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Naomi Campbell: ‘It’s time to reset’

an upside of our new Zoom-operated civilisation is supposed to be the abolishment of lateness. It’s harder to justify when the commute is from your bed to the living room. Unless you’re Naomi Campbell, of course. Twenty minutes into waiting for her to join our call, a message pops up from a representative apologising that she’d be a few minutes late. Another 20 minutes and I’m told she’s “just working out how to sign in”. I’ve been expecting the wait, comparatively tame compared to the tales of four-hour stake-outs I’d heard from other journalists.

And then, suddenly, she enters, and the atmosphere changes even in a virtual room, international accent first and then the face that launched 1,000 covers; skin dewy and glowy, goddess-like; impossibly high cheekbones and honey-blonde highlights. “Hi,” she says coyly. Polite but unapologetic. It’s fascinating to witness in real time this acute awareness of her own mythology; an unspoken agreement with anyone she encounters that she will be operating according to her own time zone.

The scene is made all the more surreal for me by how locally her story started. Naomi grew up in Streatham, south London, and attended Dunraven, a school that’s a bus ride from the house I currently sit in and is best known for the hood-famous disstrack Fuck Dunraven, penned by an excluded pupil. It’s difficult to conceive of a time Naomi Campbell was ever “from ends”, occupying a level of fame often reserved for black American juggernauts: Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, Oprah Winfrey. She’s easily the most famous black person in Britain and one of the most famous people in the world full-stop – meeting her feels like facing the final boss at the end of the Black Girl Magic hashtag. When I met her at the Fashion for Relief launch last year, people actually congratulated me.

“I don’t think about the word ‘fame’,” she says, when I bring this up. “I really just feel that I’m me. I’m just Naomi. And that’s it.”

Still, being “just Naomi” means being fashion royalty since puberty, a muse to the likes of Azzedine Alaïa and Karl Lagerfeld, a supermodel of the early 90s alongside Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and others. She, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington famously formed “The Trinity”, who now quaintly share a WhatsApp group.

“They really put themselves out there, Linda and Christy, in terms of supporting me with designers back in the day who hadn’t used a model of colour yet,” she says. “We were friends outside of work.”

Indeed, it’s well known the pair once famously told Dolce & Gabbana: “If you don’t take Naomi, you don’t get us.” Racialised sidelining would be a theme in her early career, though her impact on the fashion world was near instant. Naomi started modelling at 15, in 1986, and covered British Elle just before her 16th birthday. Two years later, she became French Vogue’s first black cover girl. By 1989, two more covers: the first British black model to front British Vogue, and the first black model to cover US Vogue’s most distinguished edition of the year, the September issue. In January 1990, she was declared “the reigning megamodel of them all” by Interview magazine.

These career highlights were not without difficulty. In a recent Woman’s Hour interview, she recalled crying at the sight of her 1988 Vogue Italia cover because of her “grey” makeup. The makeup artist didn’t have her shade, he said, because he didn’t know she was black.

“Now it’s OK to speak up, right?” she says. “But when I spoke up when I was younger, I was ‘difficult’.”

There was similar strain in the lead-up to her French Vogue cover, which came about after her friend and mentor Yves Saint Laurent threatened to withdraw his advertising from the publication if they continued to leave black models off their covers. Still, she does witness breakthroughs. Last year, she noted that her Guardian Weekend cover marked the first time she had ever worked with a black photographer “on a mainstream publication”. This year, she had her first black photographer for a Vogue publication. She finds it galling that these are still milestones to pass.

“Everyone is like, ‘Oh, wow!’ But really, it’s not, ‘Oh wow.’ It’s, ‘Oh, my goodness, that’s shocking,’” she sighs. “I didn’t realise it when I was shooting [the Weekend cover], it was afterwards. And suddenly I start going back through my life and my work life and realise I haven’t had that opportunity before. There are plenty of black photographers out there, but they never got the opportunities.”

There’s still a great deal to celebrate in terms of her own history making. This year, she became the first ever face of Pat McGrath Labs makeup line, launched by the renowned black British makeup artist in 2015, who Naomi has known for over 25 years. At the height of quarantine, she appeared on the May/June cover of black magazine Essence in celebration of both their 50th birthdays. She did her own hair, makeup and styling for the shoot, capturing the images on her iPhone.

“There was a definite fear factor to that,” she near-laughs. “I learned how to use the clicker, Bluetooth and all this stuff that [Essence] kindly sent me. That was a challenge, but we have to adapt.”

This ability to adapt is as integral to brand Naomi as her signature strut – she has managed to stay generationally relevant at the forefront of an entirely trend-led industry. Gen Z have come to fall for a more motherly iteration, affectionately dubbing her “aunty”. She laughs, properly now, when I ask how she feels about this new appellation.

“I don’t feel old,” she assures me. “Even when I was called aunty 10 years ago. I’ve never felt old. I find them sweet!”

This shift was solidified in July last year by a viral YouTube video of her inflight sanitising routine, depicting levels of both hypochondria and clean-freakishness that immigrant children know well (her choice of Dettol as cleaning agent reminded many a Tweeter of their Jamaican mum). “Clean everything you touch, anything that you could possibly touch,” Naomi instructed fans, wiping down the TV screen, pull-out tray, remote. She finished off her pre-Covid precautions with a pair of gloves and mask, which made her pandemic-era upgrade to full hazmat suit and goggles a whimsical but logical leap, and one the internet lapped up.

Years ago, she dominated headlines for very different reasons. In 2000, she pleaded guilty to assault after throwing a phone at her personal assistant. Seven years later, she pleaded guilty to assaulting a former housekeeper. She arrived for community service at a New York City sanitation garage in a glittering $300,000 Dolce & Gabbana gown, a move that was panned by the press as petty – the very reason her legion of younger fans love it. Other controversial examples from her past live on in gifs. Naomi taking the witness stand in the “blood diamonds” trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor is immortalised in a meme often used to display eye-rolling disbelief. It is captioned: “She’s reaching, your honour.”

“I’ve seen some of the memes,” she shrugs. “They make me laugh. I only recently figured out how to send a meme. Someone sent me one and I was like, ‘How do you do that?’”

The youth celebrate the hedonistic Naomi suspended in 90s decadence alongside the matriarch they now know from No Filter with Naomi, her YouTube show, where she interviews fashion innovators. Her first foray into reality TV was as a coach on modelling competition The Face, where she frequently cut contestants down to size. A filter has not been added for her YouTube channel, nor for Amazon’s Making the Cut series, on which she is a judge. But she says young models appreciate the tough love approach. She’s taken a number under her wing, such as Anok Yai and Adut Akech, who has referred to her as a “second mother”.

“I’m bossy and motherly,” Naomi says. “And I don’t want to see my babies go in the wrong direction, if I can say, ‘Don’t do that, do this.’ I don’t put my nose in, but if I’m asked, I’m going to give my opinion. And when they come running to me, I’m gonna pamper them.”

With a career spanning decades, she prides herself on having seen it all, the peaks and troughs of diversity, black falling in and out of fashion. At the moment, things seem to be moving in the right direction. Virgil Abloh is one of the most sought-after designers. Olivier Rousteing became the first black designer to run a major Paris house when he took over at Balmain in 2011, aged just 25. Gap recently inked an apparel deal with Kanye West. Fenty is the first fashion brand launched from scratch by LVMH since Christian Lacroix was founded in 1987, making Rihanna the first woman of colour at the top of an LVMH maison. Much of the diversity we see with models now, Naomi notes, she lobbied for with Bethann Hardison and Iman via the platform Diversity Coalition.

“Now I want to see them pay models of colour in the right way,” she says. “Now I want to see that the board seats are given, and no: ‘Let’s make a diversity board for this.’”

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to create change, there is also a touch of cynicism about the now-vocal voices that were silent when Naomi decried a lack of industry diversity before it was deemed “in” to do so. “I’m sticking to the people that I’ve spoken to before,” she scoffs. “I’m not trying to jump on any new bandwagon. So, now we’re allowed to speak up? We weren’t allowed to before – who’s given the permission? I’ve given myself the permission – if I feel a certain way and I’m in a situation that I don’t think is right, I’m gonna speak it.

“I understand that a lot of people didn’t want to then, or thought, ‘If I do, am I gonna lose my job?’” she continues. “I get it. Listen, better late than never. But I have not changed in this aspect, in terms of what’s going on in the world now, from how I was 15, 20 years ago.”

It is this consistent push for change, paired with past mistakes, that’s made her such a compelling figure. Decades of charity work have been at times obscured by scandal. In 2005 she set up Fashion for Relief, a catwalk show and auction that’s raised millions for various charities. Last year, she was awarded the Fashion Icon award at the Royal Albert Hall in London for her contributions to the fashion industry, as well as her philanthropic work. The honour reduced her to rarely seen tears. “I learned today that I’m the first woman of colour to receive this award,” she said in her speech, voice cracking. And, of course, there’s her ongoing work in many African nations, supporting everything from infrastructure to women’s rights, a love affair that started in South Africa in 1993 and saw Nelson Mandela name her his “Honorary Granddaughter”.

“I just love the people, love the vibe” she says. “It’s just been a continent that’s just been ignored and only cared about for their resources. What about them as the wonderful people that they are?”

Last year marked Ghana’s Year of Return, a government initiative intended to encourage African diasporans to come to the continent to settle and invest. But Naomi’s interest predates this most recent “Africa rising” narrative. She helped to relaunch Arise Fashion Week in Lagos in 2018, and championed the Afrobeats music scene before it was embraced by the west. This year she demanded an African Grammys category, and is pushing for an African edition of Vogue. “I’m optimistic about it,” she says. “This [period of time] is a reset. Anything that you ever wanted to do or try or achieve, this is the time to do it.”

I suggest that the UK launching its first ever official Afrobeats chart last month is an example and she bolts up excitedly, offers her first smile with teeth. “When did that start? What station? But now will there be proper Afrobeats awards? There should be. And across the board, in all music awards. I hear [Afrobeats] everywhere I go. Before lockdown, everywhere.”

It’s more likely now than ever. After the launch of the chart came the Disney + release of Beyonce’s long-anticipated Black Is King album, which pays homage to Africa’s diverse cultures. It features artists from across the continent. Campbell herself appears in the Brown Skin Girl video, alongside Kelly Rowland, Lupita Nyong’o and her mentee Adut Akech. The album has elicited largely positive reactions, though the Chicago rapper Noname wrote it off as “an African aesthetic draped in capitalism”, and it has reignited But the so-called “diaspora wars” continue to plague online spaces.

“Diaspora wars?” Naomi repeats, confused. I explain to her that it references the mainly digital infighting among the world’s black communities: African Americans vs Black Brits, Caribbeans v Africans, everyone versus Nigerians. “There’s no time for that,” she tuts. “In order for this to really work and grasp this that is our time, we have to be together. There’s no other way. There’s no time for separating. I’m not into that,” and she shoos the notion away with an elegant flick of the wrist. How could she be, when so many across the diaspora feel they have a personal stake in celebrating her success as theirs; as a “Jamaican aunty”, as Mandela’s granddaughter, as the south London schoolgirl who conquered the world?

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