Original, powerful, unforgettable, Naomi Campbell made her groundbreaking entrance into modelling in 1986 and has been fighting to change the fashion world ever since. Louis Wise rings the icon for a lively midnight phone call as she prepares to celebrate her 50th birthday — and big names in the fashion world share their memories.
Naomi Campbell turns 50 this month and, after more than three decades in the fashion business she can exclusively reveal the product she has always sworn by. "Dettol!" the British supermodel exclaims down the phone from New York in that unmistakable honey rasp — her accent, which swings between classic sarf Lundin and old-school Hollywood drawl, most definitely more the former here.
They don't know it in the Big Apple, she tuts, but, "I grew up with Dettol. Dettol is part of my life." She rewinds to her childhood, being raised in Streatham by her single mother, Valerie. "When I came home from school, because I went to theatre arts school, I'd have to wash my leotard and ballet tights every day and hang them to dry. You know, that's something I was raised with."
I'm trying to join the dots in that dizzying trajectory from little Naomi, with her well-scrubbed leotards, to the Campbell we know now. She is, of course, one of the original supermodels, emerging in the late 1980s to offer a brand-new synergy of fashion and mainstream culture alongside Cindy, Linda, Christy, Tatjana and, later on, Kate. A muse to the likes of Gianni Versace and Azzedine Alaia (her "papa"), Campbell has shot every campaign and walked for every relevant designer, showcasing the legendary "Naomi Campbell walk", so famous that it's a Beyonce lyric (in the 2006 hit Get Me Bodied), so good that it even works out when she falls over doing it, as in Vivienne Westwood's catwalk show in 1993.
To say that she has diversified would be to put it mildly, when you consider the acting, dancing, singing (ahem), the television-presenting (Making the Cut, The Face), the writing, the Sindy dolls and the own-name perfumes, meaning she is estimated to be worth about £30m today. Then, of course, there is her activism, most notably through her Fashion for Relief charity, raising funds for victims of various international crises. Basically her level of fame is the pure, unadulterated, premium-level stuff: just say "Naomi" and you know.
More to the point, though, she has known how to adapt. Her love of Dettol should come as no surprise to those who saw the video that went viral last year, which showed her diligently wiping down every corner of her aeroplane seat before take-off. If it looked a bit cuckoo at the time, it now looks prescient in a Covid-19 world. But that's a feeling she's used to, she says, holed up in quarantine in her apartment, which you get glimpses of in her YouTube videos and is populated with photographs from her illustrious past. "People have laughed at me and called me names under their breath and all sorts for years. But you know what? That's not my problem, that's theirs."
Despite the world being in lockdown, Campbell actually seems to be thriving. Today I've already seen her broadcast her workout to her more than 8 million followers on Instagram and host a daily chat show, No Filter with Naomi, on her YouTube channel, Naomi. Guests have included Marc Jacobs, Cindy Crawford and Sharon Stone.
It's 12.45am my time when she comes on the phone in New York; if my eyelids are beginning to droop, then Britain's legendary supermodel should be worth the wait. It's actually she who is tired, I'm told before she comes on the line, even though it's only 7.45pm over there. Hey, Naomi! "Hey," comes the voice, the raspy honey tones a little flat. How are you? "Good, thanks." Busy day? "Yeah." Oh God. How much can a woman ever really change? No Filter with Naomi is an all-star line-up, I venture. "It's not necessarily all stars," she corrects me. "It's just people who are my friends." In other words it's her normal, which is anything but.
I wonder which other versions of Campbell I'm going to get. After all, she has been characterised as the ultimate diva: in a 2000 interview she told Barbara Walters she happily accepted the title "bitch" ("but a hard-working bitch and a loyal bitch"). Then there have been the well-documented tantrums and fallouts, the four convictions for assault and the time in 2010 when, summoned to a war crimes tribunal in Holland to give testimony in the trial of Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, she had the gumption to tell the judge: "This is a big inconvenience for me."
Over the past decade, however, she seems to have reached a new level of peace and the world has fallen for her again. Last December she received the Fashion Icon award at the British Fashion Awards — the first woman of colour to do so — and brought the house down with an impassioned speech ("This award is for the girl that's always been told no"). And it has turned out she has often been ahead of the curve, whether championing diversity in the industry by supporting new talent such as Adut Akech and Campbell Addy or promoting the potential of her beloved Africa. She was famously close to Nelson Mandela — "President Nelson Mandela," she says grandly, "or Grandad, as I liked to call him. Tata." This is obviously Stately Naomi in full flow. During our chat I also get Silly Naomi, Sullen Naomi and Spiritual Naomi — she'll say, seven times, that she is "blessed". But surely it's good she is aware of it?
When she received her Icon award, it was noticeable that a big chunk of Campbell's speech went to thanking her mum, Valerie, who raised her as a single parent — she has never met her dad. Valerie is in London during lockdown but they speak every day. Campbell says she feels more connected than ever to her British-Jamaican roots. "If it ever came into play, it's now," she says of quarantine. "It's humbling — because everything I ever saw my grandmother and mother do is coming into play now: the things that they cook, things that they did [in the home]." This seems mostly to mean giving the house a good old scrub. "Jamaican families are like that — that's how we were raised." She insists she still does it now and promises that it's very therapeutic. "Listen, no one can clean your house better than you. Nobody. Noooo-body."
Campbell baulks when I ask if she has ever contemplated retirement. "I don't like the word 'retire'," she says firmly. "If I don't wanna do it any more, I just won't do it. But I'm never gonna say that. I'm someone who's extremely active. I like to be active and I think I'm always going to be active." Obviously, though, it's a nice moment to look back.
Ask her which photographers have been most influential on her career and she singles out Steven Meisel, who first shot her when she was 16. "I didn't know how to pose, so I learned a lot from him," she says. "I learned from most of the photographers because I came from classical dance, so I had no idea what was going on. I was just like, 'I'll use that and try to incorporate it and see if that works, see if I get away with it!'" She gives a girlish cackle. She also lists Peter Lindbergh, Herb Ritts, David Bailey, Terence Donovan and "most importantly, Martin Brading, who was the first to ever shoot me". This was for Elle in April 1986 in New Orleans, a month shy of her 16th birthday. "It was all so thrilling and just eye-opening, like a child in a candy store," she says. "It was like, 'I'm in America!'"
So here she is in the US for quarantine and she is facing the crisis with her well-earned philosophy. "I think being in recovery has been so helpful to me in this time," she says — she first entered rehab more than 20 years ago for addictions to cocaine and alcohol — "because there's a certain discipline in being in recovery". Is that discipline about knowing when you're feeling lonely? "I mean, I reach out," she says. "I've always believed in the saying, 'Being alone doesn't mean you're lonely.'" Campbell has dated Robert De Niro, Mike Tyson, reportedly the British rapper Skepta but, if she has a man on the go right now, she isn't saying. "When I wake up in the middle of the night, I can just reach out to my phone," she says. "I'm on group chats. Someone will be, like, 'Anyone awake?' and someone else will be, like, 'Yeah!'"
Over the years it does feel as if Campbell has become more accessible — and more willing to be in on the joke. Just check out that YouTube channel, which features her talking us through her extensive wellness regime (she's potty for oregano oil) or shopping in Whole Foods ("No gluten, no wheat, no dairy? What the f*** am I gonna eat?") or that video of her cleaning her plane seat, a routine she adopted nearly 20 years ago. "It's doing what makes you feel comfortable," she reasons. Likewise, in lockdown, she insists that she has to get dressed properly every day, even if working from home. "I'm not lounging around in my pyjamas, no. It doesn't give me good self-esteem." Her desire to chill obviously keeps rubbing up against the supermodel in her. If, for instance, she cackles that she is "very happy to not be in high heels", she is almost shocked a second later when I suggest she might be fed up with them in general. "I love high heels!"
Does she feel better understood now? "I don't know. I think nobody's better to talk about yourself than you." I think she means worse, not better, but I quite like the slip. What would she tell her younger self? "I would say, 'Do all that you wanna do. If you know you have the energy and strength to do it, go ahead and do it. Go for your passions, go for your desires. And don't listen to what anyone says. Only you know what you can do or how far you can go.'" Ooh, I say, that sounds quite "no regrets". A pause. "I didn't say that," she says firmly. "I said what I said. That's you who said that."
As for that landmark birthday, she promises she hasn't been thinking about it. There were "so many different ideas" before Covid-19 kicked off, she sighs. "Frankly, if I am here on May 22, in isolation, I'm blessed." She is much more focused on this current situation. "I wanna get everything out of what we're supposed to get out of this. I'm no saint, or whatever, but I wanna be still enough to catch this wave." Soon after she rings off with a purred "thank you" — "Still Naomi", a surprising new addition to the repertoire.
Written by: Louis Wise
© The Times of London