naomi campbell’s forgotten 90s novel is an unintentional comic gem
For the latest instalment of TMZ Theory, Philippa Snow does a deep-dive into 'Swan'.
Naomi Campbell holding her novel, 'Swan'
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.
“I just did not have the time [in the 1990s],” Naomi Campbell once told an interviewer, “to sit down and write a book.” Curious, since Swan -- a novel nominally by Naomi Campbell -- was released in 1994; and yet somehow not curious at all, since nobody expected God to have quite literally put cosmic pen to celestial paper to produce the Bible.
Active as a supermodel for a little over thirty years, it seems unlikely that Naomi would elect to take the seventh day to rest if she were tasked with building life on earth (“I make a lot of money,” she once purred, “and I’m worth every cent”). And if she was not strictly present at the advent of human consciousness, the fact remains that she succeeds in looking more or less the same now as she did in 1990.
Where Kate Moss’ appeal is and always has been her fusion of golden-age groupie beauty with the sensibility of an out-and-out Camden lad, Naomi Campbell has consistently retained the air of having lately been beamed down from Mount Olympus, alternately bored and irritated by the limitations of the mortal world. She is a little over five-foot-nine, but often looks about seven feet tall, her walk an undulating stomp that falls halfway between a dance move, and a threat. To call her, as her Wikipedia page does, “an English model, actress and businesswoman” is more or less the same as calling Guernica “a painting of the Spanish Civil War”, or describing the Sistine Chapel as “a fresco”: it simply does not paint the complete picture.
Campbell's author photo takes up, wholesale, the entire back cover. Cut out so that no pastoral landscape or studio backdrop need compete with her at the height of her powers, it presents her looking coyly back, barefaced and smirking slightly. With a face like this, she seems to ask, who needs a blurb?
So, no, Campbell did not technically write Swan. It seems unlikely that anyone who has read the novel would hold this against her, and it is surprising that the woman who did write the novel has admitted to its authorship at all. It is a bad book, mostly oblivious to its badness, but it also has a smattering of decently crisp sentences that read like lines from an arch, class-obsessed mid-century novella, i.e. “The first tragedy occurred on Venetia’s eighteenth birthday”, or: “My mother was always struck by the fact that she gave birth to her youngest child on the same day that Robert Kennedy... was gunned down in the Hotel Ambassador in Los Angeles.”
The central character, a supermodel with the nom de runway Swan, is an aristocratic Louise-Brooks-alike whose real name is Lavinia Charlotte Crichton-Lake -- a fact explained with an anecdote that I would be willing to believe was from a lesser work by novelist Nancy Mitford:
“My father wanted me to be called Lavinia, after his mother. My mother favoured Charlotte because it was her mother’s name. In the end they gave me both names and added those of my two grandfathers to ensure fair play.”
Swan is a murder mystery, a gossipy portrait of the fashion industry circa the early 90s and a romance novel centred around the extremely likely, very common union of a supermodel and a grey-haired novelist named Rory. It ends with the revelation that a minor modelling agency is not only a secret brothel, but a secret brothel that produces snuff films in its “Death Rooms”; making it a forerunner to Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama in its extreme volte-face between fashion bullshit and unpalatable, unexpected violence. Like Ellis’s American Psycho, too, it features an unexpected cameo from Donald Trump.
There is a River Phoenix doppelgänger called, hilariously, “Water Detroit”, and every Asian character is inexplicably described as having skin “like wheat”, making them sound less like actual Asian people than like spokescartoons from off-brand cereal boxes. One of the six main characters is clearly Stella Tennant. There is a blonde Californian model who bursts into tears every time pregnancy is mentioned or alluded to because she once had an abortion, and a British-Jamaican model who achieves renown for rescuing an infant from a burning building. It is -- and I do not possibly believe this can be emphasised too much -- absolutely, irrefutably, cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs insane.
The real author of Naomi Campbell’s novel is the woman at first listed as her editor, a writer of what is disparagingly and perhaps unfairly referred to as “chick lit” named Caroline Upcher. “It wasn't really even ghosting,” Upcher told The Guardian in 2008. “It was just another novel by me but with someone else's name on the cover… everybody knew it was me, but we all then had to pretend otherwise. I never knew if they did that to garner more publicity. In a way it worked, but poor Naomi came off worse because she was being slammed for something she hadn't really wanted in the first place. There was a certain amount of snottiness at the idea of her being an author.”
If it was not already obvious that the book was written by a middle-aged white woman and not a young, fashionable WOC, there could be no more blatant tell than the inclusion of the achingly Caucasian sentence, “The very word attitude conjured up the look of a black rapper fresh out of jail giving her a whole lot of lip,” which prompts the same level of wincing in the reader as the Louis Theroux episode where Louis raps. Still: there are moments in which Swan
does feel informed by Campbell’s life experience, even if it is not drawn literally from her own reminiscences. When the subject is racial or sexual injustice, the scarcity of black models or the ill-treatment of black women in general, it is easier to imagine her at least having been interviewed, or quoted; to assume that here, she cared enough to steer the narrative.
Campbell’s one certain contribution to the novel is, fortunately, its greatest attribute. Her author photo is presented the way anyone would doubtless choose to run their author photo if they happened to be one of the Earth’s most beautiful denizens, which is to say: it takes up, wholesale, the entire back cover. Cut out so that no pastoral landscape or studio backdrop need compete with her at the height of her powers, it presents her looking coyly back, barefaced and smirking slightly. With a face like this, she seems to ask, who needs a blurb?
With a face like that, who needs to write a novel in the first place? With a novel like this, who ever needed to read it? Nearly 25 years later, the best thing about Swan remains the fact that it must have made the supermodel some amount of money — Naomi is, after all, worth every cent.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.