Naomi Campbell: "I'm open to criticism because I'm a work in progress"
Introducing the final cover star for The Get Up Stand Up Issue. The model, the myth, the legend (the Gemini, the YouTube star, the lawyer...)
Naomi Campbell's story originally appeared in i-D's The Get Up Stand Up Issue, no. 358, Winter 2019. Order your copy here.
There’s only one Naomi. Supermodel, actress, activist, YouTuber, philanthropist… Is there anything Ms Campbell can’t do? Not really. The only thing Naomi can’t do is eat dairy or gluten. She’ll put her life and soul into everything else, whether it’s raising money through her Fashion for Relief charity or redefining what it means to be five decades young (we can’t believe it either). Gone are the days when her name was simply synonymous with glamour and diva-dom. These days, Naomi is on a mission to shine a light on the creative and cultural output of Africa. Two of her dearest adopted family members came from the continent — the late Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaïa was her ‘papa’, the late South African president Nelson Mandela was her ‘grandpa’ — and now Naomi herself is ‘mama’ to a generation of models and creatives whose path she trailblazed as one of the few black supermodels in the 80s and 90s... And the 00s, 10s and — let’s face it — the upcoming 2020s. She’s only just getting started. Long live Naomi!
You’ve recently been spending a lot of time in Africa, especially Nigeria. What brought you to Lagos?
I’ve been all over. Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, Rwanda — wherever I need to go to do whatever I need to do. My dream is to go to all 54 countries.
Why is it so important to you? I realised it’s been overlooked and ignored on so many levels. That has to change. The narrative has to change. People’s perceptions have to change. That’s what my work is about. And I mean that across the board — fashion, music, tech, art, sports... I just feel like when I’m in Nigeria there’s so much creativity coming out of there. In Senegal, there is so much energy in terms of sports. I want the world to know. I don’t want it to be looked at as the ‘Third World’. I want it to be given the same opportunities in education and skills as anywhere else in the world.
Do you have a favourite African artist?
I have many friends who are artists. Everyone knows I am close to WizKid. I know Davido. Fela Kuti. What he stood for was so ahead of his time. I’ve been blessed to learn about the African continent through the late South African president Nelson Mandela, who I called grandad. That’s who brought Africa to my heart in the 90s. It remains in my heart.
What was the best piece of advice that Nelson Mandela gave you?
It was to do what I feel and follow my gut instinct. To speak my truth and use myself to help others.
How important is music in your life? Do you have a favourite album of all time?
That’s too difficult. I love Afrobeats. I still listen to rap and hip-hop. For me, it’s about emotion — that’s what music has to have. Something to pull on my heartstrings. I like bass in my music. Unfinished Symphony is one of my all-time favourites. I met 3D the other day and I was telling him that I could find so many ways to interpret it, because that song is just so important to my life. Music chronicles all of the most important things in my life.
How do you discover new music?
Oh, at shoots. I ask people to give me their playlists, but I also see what people put on their Instagram and snap it. I see when WizKid puts new music up by other people, and Skepta too. That’s how I know.
Naomi, we’re going into the 2020s. What are you looking forward to in the next decade?
I’m looking forward to the new Africa and all the wonderful things that are going to come from this continent, and what is going to happen to this wonderful continent. I’m looking forward to seeing diversity no longer having to be a trend. It is just going to be the new normal. I’m looking forward to businesses no longer needing to set up advisory boards, because they have diversity within their structures. I’m looking forward to being a part of that, and seeing it. I don’t get political, so I’m just speaking about the things that would make me happy.
In Britain and America, we have two big elections coming up. What do you think should be addressed by political candidates?
Empowering the young generation. That’s an absolute given. But if I start getting political, it’s not good! [Laughs] So I just always stay away from it. I have my opinions personally, but I tend not to get too drawn into it because I want to focus on — and maybe this is political — what I know about and what I want to achieve. Not for myself, but for others. Education covers so much of it.
Often, people need to educate themselves — especially on topics such as Africa and diversity. What advice would you give someone?
I say if you can go, go. Because you can learn as much as you want, of course, but nothing beats being there and seeing it for yourself. I took some journalists to Nigeria in April and their whole perception changed when we were there. The people are so beautiful, energetic, creative, intelligent, polite. That doesn’t always gets said.
You famously called Azzedine Alaïa “papa” and now a younger generation of models call you “mama”. Who are your model daughters? What do you try to teach them?
Well, Adut Akech calls me mama. I’m very happy to be her surrogate mother — I know she has a beautiful mother of her own. I’m a mama to all the girls that need me. I always want to be approachable. I feel like I have to speak up for them because sometimes they’re nervous to speak up for themselves. Our business is fast. When they come over to my house, I make sure they’re eating dinner. I want to make sure they’re eating and that they’re not too tired. I care.
When you were starting out, who was doing that for you?
I was very blessed. I had Azzedine, Gianni Versace and Bethann Hardison — I still call her ‘Ma’ to this day. I’ve been blessed. I was protected by people who came into my life and embraced me. It was a different time. It was more intimate then. There was no one between us.
Do you think fashion was a friendlier industry back then?
Of course, it’s more of a business now, but I guess everything has to evolve — I always say that. I’ve managed to keep my fashion family and I love them dearly, more than anything. They’ve been there for me and it’s been very special. I don’t have time for anyone that’s not there with me. The people I love know who they are and I know who they are.
When you were a little girl, who were the women in culture or fashion that you looked at and saw yourself in?
I looked at women with strength. I tend to be drawn to women with strength and independence — women who speak up for themselves, who like other women and embrace them without feeling threatened. My mum was the woman that I looked at most, admiring her strength and perseverance as a single mother. Of course I was aware of Diana Ross, this glamorous queen. Wow! Josephine Baker, I knew because of my mum. But before fashion, I had no idea.
You’re now a YouTube star. What do you like to watch on it? What was the last rabbit hole you fell down?
Oh, you can watch everything! I’ve got a list of new things I want to watch. I met all these young YouTubers from all around the world. I tend to watch more YouTube now than television. When you want to know about something, you can find out. It’s like medicine. Everyone knows I am healthy, and looking for ways to improve one’s life.
People were in awe of you getting on the plane and cleaning the seat.
I don’t think many people do that. How do you feel about trains?
I do the same thing! I do it in any public space.
I don’t take taxis.
How do avoid jet lag?
I don’t have time for jet lag.
Do you have time to read? Who is your favourite author?
Right now, I’m reading The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I have Demi Moore’s book to read, which is a memoir. She is a great friend. I can read anything. I like memoirs — but only authorised memoirs. And I like self-help books.
You’re an actress now, too. Have you been binge watching anything?
So much. I’ve been watching Billions, Pennyworth, Euphoria.... I love British television — I love everything Phoebe Waller-Bridge does. I watch Blackish. I watch The Real Housewives, I’m all over the place.
What are your three favourite films?
Martin Scorsese is one of my favourite directors, and Elia Kazan and Asif Kapadia. I loved The Black Godfather about Clarence Avant, which my cousin Rashida Jones did. I just went to see Parasite, which was incredible writing and so beautiful to look at.
Your Instagram bio says you are a ‘Privacy Law Pioneer’. What does that mean?
It means that I help people in recovery who are going to meetings and have a camera pushed in their face, people outed for doing something good for themselves, something positive.
You’ve been criticised just as much as you’ve been praised. How do you know when to take criticism and when to ignore it?
It’s based on who is saying it to me. I am open to criticism because I am a work in progress. I know when it is given to me in a positive way, even if it’s not what I want to hear. I don’t want enablers in my life. I want to be the best that I can possibly be. But I’m not taking criticism from fucking rags that are coming from a very different place. I know the difference. I’m not stupid. When they come from that angle, I’m coming right back. I’m not laying there, rolling over and taking it. I will speak up.
Privacy is such an interesting word in this day and age. Now that you’re on YouTube and Instagram, what does that word mean to you? What would you never share?
I have my privacy. If you want it, you can have it. I know I’m in the public domain, but me, as myself — I’m not. There’s Naomi the public person and I do what I do — which I’m grateful to still be able to do — and there’s the Naomi behind closed doors.
What do you fear the most in life?
I don’t. If you fear, then fear comes to you.
What’s your greatest achievement?
I’m living and breathing, I can walk and talk and see.
Do you believe in horoscopes?
I believe in mercury retrograde.
And you’re a Gemini. What qualities does that give you?
We are very loyal. Plus, my Chinese zodiac sign is the dog — and they’re also very loyal.
What’s the first thing you do when you get back to London?
I’m probably going to work! It’s always a quickie, in and out. Work and see the family. And I always want to get my favourite English things, like cake or chocolate.
But you’re not doing sugar anymore?
No, I’m not doing dairy, gluten or wheat.
So how do you get your chocolate fix?
There’s dark chocolate!
But it’s not as good, is it?
No, I agree.
Last question. You’re one of the original supermodels. If you had any superpower, what would it be?
Hmm. To get rid of disease? And to bring about peace. Actually I would like balance out climate change. This year we have really seen it, my God.
Well, one thing at a time. There’s only so much you can do, Naomi.
Photography Paolo Roversi
Styling Ibrahim Kamara
Hair Lorenzo Barcella at Aldo Coppola using L’Oréal Professionnel.
Make-up Daniel Sallstrom at M+A using Pat McGrath Labs.
Nail technician Typhaine Kersual at Artists Unit. Set design Jean-Hugues de Chatillon.
Photography assistance Chiara Vittorini and Clara Belleville. Digital operator Matteo Miani.
Styling assistance Sasha Harris, Gareth Wrighton, Joseph Bates, Ewa Kluczenko, Yann Steiner and Audrey Petit.
Hair assistance Domenico Papa. Production Camila Mendez at Cream.
Production co-ordinator Angélique Boureau at Cream. Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.
Model Naomi Campbell at Models1.