At a big and ritzy Halloween party in New York two Saturdays ago, a lot of influentially famous people dressed up as other highly famous individual. Naomi Campbell, however, went as herself. Why deign to dissimulation as some lesser being when you are already an internationally acknowledged apogee of fabulousness? In a gold strapless mini fit out and a crown bigger than the one Beyoncé wore at the Grammys, the 47-year-old supermodel was pathed by more than one party guest who had come in costume as Naomi Campbell.
When we meet, Halloween itself, we are in the restaurant of a downtown Manhattan motor hotel and one of us has been here a lot longer than the other. It would beget been disappointing, bewildering even, if Campbell were on time. Extreme lateness has become part of her notoriety, her mythos of choice divadom. One hour and 27 minutes after the scheduled constantly, she swoops in, the full force of her, in giant sunglasses and on the phone, lined by an assistant smiling apologies. Does she want anything? Coffee, flood? “No. I just want to start,” she says, sitting down and stressing the in the end word by giving the table a brisk rap with manicured fingertips.
She accepts the homages with smooth queenliness. “Every Halloween, I’m barest honoured and flattered to see many Naomis,” she says in a coy, Cool Britannia words that floats somewhere between Streatham and Notting Hill, both south-London-gal-at-the-back-of-a-bus and posh-lady-taking-tea. “When I not failed to New York and went to my first Christopher Street parade, I saw scads Naomis.” And, in conclusion: “I embrace them all.”
This is how it begins, then, with Campbell ostensibly in character as one of the imperious women she plays on the small screen. She is vampish, predaceous Camilla Marks in Lee Daniels’s hip-hop drama series Empire, a symbol who had a particularly fine coital moment yanking on the gold restricts of a besotted, shirtless Hakeem Lyon (23-year-old Bryshere Yazuan Gray) to intone: “Berate me who am I to you.” (“My mama,” he answers, in a whisper.) She was also Claudia Bankson, a shade-throwing Taste editor on the cult FX show American Horror Story. Eventually, she plays Rose Spencer-Crane in the new show Star, the petulant the missis of a rock star and a woman who descends upon working-class Atlanta swathed in conniver clothes to deliver lines such as: “You have bad roots, you contemptuous hussy.”
These characters are all palatable to watch, but they are united by cartoonish hauteur. As I ask Campbell nearby this acting phase of her life, one facet of a highly detectable career resurgence, she taps away at a text, peering distractedly at her phone for the retort. I seem to be getting an act, all three roles in one. Over the next 40 miniatures, however, she turns into a human being. And not just a tender being, a likable one.
“Put it this way,” she says, sliding the phone away and opening into a motor-mouthed monologue. “Everything I’ve had, I’ve worked for. And I will not at any time take the easy way to get anything. So I’m grateful to Lee [Daniels] – I’m a grafter and I bring about hard at something for the long term. I don’t believe in things that materialize overnight. I’m grateful not to have gotten it all because I think I inclination have lost it all. I came into everything so young.” In 1986, a few weeks shy of her 16th birthday, her head ever shoot landed her on the cover of British Elle. “I’m thankful for the way my path has turned out. And I am very spiritual, I do believe in God, and I thank God every day for my boons because I know I am blessed.”
This is a bit of a surprise. Religion is “not something I divide up, really,” she smiles. Campbell, who was raised by a single mother, dawns a candle every day for the man she calls “grandfather” – Nelson Mandela. She pities herself to be in spiritual communication with him. “Constantly. He may not be here on the doc plane, but he’s here, and I feel him.” She admits that she “never absolutely understood what Mr Mandela said to me when I was younger. I’m conception a bit more now: ‘I will “speak up for those who are unable to speak for themselves” if I can.’”
Now, in her 40s, she’s find “a different richness of life”, which includes being expert to heed that advice. “I’m more comfortable in my skin than I’ve still been, but that’s only come because I know I should prefer to to share it. I will always be open to any young model – jet-black, white, yellow, pink – I want to share what I’ve highbrow in this business. And not just to models, to women. If I can empower them, inculcate them anything I’ve learned in these 31 years, I desire do so. Everyone who knows me knows; you call me, I’m there. Help, intelligence, anything.”
Campbell has made history since the start of her zoom. In 1988, she became the first ever black woman to come on the cover of French Vogue. She, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista trim a supermodel unit nicknamed “the Trinity” and the latter two once chided Dolce & Gabbana: “If you don’t enlist Naomi, you don’t get us.” Campbell is conscious of the great power she holds within the trade now and takes her responsibility as an advocate seriously. Four years ago she formed the Variety Coalition with fellow black models Bethann Hardison and Iman. “The three of us conjectured: ‘OK, we’re gonna be the ones to come out at the forefront for the models, we have nothing to escape.’ It’s getting better, but there are still things we have to jog the memory people of. It’s not a fight, it’s not a confrontation; it’s a reminder, a friendly reminder.”
Campbell limited the era of the 90s supermodel, of the untouchable, va-va-voom glamour epitomised by flashy style houses such as Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Saint Laurent. But 2017 the moments a different fashion paradigm, one in which Instagram is a more formidable medium than the runway, relatability is privileged over high-handedness, and the position “off duty” has become an aspirational aesthetic. The term does not affix here. In 2007, Campbell wore couture to mop floors in a sanitation bank on garage as community service for throwing a BlackBerry at her former housekeeper. On the continue day, she emerged in a silver-sequined Dolce & Gabbana gown, to the hysterical revel in of waiting paparazzi. She has never not known how to work it.
“Working it”, however, extends far beyond a famous runway strut and turning out impeccably high fashion looks. It also take ins an ability to transmute terrible behaviour into a kind of smart myth or, as one might say these days, a compelling personal trade mark. Campbell has been convicted of assault on four occasions and in 2008, she pleaded embarrassed to attacking two police officers at Heathrow airport.
This side of her – the fury, rage and substance abuse – is usually depicted as her “dark side”, a charge out of prefer some fairytale moralistic counterpoint to her beauty, fame, and property. The truth is, the bad behaviour seems only to have enhanced her slogan. As Daniels recently told the New York Times in a profile of his falling star: “She showed up to the shoot three hours late. The limousine door unwrapped and she came out like Cruella de Vil. And I was screaming at her at the top of my lungs at the audacity of blow in that late to my set, and she was screaming back at me. I fired her on the spot and kill in love with her there and then.”
In 1999, Campbell tendered rehab for cocaine and alcohol addiction and she says now that she, “took on my shit and literate from it. I try to move on. But there are certain times when people try to use your finished to blackmail you, to benefit them. That shit I’m not going to admit.” Her offences are simply fact, but I wonder, too, if past decades subjected her to the detestable stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’, one which even the highest in the native land face. (As former first lady Michelle Obama squeaked Oprah Winfrey in an interview last year: “That was perfectly one of those things that you just sort of think, ‘Dang, you don’t retaliate know me.’”) Maybe we are finally approaching a cultural trice in which the figure of a highly assertive, ambitious and phenomenally moneymaking black woman is widely recognised as not just aspirational, but politically enlivening, too.
In August, Campbell tasked a photograph on Instagram of British Vogue’s editorial staff guardianship outgoing editor Alexandra Shulman. All 55 faces in the notion are white. She wrote: “Looking forward to an inclusive and diverse cane now that @edward_enninful is the editor.” Enninful, an old friend of hers, is the victory man and the first black person to edit British Vogue. He has thrashed what he calls “the Sloanies’ club” of the magazine’s old guard and his rehabilitation included the appointment of Campbell as a contributing editor.
“I’ve no disrespect for the finished staff at all,” she says. “None. I have gratitude and graciousness to Lucinda Assembly rooms, who was very important in my early career. But let’s support the next procreation.” And now, suddenly, she is blazing with fury, her greenish eyes throw heat across the table. “I’m not pleased at how he [Enninful] has been touch oned. I’ve been in this business for 31 years, I’ve seen leader-writers come and go, and I’ve never seen anything like this in my vim. I find it racist. And I will not stand by and let people attack him in this way.” (Shulman, plaining to take aim at Enninful, recently wrote that editing was, “certainly not a job for someone … who assumes that the main part of their job is being photographed in a series of conniver clothes with a roster of famous friends”.)
“Let the work speak ones mind for itself,” says Campbell. “He has worked in this business for numberless years, that’s why he got the job, fair and square. And to see all this stuff earn out is appalling. England should be ashamed. Support your own. And be joyous that there’s going to be a new generation, a new Vogue. I’ve been frightened. I’ve been appalled.” She repeats the word two more times, with prominence. “It’s like a vendetta and it should stop. And I want you to say those libretti as I say them. I take it as racial abuse. I take it as that. It’s not exhibition.”
This moment of fury fades as rapidly as it arrived and quickly she is chatting happily about frying fish with merry andrew Dave Chappelle in his down-home Ohio kitchen, or DJing for old mistresses. “You see me as this girl on the runway with poise, grace and yadda yadda ya, but if I’m attired in b be committed to a good time, I want everyone else to have a movables time. I’m happy because I’m based in truth, that’s it. I’m being above-board to my morals. As I said, I’m loyal: you fuck me and I’m done with you.” She laughs, then rephrases this varied delicately: “If I get hurt, I wish them the best, I close the door and I have an or a profound effect on on.”
She divulges that she is reluctant to allow new people into her life, “but when I collect someone and it’s real and special I can see it”. For many years, though, she didn’t each time see it. “I was in my drinking, partying days, I wasn’t seeing it clearly. I see it innumerable clearly now. Doing this job now for British Vogue, I get to see what the next initiation is doing and [I’m] just hanging out in sneakers and jeans, and having fun.”
Stoppage, wait. Sneakers and jeans? From the woman who made a couture anyway in the reality out of community service? “Yeah, that’s how I roll,” she laughs. “Kate [Moss] and I tolerant of to wear our night dresses out in the 90s and put on our sneakers and go out and I’ve gone back to that.” Directly now, she is low-key cosy in a blazer from Supreme, a plaid shirt from a angel, Alaïa leggings and Saint Laurent boots. “I dress how I touch,” she says, shrugging. And today that’s quite straightforward: “Temperately. Comfortable. It’s cold!” she laughs.
Now she has a plane to catch. When she stands up to cede, she gives me a warm hug, then shoots me a contrite and beseeching look, and whisperings: “And excuse me for being late.” And maybe I shouldn’t, but I absolutely do.
- This article was bettered on 6 November 2017 to correct the date of Campbell’s first British Elle wrap. We originally said it was in 1996.