… and anti-racism campaigner
“I’m no perfect human being.” When Naomi Campbell stated the obvious on the Jonathan Ross Show, she might have been quoting Grace Jones’s 1986 track “I’m not perfect (but I’m perfect for you).” The “you” in this this context is, of course, you and me and all the other gawkers who have followed Campbell since she became the first black model to appear on the cover of the French edition of Vogue. That was in 1987. Since then, she has rarely out of the news, though often in stories completely unrelated to modeling. Now she is hosting Sky Living’s new talent show, The Face, which has effectively replaced Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Model.
Between the two events, Campbell has not led a sheltered life: in fact, she has crashed unstoppably into practically every kind of scandal you could imagine – she has been a hellcat from the catwalk. Now at 43, you might expect her to be solemn, mellow and, given her well-documented habit of consuming alcohol and drugs, ravaged. She seems reassuringly maturity-proof and looks radiantly svelte. Her latest project is an initiative to expose the dearth of “models of colour,” to use her term, in the fashion industry. Fashion is popularly regarded as colorblind: top models from all ethnic backgrounds sashay at all the major fashion shows in Milan, New York, London and Paris and adorn the covers of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire. When the Streatham-born model arrived on the scene, there was bewilderment: what chance had a young black woman got of crashing into a predominantly white industry? The late French fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent (1936-2008), was a stalwart supporter of Campbell and threatened to break all ties with Vogue if Campbell was not put on the cover. Campbell became part of the elite group of supermodels, modeling for the world’s preeminent designers before, perhaps surprisingly, posing nude for Playboy in 1999. Surprisingly in 1999, that is: over the next decade, Campbell became involved in several shenanigans that served to maintain her public profile, not always in a dignified way.
Elite model agency boss John Casablancas – who died earlier this year at 70 – once described Campbell as “odious” and concluded she was “a manipulative, scheming, rude and impossible little madam who has treated us and her clients like dirt”. Campbell herself believed her refusal to accept less money than her white colleagues at the agency initiated the attack. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the first black woman on the cover of French Vogue, I was still getting less,” said Campbell. She has since reiterated that she was offered less than her white counterparts. In addition to verbal assaults on hotel and airport staff, she whacked her housekeeper (for which she was sentenced to do community service). Campbell won a privacy case against a British newspaper that had published pictures of her leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in London in 2001, while she was receiving treatment for drug addiction. Her brief appearance at a United Nations war crimes tribunal investigating Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, was made eventful by impromptu remark that the trial was a “big inconvenience” to her. Campbell’s turbulent, but supremely newsworthy career, was ornamented with serial affairs with some of the world’s best-known and eligible men. Campbell seems to have made a career rebelling against blandness and, as such, still commands the attention of the global media.
If there is a way of causing outrage, she can find it: in 2009, for example, she modeled clothes by the luxury furrier Dennis Basso. While wearing fur is itself an incendiary act, Campbell’s action was near treasonous. In 1994, she had appeared with other supermodels in a campaign for PETA (People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in which the strapline was, “We’d rather go naked than wear fur.” Tyra Banks, shows, she interviewed Campbell. “I was tired of having to deal with you,” she told Campbell, accusing her of having tried to sabotage her early on in her career. The implication was that perhaps both of them recognized the limited number of places for black models at the top table. Campbell never acknowledged the rivalry, though it became a matter of public record. Last month, Campbell launched an anti-racism Diversity Coalition with David Bowie’s model wife Iman and agent Bethann Hardison. The Diversity Coalition sent an open letter outlining the extent to which a form of institutional racism affects the industry. Hardison wrote, “No matter the intention, the result is racism. Whether it’s the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models, reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society.” (Click for the full text of the letter.) This reflected the general state of the fashion industry. The Coalition pointed out that at New York Fashion Week just 6 percent of models were black and 9 percent were Asian and that fewer black models are used now than in the 1970s. One of Campbell’s first targets was Victoria Beckham, about whom I blogged recently. Of Beckham’s 30 models who appeared at the London Fashion Week, only one was not white. Some may find it strange that Campbell is taking time out from causing mayhem and applying herself to what is, after all, a serious social issue. But maybe the fury that at times seems to engulf her is the result of her own forceful efforts to claw her way to the top of a profession that offers slim chances to black aspirants.