Naomi offers model form, despite critics

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 January, 1995, 12:00am

DROP the name of Naomi Campbell in any company and the atmosphere will more often than not ignite. So when I mentioned to three female luncheon companions that I was due to meet the dusky catwalk icon later in the day their reaction was instant.

'You poor darling, she'll devour you,' condoled one, while the other cautioned: 'Say the wrong thing and she'll walk out on you in a huff.' The third was convinced it would end in tears.

With these thoughts concentrating my mind wonderfully I sat in the plush Regency Lounge at the Grand Hyatt awaiting femme fatale Campbell.

Surprise No 1: Despite having a legendary reputation for allegedly being unable to interpret the hands on her designer watch she arrived dead on the appointed hour, strutting in with her hips and pins in synchronised motion just as if she was on a catwalk in London, Milan or Paris - her dark hair cascading downwards and reaching to meet her long, long legs stretching endlessly upwards.

Surprise No 2: Having greeted me warmly with a kiss she walked over to the tea buffet to fetch me some fruit. On returning with a bowl laden with lychee which she pronounced 'good for you' she lit up a cigarette and then, discovering I was a non-smoker, apologised profusely for smoking in my presence.

All this was desperately unnerving. I expected a snarling tigress, but before me was a purring kitten.

'People who've never met me tend to accept everything they hear or read about me as gospel,' she demurred, 'but I suppose I have to accept that not everybody is going to like me.

'I have been in this business for eight years and throughout that time my philosophy has been never to listen to what other people have to say about someone I've never met.

'I wait until I meet them and then judge them on my own account depending on how they treat and respect me. You treat me with respect, you get it back.' The most publicised of her contretemps was her apparent 'sacking' by her New York agency Elite, whose boss Johnny Casablancas sent out a press release accusing her of all manner of unpleasant things. (Ironically, Naomi has continued to have an excellent working relationship with Elite in Paris and London and has now linked up with Elite Hong Kong and was here briefly to discuss a visit she will make in April for some fashion work.) 'I acquired my so called 'reputation' only because I stand up for myself,' she explained. 'In this business if you protect yourself then you are labelled a 'bitch'. But if you do everything you wanted them to do you are wonderful.

'If I don't want to wear certain clothes or if I don't want to do a picture with someone I can't relate to I just won't.

'We models are self-employed, and we pay agents to work for us. So we have the right to say 'no'.

'I have total control of my career because I don't want to be taken advantage of. But I am totally committed to anything I agree to do.

'Everything that happens to me comes as a surprise.

'I'm just as excited about my job now as I was the day I started. I am very fortunate and I realise that'.

Apart from bringing her an annual income currently estimated at US$10 million (HK$77 million), that good fortune has enabled her to diversify from modelling to singing and writing. At the tail end of last year she released both a CD titled Babywoman and a novel based loosely on her business called Swan.

So what does Naomi think of Naomi as a pop singer? 'There's lots of room for improvement. But I don't think I'm as bad as some singers I've heard.' One of the tracks on the CD is Love and Tears. And with romantic interludes in her life that featured paramours like Mike Tyson, Robert de Niro and U2's Adam Clayton (to whom she was briefly engaged) I suggest that the song might even be autobiographical.

'Actually it was written for me, so it isn't,' she said.

'But it represents emotions that are universal. We all have our emotional ups and downs in our relationships.' The novel came out of her experiences in couture circles.

But she adds: 'Although it has a murder plot that sort of thing doesn't happen in the business for real.' With tales abounding of sharpened claws behind the catwalk, I suggest that there must have been a few close calls.

'Nobody has been murdered in the business as far as I know,' she utters with a schoolgirlish giggle.

Her tone then drops: 'People always have this wrong perception that we models hate each other. On the contrary, we are all great friends. We do enjoy each others company.

'In fact, Elle Macpherson, Claudia Schiffer and myself are business partners in a chain of theme restaurants called Fashion Cafe. The first one will open soon in New York and then we'll open in Los Angeles, London and, hopefully, Hong Kong.

'The restaurant venture is to prove to our critics that we are capable of mapping out business careers away from the catwalk.' And to make their detractors eat their words, of course.