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 theater arts at school. It was only when I met Beth Boldt, the head of Synchro Agency, that the idea of modeling 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 Suzanne Howard and Maxine Restall, who were blonde and beautiful like most of my friends at the time. 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 home.
The three of us were dressed in our Italia Conti school uniforms: a pale blue dogtooth kilt, a dark blue V-neck sweater, a blue shirt, blazer and tie with the Italia Conti crest. We were meant to wear straw boater hats, too, but we never did.
Suddenly a woman came up to me and asked if I’d ever thought of modeling. 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 mean, Maxine was already modeling on the side. She had the most beautiful long blonde hair and she was the obvious choice. I’m not saying Black isn’t beautiful, but to be picked while I was standing next to those two girls — well, let’s just say God bless Beth for noticing me.
Shot in Deauville, France, for Vogue Italy, by Peter Lindbergh, July/August 1988. Credit: Peter Lindbergh Foundation
When I first started out, Linda (Evangelista) and Christy (Turlington) were both really supportive. I wasn’t being booked for certain shows because of the color 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.
Naomi and her mother Valerie Morris-Campbell, shot for Burberry’s Christmas campaign by Juno Calypso/We Folk Agency, November 2018. Credit: Juno Calypso / We Folk Agency
But 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.
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.
Shot for Vogue, USA, March 1998 by Ellen von Unwerth. Credit: Ellen von Unwerth
(In 1988) I made the June cover of Italian Vogue, which was shot by Steven Klein in the Italian Vogue studios in Milan. That was the first time I’d worked with Steven. He was very cool and professional. The shoot was difficult because the make-up artist hadn’t brought the right foundation for my skin. I don’t know what kind of girl he was expecting; perhaps he hadn’t seen a picture of me.
I can’t remember what we did — whether we borrowed foundation from someone else or I used what I had on me — but we got around it somehow. But I wasn’t altogether happy with the final picture because I didn’t feel it captured my true skin tone. (Afterwards I always took my own foundation and powder to a shoot to make sure that never happened again.)
Vogue Italia, June 1988. Credit: Italian Vogue
Three months later, I got the cover of French Vogue, which was an even bigger deal. I’d already shot a lot for French Vogue with Bill King and been told — not in an especially rude way — that a cover wasn’t a possibility. At the time I didn’t realize that there had never been a Black model on the cover. I remember getting a huge amount of support from Yves Saint Laurent: as one of their girls, they felt I deserved a cover. In the end it was shot by Patrick Demarchelier in a studio in New York. I didn’t like the cover much but when the August 1988 issue came out it made a huge impact: finally a Black model on the cover of French Vogue. In a way, I was glad I only found out afterwards that I was making history. Otherwise I would have felt far too much pressure going into that shoot.
Naomi Campbell photographed by Patrick Demarchelier, Vogue cover, September 1989 Credit: Vogue
In September 1989, Anna Wintour put me on the cover of American Vogue. I will be forever grateful because that was her first September issue as editor-in-chief and I think she was given a lot of flack for it. It was nerve-wracking because I understood the importance of being a Black model on the cover of American Vogue, even more so the September cover.
I like to think this industry is getting better for Black models. You see girls of colour on the catwalk and it’s encouraging to have girls like Joan Smalls in campaigns for Chanel and Liya Kebede in Bottega Veneta. Things have changed. But prejudice never entirely goes away.
Cover of “Naomi. Updated Edition,” published by Taschen. Credit: Taschen
Now I’m trying to shine a light on Africa, to connect African designers and models with the global community, through co-producing Arise Fashion Week in Lagos and headlining events such as the 2019 Forbes Africa’s Leading Women Summit in Durban. I want to give back. It really is as simple as that. I can’t do it all, but I can do my part, and I want to.
“Retire” isn’t a word I ever want to use. “Chill out” maybe, but “retire” never.