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Born May 22, 1970 in Streatham, London, England, Naomi Campbell was blessed with an exotic allure, due in part to her African, Jamaican and Chinese heritage. The daughter of a dancer mother, Campbell never met father, who abandoned them before she was born, and her maternal grandmother primarily handled raising her. Taking after her mother in terms of grace and beauty, Campbell trained as an actress and dancer in both Italy and England, making her screen debut after casting directors spotted her at a birthday party and put her in Bob Marley's music video for "Is This Love." Before she was 10 years old, she had earned multiple television credits, including playing Snow White on "The Chiffy Kids" (ITV, 1976-1980) and recurring on the drama "Kids" (1979). Just shy of 14 years old, she had notched a tap-dancing appearance in Culture Club's music video for "I'll Tumble 4 Ya." In fact, Campbell went on to book bit parts in the films "Quest for Fire" (1981) and "Pink Floyd - The Wall" (1982). At 15, Campbell had grown into a striking, world-class beauty, and while window-shopping one afternoon, a modeling talent scout discovered her.
After convincing her mother to let her look into the offer, Campbell, still wearing her school uniform, met with the agency and was signed on the spot to Elite. She was immediately sent for her first job: a shoot in New Orleans for British Elle. Displaying an amazing aptitude for delivering exquisite, regal beauty in her shots, Campbell proved a sensation, booking jobs with the industry's most prominent names and publications. Along the way, she befriended fellow model Christy Turlington and the two became not only best friends, but also roommates. Their close-knit circle would grow to include fellow rising star Linda Evangelista, and the three models became so renowned and in-demand that they were lovingly nicknamed "The Trinity," a nod to their central place among the pantheon of industry deities. Booking shoots around the world, Campbell quickly ascended to the highest ranks in the modeling industry, but the underlying racism of the business of beauty was never far away. Although she would eventually become the most famous, as well as infamous, model of her era, Campbell had to fight for the bookings she did get, and did not work as frequently or as lucratively as her Caucasian colleagues.
Still, her best friends Evangelista and Turlington fought for her, famously telling the industry giants, "If you don't use Naomi, you don't get us." Despite an ever-present pushback, Campbell broke many barriers, becoming the first black model to land the covers of British Vogue, French Vogue, TIME and American Vogue. Her profile was given another boost when she booked a recurring role on "The Cosby Show" (NBC, 1984-1992) as Julia, the dream girl of Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner). Fascination with Campbell reached an all-time high when she was dubbed one of the industry's elite six "supermodels," a term that would eventually lose its cachet due to overuse, but at the time was a special honor reserved for the true giants of the field. She created especially resonant pop cultural moments when, while being interviewed by friend and fellow supermodel Cindy Crawford for the influential "House of Style" (MTV, 1989-2000, 2012), Campbell applied zit cream, as well as when she was chosen, along with several of her fellow supermodels, to lip-synch George Michael's "Freedom! '90" in his heavily-rotated music video. She would create a similar splash when Michael Jackson approached her to appear in his music video for the song "In the Closet" from his 1991 Dangerous album. Originally meant to be a duet for Jackson and Madonna, the sepia-toned video was directed by Herb Ritts and seemed to be a direct rebuttal to rumors and questions about Jackson's sexuality, pairing the butched-up singer with the statuesque Campbell in a series of steamy dance moves and clinches that proved so salacious that South Africa banned it outright.
Playing coy about rumors that she and Jackson were more than just collaborators, Campbell not only guested on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (NBC, 1990-96) and appeared in Madonna's scandalous, successful Sex book, but she played a singer in the ill-fated Vanilla Ice vehicle "Cool as Ice" (1991). She had more success as a real-life singer, however, when her 1994 debut album, babywoman was released; although it earned scathing reviews and weak sales in the Western world, it sold more than a million copies in Japan and helped her score a No. 1 single in that country, "La La La Love Song," her duet with Japanese singer Toshinobu Kubota. Campbell's connections to the musical world strengthened when U2's Adam Clayton publicly announced his desire to date her, and the couple embarked on a whirlwind courtship that saw them engaged after two months and broken up after six months. Also romantically linked at various times to such celebrities as Mike Tyson, Eric Clapton, Robert De Niro and Usher, Campbell branched out into writing with the 1994 novel Swan, although she was quite upfront about the fact that it was ghostwritten and she had made barely any contribution to it at all. Although she had a global reputation as a modeling superstar and one-woman multimedia empire, behind the scenes Campbell was less popular, and she was dropped by her agency Elite for being "manipulative, scheming, rude and impossible" and subjecting its staff and clients to "abuse."
Even so, she continued to land film roles, appearing in "The Night We Never Met" (1993), "Miami Rhapsody" (1995), "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" (1995) and "Girl 6" (1996) as well as recurring on "New York Undercover" (Fox, 1994-98) as a vengeance-seeking seductress. Campbell also joined forces with supermodel colleagues Claudia Schiffer, Christy Turlington and Elle Macpherson to launch the Planet Hollywood-inspired restaurant chain, Fashion Café, but the venture failed in a flurry of bad blood, litigation and low interest from customers, who saw little correlation between the notoriously rigid diets of supermodels and a full-service family restaurant. Although it did not come out later, Campbell was also during this time struggling with an addiction to cocaine, but managed to keep it under wraps until she entered rehab in 1999. As a glamorous icon of style, beauty and glamour, Campbell had fans all around the world, including such luminaries as Nelson Mandela and Quincy Jones, but part of her appeal was her notoriously demanding temperament and fits of aggression and angry, which had the simultaneous effect of alienating certain friends, colleagues and fans, but ironically adding luster to her diva legend.
This strange duality, where Campbell's infamy for committing acts of violence against other people simultaneously earned her a bad reputation as well as what amounted to a public celebration of her tantrums, was never more clear than in the allegations brought against her by a string of employees. Most notable were several instances in which various members of Campbell's staff, including multiple maids and assistants, all claimed that Campbell had injured them by throwing her jewel-encrusted cell phone at them. The tabloid-ready scenario caught on with an eager media and public, who seemed to gleefully lap up the story. The incidents remained among the most enduring aspects of Campbell's story, with the model even making light of her volatile temper on several occasions. These events were by no means isolated, instead occurring within a dynamic that saw Campbell facing charges of hitting, slapping, punching and scratching various associates. It all tied in with numerous reports that she could be difficult and demanding to work with within the industry that had made her famous.
After years of managing to avoid legal penalties for her behavior, Campbell at last pled guilty in 2007 to assaulting her maid, and was sentenced to anger management, community service and paying medical bills for the injured woman. Although some were outraged by Campbell's lack of remorse and her decision to perform her community service decked out in haute couture, others were delighted by her outrageous, defiant action and cast aspersion on the maid's credibility. Regardless, Campbell earned oceans of publicity, penning a special W feature entitled "The Naomi Diaries" about embracing her reputation as a high-strung diva of the first order. The following year, however, she became embroiled in another physical altercation, this time with London Heathrow police, and earned a harsher sentence and fine as well as a lifetime ban from ever flying British Airways again. Despite her past legal woes, however, many people were surprised when Campbell returned to the courtroom setting in 2010 when she was forced to testify against Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, over his alleged gift to her of blood diamonds more than a decade prior. As controversial as Campbell could be, she was also a major player in the world of global charities, founding Fashion for Relief, which raised millions of dollars for survivors of national disasters around the world as well as We Love Brazil, which gave poverty-stricken women job and income opportunities. A prominent support of Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and the White Ribbon Alliance, Campbell also launched her own lines of fragrances. Still heavily in demand as a model, she occasionally walked the runway and shot pictorials, retaining a mystique and prestige even in semi-retirement that many of her peers could not, powered both by her unique beauty, but also her long-standing legend.
By Jonathan Riggs