. We’re very proud, it’s never happened before. It’s historic. It’s an absolute landmark.’ She adds that she can also start enjoying British Vogue, which until now, ‘I’ve not been a big reader of’.
Campbell’s achievements aren’t confined to modelling. She acts, she sings, she even wrote a novel — Swan — with a ghost writer. Her charity work is significant. Twelve years ago, while watching the unfolding hell wrought by hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, she made the snap decision to start Fashion for Relief — a fashion show walked by her friends and watched by the public. ‘I was in New York just before fashion week and watching the hurricane on the news. I remember calling Teddy Forstmann [the late billionaire philanthropist] and saying, “Teddy can we get a tent do you think?”’ I can’t imagine anyone saying ‘No’ to Naomi Campbell, and he didn’t. Remarkably the production was put together in one week.
Last year Beyoncé walked the show for her. Kate Moss, Jourdan Dunn, Iman, Claudia Schiffer and even James Corden have appeared, and it’s now an annual event, staged to raise emergency funds for appeals such as the Ebola crisis, the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, even the floods in England.
The profits from this year’s show in Cannes on 21 May will go — through Save The Children — to the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Campbell visited last February. It was freezing cold, she says. ‘They’ve got their little gas fire. They only put it on for two hours in the evening. We take all that for granted.
‘And the kindness. They were offering me tea and coffee when they’re on rations. They have nothing. Yet they give what little they do have.’ She was stunned to be asked by a journalist if she was afraid. ‘I said, “Afraid? They are the kindest people on earth.” It was a silly question.’
She finds the idea that the British government has U-turned on its pledge to take 3,000 Syrian children baffling. ‘We should be doing more as a country,’ she says. ‘Everyone should open their arms to child refugees — really. They did not choose this, they’re caught in the crossfire; innocent human beings caught up in a grown-up world of politics. It’s so sad.’
It was Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa — her friend, mentor and adopted grandfather — who ‘really started my love of charity,’ she says. ‘He was the one that made me consciously
aware, because I wasn’t. I was aware to the extent that my mother used to take care of two kids in Ethiopia when I was growing up. But other than that I wasn’t really. He opened my eyes. I learnt a lot from him.’
She travelled with him in South Africa, ‘through the bush, from Jo’burg to Cape Town inland, and all the little townships within. And I got to see.’ She also travelled at other times with teams from the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. ‘I am blessed to be able to say that I knew Mr Mandela for 20 years.’
Kate Moss is still Campbell’s ‘BFF’. They call each other ‘Wagon’, a nickname Bono’s wife gave them because they were so ‘naughty’. She describes calling Moss after returning from Syria. ‘I was like, “Wagon, I’m doing a show in Cannes.” And she said, “What do you want me to do? I’ll be there.” All I have to say is I need you and she’s like, “I’m there.” Wagon: when you need her, she’s there.’
The show is a blast, Campbell says. ‘What makes the energy so great is that the public see the people they love to see on the runway, who they don’t normally get to see. What’s also great backstage is that everyone’s there because they want to be. The atmosphere is really electric. It’s just a great vibe. No one is ever late.’
I nearly drop my pen. Is Naomi Campbell congratulating people for not being late? Without irony?
Campbell, of course, is famously late, or in the PR’s delicate phrasing, ‘sometimes runs behind schedule’. Today I lost count of the hours — three? Four? We were meant to meet at noon, but the light had changed from yellow to a teatime vesper before she finally burst in — a fury of dark glasses, bold Eloise Curtis vintage coat and hand gestures, her entourage cantering to keep up.
In three hours following I was 100 per cent clear that I was in the presence of a diva. Not a small-time, ‘I-only-want-blue-M&Ms’ diva but a full on, gravel-voiced, Fifties Hollywood diva.
She’s also vulnerable, face crumpling like a small child’s when she talks about the orphanage in Kenya she visits regularly, which houses 67 children aged from three to 16.
She was made aware of the orphanage by her ex, the Italian businessman Flavio Briatore (whom she dated between 1999 and 2002). They are still, ‘very close — we are like brother and sister and when it all finished, I was still very attached to the kids. I started to work for them and take care of them. They don’t need much. We get a doctor to check them for ringworm, make sure they’ve got the basics: rice, milk, powdered milk, wheat, sugar. I went kind of crazy last time I was there,’ she laughs, ‘but I don’t like to say what I buy because it’s not my thing.’
Each time she visits she worries they will have forgotten her, ‘but they don’t’. Just recently she took them all on a trip to the beach, and now she’d like to get them two buses to do it more often. ‘Because it’s crazy that they live in such a beautiful place and they can’t go to the beach.’
The orphans made her cry with their singing. ‘They’re all standing there singing this wonderful song, and I’m just like: “Look at these amazing kids.”
‘Mr Mandela always told me, “Don’t cry in front of the kids”, but I can’t help myself. He was absolutely right because the kids don’t know if they’ve upset you. They haven’t of course, I’m crying because I’m happy to be there and they strike a chord. The minute they start singing I’m like “Oh my God”, and it all comes up.’ For a moment I think she’s crying now — her eyes seem filmed — but she recovers.
Adoption is something she’s thought about in the past — is that still an option? Campbell sighs. ‘I think about having children all the time,’ she says. ‘But now with the way science is I think I can do it when I want.’
So she’d like to have a baby rather than adopt? ‘Maybe,’ she says, teasing. Then, more seriously, ‘Maybe… Maybe.’ Would she be a single parent? ‘No,’ she says. ‘I do want a father figure. I think it’s important.’ Is that because she didn’t have a father figure? She stalls. ‘It’s the way I feel today, sitting here talking to you.’
These days she lives mostly in New York and sees herself as a ‘citizen of the world’ — ‘Theresa May won’t like me’ — but Campbell was born in Streatham in 1970, and brought up partly by her mother, Valerie, who is of Jamaican heritage. When Valerie went to work to pay for Campbell to go to theatre school, her grandmother looked after her. Her father had left when Valerie was four months’ pregnant — he is not named on her birth certificate.
Campbell has strong memories of growing up — of trying hard to ‘better’ herself. ‘After school I wanted to do classes.’ She was the sort of child ‘to wash my own socks’. Looking back she wishes she’d ‘been more comfortable in my own skin. Not tried to be anybody else’.
Her mother taught her ‘to be independent, to strive for what you want. That nothing is easy. The word easy doesn’t feature in my landscape, and without her instilling strength in me, I don’t think I’d ever “be” really.’
Scouted at 15, she was quickly catapulted into a modelling stratosphere. It was a time of change in the way models were viewed: suddenly they were personalities, as opposed to anonymous agents of fashion.
And a character she is. It may be this take-no-bull London-bruiser attitude that saved her from the perverts that prowled the industry in the 1990s, but she also thanks a long list of ‘protectors’ — Azzedine Alaïa — who she calls ‘Papa’ — Gianni Versace, Steven Meisel, Mario Testino, Quincy Jones, Christy Turlington, Donatella Versace. ‘I was surrounded by people who were protective and never had to deal with perverts.
‘And anyway I can definitely fend for myself,’ she adds. ‘I had to deal with difficult people, yes. But people would say that about me.’
She’s survived it all, but she didn’t escape unscathed from the fashion world’s blizzards of cocaine. A well-documented addiction followed, as well as a well-documented recovery: tabloids photographed her at a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting in 2001 (despite the accepted code that those in recovery should not be ‘outed’).
‘People tried to shame me about the fact that I went to get help,’ she says. ‘You should never feel shame because recovery is a positive thing. But when I first went, people were not open about this stuff.
‘Everything like this should be talked about openly,’ she continues, ‘mental health issues, postpartum depression — there are so many different things. Come together and help each other, that’s important.’ She is careful not to reveal too much about NA. ‘We’re not really supposed to promote my programme,’ but she actively helps others. ‘My phone is always on for anyone that needs help and guidance in that situation. Like people’s phones and doors have always been open for me. You have to share it back.’
As this is a beauty issue, I ask about her hair. She says years of extensions took their toll and left her with bald patches. ‘I do take more care of my hair now, because I lost all of it with extensions. I am more careful and I do different things.’ Did it grow back? ‘Yes. Thank God.’ She doesn’t see black hair as a political issue though. ‘Everybody in the world wears wigs. It doesn’t matter any more. I do what I want, or whatever the job calls for.’ She has the same attitude to Botox and fillers. ‘If I want to do anything to myself I go pay for it and do it,’ she shrugs. ‘If I want to do it, I do it. It’s like if I want to get eyelashes, I get them.’
Does that mean she’s dabbled? ‘People always say “Oh my God, you don’t look your age” and they look at my mum, and my mum’s got good genes, so…’ She leaves the question hanging in the air with a smile.
Naomi Campbell’s Fashion for Relief takes place in Cannes on 21 May (ticketmaster.co.uk)
This interview was originally published in May 2017.