Towards the end of my afternoon with Naomi Campbell I ask her, ‘Do you think you are beautiful?’
“Mm, no… But I think I’m a bit of a character.”
I fall about laughing, but she doesn’t even realise she is being funny, and that kind of sums her up. She has absolutely no idea how the world sees her, mostly because she’s operating in her own universe where she is in equal parts cossetted and searingly insecure.
What protects her also destroys her. She says she’s never happier than when she’s on a plane. Puts on her iPod, shuts out the world. And her home is in fact, “an aeroplane seat, not a country.”
Two days ago she was in Brazil, yesterday New York, today Claridges, tomorrow Kenya.
If you wonder why after 20 years the woman who doesn’t think she’s beautiful is still at the top of her game, it’s because she works hard. She’s driven by not being good enough.
While her career is splendid, her love life is not even intact. A bit difficult when your home is an aeroplane seat. But she knows she’s made some terrible mistakes there and best not to be looking, best just to get on with her “recovery.” Which would all seem sensible if Naomi was the kind of girl that didn’t need a man to love.
Oftentimes people comment about meeting Naomi and you can see they are just waiting for the fireworks to go off. It’s easy to light a little sparkler or two and watch her flash with a hot line of invective or blink a kind of lunar remoteness.
Fortunately Naomi has never been that way with me. Maybe I see a different Naomi to the world as well. Sure, she’s always late. In this case, a day late because she missed a plane. But the thing is, she always makes up for it, she’s always worth it, even if she doesn’t think she is.
I see Naomi as a woman with a heart of gold always trying to explain herself and getting herself into worse trouble if people don’t get her immediately.
We first met over a decade ago after an unfortunate flight to New York. A police escort was waiting at the gate because there’d been an air rage incident, mine not hers. I was flying to New York to interview her but she was actually on the same plane. When we eventually met I think there was huge empathy just because nobody likes to be alone in their anger.
Naomi has done anger every bit of the spectrum, from righteous indignation in the case of being papped by the Mirror outside an NA meeting and called a “chocolate soldier” to mobile phone throwing at friends, assistants and the floor, now channelled into daily boxing. In a gym at 7am. She says she’s never late for that although she is late for everything else. Angry, late, gorgeous and a national treasure.
She is just out of her bath. Last night she got straight off the plane to go out with Alexander McQueen and Jasper Conran to Nobu Berkeley. Got in at 2am, woke up at 4am. She says she doesn’t need much sleep.
She is wearing dark skinny jeans, high strappy boots and a black angora fuzzy shrug and flashes with sparkly diamonds. She wants to go to Churchill’s bunker. It’s all arranged. “You’ve got to see it. He controlled World War II from there. Every hotel I’ve gone to in the world as a Churchill suite – Thailand, Morocco, Paris. I’ve just always had admiration for him, the way he lived his life was to do with what he wanted to do and live to the fullest, and he travelled.”
Do you identify with that bit?
“The travelling part.”
And the living life to the fullest?
She’s got a day in London and she wants to fit in Louis Vuitton and Churchill and me. She was recently in St. Petersburg with Marc Jacobs which seems to have given her a taste for museums and monuments.”Catherine the Great. Her carriages freaked me out. Diamonds in the doorknobs and in the spokes of the wheels.”
Perhaps she’s more Catherine than Churchill. She shows me the pictures of the diamond wheels and of Willie Nelson’s bashed up guitar.
“I just love taking pictures, documenting everything I see. Showing people where I’ve been. I love to travel and I love planes. A plane for me is peace, no-one can reach me.”
And this is just the start of the contradiction. No-one can reach her yet she badly wants to be reached. She wants stability, but she only finds that by getting on a plane. This summer she was based in New York because she took her mother there to help her recover from breast cancer.
“I stayed put until she got in remission and we’re basically crossing our fingers. I’m very positive about it,” she says, and there’s a certain pleadingness. She needs to be positive about it.
“I lost my stepmother last November, Mary Blackwell.”
Mary Blackwell was the wife of Chris Blackwell who she calls “my dad Chris.” She has several adopted father figures and one adopted grandfather, Nelson Mandela. But more of that later.
Now she wants to talk about her loss and death and Deepak. She has a curious way of monologuing; random, urgent, and although often the thoughts don’t connect up in a linear way they are fuelled by her internal logic which is in itself breathtaking and endearing, so you go with it.
Mary Blackwell had melanoma. “Which is very rare for a black woman. She decided not to do chemo. I went to visit her in this cancer hospital and I was disgusted with the way her room was and they were telling me to put on a green mask, and I was like, I’m not doing that. I was wearing a Chanel coat. I didn’t mention the word cancer to her, we were just catching up, and then I said I hate this room, I’ll give you this coat if you can get out, you’re strong. Three days later my dad called and said, ‘She’s out.’
“She was a big fan of Deepak. I thought he was like just a fad, but she went to his retreat in San Diego and she came back so strong. And I think now I respect everyone’s decision to do what they do. I used to do kabbalah, and it’s very much like the AA to me, a spiritual programme. It helps you, you just do whatever helps you. Anyway, the Deepak helped her, and I organised the wedding for her and my dad even though they’d been together for 18 years already.
“She was shopping till two days before she died. Then boom. They took her to some funeral home and it was awful and I thought I’m not having her here. So I was like, ‘Dad, we have to take her up to Harlem. That’s where her church is, I want orchids and candles and an up service.
“The funeral home had done this make-up for her, it was awful. I wiped it off her, I redid everything, fixed her hair. I’ve never spent so much time with a body before. I knew her soul was already gone and it was a big learning experience because it made me not afraid of death any more and now I know she’s still around me all the time.. Not afraid of my own death,” she says quietly, but as if it’s a matter she’s thought about a lot.
“I was already halfway there, but this was a big confirmation for me. When it’s your time, it’s your time.”
The image of Naomi painstakingly re-doing the make-up on the body chills me because she speaks about it with such warmth. She means it to be uplifting, which makes me find it the more dark.
Can we talk about something trivial?
“I just want to say that I feel Mary is always guiding me. And you know I was with Jasper last night and he loved her energy and she had this great eye and she had a home line that she was trying to do and I’d love him to be able to put it out so that everyone could share a piece of her.”
I ran into Naomi at a party of Jasper’s and she was vulnerable and I said a few kind words and the thing with Naomi is she likes to pay you back treble, a million fold, for any act of random kindness. It was her idea to do the interview, not because she has anything to promote, although she has endless charities. It wasn’t about that, it was just about doing me a favour. She is a loyal girl.
“My mum’s doing so much better. It was the hardest thing for me to make decisions about her. The hardest thing was me getting my mother to come to America. I understand she didn’t want to leave her sisters and her brothers and her mother, but I just thought the American hospital would be better for her to recuperate in and I wanted her there and she liked it in the end. My mum’s a fighter, I’ve got that from her, I know she’s a fighter.”
Speaking of fighting.
“Oh, no, perlease.” She looks at me a little bit fierce, a little bit hunted animal. She doesn’t know which fight I’m going to bring up.
“Nicole Ritchie. That was all bullshit.”
Actually, I was thinking of your friend Yvonne Scio.
“I have no comment on that.”
This was an alleged mobile phone throwing incident after the friend turned up late and in the wrong outfit, according to the tabloids. According to Naomi, “She didn’t respect my recovery and I don’t want to go into it. I like Yvonne. She’s been my friend for a long time. I’m surprised at the angle she took on this. I would love to speak with her, I was just so surprised.”
She doesn’t actually confirm what did or didn’t happen. I think genuinely because she doesn’t want to make anything worse. She’s often said things like, “Anger comes from insecurity.” Is that what it was about?
“Not so much. I’m at a point where I won’t let people push my buttons, I just want to walk away. It’s taken me God knows how many years. I’m 35 now and it hurts sometimes to think, ‘Do you really know me. You don’t really know me at all. It’s hard.”
She raises her voice for emphasis. “But when you do walk way you feel good about it. Robbie Williams told me, ‘Always put your headphones on.’ It’s a good little trick, play music, phase it out. That’s not to say I don’t have wonderful people in my life who can give me criticism. I don’t phase that out. But if somebody I trust says lay low, I will.
“I’m not into the club scene any more, I’m too old for it. I enjoy staying home or in a hotel room watching DVDs.”
The more abnormal her life is the more normal she seems to try to be, although normal for her is deciding she needs to do a charity show for New Orleans calling her friends Beyonce and Puffy, Christy and Cindy, and putting it on overnight.
This year is her 20th anniversary. Twenty years since she was scouted as just a gangly girl from Streatham. Her mother was a dancer, all sequins and cruise ship. She went to Italia Conti. Whatever drives her round and round the world seems to be rooted in being a south London girl. She says what she thinks, she means what she says. Sometimes, especially when she’s explaining herself, you get carried away in her monologue. You detect the yes but no but. If she wasn’t Naomi Campbell she could have been Vicky Pollard.
She was brought up single-handedly by her mother and has always been attracted to older men, mentor figures. Sometimes they have been boyfriends, sometimes she’s adopted them straight away as dads. Azadene Alaia once said, “Naomi really is my daughter. She can be quite defensive, but she’s a fragile person who needs affection.”
She says, “And I’ve got my dad Chris Blackwell (Island Records founder). My dad Quincy (Jones). And I’ve got Flavio (Briatore). And I’ve got Mr Mandela, my grandfather.”
You collect them.
“I don’t know if it’s that I collect them,” she corrects, flashing a defensive face. “I love their wisdom, their business savvy, and I love to learn.”
She once said to me that what she looks for in a man was someone who is stronger than her, a bull, a fighter, someone who wore the trousers. She said that she loved to surrender herself. This is particularly piquant because she also loves to get what she wants. An almost impossible conundrum, especially when you don’t know whether you’re attracted to someone because you want them as a lover or a father.”
Flavio Briatore was her boyfriend and now her mentor. She recently introduced him to her other former boyfriend Robert De Niro. Past boyfriends have also included Mike Tyson, Joaquin Cortes, Italian supermodel Matteo Marzotto. She likes all things Latin, passionate and more exotic than herself, although she was engaged to Adam Clayton, and although that ended badly and dramatically with the interference of a tabloid. They are now friends again.
“I am friends with all of them,” she says. “I am attracted to wisdom. You can’t get any more wisdom than Mr Mandela and Quincy is on the same level. I always think why do they want to know me.”
This is a genuine question. Maybe they like to hang out with you?
“When you say hang out, it’s not a casual thing. When I go to LA I live in Quincy’s house and I call him papa, and he says anyone you want to date they’ve got to call me first. If they don’t call him they’re a coward. He’s had a few phone calls.”
Has he axed anybody?
“Oh yeh. I am blessed, you can’t pick your family but you can pick your friends.”
It seems like you’ve done a good job of picking your family as well. She carries on about Quincy’s choice of boyfriend for her. It seems that he’s looking for something different for her. But what are you looking for?
“I guess father figures, always.”
Is Quincy looking for something stable and you’re looking for something exciting.
“No,” she says urgently. “I’m looking for the stable. I don’t want excitement. I don’t even want vacations that are exciting as in hotspots. I mean I want someone who’s busy. The right person will be busy, but I’ll compromise, I will. And you know I’m not the kind of girl to have a big wedding. Weddings are not to impress anyone, it’s your day.”
You’re talking about the wedding and you don’t have a boyfriend?
She almost curls into herself. It’s as if she’s been having a random daydream which she suddenly realised was out loud.
“I am willing to change my life, you know. When I was with Flavio, when I was with Robert, I didn’t travel, I just wanted to be with them. I mean I am always going to work in some way, but I would gear my work around them.”
Are you the person in the relationship that likes to love more or be loved?
“I have given more. I also tend to wreck it for no apparent reason. When I was dating Matteo I flew home every night from wherever I was, but some men are not ready for that, and he wasn’t. We are still great friends and we still go to Valentino to shop together,” she laughs. “And I’m still great friends with Adam.”
I pick up a certain sadness here, that Adam was the right man at the wrong time. She whispers, “A lot of people say that, but Adam’s happy now. He was very upset about my mum and my stepmother loved him. He always sends them flowers without calling me to do it. He always sends my mother flowers and he doesn’t call me to do it, he’s a good man.”
She orders a tomato juice, smokes another cigarette, and doesn’t want me to forget Gianni Versace.
“He always said I was family. He never used to let us go to nightclubs, so he used to bring the nightclub to the house.”
She tells a story of how a dress she was meant to wear for the Anna Wintour Young Designers Award in Milan ripped. And she got given a Versace dress instead which fitted perfectly.
“I remember once the curtain wouldn’t open at Gianni’s last show (after his death). There was a butterfly flapping around and stuck in curtains and I knew it was like Gianni. Stop it, open the curtains. That butterfly was him and when I put on that dress I saw the butterfly.” She is not speaking metaphorically. Her eyes are dewy with pride that he’s still looking after her, guiding from a mysterious place.
You’ve had all these protective father figures – Quincy, Gianni, Alaia. Do you think it would have been the same if you had known your biological dad?
“Mm, mm,” she says. She has a habit of saying mm when she means no way.
“I can’t think about what I don’t know. My mother is my father.”
Don’t you think you collect all these other ones because there’s this huge chasm which you can’t even recognise.
“I am not someone who is tricked by sleazy old men. I don’t let sleazy playboy types come anywhere near me. I’m just blessed to have Quincy in my life. His mind is just incredible. His Listen Up foundation, it’s amazing what he’s done.”
Yes, but do you think if you had a regular father.
She interrupts. She’s gone from vulnerable and fearful to fierce. “I will tell you right now I am not a regular person and I won’t pretend to be. I’m not the girl next door. If I love diamonds I love diamonds. I’m not afraid to say I love diamonds and I don’t ever want to be like I’m down with being a regular girl because I’m not. Even without diamonds, without money, I’ve always been opinionated. I’ve always been very clear about what I will do and what I won’t do and some people get pissed off with that. They call you a bitch without even knowing you and some people they just understand. That’s why I love businessmen, they relate to you, they teach you.”
She adds, “It’s not like I’ve made diamonds the basis of my life. It’s just like some people pretend they don’t like trinkets because they’re ashamed.”
Would you say you were high maintenance?
“With a man? No, I’m very giving. But I’m also very demanding of emotions, of course I am. I’ve cracked a lot of my boyfriends emotions, but it was good for them.” She explains the cracking of Flavio. He’d given up Formula 1 but she could see he was missing it. “So I decided to have an intervention dinner with Bernie (Ecclestone), John Todd from Ferrari, and Jeremy Thomas, a producer who’s a big fan of Flavio’s. It was at that dinner where they all persuaded him that he had to go back.
“People can’t figure out why we were ever together. And when he started back with Formula 1 it seemed like in a way it was sending him away from me. There was no fight. I wanted to be in America and he wanted to be in Europe. I knew that was important to him. He was important in my life and in my recovery. He helped me through it. So you forget squabbles and things like that. He’s so smart and very good at making people feel appreciated.”
You get the impression that Naomi is a person who spends a lot of time trying hard to give back, as if to make up for everything that has gone wrong.
“I think it’s good that I’m insecure, it makes you try harder. It drives you more. If I didn’t have insecurities, I’d been worried. I wouldn’t want people to think that I think I’m the best at anything. That keeps me wanting to try my best.”
But she’s also driven by a need to explain. “I’d like to write my book. I don’t have a problem being honest. Oprah Winfrey said she’s going to help me, but I’ll write it myself. I just would like to put down everything so my kids can understand me.”
Kids, are you feeling broody?
“Yeh, I’m 35. But I want people to read it and identify with what I’ve been through. I’ve made mistakes.”
I tell her people do identify with her, even though she might seem remote and crazy and always on an aeroplane, they root for her, they understand. They might like to see her lose her temper because they might want to lose theirs. Everybody wants to be believe that you can come from Streatham to become diva grandaughter to Nelson Mandela.
“That’s nice to know. I’m 100 per cent behind Kate. I’ll do anything to help her. There is a girl that sells stories on her that used to work for me and sold stories about me. From the minute I said I wanted to have privacy in my recovery there were all kinds of stories. So you know, give Kate a bit of space to do her recovery. She was hurting herself, now she needs to mend herself, that’s why she had to go to America. It’s a damned disgrace that you can’t go to rehab in this country and have privacy.” She’s shouting now. “And you know what made me go for that court case (the Mirror). When I walked out of rehab I had this bright smile on my face, it was a nice (AA) meeting. But these things are private and then there was the chocolate soldier thing.”
She was described as a “chocolate soldier” meaning apparently a useless campaigner in the context of fur.
“I was dying and I was frightened but it was important for both those things.”
I’ve certainly never heard of anyone being described as a chocolate soldier and that phrase meaning anything. I think it was racist, she certainly took it as so.
She is also particularly sensitive to the idea of being set-up as black model fighting black model for the titillation of the tabloids. It was her idea for instance to do the Tyra Banks TV show after Tyra said she gave up modelling 50 per cent because she didn’t want to eat carrot sticks forever and 50 per cent because of Naomi.
“I never at any point in my career said I don’t want Tyra Banks on this job, even though she thought that. I would never do it. I went on the show to say I am proud of you as a black woman doing what you’re doing. I don’t want to see black people fighting against each other, there’s enough fucking fighting as there is. I’ve had to fight for so many things up against white models, I just would never do that. I chose to do her show, I don’t know if she even knows that. But I didn’t know that she’d put me on a pedestal.”
The fashion industry like any other has its moments of abject racism which is why Naomi, who spends so much time in Brazil, has been asked to find a new Brazilian black supermodel, but not on Brazil’s next top model TV show (like Tyra did for America).
“I found a girl just by going out on the street. She’s called Gabriella. Premier have signed her. She’s 16 and beautiful. Not that there’s anything wrong with Tyra’s TV show. Please don’t compare her to Oprah because you’re pitting two black women against each other, that’s how it starts.”
Once she’s relaxed though she’s a different kind of feisty. Outraged with people who’ve worked with her but have sold stories. For instance the assistant she was supposed to have hit, “made me laugh. She said I hit the right side of her face and in all the papers she was clutching her left.”
And then there was another person in her employ that suggested she’d had work done.
“Pah, I work out two hours a day, I’ve never had any plastic surgery. Black don’t crack. And ah, there’s that doctor, Dr Sebagh, who wants to sell stuff so he said I’m a client. Yes, I went for a face glow and got second degree burns. I never sued him for that because I’m with Proctor and Gamble and there’s a conflict of interest. But I couldn’t go in the sun for a year, I couldn’t work for two months. I had to travel with a make-up artist who could cover me. That was an emotional crisis. I was hysterical. I had pink skin, it was a disgrace. I’m only just able to go out without foundation. Here, feel my skin. Look at that.”
You feel for her, but say why do you think that people are constantly in fights with you and ripping you off?
“Because I’m an easy target. I have a reputation for losing my temper so people believe things. Now I think I’ve gotten better with my intuition of who to trust.”
You really hope for her sake she has. As well as her book, next year she says, “I’ve been offered a position that no other model has been offered, but I can’t tell you about it yet.”
It’s time to go to Churchill’s bunker, but there’s also the Louis Vuitton to fit in. She goes to show me a black fur coat which Marc Jacobs, designer for Louis Vuitton, made for her. It looks like a 1920s vamp coat in little strips of contoured fur which she thinks might be shaved mink.
“And as for that Heather whatshername (McCartney) saying she’d written to me and called me to complain about me wearing fur and I’d never replied. I never received a letter, nothing.” She’s outraged with Heather.
“And yes, I am still wearing fur, but I’ve made up with that guy from Peta.”
Naomi choosing not to go into the point that she did an anti-fur ad and now she’s changed her mind, but instead to say that Heather McCartney shouldn’t have claimed to have written to her when she hadn’t. It’s all a bit Vicky Pollard. She likes fur, she can’t help it. In fact she decides instead of going to the bunker or going to Louis Vuitton she’s going to get Christmas stockings for Lunar and Venus, her two rotteweillers.
“They follow me everywhere, they only listen to me. When I leave I put my perfume on their nose so they know my scent. Somehow you imagine her doing that with everybody, and that’s exactly what she does. She swathes you in her scent so you become mesmerised and enjoy even the bad things.
Your lateness is legendary, do you mean to be late all the time?
“Mm, no. Mercury was in retrograde, it finished today.”
No, it finished last week.
“No, for me it definitely finished today.”
With that, Naomi Campbell, supermodel, charity worker, author, and controller of the planets, goes to get her dogs some treats.