NEW YORK — Wednesday marks the 18th anniversary of Naomi Campbell’s career as a model. Telecom Italia gave Campbell her first congratulatory cake on the set of a commercial shoot in Italy a few months ago; her friends are talking about a party in Dubai, where she posed for Louis Vuitton’s spring ad campaign; Russell Simmons is planning something in New York, and then there will be the big blowout co-hosted by Lenny Kravitz in the South of France, including a performance by Cirque du Soleil, on May 22, her 34th birthday.
Eighteen years in the survival-of-the-fiercest modeling trade is an achievement in itself, if only because most models these days weren’t even alive on the fabled afternoon in 1986 when Campbell was discovered shopping in London’s Covent Garden. “I didn’t even count until recently,” she explains during a grueling shoot for the May issue of WWD’s sister magazine, W, that imagines the backstage preparations of a showgirl, including a vitamin B-12 injection in her famous derriere. “But I don’t know if I’m going to be doing this after 20. I guess I should be honored to have the celebrations this year, because you never know.”
With Campbell, you never do know. There are the undeniables: the 5 feet, 9 1/2 inches of her sitting in a tight black blouse with hooks along the front and purple Dolce & Gabbana corduroys, her long, straight hair held back by a pair of sunglasses. But then she talks about her rehabilitation from substance abuse, her anger issues and her aspirations to be a serious businesswoman and even a screenwriter. The model with the notoriously bad work ethic is now, she says, a workaholic.
Talking about the photo shoot with Steven Klein for W, Campbell says, “I’m looking at these, and it looks like another person.”
Campbell gives the impression that, over the past few years, she has only just begun to discover her real self. She publicly acknowledged her cocaine addiction in 2002, ironically in the context of a breach-of-privacy complaint against London’s Daily Mirror in the Royal Courts of Justice. Though she had been treated for what hospital officials in the Canary Islands described as an overdose in 1997, she denied using drugs for so long that perhaps the biggest demon Campbell has had to accept about herself is the truth —not only about substance abuse, but also about all the temper tantrums and spoiled love affairs that have occurred along the way: Mike Tyson when she was only 19; on and off with Robert De Niro; a failed engagement to U2’s Adam Clayton, and the list goes on.
“I guess I’ve done things where I deserve to be called whatever, but that’s not who I am,” she says.
Four years ago, Campbell attended a monthlong treatment program for substance abuse at a U.S. facility. Reports have placed her at the Cottonwood de Tucson Center in Arizona, but Campbell would discuss the experience only in general terms. “Rehabilitation is the best thing — I think they should teach it in school,” she says now. “You don’t just go to stop using what it is that you’re allergic to. You find out why you’re doing it. That’s what you need to know, the reason underneath, and it can go back many years. And with me, it did.”
But she does not point fingers. “I blame nobody but myself,” she admits. “I chose to do drugs. I did it of my own accord. I’m the one who said yes. If you blame other people, then you’re not on the road to recovery.”
Campbell has found solace in writing about her experiences, and she recently set to work on a pair of screenplays. One tells Campbell’s life story; the other is about a man who becomes fatally attracted to several women at once. She’s also in negotiations to develop a reality show. “I just feel I need to start writing down my life,” she says. “It’s very therapeutic. It’s like cooking.”
But in Campbell’s life, it always has been hard to discern exactly where the nonfiction ends and the fiction begins. Her previous literary effort, the 1994 novel, “Swan,” told the loosely autobiographical story of a British-born supermodel and the self-destructive behavior of her friends. (Shortly after publication, the book was revealed to have been written by someone else.) Campbell has had a real experience with a stalker, but she also has explored the subject on film, in 1996’s “Invasion of Privacy” (as best friend to a pregnant woman kidnapped by the baby’s antiabortionist father), and in 1999’s “Prisoner of Love” (spending most of the film shackled to a wall by a conflicted mob assassin). If there is a theme to be found here, it could be the universal struggle of beautiful women who put up with the bad behavior of the men who love them.
Most of Campbell’s working hours are dedicated to a two-year-old business venture, NC Connect, which she describes as “connecting people who don’t know how to get from A to B.” Recently, she arranged to have her friends, Sir Elton John and Peter Gabriel, perform at an upcoming children’s benefit with Quincy Jones in Rome; she has organized AIDS benefits for Nelson Mandela, and is in negotiations to have Dolce & Gabbana host the first performance of Cirque du Soleil in Milan. Connections being what they are in her life — complicated — Campbell was also romantically linked with Cirque du Soleil’s founder, Guy Laliberte, last summer, as well as with the Italian tycoon Flavio Briatore, an NC Connect client who is also her financial adviser and, she says, “my best friend.”
“I don’t want to be, like, someone who has been in your life that you run into in a restaurant and just ignore,” she explains. “For me, it is really important to remain friends, and I have remained friends with all my exes.”
Likewise, her friends say that it is Campbell’s loyalty they most admire. Robin DeMetz, a Manhattan housewife who befriended Campbell five years ago, describes her as “a tough cookie, but there’s another side of her most people don’t know. There’s not an anniversary or birthday that goes by without her sending flowers.”
Anna Sui, who has cast Campbell in all but one of her fashion shows, says that every time La Naomi shows up for a fitting, she is reminded why the term “supermodel” was born.
“Maybe she’s my good-luck charm,” Sui gushes. “No matter what you put on her, it looks spectacular. We always have a hard time getting her to the fitting, but when she gets here, all the fretting goes out the window, and she says, ‘See, you didn’t even need me here.’”
Face time with Campbell might be a rarity on the professional side, but maybe that’s why she tends to mix business with pleasure. Even her long friendship with Briatore — whom she once accused of punching her in the nose after a particularly nasty fight — has grown stronger (just when Briatore is publicly bickering with his most recent ex, Heidi Klum, who claims to be pregnant with his child). Campbell swears she and Briatore, with whom she shares a home in Kenya, have not gotten back together.
“I want to spend time alone right now,” she says. “Someone told me that being alone doesn’t mean you’re lonely. I want to stay free — with myself — for a while. You can’t live for a man.”
With this last dictum, Campbell left New York for a flight to Miami, where Briatore had dispatched her to the Winter Music Festival to scout DJs for the summer season at his Billionaire club in Sardinia. The next night, the tabloids spotted her at the Delano making out with Tommy Lee, although her camp said later it was a night out with a posse of “just friends.” Lee has since been romantically linked with his ex, Pamela Anderson.
So maybe it wasn’t the real Naomi Campbell, after all. For that, you may have to wait for the movie.
— Eric Wilson