American Supermodel Naomi Campbell turned 51 on May 22 and has become a mother. Naomi, one of the biggest fashion icons ever, has always been influential. The birthday wishes from huge figures like Janet Jackson and Lionel Richie on twitter, shows that Naomi still wears the crown of the queen she is.
On May 18, she welcomed her first baby. Sharing a sweet photo of her hand holding the infant’s feet, Naomi writes “A beautiful little blessing has chosen me to be her mother,” Campbell captioned the Tuesday post. “So honoured to have this gentle soul in my life there are no words to describe the lifelong bond that I now share with you my angel. There is no greater love.”
Looking back at her life and career as such an influential figure in the fashion industry, one realises that it has been full of ups and downs through which Naomi has survived to come where she is today.
At a very young age of 10, Naomi learned from her mother, a professional dancer in Streatham, South London, the way of commanding a room full of spectators through the art of twirling her body gracefully. Through dancing. Naomi would copy her mother’s moves through concentrated observation and then play them with as much grace as her mother, each time igniting a passionate applause from those watching.
With this skill that she inherited from her mother, she learnt early that her beauty was not the only way of having the audience keep their eyes on her, but so was, what she called, her “Swagger”. And her accelerated ascent from teen model to one of the most successful supermodels in the world, an unshakable catwalk icon even today, can surely be credited to that attitude, an exhilarating mix of grace and fire that translates just perfectly into that legendary walk.
Fashion Designer John Galliano once said about Naomi who has survived for a long time, in an industry obsessed with new faces, “She feels the music like no other. When she appears to do a show, it’s actually not so easy for the other models. Because she commands. She slays”
Born in Streatham, South London on May 22, 1970, Naomi was raised by her Chinese-Jamaican grandmother Ruby Ming as her father walked out before she was born and for most of her childhood, her mother Valerie Morris toured Europe as a professional dancer.
At age 3 Campbell attended the Barbara Speake Stage School. At seven she appeared in the music video for Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” and at 10 she was accepted into the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts to study ballet. In 1983, she danced in Culture Club’s video for “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya”.
With her immense talent and passion for dancing, everyone thought that it was clear that Naomi, just like her mother, will turn out to be an amazing professional dancer. But things took a different turn when at the age of 15, she met with the head of the Synchro Model Agency, Beth Boldt. “When I saw her, you could just tell she radiated beauty,” Boldt has said. And right after that, Naomi appeared on the cover of British Elle and in 1986 she did her first runway show, walking for Jasper Conran. It wasn’t long before Karl Lagerfeld, Azzedine Alaïa, Isaac Mizrahi, Yves Saint Laurent and Gianni Versace were also interested in this soon to be superstar’s career.
In August 1988, Campbell became French Vogue’s first black cover star. She also became the first British black model to appear on the cover of British Vogue, and the first black model to cover US Vogue’s most prestigious issue of the year, i.e. the September issue in 1989.
But Naomi has always outdone everyone’s expectations as she never chose to stay silent about an issue. It felt like she was being used as a token black model for magazines to look “Not Racist” In 1997, Naomi without any hesitation of a flashback from the audience or industry giants, said to ‘The Guardian’ , “There is prejudice,” And she got a response suitable to her attitude. She sparked a fire in the industry about the issue for which the fans loved her and other big names of the industry appreciated her.
It was in the year 1979 that the term “Supermodel” was coined but only in the early 90’s was the term used on a global scale. Exactly at that time, Naomi was already appearing on magazine covers all over the world and had marked her place in the big leagues of new, outclassing, beautiful and glamorous models and was appearing on magazine covers all over the world
And as expected, there were instances of romantic relationships with other famous people around the world. There were brief romances with Mike Tyson, Usher, Eric Clapton and Robert De Niro. The only one that lasted any distance was a five-year romance with Formula One boss Flavio Briatore, ending amicably in 2003.
But life wasn’t all rainbows and fairy dust. Naomi faced some serious critical times in her life. In 1993 she was fired from her agency, Elite Model Management, for reportedly abusing staff and clients. Then in 2000 things took an uglier turn, with Campbell pleading guilty to assault after throwing a phone at her personal assistant, later confessing that her anger issues were the result of an addiction to cocaine which she later overcomed with the help of rehab.
Adding cherry to the top, there were scandals. In 2007, after pleading guilty to assaulting a former housekeeper, the model arrived for community service at a New York City sanitation garage in a rotation of high-end couture, including a shimmering US $300,000 Dolce & Gabbana gown, a move that was slammed by many as distasteful.
In 2010 she was back in court for the well-publicised war crimes trial against former Liberian leader Charles Taylor. It was claimed he gifted her “blood diamonds” after a party in September 1997, with Campbell confessing she thought they were just “dirty rocks”. Finally in 2010, after an undoubtedly challenging decade, Campbell confessed that she was seeking therapy for abandonment issues stemming from her childhood, which had triggered her earlier cocaine addiction.
But these were the times which shaped her as the person she is today. Living through this dark phase, her career didn’t stop.
She signed up to mentor up-and-coming models on The Face, her first foray into reality television. And tellingly, younger models, such as Adut Akech and Anok Yai, now routinely cite her as a mentor and protective role model. “She’s like a second mother,” Akech once said.
But for Naomi, she didn’t do fashion just for fashion. She was playing a huge role in saving and mending lives through the charities she did. In 2005 she set up Fashion For Relief, a catwalk show and high-profile auction that’s helped raise millions for charities over the years. Her work in Africa, supporting everything from infrastructure projects to advancing women’s rights, started in 1993 and continues today, with Nelson Mandela even naming her his “Honorary Granddaughter”.
Her charity work has generally gone unrecognised due to the many controversies she’s had throughout her life. But in late 2019 she received the Fashion Icon award at the Royal Albert Hall in London, given to those who’ve used their status for philanthropic endeavours. “I learnt today that I’m the first woman of colour to receive this award,” she said tearfully.
This year along with her 51st birthday also marks 36 years in the business for Campbell. In 2016 when a reporter asked why she still tirelessly works, especially when she’s worth a whopping $90 million, she replied, “There’s no plan. There’s no agenda.”
But on the flashy red carpets and in celebrity parties, Naomi has always had a purpose to show up to the big screen. She has always had important conversations about race since she first stepped into the fashion world.
And even with all this, Naomi still likes to party a little now and then even if it’s a rather sober affair these days as back in 2013 the supermodel revealed she had given up alcohol and felt “happier” without it.
Campbell has never been afraid of aging and has always, with a smile on her face, said that she’s going to live her life as she always has, with Swagger.
(Image: Wiki Commons/CHRISTOPHER MACSURAK)