Outtake from the album cover shoot in 1994 for I Want To Live, released in 1995. Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth.
It is impossible, during a conversation with Naomi Campbell, to forget that you are talking to Naomi Campbell. Within 30 seconds of her sitting down next to me, she offers, “I took six planes last week, and I think I lost my voice from that.” She shares anecdotes about Rihanna, Marc Jacobs, and Benedikt Taschen with the sort of offhandedness that almost makes you wonder whether or not she realizes we all don’t intimately know these people. She is cool and disarming and wholly ageless; her age is, simply, Naomi Campbell.
Situated on a stately white couch in a hotel suite in Midtown, the supermodel—dressed in a tight camo bodysuit, which she wears as casually as if it were a sweatshirt—has her leg propped up on a chair (her ankle is sore), her new Taschen monograph lying on the bed in the other room. The book, which retails for $1,750 a copy, is less “book,” though, and more . . . art or even sculpture, at least when it is housed in its cover box, designed by Allen Jones, which is three-dimensional, portraying a woman’s form (meant, per Jones, “not [to] attempt to illustrate Naomi, but to encapsulate her”). The work—titled Naomi Campbell—comprises 496 pages of photography of Campbell, spanning her entire career. (There is a second, smaller volume—368 pages—which serves as an “extensive autobiographical text.”) Campbell says she has been working on the project—which includes photography by Mario Testino, Steven Klein, Richard Avedon, Patrick Demarchelier, and more—for seven and a half years.
And her pride about the final product is palpable; she seems genuinely curious to find out what I think of it. “When I first saw it, that was the day before the Oscars in the Taschen Gallery, in L.A., I just started crying because it just kind of . . . it was like, Wow.” She says the lengthy image-selection process was one she embarked upon with the help of Taschen, as well as her friend, Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci. “[He] helped me also in choosing pictures,” she says. “He’d be like, ‘You forgot this one.’” (Campbell says she can’t pick a favorite image from the book: “Impossible.”)
Campbell often speaks in the manner of a philosopher—or, a celebrity lifestyle guru. There is nothing in her past she’d have done differently, she says, musing, “The way it’s meant to be is meant to be. You can’t live in the past.” When she tells me she has “tons of things” coming up in the future, and I ask if she can talk about them, she responds, “Never,” before stating, “Never speak about things before they happen,” with a force so intense it almost made me feel like I should never speak again, period.
Campbell’s guru-style wisdom is, of course, earned. Recruited as a model at age 15, Campbell has been a top, if not the top, model for the past 30 years, appearing on nearly every magazine cover and runway there is to appear on or walk down. She is one of the few to achieve the full-fledged “supermodel” designation, and along the way she has recorded an R&B/pop album, appeared in multiple films and television shows, hosted a reality program (The Face), and taken on a range of charity work. In other words, she has the sort of career that Taschen would not have to think twice about before hitting its (jewel-plated, we imagine) Book Lever.
She seems somewhat contemplative when discussing the current state of the modeling industry. “It’s different now because . . .” she starts, shifting in her seat. “You know, I think it’s very hard for me to really say how you get started now. It’s just such a different time. And in my time, it was the designers and the photographers who were very supportive of the models. We had much closer relationships. . . . It was a much smaller circle. We were very supportive, my group of ladies.” She says she keeps in touch with the other models of her cohort—Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista—describing a sort of Captain Planet–like relationship, where they each know they can reach out to one of the others if necessary. “We do [keep in touch],” she says. “Not every day, but [we’re] very supportive of each other. And I know I can pick up the phone to any one of them if I was in real need. They’re there.” For those aspiring to be the next Gigi Hadid or Kendall Jenner, Campbell says it’s a tough road nowadays: “Today, there’s just so many more girls out there wanting the same thing. You’ve got to really be that extra-special something, you know?”
Campbell, of course, is the embodiment of “that extra-special something.” The first black model to cover French Vogue and Time, Campbell—like Kate Moss or Crawford—is an icon, as famous at this point for being a model as she is for being a celebrity and personality and aura. (Tell someone you’ve just interviewed Naomi Campbell and their eyes widen slightly, as if they’re imagining you’ve stared at an extremely bright, glistening light for an hour.) Campbell is currently starring on Fox’s hit Empire, on which she plays Camilla Marks-Whiteman, in a role that has some fun with Campbell’s somewhat intimidating public persona. “Lee [Daniels] is very convincing,” she says, when asked what encouraged her to take the part. “At first I said, ‘No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I can do that.’ But then, you know, it’s like it’s his baby and he wanted me to do it. So I said, ‘O.K., I’m going to give this a try.’ And it was nice to be there from the beginning.” Campbell says she is usually “very quiet on the set.” She considers, “I’m always taking in as much as I can. . . . I’m looking at everything because it’s new.”
Campbell—despite the retrospective book—is still at the forefront of the industry, participating in some of its most fervently-anticipated events. She recently walked in Kanye West’s Madison Square Garden listening-party, fashion-show extravaganza. She says she was initially going to decline West’s request (“At first, I was like, ‘Oh, no. I’ve got a bad foot. I can’t do it.’”), but she quickly changed her mind, calling her physiotherapist and having him tape up her foot. “I’ve always wanted to walk as a model in Madison Square Garden,” she says, as a green ginger tea is placed in front of her. “When I said [backstage], ‘When do they need us?,’ no one could really answer me. And then they said, ‘Kanye is going to feel organically when to call you. As an artist, he’s going to feel in the music when to call you.’ So I said, ‘You know what? Guys, let me get dressed now because I feel like Kanye’s going to come and yank us out of the chair and we’re not going to be ready!’” She says she had “a lot of fun” appearing in the show, at which the entire Kardashian brood, as well as Anna Wintour and Carine Roitfeld, were in attendance. “I never saw anything like that before. . . . I think it’s brilliant. I think, you know, to each his own, and good luck to everyone and good luck to him.” Campbell was also a fan of her friend Rihanna’s Fashion Week presentation for Puma. “It was elegant. It was sexy. I was so proud of her,” she says. “It was absolutely her in every sense. She has such an innate style, and that’s what I love about her. And I think that’s why all the Brits and all the Europeans love her. It’s why everyone in the world loves her.” She muses, “She’s become a very good friend. She’s a girl’s girl, and I love that.”