She is the queen of scandal, the goddess of the runway and the girl who came from the tough streets of south London to become a supermodel.
This Friday, Naomi Campbell turns 50. The first black woman to appear on the cover of French Vogue, half her life has been spent in triumph and the other half knee-deep in trouble.
She’s been in and out of rehab, arrested for assault and become embroiled in public fights with photographers and members of her staff. Her beauty still captivates and there have been a series of broken engagements over the years.
Past loves include P Diddy, Robert de Niro and, most recently, Liam Payne, 24 years her junior. “Men think I’m a bad girl,” she once told me. “And maybe that’s why they like me. But I’m not like that at all.”
I have interviewed Naomi many times since our first meeting in Berlin in 1994, and have been on the receiving end of cold stares, warm laughter and candid confessions.
Just a year ago, after four days of trying to contact her for our interview, I had to terminate it when she told me frostily: “All my memories are private, so I’m not telling you any of them.” That made me laugh out loud.
Naomi is never boring – she can be moody, suspicious, vulnerable and sometimes really sweet. She didn’t hold it against me when, in 2000, I interviewed her then-dancer boyfriend Joaquín Cortés, who told me he wanted to have babies with several women.
I received a call from her assistant to check his exact words, and time was called on the year-long romance. In recent years she’s kept me waiting for hours, before turning up with her waxing lady and making me wait even longer while she had her bikini line tended to.
For her 50th celebration, Naomi has told friends she will be spending a quiet night in her palatial New York apartment. No lockdown regulations will be broken by this former wild child, who has been convicted of assault four times and famously turned up to do her community service cleaning the streets of New York wearing a £250,000 Dolce & Gabbana gown.
She says she will be “counting her blessings” and “thinking of ways to help others.” Since the coronavirus crisis began, she’s been streaming her exercise routines and YouTube chat show No Filter With Naomi with guests including Anna Wintour and Serena and Venus Williams.
As one friend told me: “You have to hand it to Naomi, she keeps reinventing herself and that keeps her relevant. She is the only original supermodel still headlining runways, despite being more than twice the age of most of the other girls there. It’s no surprise that she’s even more fabulous at 50.”
So as she begins a new decade, is it true that Naomi is a changed woman? In 2000, she agreed to attend anger management classes after throwing her phone in a fit of rage at assistant Georgina Galanis.
In 2007, she was back in anger management for assaulting her former housekeeper. In 2008, she pleaded guilty to assaulting two police officers after being ejected from a flight, and in 2015 she was found guilty of attacking a photographer with her handbag.
But to really understand Naomi, you have to go back to the flat in south London where she grew up, the only daughter of dancer Valerie. Her dad – who she has never met – left her mum when she was four months pregnant. At three, Naomi attended stage school, by seven she was in a music video with Bob Marley and at 15 scouted by a model agency.
She became one of the supermodel elite alongside Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Kate Moss and Claudia Schiffer. But unlike them, her ascent was tougher. “I knew because I was black I had to be twice as good,” she said.
Initially, she wasn’t booked for shows and although by 17 she’d made the cover of British Vogue, she maintained she never earned the same as her white peers and it was only two years ago she got her first Nars campaign.
“Naomi put up walls from the start,” says a friend. “There was a lot of racism, predatory men and bitchiness. Her way of dealing with it was to be hard. And she got into cocaine, which made things worse.”
A few years back, Naomi told me: “I’ve had times when it was hard for me to look at myself in the mirror because I didn’t like who I was. A lot of anger was included in my drug abuse, my alcoholism. I had to make that choice to get clean and change myself.”
She confided then that the most important person in her life was the man she called “father”, Nelson Mandela, who befriended her in 1992. “He always gave me good advice,” she told me.
“But… I’d go on making mistakes and wondered what he saw in me. I cried for so long when he died… And I keep on trying for him. I’m not perfect. I’m always a work in progress.”
In recent years she’s done more charity work with Fashion Aid, children’s campaigns and poverty relief in Brazil and Africa. Last month she shared a clip on Instagram of that time she fell on the runway.
Underneath the clip, she quoted the late Nelson Mandela: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell and got up again.”
Quite. Happy birthday, Naomi!
Who could forget the legendary moment she crashed on to the catwalk floor during Vivienne Westwood’s Paris show in 1993?
Naomi posed for PETA campaigns, including this 1994 We’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur image with Emma Sjöberg, Tatjana Patitz, Heather Stewart- Whyte and Fabienne Terwinghe.
Naomi’s volatility has landed her in trouble several times over the years, especially when it comes to the paparazzi, as seen here in 2001.
The music and model industries collided when she enjoyed a brief fling with P Diddy in 2002, with an epic Vogue cover to make it official.
DIVA AT WORK
Dressed head-to-toe in couture to carry out her 200 hours of community service in New York in 2007.
Strutting the Versace catwalk to the sound of George Michael’s Freedom with her fellow It Girls of the ‘90s, for designer Donatella’s 2017 tribute show.
Naomi and Liam Payne, 26, were said to have dated for four months before calling it off last April.
Accepting the Fashion Icon accolade at the Fashion Awards in June 2019 for her contribution to the industry.
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