Backstage at the Azzedine Alaïa show in Paris in 1989. Photograph: Bruce Weber/Taschen.
I had a really great childhood, but I always felt like a grownup in a child’s body. At the age of five, I was enrolled at the Barbara Speake Stage School in Acton, west London, which meant taking a bus and two trains each morning from my home in Stockwell, south London. When I was 13, I moved to the Italia Conti school, but even before that I started doing a lot of TV and music videos.
Of all the videos, Bob Marley’s Is This Love was the most exciting. Our family loved reggae. I was just seven, and didn’t know what it would involve. I didn’t realise Bob Marley would be standing right next to me, tucking me under a blanket. He was the most handsome man, with beautiful bone structure; mellow, too, and soft-spoken, with a strong Jamaican accent, the kind I already knew from home.
Until I was about 12, home was my grandmother’s house. My mum, Valerie, was a dancer and lived in Italy and later Switzerland. I was always excited when she came home to visit and sad when she had to leave. Mum had such style and grace. When I was 12 or 13, she appeared in a fashion show, and I remember her showing me how to walk in the hallway at home. Lionel Richie was playing in the background and I watched her walk up and down to the beat of the music. By the time I was 13 or 14, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to wear. I was a goth, I suppose: I loved long black dresses and jackets, and wore Dr Martens to school.
I remember the day I was spotted in the street. It was a warm April afternoon, and I was hanging out with my friends after school. The three of us were dressed in our Italia Conti uniforms: a pale blue dogtooth kilt, a dark blue V-neck sweater, shirt, blazer, tie. We were meant to wear straw boaters, too, but never did.
Suddenly, a woman came up to me and asked if I’d ever thought of modelling. It was Beth Boldt, head of the Synchro agency. My immediate reaction was surprise and excitement. But when I told my mum, she wasn’t into the idea at all. We’d all heard horror stories of girls being approached, paying huge amounts of money to have pictures taken and then getting nowhere. My mum wanted me to stay on at school and finish my exams.
But I wanted things my way, so a few weeks later I went to see Beth on my own. On my first visit, she parted my hair in the middle, did my makeup and took me up on the roof in my school uniform to take a few black-and-white pictures. Eventually, Mum decided I could model, so long as it didn’t interfere with my school work or exams. (I took my O-levels just before my 16th birthday.)
About three months after I signed to Synchro, I was booked for my first big shoot abroad with British Elle. We flew to New Orleans and shot one story on prairie-style dresses with me and another model (who got sent home because they thought she was bratty), and one on my own on the beach in Pensacola. When I got back to London, I was courted by American agents – four or five flew over to London to meet me.
I got my first call to Paris at 16. My aunt June came with me the first time, but it wasn’t long before I was heading there for weeks at a time just on bookings for French Elle.
On one trip, all of my money was stolen. No one had told me I should lock up my valuables and I lost everything. I didn’t know anyone in Paris. Amanda Cazalet, who was also shooting that day, suggested I come back with her. She had a fitting with a designer first – why didn’t I come along? That was how I met Azzedine Alaïa.
Of course, I didn’t know who he was. When we got to his house, I remember being very timid. I explained I had just come from England and that my money had been stolen. He was very giving and suggested I stay with him instead of at a hotel. He spoke to my mum on the phone in French, and the next day I moved into his house on Rue du Parc-Royal. Up until then, my life in Paris had been a daily round of going to the studio, coming back to the hotel, showering, ordering room service, watching TV and going to bed. But from then on, whenever I was in Paris, I stayed with Azzedine.
I met the most amazing people through him: Tina Turner, Andrée Putman, Jean-Paul Goude, Julian Schnabel, Jerry Hall, Grace Jones. Azzedine has always created a sense of family around him. Not having had a father figure myself, I think I look for those paternal qualities in the men I respect and admire, like Chris Blackwell, of Island Records, and Quincy Jones. (Quincy’s kids call me his seventh daughter and treat me like a sister.) The same is true of Azzedine, who I call “Papa”. He calls me “Ma fille”.
With Bob Marley in 1978, on the shoot for Is This Love. Photograph: Adrian Boot/Urbanimage.
Dancing with her mother, Valerie, in 1974. Photograph: courtesy of Naomi Campbell
On her first big assignment abroad, in New Orleans in 1986. Photograph: © Martin Brading
Photographed in Deauville, France, for Vogue Italy in 1988. Photograph: Peter Lindbergh/Taschen
With Madonna and photographer Steven Meisel at her 21st birthday party in 1991. Photograph: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Photographed for Vogue Spain in 1995. Photograph: Matthew Rolston/Taschen