A firmament of A-List stars have been gracious enough to grant an audience to Radio Times in its 90-year existence, but few interviews have been as abbreviated as my date with supermodel Naomi Campbell. Most celebrities don’t enjoy being interviewed, but understand that there is a game to be played in which they try to plug their show while the journalist tries to prise something interesting out of them.
But after 27 years in the parallel universe of fashion, Naomi Campbell plays by different rules. She gets paid for turning up and looking beautiful, not for talking. The only journalists she deals with are fawning fashion editors who need the advertising revenue from the luxury brands for which Campbell is an ambassador.
Now she is playing a different game; she’s a TV producer and that means she has to talk to non-fashion publications such as Radio Times. Our interview has been arranged so she can plug The Face – a new reality TV competition to find a new model. I was promised half an hour with the Queen of the Catwalk but barely halfway through the interview I found myself being bustled out of her presence by two courtiers for asking an awkward question.
Campbell doesn’t give many interviews and her press people are nervous. Before we start I’m given a list of what I cannot ask. “No questions about any of the assault cases and absolutely do not mention the Hague,” says one of her PR team, referring to the Campbell’s infamous appearance at a war crimes tribunal in August 2010 when she was called as a witness in the trial of the notorious Liberian leader, Charles Taylor, who allegedly gave the model “blood diamonds”.
The interview takes place on the set of The Face in a south-London warehouse. It’s a loft space with stripped pine floors and big windows. There are some trendy-looking but uncomfortable armchairs, a full-length mirror and a notice board with headshots of four attractive young women who are taking part in The Face. Given Campbell’s reputation, I’d expected a long wait, but she’s on time, striding into the room flanked by two young male press officers who sit by the door like security guards, armed only with smartphones.
Wearing jeans, flat Roman sandals, an elegant grey sweater and barely any make-up, Campbell is even more beautiful in the flesh than in the photographs. She’s 43 and looks 30. The famous body is still something to behold and her skin is flawless. But her face is like a perfectly sculpted mask; cool and impassive. She speaks in a mid-Atlantic accent with only the slightest trace of her Streatham origins. Her manner is polite but brusque in a way that indicates that this interview is a chore that she wishes to be done with as soon as possible. Her answers are short to the point of being curt.
The Face first emerged out of a discussion Campbell had with TV executive Elizabeth Murdoch. She says she’s a fan of reality TV shows such as The Apprentice – “I like programmes where people get a career at the end” – and she claims to prefer being a mentor than a judge. But she does get to eliminate contestants on her show in an Alan Sugar-like “You’re fired” moment, which she appears to enjoy. After a successful run in the US, The Face has been re-commissioned for a second series, while the British version starts this week on Sky Living.
I ask if the contestants in the British series are different from the American ones.
Campbell: “Yes.” In what way? Campbell: “Just different.” I plough on, asking whether the American girls are more competitive than the British ones. She shrugs, clearly bored: “Maybe.”
Did she have a mentor when she started modeling 27 years ago? She was barely 15 at the time, a schoolgirl from south London. “No, and I wish there had been a show like this then. It would have given me some insight. I was lucky because I had designers who were much closer and more approachable than they are now. Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni Versace, John Galliano, they all protected me, as well as my family and the magazine editors. I never felt unsafe.”
There’s a steely determination about Campbell that would seem to preclude any vulnerability, but as our conversation progresses her body language becomes more and more defensive. She hunches forward, arms wrapped around her torso, as if subconsciously keeping me away.
I wonder if this is the result of 27 years living in the goldfish bowl of fashion, but it’s difficult to pierce the outer shell and find out what makes her tick. She advises one of the models she is mentoring “to get a thicker skin” before revealing that it took her years to learn that lesson. One thing is clear from watching The Face, Campbell is motivated by competition. Winning and being number one is very important.
What’s interesting about watching both the American and the British versions of The Face is how she picks the girls with the strongest personalities. They’re often the most high-maintenance and, in the case of the US series, fight like cats in a bag. “I always pick the teams who are a handful,” she says, “they’re more interesting.” Bitching and fighting also make better reality television than a bunch of girls hugging each other, and Campbell clearly gets that.
The Face is being compared to America’s Next Top Model, which is now in its 20th season. ANTM was created by one-time American supermodel Tyra Banks, who has made millions from the show, as she owns the format. There is little doubt that Campbell is attempting to do the same thing with The Face but is loath to admit it, given that the two models had a legendary feud that went on for years. Back in 2005 Banks invited Campbell onto her chat show to publicly kiss and make up, but no one watching was very convinced.
Banks has carved out a very successful post-modelling career for herself in TV, so I ask Campbell if she’d like to follow that trajectory. Her response is icy: “I’m not looking at anyone else’s career. I would consider a chat show but it would have to be in the right way. I’m not out to get anyone. I know what that feels like.”
She warms up when I ask her about being a pioneer for young black models. “I wasn’t brought up thinking black and white. I come from a mixed-race family – I have white cousins – so it was quite shocking to me when I finally understood it was out there.”
She says she has never felt held back by her colour, but gets calls from models who have been all the time. “During the last collection [at New York Fashion Week] only six per cent of the models used in all the shows were black. I read a piece in which they interviewed five casting directors who said things like they’re a different shape. It’s insulting.”
Campbell’s mentoring style is tough love. She likes to describe herself as a “drill sergeant” to her team. “I tell it like it is, I don’t want to be their friend. This is a competition.”
Watching the show, I’m struck by the fact that the other mentors look slightly intimidated by her, and they are probably right to be. It was recently reported that fellow models Coco Rocha and Karolina Kurkova have been dropped as mentors from the American show, to be replaced by Anne V and Lydia Hearst. It was clear from the first series that Campbell did not like Rocha. When I ask her about it she says: “Coco never won a challenge. You have to watch reality TV to understand it, and I don’t think Coco has ever watched any.”
Rocha and Kurkova weren’t the only casualties of the US show. One of the girls on Campbell’s team, a Chinese model called Luo Zilin, was photographed this summer on a yacht kissing Campbell’s ex-boyfriend, Vladimir Doronin. Campbell had been with the Russian businessman for several years, and was even reported to be talking marriage and babies. That a young model she had mentored had betrayed her in such a way must have been incredibly painful.
Days after the photographs appeared in the press, it was reported that Zilin had been dropped by her New York modeling agency. Campbell is a powerful force in the industry and not a woman to be crossed; a number of newspaper reports implied that she had been behind the sacking but failed to provide any evidence to back that up.
Seventeen minutes into my allotted time, I decide to ask Campbell if these reports are true, but before I get half the question out of my mouth, she cuts me short by holding out her hand like a policewoman stopping traffic. The two PR men sitting in the corner jump up and start to usher me out.
I attempt to save things by changing the topic: “Can I just ask you about Nelson Mandela? I know you two are very close.” Campbell shakes her head and then pauses.
“I’m praying for him,” she says, and turns her back to me. The PR man tugs gently on my arm. My audience is over.
The Face is tonight at 9pm on Sky Living