Naomi Campbell needs little by way of introduction. She has, after all, graced the cover of over 500 magazines, appeared in campaigns for virtually every major fashion house and is the runway model of all time, her walk unsurpassable. And, having turned 50 in May, she’s showing no signs of slowing down, launching her own YouTube show and becoming the first-ever face of Pat McGrath Labs earlier this year. Here, in an extract from her book Naomi: Updated Edition she looks back at her extraordinary four-decade career
“I never planned on being a model. It wasn’t something I even thought about. As a teenager I wanted to dance, and I was happy to be studying theatre arts at school. It was only when I met Beth Boldt, the head of Synchro Agency, that the idea of modelling first occurred to me.
I remember the day she spotted me in the street. It was a warm April afternoon. I was hanging out in Covent Garden with my friends, who were blonde and beautiful. I should have gone straight home after school but Covent Garden was always such a fun artsy place, full of music and people dancing in the square, that I liked stopping there on the way back.
Suddenly a woman came up to me and asked if I’d ever thought of modelling. That was Beth. I noticed her American accent – that Southern drawl of hers – straight away. She seemed sincere and kind. My immediate reaction was surprise and excitement, in fact a lot of feelings rolled into one. I look back now and think that if I’d been the agent I wouldn’t have approached me. I’m not saying black isn’t beautiful, but to be picked while I was standing next to my friends – well, let’s just say God bless Beth for noticing me.
It wasn’t long before I was heading out on go-sees after school. I used to sneak out a pair of my mum’s high heels and maybe a leather jacket to throw over my blazer. All of my school friends were excited for me, but I had to keep the modelling work quiet from the teachers at Italia Conti because we weren’t supposed to be taking on work out of school.
I started to shoot with photographers like Tony McGee and Eamonn McCabe. (Eamonn shot me for Company magazine, which I loved because there was a London stamp of approval to it: the clothes were funky and fun and I liked the way the editors put things together.) But mostly I shot with Martin Brading. He wasn’t just the first photographer I worked with but also the one who booked me for my first big advertising job, a campaign for Richmond-Cornejo, the label set up by John Richmond and Maria Cornejo, for which I wore a white ‘parachute’ skirt and peep-toe ankle boots and nothing else.
When I started modelling, I hadn’t wanted to tell my mum because she was so against the idea. When I finally did tell her, it was a bit of an issue because I’d deceived her. I was coming home later than I should. She hadn’t known where I was and being a mum she worried. I showed her some Polaroids from a couple of shoots I’d worked on. She was into them, but in her mind school was still the most important thing. Beth spoke to her a few times on the phone to soften her up and eventually it was decided I could continue so long as it didn’t interfere with my schoolwork or my upcoming exams. (I took my O-levels just before my 16th birthday.)
London was where I first met Christy Turlington, in 1986. A few months later we ran into each other in Paris. By December we were roommates in New York. From our very first meeting she was so much fun. We met on a three-day shoot for the Warehouse catalogue. I was still at school, so I think I turned up for hair and make-up in my uniform. Stephanie Seymour was also there with three other girls. I remember laughing a lot with Stephanie. Even then she struck me as kind of hippyish, but very feminine. She has this amazing sex appeal and she oozes sensuality. She also has a great heart and a wicked sense of humour. A real girl’s girl.
As for Christy, she’d flown over for the shoot from New York and I’d just seen her on the cover of British Vogue. She was lovely in person and very welcoming. We’d only just met and she was telling me I should be her roommate and hang out with her when I came to New York. That’s typical of Christy; she’s the real deal. She enjoys life. She shares her happiness with everyone around her and she’s very loyal. You don’t meet many people like her.
A few months later I met Linda Evangelista at a show in Paris, although my first sighting of her was at our agency. She was with Elite, I was with Elite Plus; there wasn’t much difference apart from the bookers. We weren’t introduced, but I remember seeing her across the room, sitting in a chair with her long hair framing those incredibly beautiful eyes.
Linda’s a chameleon. She reinvents herself constantly. That’s what makes her such a great model. As a friend, she was always the most maternal among us. She wanted to take care of everyone and see that no one was being taken advantage of. She was like a mother hen.
I was only 17 when I left London for New York and moved into Christy’s beautiful SoHo apartment on Centre Street. Christy and I were travelling so much that we weren’t often around at the same time; whenever Christy was away I left food out for her cat.
When Christy and I were in New York at the same time, we really had fun. It was a special time for us. Everyone felt safe. There were no camera phones. We could speak openly and request a song in a restaurant and get up and dance. It was a more relaxed time. As we worked hard, we figured we deserved to dress up and go out for nice dinners or to a movie or concert.
On her friendship with fellow supermodels Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista
I’d bought my own apartment on East 30th Street by the time I was 19. Linda lived in the same building on the third floor; I was on the seventh floor and she often came up for dinner. We were like family.
I liked to cook; it was something I’d picked up from my grandmother. I’d often prepare meals for friends, mostly ‘island’ dishes like chicken and rice and anything spicy. I’ve always had a special feeling for New York and I think that’s because I got my first place there. In Paris, Papa Azzedine [Alaïa] was always there to look after me. But in New York I was really growing up: living my own life, dealing with life’s daily challenges, and becoming a young independent woman.
My schedule was mad. It wasn’t unusual for me to be in New York on Monday, leave that night for Paris, come back on Tuesday and crisscross the Atlantic up to three times that week. (Actually, I still travel that way.) Travelling from city to city, I’d make friends in each country. Now if I go to Turkey, I have friends there; if I’m in Spain, I have friends there, too. Over the years I’ve built up a group of friends around the world.
I have had my challenges as a black model, but in many ways I feel like one of the lucky few. If my career has taught me anything, it’s that you can always turn prejudice around, that you should never give up. Racism is just ignorance.
And I was lucky to have Linda and Christy stand up for me. They told certain designers that if they wanted to have them in their show – which they did – they had to book me, too. That kind of support was unheard of. I will be forever touched. When I got to walk in those shows, I felt a huge sense of victory, but also gratitude.
It was great not to feel alone and to be able to share my success with the two of them. We supported each other. There was a sense of unity and camaraderie. We were truly friends, happy to be enjoying ourselves together. I guess that energy was what people saw when they labelled us ‘the Trinity’. I have great memories of the times we spent together.
When I was travelling, I did at least have my Sony Walkman and I’d spend hours listening to Joan Armatrading, Culture Club, Bananarama, ABC, the Eurythmics, Aretha Franklin, Wham! and the Psychedelic Furs. It was always good to have an Alaïa dress in my bag and a scarf I could throw over the lamp in my hotel room to create some sort of atmosphere. I got my first mobile phone when I was 18 or 19 (a gift from my boyfriend), so I had that with me, too.
When I first started out, Linda and Christy were both really supportive. I wasn’t being booked for certain shows because of the colour of my skin. For whatever reason, those designers simply didn’t use black girls; I didn’t let it rattle me. From attending auditions and performing at an early age, I understood what it meant to be black. You had to put in the extra effort. You had to be twice as good. When I first went to castings in London, I saw a lot of girls who took rejection badly. I didn’t necessarily know them, but I told them exactly what my mother told me: don’t take it personally, because that’s just the nature of the business.”
This is an excerpt from ‘Naomi: Updated Edition’ (Taschen, £100);