Naomi Campbell's campaign against racism in fashion inspired by Mandela

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 10:29am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 10:29am

Naomi Campbell, the British supermodel as famous for her hot temper as her arresting beauty, says her campaign to counter racism in fashion was inspired by Nelson Mandela.

Campbell says the global rights icon, who once dubbed her his "honorary granddaughter", remains a huge influence in her efforts to help young models of colour. "Mr Mandela always said to me you have to use who you are to speak up on certain things," she explains.

Campbell, now 44, has enjoyed phenomenal success, leaping almost overnight into the global stratosphere after being discovered as a 15-year-old Streatham schoolgirl out shopping in London.

She was one of the original "trinity", the name given to first supermodels, which also included Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista. With cheekbones that could cut butter and mesmerising almond eyes, the statuesque Campbell was the first black model to grace the covers of Time magazine, French Vogue and Russian Vogue.

She walked the catwalk for Versace aged 16, and was 18 when she first appeared on French Vogue.

Although Campbell has been in the tabloids for assault charges and on-again, off-again romances, she remains in demand as a model.

She met Mandela in 1993, and began doing charity work with him, growing close the Nobel laureate and former South African president, who died last December aged 95 after a lengthy illness.

Last September she lent her support to the advocacy group Diversity Coalition that calls out high-profile designers who either did not use models of colour at all in their autumn fashion week shows, or only sent one down their catwalk.

Formed by former model agent Bethann Hardison, a woman whom Campbell describes as "like a second mother," the coalition works to increase the number of black models in the profession. "You have to help the girls, Asian, black, multi-race, you have to help them. And they need help and support and that's all what it just boils down to," Campbell says.

Before her came Iman, the Somali model wife of David Bowie, and Ethiopia's Liya Kebede; after her there have been other black models, Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls and Chanel Iman.

This year, Barbadian singer Rihanna was made style icon of 2014 at the CFDA fashion awards and Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o has been toast of the glitterati. But Campbell says when her career took off in the late 1980s, there were more models of colour on the runway, and that today it is actually harder for them to succeed.

The difference now is casting directors, who wield much more power today, she says. "If I was ever told no, I always found another way," she explains.

"Now, it's a little different, because they're afraid to speak up ... because if they speak up, they won't get booked. So we're speaking up for them."

She credits some of Europe's top couturiers, Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld and the Tunisian-born, France-based Azzedine Alaia with being "extremely supportive".

"For that I am very blessed, and that's why I feel I need to support the young models now. The relationship with designers is not the same as it was when I started modelling."

Campbell has spoken about the discrimination she faced in the past. The coalition, she says, is not militant, but is "simply a conversation".

"It's a group of ... adults, sitting down and discussing why is this happening, why has this happened, and how can it change," she says.

She does believe people are more aware than before. "The issue is out there. It's in the world, it's in social media, it's out there. So I think people are not able to escape like they were before," she says.