Stylist met Naomi Campbell with a totally open, non-judgmental mind. We hoped we’d get on like a house on fire. And we tried; we really did try.
(Words: Lyndsey Gilmour)
(Images: John-Paul Pietrus)
Arriving optimistically early to the East London studio where our cover girl is filming today, I first encounter the 43-year-old supermodel wearing a short, fuchsia dress with pink fluffy slippers – she’s telling a news crew in no uncertain terms that the lighting they’ve brought with them to shoot a short Q&A with her just won’t cut it. She’ll use her own, thank you very much.
With a career spanning 27 years in an industry Naomi Campbell has called ‘racist’, it’s fair to say she’s got the edge on lighting direction (she has graced 500 plus magazine covers and is reportedly worth £30million). And even if she didn’t, not many people would argue with a woman who has been called as a witness in a war crimes tribunal, was banned from flying with British Airways and has faced several assault charges.
This month however, Streatham’s most profitable export is dipping her toe into the altogether more PG world of TV. Having previously dabbled with both literature and music (Swan and Babywoman), this latest segue isn’t an entirely surprising move, but as someone so vehemently protective of her privacy, it’s an interesting one. A Jennifer Lopez does American Idol U-turn if you will. And The Face – her show; Campbell is also executive producer – is addictive. If not just because for the first time it really puts Campbell out there; every wry smile, raised eyebrow and fiery exchange. Alongside fellow ‘Super’ judges Erin O’Connor and Caroline Winberg she competes – with steely determination I might add – to mentor her team of models to victory and the prize of a Max Factor campaign. And you just can’t stop watching her.
With filming finished and the show’s set being dismantled around me, Naomi – yet to say hello – walks past to go and change. Fifteen minutes later, I’m led into an adjoining studio the size of a tennis court. In the left-hand corner, waiting on a cream leather sofa, sits Campbell – now in a short black dress and gladiator sandals, with two mobile phones sat neatly beside her. Her arms rest casually over the back cushions; her legs (she is all legs) crossed in front; her body language relaxed. She’s smiling but it comes across as obligatory, rather than warm. She has an unarguable presence and I’ll be honest: I’m a little intimidated.
Back in June our photo shoot did not run smoothly. It sounds stereotypical to report but facts are facts and the facts are these: she was over two hours late, didn’t want close-ups, wasn’t keen on wearing coats (she’d pre-approved a coat shoot), and requested a ‘closed set’ after we asked her if she’d like any music or props (though we were on-board with her request for Gummy Bears). Not to sound naive, but it was all a bit gutting. Naomi Campbell’s a fashion icon of our time and we’d been hoping to work alongside her. To be impressed and a little dazzled by her. Hell, to make friends with her – even if just for a few hours.
Today, this is also looking unlikely; I have been asked by her PR team not to go into her ‘personal life’ – a vague brief which, when pressed for more clarity, is narrowed down to ‘Vlad’ [Vladimir Doronin, Campbell’s ex] and her being a witness at ‘The Hague trial’ [2010’s ‘blood diamond’ trial]. But as we proceed, it’s clear there’s quite a lot that Campbell deems ‘personal’ and when her answers are specific or interesting, she doesn’t expand. She is, of course, happy to talk about the show – its appeal being an opportunity to share what she has learned about the industry without it being solely about “my life”. It’s not a rebranding exercise for her – “you don’t think that way” – and she claims she hasn’t thought about whether it will change the public’s perception of her.
“It isn’t my business what people think about me. But it is my business what they think about my girls and how my show is received across the world.”
She describes herself as a “motherly” and “maternal” mentor but adds that her models would also describe her as a “drill sergeant”: “I only drill it in to them because I want them to get it right. I was always taught by my mother that you strive and try and try until you get it.”
Has she asked any of her peers’ advice? Such as Project Runway judge Heidi Klum? “No. I have been working longer than Heidi so there is not much she can tell me that I don’t already know. With all due respect to Heidi, I like her very much and I think she is a hard-working girl, but I go with my own intuition. We want to keep [The Face] authentic. It’s an original format.” After 10 minutes talking about the show – Campbell is flying to New York tomorrow to film series two of the US version – we move off-topic. I try to flatter her, to relate to her, and finally to be really honest with her. Here’s what she had to say (and not to say) for herself. The full, unedited – and at times uncomfortable – version…
Whose opinion and guidance do you value?
I have good friends and family that I value.
Do you have lots of pockets of close friends or a best friend?
I have friends who have nothing to do with the industry and I value and respect their opinion and advice knowing it’s coming from a good place. I admire honesty.
Are there people who will say no to you?
Of course there are! [As I glance up from my notes I catch her rolling her eyes.]
What are you the go-to girl for within your friendship group – are you the fun one, the listener, the organiser?
I am the organiser.
You touched on your family earlier [about valuing their opinon]...
I don’t talk about my family.
That’s fine. What’s your life mantra?
Whatever I commit to, I give 110% but when it’s time out, it’s time out. You have to know how far you can push yourself before you need a break and that has taken me years to finally get but I know when that happens and I take time out. I try to pace myself.
Recently we saw pictures of you doing yoga [on roberto cavalli’s yacht this summer].
I do whatever makes me feel good. Yoga is one of the things I like, as well as going out dancing in clubs whilst I am on vacation.
You were, of course, trained in dance…
Yeah, but going to dance in a club is not the same as dancing with the skills I learned at school.
No, no, no… I mean, it shows you have had an appreciation of music.
I like to travel for work and I love to travel for leisure.
If you were to rate it out of 10, how happy are you in your personal life and your…
[Interrupting] I don’t discuss my personal life. But I am happy in whatever I do and that’s the most important thing to me. You don’t take something on if you can’t take it on with a positive attitude.
And where – or doing what – do you feel most relaxed?
I am relaxed right now. As I said, I hope this [TV show] is something the UK and Wales and Ireland are going to love. This is my first day back at work after my vacation so I am very relaxed.
You always seem like a very confident woman but does anything make you nervous?
Many things – but I wouldn’t show that to you. [Laughs]
Fair enough. OK, look; what I’d like to do here is see how you relate to stylist readers and find things that you have in common with them – watching The Great British Bake Off, playing scrabble on your phone, things like that.
[After beeping twice previously, one of the phones starts ringing.] Excuse me a second.
[Naomi walks off to the furthest corner of the studio to take the call. Her PR, who has been sitting nearby, ushers me and The Face’s creative director out onto the fire escape. Twenty-five minutes later we are taken back in. Naomi is sitting on the sofa again with her feet curled up under her. She seems quite satisfied and is smiling.]
Excuse me, so sorry.
We were talking about things you might have in common with our readers. Which box sets can’t you get enough of – The Wire, Breaking Bad?
Love The Wire, love Downton Abbey, love The Real Housewives. I love My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.
I tried to download the Dublin Wives, I wanna see that one, and I love all the talk shows – Graham Norton and What’s the other one?
No. Jonathan Ross. And Catherine Tate. Love all that. I think England has great television.
What is it about Downton?
Oh, y’know. It takes us on an experience doesn’t it?
What are your secret skills and passions? What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
I don’t know [sighs]. I dive.
I took my diving certificate but it’s not a secret.
But perhaps it’s something we wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t asked you now.
I think I have mentioned it before.
What is it that attracts you to diving?
It’s very peaceful and tranquil. I hike. I am not a pre-planned person, I live in the present and do what makes me feel good for that moment.
Are you spontaneous?
I am spiritually – if i don’t feel something i don’t do it. You can’t force me to do something.
What do you wish you were better at?
Maybe horse riding or ice skating.
It must be hard for you to go to a local public ice rink to practice…
Why? I’m from streatham. I used to go down to the ice rink all the time – I just wasn’t good at it.
Do you get back to Streatham much?
I’d say the last time was at the beginning of the year.
You still have family there?
[she answers with a half-smile that tells me this is too personal.]
How would you feel about a film being made of your life?
Unless I was involved they would never get it right. I have never justified what people say about me; it’s all assumption. They would need me to be involved to get it right and I don’t think I would ever want to do that, but I respect what’s been in my life.
Have you ever been tempted to set the record straight with an autobiography?
No. I don’t care about setting the record straight. people’s opinions are people’s opinions. You can’t change them. they say it can be therapeutic. I believe it can be therapeutic. Maybe I could write something and just burn it afterwards [laughs].
''On a different note, did you see or hear about this year’s vmas?
''I didn’t see them, sorry.
So you won’t have heard of the twerking incident?
[a phone beeps and naomi’s pr explains: “it’s kind of when you dance and you shake your booty.”] so it’s just another interpretation of something we have seen before? Listen, I love dance, it’s a great way to express yourself. If you feel good about it, do it. Rhythm is an incredible thing.
Speaking of dance crazes, were you ever tempted to do the Gangnam Style one?
I admire how many people love it and I admire [Psy] but, no, I would never be into it.
OK. What was the last book you enjoyed?
I read different books at the same time. I read self-help books, I read people’s life stories.
Can you think of one specifically or recommend one?
I can’t remember, to be honest with you. Sometimes I read them on iPad and I flick back and forwards.
Are you good with technology?
I’m not a major techy but I understand the basics.
Do you like any particular apps?
Nah. I know the basics about apps. People tell me one and I say help me download it. I don’t have thousands.
What about twitter?
I tweet. I tweet myself, but I tweet inspirational quotes. I tweet about what I am doing in my work but I don’t really say where I am. I only started last year. I like instagram, I like putting out pictures.
Are you au fait with the whole ‘selfie’ mania?
I didn’t know what a selfie was until july, but I’m not ‘selfing’. Anyway you have nothing to ‘self’ with me – you’ve seen it all.
What about online shopping?
I’m a big fan of net-a-porter.
And what about grocery shopping?
I believe you [should] go and choose your groceries. I love going grocery shopping.
Do you? Where do you shop?
I have always liked Marks & Spencer’s grocery shopping since I was a child. Everything is wrapped and clean.
I can imagine you with your trolley…
[naomi’s pr explains there are to be only two more questions.]
I need more time – another 10 minutes.
I’m flying. Today.
OK. There have been rumours that you aren’t the easiest person to work with. Why do you think rumours like this refuse to go away?
It was put out there by my ex-model agent… god rest his soul… But if I was so difficult, why would I be working with the same people I have worked with since i was 16?
True. But how about more recently?
[Campbell leans forward and frowns.] How? when?
I have read interviews and at our shoot, for example, you weren’t happy to have our team on the set.
… if I have got a top that’s not on, I don’t want a lot of people staring at me when I do my picture because I think what happens is the focus then comes off the photographer and if you [the team] are standing behind the photographer, you [don’t] have the intimacy with the photographer in getting the shot. this is something you are going to see on the face. if you have a crowd of people behind the photographer you lose that, and most photographers, like steven Meisel, Mario testino, david Bailey,
don’t allow it. that is the way i was raised in my profession. when i shoot for Vogue they stay in the other room and the stylist, the hair and make-up get the job done. that’s normally how it goes. so, if you call that difficult,i call it professional.
[Her speech has quickened and her words become clipped. she seems annoyed.]
OK, going back to food. are you a good cook?
I can cook. I like to cook
What’s your signature dish?
I can cook just about anything – as long as it’s spicy. I like spice.
Me too. the hotter the better. And what makes you laugh?
Which comedians do it for you?
I love Dave Chapelle.
What is it about his humour?
He is just bloody honest and he pushes the envelope. He isn’t performing so much these days but his box set is so funny.
Where would you say paradise is?
Paradise is somewhere you go to unwind and chill, and for me there are so many paradises I can’t pick one. I do love to go to the wonders of the world, like Angkor Wat, Petra – all these places, they have a mystery about them that is interesting to me.
Do you have travel buddies – particular friends who share the same interests?
I can’t speak about who I go with because I respect their privacy but we sit – like you would do – you sit at the dinner table with your friends and you say let’s all go somewhere.
If you were invisible for a day what would you do?
Everything. Ha ha ha ha. I don’t know but that’s a good question.
What’s your most treasured possession?
I’m not really – I have changed a lot. I’m not really, what’s the word?
Materialistic? attached to things – objects?
I have come to realise in this particular year that things are things and half the things I have I don’t need, and the most important thing is you and how you feel. How you deal with your life on a daily basis and how you deal with people who are in your life.
[naomi’s pr informs me this is the last question.]
If you had a free hour today what would you do?
If I had one free hour – and if I was invisible – I would probably want to transport myself to South Africa and be with Mr Mandela. That has answered the two questions.
Thank you so much.
The Face is on Sky living HD on Mondays at 9pm