March 2022 Issue

A Model Parent: Naomi Campbell Opens Up About Motherhood On Her Own Terms

As a supermodel, Naomi Campbell writes her own rules. Now, as a new mother, she’s intent on doing the same, as she explains to Sarah Harris. Photographs by Steven Meisel. Styling by Joe McKenna
Image may contain Hair Human Person Naomi Campbell and Black Hair
Steven Meisel

Naomi is late. Thirty-four days, two hours and 15 minutes late. Or at least, this is when we finally meet since the proposed date, last year. Also, I say “meet” in the loosest possible sense. She is on a flight heading to London from Qatar – this being the only spare hour she could find in her happily crowded and exuberant life – and we’re relying solely on the strength of its Wi-Fi, which, sadly, doesn’t stretch to video call capabilities. But in this case, a detailed description of Naomi’s physical appearance is somewhat redundant, thanks to Steven Meisel. Naomi, otherworldly, actually does look like that. Impossibly flawless skin, sensational hair, honed-beyond-belief body. A goddess. Still. At 51.

What isn’t lost at some 40,000 feet is this new mother’s effervescence when it comes to talking about her nine-month-old daughter, who is with her now and is, amazingly, as quiet as a church mouse for the duration of our call. “I’m lucky my little one loves to travel like me – no whimpering taking off or landing,” she says, proudly. “She’s a good girl: she sleeps very well, she hardly ever cries and I’m told she’s very alert for her age. She’s just started waving, which is fun. She laughs a lot. She’s almost talking,” she says, adding, “I think she might walk before she crawls. And she’s got six teeth already.” Some grumbles through teething, then? “None! She’s a trooper.” Truly a model baby. A supermodel’s model baby.

Stretch-jersey body and stretch-jersey leggings, Burberry

Steven Meisel

Naomi announced becoming a mother on Instagram in May 2021, with a post of her daughter’s perfect, deliciously tiny feet in the palm of her manicured hand. Exact details around her arrival are unknown. When asked if she would elaborate, all she will confirm is, “She wasn’t adopted – she’s my child.” She is saving the rest of the details for her book, which she is yet to begin. She has also decided to keep her daughter’s name private. In fact, very few people even knew that she was planning parenthood: “I can count on one hand the number of people who knew that I was having her,” she admits. “But she is the biggest blessing I could ever imagine. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

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This bundle of pure joy has just made her first Vogue appearance – a cover, no less – and, unsurprisingly, she was a natural. “She loves the light. She’s inquisitive. She was looking at everyone – she looks at people right in the eye and for a very long time. She was taking it all in.” What is surprising to learn is how nervous Naomi was on set with Meisel, one of her closest friends and collaborators, who she has known since she was 16 years old. “I’m always very nervous and quiet when I work with Steven. I’m so focused on becoming something else, something new in his eyes, to understand his direction and be one hundred per cent present.” Their friendship spans 35 years. They met in December 1986, in New York. “I walked into Apollo studios and I was like, ‘Wow, this man is beautiful,’” she recalls. “But he’s beautiful inside and out. He’s sharp, effortless. He’s like family to me.”

Leather jacket with embellished belt, Alexandre Vauthier. Leggings, Alaïa. Leather boots, Casadei. White-gold ring and white-gold and diamond ring, Chanel Fine Jewellery

Steven Meisel

This season, between Paris, Milan and London, Naomi walked in shows for Versace, Alexander McQueen, Balmain and Lanvin. “I still enjoy it but it’s nerve-racking! Because I’m 51 years old walking with girls who are 18!” She’s being generous. No one – but no one – commands a runway like Naomi, then or now. Was it more fun back then? “Of course! Because you’re with your girls,” she explains, referring to Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington. “It’s great to be with these young ’uns at my age, but I have to say, at one of the shows I was like, ‘Come on, girls! Pick up your feet! Why are you walking so slow?’ I definitely feel like my time was more joyful. We smiled. We got to show off our personalities.”

Naomi, Linda, Cindy, Christy... the power of those four glamorous, go-getting, genetically gifted women transcended fashion. Their status – their celebrity – was so spectacular that their names became as big as, if not bigger than, the blockbuster brands they were booked for. “It was an incredible time,” she remembers, fondly, “but we worked hard. And no matter how many outfit changes, how many shows, we never said we were tired. We all loved it and we kept each other’s energy up. We did eight shows a day and then we would go and celebrate with the designers in the evening. I wonder sometimes if models now could have kept up with us.”

More than three decades on, she remains great friends with them all. “Yes, we have a group chat,” she says. Cindy was the first to meet her daughter when she was just a few days old, Christy visited when she was less than two weeks old and Linda is yet to meet her, likely busy since announcing her US legal claim last September that Zeltiq’s CoolSculpting procedure, which claims to reduce fat, left her “brutally disfigured”. “She’s a strong woman and I think she’s very brave,” says Naomi. “It takes a lot of courage to come out and speak her truth. I stand by her absolutely.”

They’re currently working on The Supermodels, an upcoming docuseries for Apple TV+. Directed by Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple, it will revisit their 1990s reign. “It’s about our life and times together: our friendship, careers, our womanhood, our motherhood.” Together with Ron Howard, they are all executive producers on the project. “As models, we don’t have any rights to our image, so it feels good to be partners on our legacy – and in our own words.”

Jersey top, denim shorts, and leather gloves, Rick Owens

Steven Meisel

Naomi grew up in Streatham, south London, surrounded by women. Her mother, Valerie Morris-Campbell, was a dancer who performed the world over and so she describes the way she was raised as “communally”, filled with aunts – who chaperoned a teenage Naomi to jobs in Milan and Paris – and an adoring Jamaican grandmother, the family’s matriarch. “Grandma taught me how to cook and clean. I would come home from school and have to wash my dancewear, clean my shoes,” she recalls. “I think discipline is important. I had that and I will be the same.” She attended Barbara Speake Stage School until she was 12, where she received elocution lessons in addition to dance and drama. In other words, the kind of education that can give a young girl confidence in a fiercely competitive industry. “I come from a family of strong women. Between that and my school, I learnt early how to fend for myself. I learnt how to stand up for myself.”

It explains her long-standing commitment to social responsibility and a no-holds-barred approach when it comes to speaking up for herself and for others, to be a force for change and to demand greater Black representation in an industry long criticised for its lack of diversity. Since the 1990s, she would think nothing of cold-calling brands, designers and editors about their casting choices. “I would call anyone who would pick up the phone. It wasn’t about making a complaint,” she confirms, “it was about making people aware.” She is keen to add that she has a Black agent, Akeem Rasool at Women Management, and she intends to work with him to support young creative talent in emerging markets, from Africa to India to the Middle East, who were never given an opportunity or a platform.

She has become a mother figure to a younger generation of Black models currently enjoying huge success, such as Adut Akech and Ugbad Abdi, who are part of a group of African models now, finally, dominating fashion and shifting beauty ideals. Does she wish this movement was possible back then? She pauses. “Everyone’s journey is written. This is my journey, this is how it’s written,” she says, thoughtfully. “But yes, there were lots of times when I would walk in the fashion shows, but I was never picked for the ad campaigns and it would hurt – it really hurt. I would have to suck it up and keep moving. Of course, it would have been great to have had that support around me back then, but I’m proud to see it happen now, I’m proud to see the diversity now. But I say this with all sincerity: we’re not here for a trend. There are so many companies who are in this only because they don’t want to get called out. No. Don’t do it from that place, do it because you understand that it’s the right thing to do. There is still a long way to go.”

Her work ethic remains unrelenting. In September, she took on another cause, as global ambassador for The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, a role that involves supporting the charity’s fundraising efforts and promoting the work of its young advocates. “[Nelson] Mandela said something to me once that has always stayed with me. He said, ‘We will sleep when we’re gone’ and while I have breath and energy I will do the work.” Becoming a mother, she says, has only made her want to work even harder. “I support Black Lives Matter and I support anything for positive change, but I’ve been saying this longer than these things have been around – this isn’t new for me.”

Crystal-mesh minidress, Alexandre Vauthier. Boots, as before

Steven Meisel

Now with her own daughter, she has even more of a reason to see these changes manifest. “I always knew that one day I would be a mother, but it’s the biggest joy I could ever imagine. I’m lucky to have her and I know that.” Her energy levels are one reason why you get the feeling she doesn’t even consider the 50-year age gap between her and her daughter an issue. Truthfully, Naomi, who can operate on only a few hours sleep, can probably outperform a 20-year-old when it comes to endurance. She’s currently encouraging all of her older friends to have babies. “I’m telling them all, do it! Don’t hesitate!”

Naomi’s daughter goes everywhere with her. To offer a snapshot: Christmas was spent in the south of France with family, then they jetted to Qatar for New Year’s Eve, followed by London for a matter of hours, before heading to LA for a few days and on to Paris, where Naomi attended as a guest but ended up walking in Virgil Abloh’s last men’s show for Louis Vuitton. Asked where they actually live, she’s well versed with her response: “We’re world citizens!”

She’s smart to make the most of it now and acknowledges that spontaneity and freedom will end when her daughter starts school. Of course, her nanny – “an amazing lady” – who has been with her since the day her daughter was born, makes the upheaval of yo-yoing around the globe that much easier. And no, Naomi didn’t suffer hours of soul-destroying nanny interviews. She hired her on the recommendation of a close friend with particularly high standards.

Naomi’s enjoying living life through her daughter’s eyes: “I’m like a kid again. I’m reliving nursery rhymes, playing and discovering how many great new toys there are out there in the world! And dolls! Things I couldn’t even dream of.” She says her daughter loves music boxes, exploring colours, textures and shapes. And then there are the clothes. This baby’s wardrobe is fast growing into one that will soon rival hers. “She has a really nice closet thanks to so many designers and friends who have sent her some lovely things, but wow, kids grow fast, don’t they?” Naomi’s own archive – loaded with Alaïa, Chanel, Versace – is the subject of another new project she has in the works, which is as much as she will say right now.

Before she dials off, I ask her what the biggest surprise has been since becoming a mother. Without hesitation: “My daughter comes first,” she answers. “Everything I do, I do for her – that’s it. It’s so completely selfless, isn’t it?” Does she want more? “Why not?” she says, laughing. “Why not?”

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Hair: Guido. Make-up: Pat McGrath. Nails: Jin Soon Choi. Production: ProdN. Digital artwork: DTouch London

The March 2022 issue of British Vogue is on newsstands on Tuesday 22 February.