Naomi Campbell: People try to use your past to blackmail you. I wont allow it

Late and distracted by her phone, the model soon transforms from hauteur to warmth. She discusses racism, Vogue, stereotypes of black women and how, at 47, shes finally become comfortable in her own skin

At a big and ritzy Halloween party in New York two Saturdays ago, a lot of highly famous people dressed up as other highly famous people. Naomi Campbell, however, went as herself. Why deign to masquerade as some lesser being when you are already an internationally acknowledged apogee of fabulousness? In a gold strapless mini dress and a crown bigger than the one Beyonc wore at the Grammys, the 47-year-old supermodel was approached by more than one party guest who had come in costume as Naomi Campbell.

A real-life Naomi: Campbell at Halloween party in New York, October 2017. Photograph: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Moet Hennessy

When we meet, Halloween itself, we are in the restaurant of a downtown Manhattan hotel and one of us has been here a lot longer than the other. It would have been disappointing, bewildering even, if Campbell were punctual. Extreme lateness has become part of her notoriety, her mythos of supreme divadom. One hour and 27 minutes after the scheduled time, she swoops in, the full force of her, in giant sunglasses and on the phone, flanked by an assistant smiling apologies. Does she want anything? Coffee, water? No. I just want to start, she says, sitting down and stressing the last word by giving the table a brisk rap with manicured fingertips.

She acknowledges the homages with smooth queenliness. Every Halloween, Im very honoured and flattered to see many Naomis, she says in a coy, Cool Britannia voice that floats somewhere between Streatham and Notting Hill, both south-London-gal-at-the-back-of-a-bus and posh-lady-taking-tea. When I came to New York and went to my first Christopher Street parade, I saw many Naomis. And, in conclusion: I embrace them all.

This is how it begins, then, with Campbell seemingly in character as one of the imperious women she plays on the small screen. She is vampish, predatory Camilla Marks in Lee Danielss hip-hop drama series Empire, a character who had a particularly fine coital moment yanking on the gold chains of a besotted, shirtless Hakeem Lyon (23-year-old Bryshere Yazuan Gray) to intone: Tell me who am I to you. (My mama, he answers, in a whisper.) She was also Claudia Bankson, a shade-throwing Vogue editor on the cult FX show American Horror Story. Finally, she plays Rose Spencer-Crane in the new show Star, the petulant wife of a rock star and a woman who descends upon working-class Atlanta swathed in designer clothes to deliver lines such as: You have bad roots, you insolent hussy.

Cult character: Campbell plays Claudia Bankson in American Horror Story. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner/FX

These characters are all delicious to watch, but they are united by cartoonish hauteur. As I ask Campbell about this acting phase of her life, one facet of a highly visible career resurgence, she taps away at a text, peering distractedly at her phone for the response. I seem to be getting an act, all three roles in one. Over the next 40 minutes, however, she turns into a human being. And not just a human being, a likable one.

Put it this way, she says, sliding the phone away and launching into a motor-mouthed monologue. Everything Ive had, Ive worked for. And I will never take the easy way to get anything. So Im grateful to Lee [Daniels] Im a grafter and I work hard at something for the long term. I dont believe in things that happen overnight. Im grateful not to have gotten it all because I think I would have lost it all. I came into everything so young. In 1986, a few weeks shy of her 16th birthday, her first ever shoot landed her on the cover of British Elle. Im grateful for the way my path has turned out. And I am very spiritual, I do believe in God, and I thank God every day for my blessings because I know I am blessed.

This is a bit of a surprise. Religion is not something I share, really, she smiles. Campbell, who was raised by a single mother, lights a candle every day for the man she calls grandfather Nelson Mandela. She feels herself to be in spiritual communication with him. Constantly. He may not be here on the physical plane, but hes here, and I feel him. She admits that she never quite understood what Mr Mandela said to me when I was younger. Im understanding a bit more now: I will speak up for those who are unable to speak for themselves if I can.

Campbell and Nelson Mandela in 1998: He may not be on the physical plane, but hes here, and I feel him. Photograph: Anna Zieminski/AFP

Now, in her 40s, shes finding a different richness of life, which includes being able to heed that advice. Im more comfortable in my skin than Ive ever been, but thats only come because I know I have to share it. I will always be open to any young model black, white, yellow, pink I want to share what Ive learned in this business. And not just to models, to women. If I can empower them, teach them anything Ive learned in these 31 years, I will do so. Everyone who knows me knows; you call me, Im there. Help, advice, anything.

Campbell has made history since the start of her career. In 1988, she became the first ever black woman to appear on the cover of French Vogue. She, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista formed a supermodel unit nicknamed the Trinity and the latter two once chided Dolce & Gabbana: If you dont take Naomi, you dont get us. Campbell is conscious of the great power she holds within the industry now and takes her responsibility as an advocate seriously. Four years ago she formed the Diversity Coalition with fellow black models Bethann Hardison and Iman. The three of us said: OK, were gonna be the ones to come out at the forefront for the models, we have nothing to lose. Its getting better, but there are still things we have to remind people of. Its not a fight, its not a confrontation; its a reminder, a friendly reminder.

Campbell defined the era of the 90s supermodel, of the untouchable, va-va-voom glamour epitomised by flashy fashion houses such as Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Saint Laurent. But 2017 presents a different fashion paradigm, one in which Instagram is a more important medium than the runway, relatability is privileged over high-handedness, and the term off duty has become an aspirational aesthetic. The term does not apply here. In 2007, Campbell wore couture to mop floors in a sanitation department garage as community service for throwing a BlackBerry at her former housekeeper. On the last day, she emerged in a silver-sequined Dolce & Gabbana gown, to the hysterical delight of waiting paparazzi. She has never not known how to work it.

The Trinity: Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell in 1994. Photograph: Patrick McMullan/Getty Image

Working it, however, extends far beyond a famous runway walk and turning out impeccably high fashion looks. It also includes an ability to transmute terrible behaviour into a kind of glamorous myth or, as one might say these days, a compelling personal brand. Campbell has been convicted of assault on four occasions and in 2008, she pleaded guilty to attacking two police officers at Heathrow airport.

This side of her the violence, rage and substance abuse is usually depicted as her dark side, like some fairytale moralistic counterpoint to her beauty, fame, and wealth. The truth is, the bad behaviour seems only to have enhanced her legend. As Daniels recently told the New York Times in a profile of his star: She showed up to the shoot three hours late. The limousine door opened and she came out like Cruella de Vil. And I was screaming at her at the top of my lungs at the audacity of coming that late to my set, and she was screaming back at me. I fired her on the spot and fell in love with her there and then.

In 1999, Campbell entered rehab for cocaine and alcohol addiction and she says now that she, took on my shit and learned from it. I try to move on. But there are certain times when people try to use your past to blackmail you, to benefit them. That shit Im not going to allow. Her offences are simply fact, but I wonder, too, if past decades subjected her to the ugly stereotype of the angry black woman, one which even the highest in the land face. (As former first lady Michelle Obama told Oprah Winfrey in an interview last year: That was just one of those things that you just sort of think, Dang, you dont even know me.) Maybe we are finally approaching a cultural moment in which the figure of a highly assertive, ambitious and phenomenally successful black woman is widely recognised as not just aspirational, but politically vital, too.

Paying her debt off in style: Campbell on the final day of community service in New York, 2007. Photograph: Jason DeCrow/AP

In August, Campbell posted a photograph on Instagram of British Vogues editorial staff under outgoing editor Alexandra Shulman. All 55 faces in the picture are white. She wrote: Looking forward to an inclusive and diverse staff now that @edward_enninful is the editor. Enninful, an old friend of hers, is the first man and the first black person to edit British Vogue. He has lambasted what he calls the Sloanies club of the magazines old guard and his shake-up included the appointment of Campbell as a contributing editor.

Ive no disrespect for the past staff at all, she says. None. I have gratitude and graciousness to Lucinda Chambers, who was very important in my early career. But lets support the next generation. And now, suddenly, she is blazing with fury, her greenish eyes shooting heat across the table. Im not pleased at how he [Enninful] has been treated. Ive been in this business for 31 years, Ive seen editors come and go, and Ive never seen anything like this in my life. I find it racist. And I will not stand by and let people attack him in this way. (Shulman, appearing to take aim at Enninful, recently wrote that editing was, certainly not a job for someone who thinks that the main part of their job is being photographed in a series of designer clothes with a roster of famous friends.)

Let the work speak for itself, says Campbell. He has worked in this business for many years, thats why he got the job, fair and square. And to see all this stuff come out is appalling. England should be ashamed. Support your own. And be happy that theres going to be a new generation, a new Vogue. Ive been appalled. Ive been appalled. She repeats the word two more times, with emphasis. Its like a vendetta and it should stop. And I want you to say those words as I say them. I take it as racial abuse. I take it as that. Its not fair.

This moment of fury fades as rapidly as it arrived and soon she is chatting happily about frying fish with comedian Dave Chappelle in his down-home Ohio kitchen, or DJing for old friends. You see me as this girl on the runway with poise, grace and yadda yadda ya, but if Im having a good time, I want everyone else to have a good time. Im happy because Im based in truth, thats it. Im being honest to my morals. As I said, Im loyal: you fuck me and Im done with you. She laughs, then rephrases this more delicately: If I get hurt, I wish them the best, I close the door and I move on.

Campbell with Vogue editor Edward Enninful at a function earlier this year. Photograph: Timpone/BFA/Rex/Shutterstock

She admits that she is reluctant to allow new people into her life, but when I meet someone and its real and special I can see it. For many years, though, she didnt always see it. I was in my drinking, partying days, I wasnt seeing it clearly. I see it more clearly now. Doing this job now for British Vogue, I get to see what the next generation is doing and [Im] just hanging out in sneakers and jeans, and having fun.

Wait, wait. Sneakers and jeans? From the woman who made a couture event out of community service? Yeah, thats how I roll, she laughs. Kate [Moss] and I used to wear our night dresses out in the 90s and put on our sneakers and go out and Ive gone back to that. Right now, she is low-key cosy in a blazer from Supreme, a plaid shirt from a friend, Alaa leggings and Saint Laurent boots. I dress how I feel, she says, shrugging. And today thats quite straightforward: Easy. Comfortable. Its cold! she laughs.

Now she has a plane to catch. When she stands up to leave, she gives me a warm hug, then shoots me a contrite and beseeching look, and murmurs: And excuse me for being late. And maybe I shouldnt, but I absolutely do.

  • This article was amended on 6 November 2017 to correct the date of Campbells first British Elle cover. We originally said it was in 1996.

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