Naomi Campbell: ‘The Original Supermodels Never Cared About Fame’

Ever wondered what it’s like to be on the road with Naomi Campbell? Grazia’s Emily Maddick joined her in Nigeria last week to mark Arise Fashion Week...

naomi campbell arise fashion week

by Grazia |

Naomi Campbell is on a mission. And when Naomi Campbell puts her mind to something, people pay attention; cities come to a standstill, fashion houses launch initiatives and international governments pledge millions. I travelled to Lagos, Nigeria, to spend 24 hours with the iconic supermodel to mark Arise Fashion Week with Naomi Campbell – a three-day festival that she hopes will further her current, passionate cause: to put Africa on the global fashion map. ‘This is a continent that has been untapped and ignored,’ she tells me. ‘There is so much emerging talent here that has struggled for so many years, it needs to be spoken about!’

Naomi tells me that her campaign to change the narrative around Africa came directly from her late honorary grandfather, Nelson Mandela. ‘I feel that he was trying to tell me to do this, but I really didn’t understand it when I was younger,’ she says. ‘I didn’t have the confidence. When he passed away, I felt a little lost, but his words always stayed with me. I remember all the things he would say to me so this now feels like a natural progression. Fashion is where I come from, so I started with my industry.’ Last month, it was announced that Naomi was partnering with Gucci to launch the Global Change Maker initiative, creating fashion fellowships at universities in Lagos, Ghana and Cape Town. And during a panel talk at Arise Fashion Week, Nigeria’s minister of industry, trade and investment, Okechukwu Enelamah, discussed funding opportunities to help Nigeria’s creative industries and hinted that the government was planning to raise $500 million in investment. Meanwhile, one of Naomi’s much-championed Nigerian designers, Kenneth Ize, is hotly tipped to become the first African designer to win the LVMH Prize for young fashion designers in June.

Spending time in Africa with Naomi is intense, chaotic and terribly exciting. A frenetic energy fizzes around her every move. There is the entourage: the glam squad, two security guards, assistants, publicists, photographers, videographers, a personal trainer. (‘I have to work out, I do a combination of HIIT training and boxing.’) There are round-the-clock outfit changes – up to 10 in one day. Hotel lifts get cleared ahead of her arrival, our convoy has a police escort with flashing lights and sirens. Plans change constantly (‘the market trip is off, NC is now going to church with André Leon Talley’).

Everything runs late and tempers frequently run high. But there are also moments of calm, like when we visit the Hearts of Gold Children’s Hospice. The founder, Mrs Adedoyin, has invited us to a naming ceremony for an eight-day-old baby girl found abandoned in a field. They are calling her Naomi in the supermodel’s honour. It is an emotional experience, and I’m impressed by how well-informed Naomi is on local politics and policies.

naomi campbell activism

This is not my first time in Africa with Naomi. In 2009, she invited me to Tanzania for one of her Fashion For Relief shows and to report for Grazia on the work she was doing with the maternity rights charity, The White Ribbon Alliance. That trip was five days and it was fascinating to see how she travelled (she always carries spices and crystals on her in clear plastic bags). But back then I was also impressed to see this other side to her, watching her read UN briefings on the plane and securing a vast donation from Tanzania’s wealthiest businessmen over breakfast. I ask her how, despite having made the transition from supermodel to activist, she remains at the top of her game. ‘I will always be a model, I love what I do,’ she says. ‘I am not trying to push Naomi Campbell at all, I am trying to just be there to show diversity, to represent my cultural background.’ She does admit that, after 33 years in the industry, remaining in demand does not come without challenges. ‘I am now 48, so to be in the same show as a 16-year-old [she laughs] is a challenge to me.’

We talk about the new supermodels, Gigi and Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner – girls whose social media-fuelled fame, unlike the original supers, preceded their modelling.‘I adore Gigi and Bella, I embrace them,they are hard-working girls,’ she says, ‘So I can only speak for my generation of women: Linda, Christy, Stephanie, Tatjana, Kate. We never cared about fame, we never thought about the word “celebrity”. We just kept on working and it was for the creativity and the prestige. It was a smaller-knit industry. We were equally as surprised at the curiosity in our lives. I remember waking up in Milan and being shocked to see a report about what I had eaten for breakfast the day before on the front page of a newspaper!’

And the curiosity remains, something even celebrities are not immune to, as the supermodel discovered last month when Kim Kardashian West started replicating some of Naomi’s most iconic ’90s looks. How does she feel about that? She bristles and I fear I might have ignited that notorious temper. ‘Ah, I’m not going there,’ but then she laughs, ‘No, you know what my mother always said? “Imitation is a form of flattery” and I am a model and all I care about is that whoever the person is that they are [copying], that they credit the designer.’ (Any talk, however, of a recent romance with Liam Payne is off-limits.)

Some may be surprised to learn Naomi is remarkably loyal, something one of her oldest friends, Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Edward Enninful (also on the trip), often talks about. The creative director and producer of Arise, Desiree Ejoh, is one of her oldest friends from their childhood days in Streatham, London. They have worked together for decades and are more like sisters.

It’s 2am and Naomi is still on the dance floor at Alara, one of Lagos’s most prestigious bars. We’ve just finished a midnight shopping spree at the venue’s luxury store, with owner Reni Folawiyo, someone Naomi met on a plane a year ago and who is now in her inner circle. She’s due at church at 9am, then a full day of talks and shows, then it’s off to New York to be honoured as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019. Once there, she’s on the red carpet crediting Mandela as the most influential person in her life – and you have to hand it to her, she’s doing him proud.

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