What is Naomi Campbell like…really?
When women find out you’ve just interviewed Naomi Campbell, they want to know three things: What did she wear, was she horribly late, and did she throw a phone at you?
For the record, she wore a dark Alaïa cardigan over a black-and-white McQueen top. The bag was Vuitton. The shoes were Manolo. She was 32 minutes late. And her cell phone was stashed safely in her bag. Though, for a second, when I asked about her history of misbehavior, I wondered whether it would stay there.
Campbell emerged from the elevators in Manhattan’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, kissed me on both cheeks, and whispered: “Traffic’s a bitch.” Tea, anyone?”
Tardiness aside, Campbell is playing her cards righ. She seems surprisingly serene, in fact; a 5’10” Zen goddess, as she embarks on an unlikely new gig, The Face, a reality competition show she’s bringing to Oxygen this month.
‘The Face’… the pitch:
Campbell, Karolina Kurkova, and Coco Rocha each handpick aspiring models for teams that will contend for the show’s top prize, a cosmetics contract.
The formula one-ups that of its aging-out predecessor, America’s Next Top Model, by adding a dose of The Voice, and is a serious coup for a network better known for comfort food (Jersey Couture) than for upscale fare from bona fide fashion icons.
It’s an interesting gamble for Campbell, too!
“I’ve always been very shy of doing television,” she says, in her Cool Britannia accent. “ I’ve always said no. Not to be disrespectful to anyone, I didn’t want to say yes and then let people down. It was the show’s mentorship angle that ultimately sold her on it. Because it was done for me! she says.
“When I first got Yves Saint Laurent Couture, I didn’t know how to take off a cape. I would ask Katoucha and Dalma, the real divas of the runway, ‘Can you show me?’ I’ve never been afraid to ask for help.” The aspirants on The Face need not fear, she says: “I care for my girls. Every single one of them. I’m not here to put anyone down.”
Naomi Campbell…the diva Supermodel…the woman…
And who better to learn from?
Born in London to a Jamaican mother and a part-Chinese father, Campbell spent her childhood traveling all over Europe for her mother’s work as a modern dancer; by age 12, she had tap-danced in a Culture Club video; at 15, she was discovered by a modeling scout while shopping in Covent Garden.
Her first shoot landed the cover of British ELLE—the first absurd leap of a groundbreaking career. In 1988, Yves Saint Laurent personally threatened to pull his advertisements from Paris Vogue if the magazine didn’t put Campbell on the cover—making her its first black cover model.
And even after Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista famously became known as modeling’s indivisible “Trinity,” Evangelista once chided an Italian brand: “If you don’t take Naomi, you don’t get us.”
Can you think of another model who has been on the cover of Time, sung backup for Quincy Jones, and interviewed Vladimir Putin for British GQ?
Who can make a pair of shoes museum-worthy just by falling off them? (The nearly 10-inch Vivienne Westwood platforms from which Campbell toppled with a peal of laughter in 1993 now reside in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.)
Or whose appearance on a runway, at age 42, can still draw audible gasps from a jaded fashion crowd? After she closed Roberto Cavalli’s show last February, wearing a dress slashed to her navel, Cavalli declared:
“If there was an Oscar for world’s greatest model, then I would give it to Naomi Campbell, no question.”
She’s the founder of Fashion for Relief, a nonprofit that raises money for disaster cleanup efforts.
She’s the woman Nelson Mandela has called his “honorary granddaughter” for her commitment to the African National Congress, among other worthy causes. And yet, for all that, she will always be known to some as a superdiva as famous for her rap sheet as for her hip-swiveling runway walk.
An obligatory review of the offenses, in brief: In 1993, Elite fired Campbell, releasing a statement that “no amount of money or prestige could further justify the abuse.”
Naomi Campbell…the rebirth
In 1999, she entered rehab for addiction to cocaine and alcohol.
In 2007, she pled guilty to assaulting a personal assistant with a cell phone and agreed to take anger-management classes and perform community service. In 2008, she was reportedly banned from British Airways for life, after a scuffle over lost baggage.
In 2010, she became embroiled in a blood-diamond scandal about a handful of uncut stones allegedly delivered to her by bodyguards of the former president of Liberia (who was later convicted on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity).
She’s probably the only person ever summoned to testify at the Hague who declared, under oath: “This is an inconvenience for me.”
Today she leans forward in her chair and addresses the Hague issue: “People acted as if I was on trial, and I wasn’t I was a witness subpoenaed to speak.”
As for the business with the cell phone? “I’m never gonna get away from it. It’s part of my history. I was remorseful and regretful. I’ve served. I did that time. And I never want to be in that position again.”
After a teary TV interview with Oprah in 2010, Campbell took a year to step back and “conquer my fears.”
First on her bucket list: “Alexander McQueen told me to learn to scuba dive,” she says of the late designer, a dear friend. “I could barely swim. But he told me how peaceful it was. How tranquil.”
She also learned to ski. She got back on the horse, literally, taking up riding for the first time since an accident in her early twenties. She went gluten-free. She traveled to Israel. She spent a month in India learning yoga, which she says had far-reaching benefits.
“It’s posture, it’s muscle tone. It’s helped me to calm—I can bring myself in faster than I could before.”
While she was in India, “only a few people knew how to reach me,” she says. “My man was one of them.”
That would be 50-year-old Russian real-estate magnate Vladislav Doronin, with whom Campbell lives large: architectural-gem residences, birthday extravaganzas. Though she’d like to clarify one detail.
Contrary to the rumors, he didn’t buy her a 25-bedroom Turkish estate. “I love the country. But I haven’t had time to get to Turkey. Once a year, possibly.”
In the months leading up to her show’s debut, the channel got plenty of mileage from the old Naomi, or at least her reputation, airing a promo clip of Campbell chastising a young model.
During a visit to the show’s set in Brooklyn, I observe her coaching her two finalists in the art of the red-carpet interview.
Her delivery is classic schoolmarm—loving, but curt. “I want you to write this down,” she tells them.
“Time is of the essence. If someone hands you a gift, they want you to take a photo with it. If you don’t like it, smile. Say ‘It was so thoughtful for you to come all this way to give me this gift.’ ”
Even after the cameras stop rolling, she can still be heard giving them advice. (Asked how The Face would differentiate itself from ANTM—Campbell famously buried the hatchet with Tyra Banks a few years ago after a long-standing feud—Campbell invokes the best defense:
“I don’t watch the other reality model shows. I’ll never have anything to say. If you ask me about Tyra Banks”—for the record, I hadn’t—“I’m proud of her as a woman of color. She’s given girls opportunity, and God bless her.”)
As an executive producer, Campbell’s backstage role has largely been picking up the phone to assure, say, Zac Posen that it’s safe to get involved with a new show on a network known for Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood.
“ I’ve modeled at a certain level, and I don’t want to go below that,” Campbell says. It’s a nice thought, but this is reality TV; the show is decidedly a mix of high and low.”
While she brought in photographer Patrick Demarchelier for an episode and corralled the iconic Pat Cleveland for a guest-judge spot, discount chain Marshalls sponsors one challenge and Kleinfeld Bridal (of Say Yes to the Dress fame) provides the dresses for another.
High, low, good, bad—does it really matter? For a certain crowd, anything Campbell does is a must-watch.
“The first time I saw her cry in an elimination I thought, She’s in this,” says Rod Aissa, Oxygen Media’s senior vice president. “The public will see the Naomi that her friends know. That doesn’t come across in a picture, but it does come across on television.”
- Naomi Campbell’s ‘The Face’ Competes With Tyra’s ‘Top Model’ (mymajicdc.com)
- On Our Radar: Naomi Campbell Designs Clothes (fabsugar.com)
- Naomi Campbell Proves Why She’s Still a Supermodel (bellasugar.com)
- Kate Moss & Naomi Campbell laid bare (fashionising.com)
- Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell Go Topless For Interview Russia (NSFW PHOTO) (huffingtonpost.com)
- Elle Magazine
- Photography: Thomas Whiteside
- Stylist: Christopher Niquet