If you want to learn how to model, there are infinite paths of varying repute; but if you want to learn how to supermodel, studying under Naomi Campbell is tantamount to taking tennis lessons from Serena Williams. That is, if you can take your instruction with military edge.
“She’s like a drill sergeant,” stylist Jen Rade said of Campbell on a recent episode of Oxygen TV’s new reality modeling contest The Face. The legendary supermodel was coaching her team of novices through a challenge photo shoot, dictating every single choice and pose. Campbell issued her orders in rapid-fire succession—in marked contrast to the softer approach of Campbell’s fellow coaches Karolina Kurkova and Coco Rocha—and when the resulting images were scrutinized, guest judge Rade declared Team Naomi the winner.
“I don’t try to sugarcoat anything,” Campbell explains. “I want [the girls on my team] to get out of me as much as they can in the timeframe that we have together.”
For close to three decades, Campbell has maneuvered to the top of the modeling industry leveraging her exceptional beauty, a keen talent for transforming in front of the camera, and favored status with the industry’s most powerful players into a reported $48 million net worth. Discovered as a teen in London, Campbell was 15 when she made the cover of British Elle, seizing a blessed opportunity after the originally scheduled model canceled. At 18, she was the first Black model to cover Vogue’s Paris edition when designer Yves Saint Laurent reportedly threatened to pull his advertising if the book didn’t integrate its cover.
In the years that followed, Campbell ascended to the rarefied ranks of a small group of girls that commanded unprecedented pay and came to epitomize the decadent height of ‘90s fashion culture. In an industry notorious for blatant refusal to hire models of color, Campbell didn’t just make it as a Black model—she made it as a supermodel, and role model.
For legions of Black girls who grew up in the age of Naomi Campbell, the model represented validation of more than Eurocentric beauty, and for fashion lovers of all colors, Campbell was one portal into an exciting world of fashion characters that ultimately paved the way for the current culture of street style and fashion blogs we have today.
How do you teach that?
“You’ve got to almost be uninhibited.” Campbell goes into coach mode, as she starts to bullet point her supermodel lesson. “You have to almost come out of yourself …each client wants something different.”
She adds, “You cannot take anything personal. If you’re not wanted—if you’re not the right look for a casting and they don’t want you, don’t go home taking it on your head like ‘I’m bad, I’m not good enough.’ That’s just a ‘no’,” she says flatly.
When it comes to the industry’s poor record on hiring Black models, Campbell says “Being a Black woman, my mother always told me no matter what …you’re gonna have to try 110% and be better than they are, and it’s something that always stuck in my mind.” She adds, “Even if I didn’t get certain things, I did my best and you can’t do better than that.”
It takes a remarkably strong sense of self to have that kind of perspective, and from the outside looking in, the modeling industry seems like an unusually difficult place for a girl to develop it. Girls who aren’t legally able to drink or vote largely populate the industry; and are routinely subjected to blunt rejection, picked apart for everything from the shape of their nose to the color of their skin, for example.
In many cases, they are transplants from other countries, living apart from parents or guardians, and don’t speak the language. The few who are able to book gigs often work for hours on end without regulated breaks, disrobing in front of strangers, and in some cases navigating sexual advances and assault.
And then there’s the intense competition for jobs.
Veteran modeling agent Bethann Hardison likens the competitive nature of the business to a “gladiator vibe." She explains, “I think that it’s natural that when you put us into a ring we’re going to start sizing each other up, checking out our territory… It happens more with dark girls than it happens with White girls.”
The pressures can be as huge as the payoffs, and Campbell is the first to bring up the negatives that have pockmarked her storied career. Model Tyra Banks, who has built a media empire with her own reality series America’s Next Top Model, famously accused Campbell of making her years as a model one of the lowest points of her life by freezing her out and influencing designers not to cast her. Campbell has also been accused of assault multiple times, and served five days of community service and two days of anger-management classes in connection with one of her altercations.
“I’ve had many challenges in my career,” Campbell admits. “You know what? That’s my past. And with the help of friends and people like Bethann [Hardison], and my mother I was able to overcome.” She adds of Hardison, “She is a lady I will constantly go to for advice, and you know, she’s like family to me.”
Hardison has known Campbell since she flew to London to discuss signing the young model to her agency. Even though Campbell went with another agent, Hardison says she was the first person Naomi called when she got to the States. She describes young Naomi as a shy kid. “She just always knew if something was going not right, she could call me and talk to me about it and I’d give her my guidance and my thought about it. “
Hardison says modeling’s competitive edge and exclusivity makes having high-placed mentors all the more important.
A former model herself, she remembers, “When I first started to model, I had someone that I called my ‘Mother Model,’” Hardison continues, “She was there when I went to Mexico on my first trip… She was there when I had to talk to her about different things.” Years later, she started the Black Girls Coalition to bring Black models together for charitable causes. “I taught them about their own celebrity and how important it could be used to help others.”
Perhaps for this reason Campbell says she doesn’t take her role as a mentor on The Face lightly.
To be sure, it was a professional risk for the model to align her personal brand as an exclusive high-fashion model with a reality series that airs just before The Bad Girls Club: Atlanta and give viewers weekly access to her, but Campbell says she hopes to pass on the nuggets she’s learned. “Whether you want to end up sticking to it or your calling is something else, it never hurts to learn and to know and to have knowledge about something,” she says. In the meantime, she plans to do all she can to help the girls build real careers in the business.
“I’m going to make sure I place them with good agencies and make sure their career is going okay and they get a good start with people I trust and know.” She adds, “I didn’t want them to emulate me. I didn’t want to teach them to be me… I want to teach them to be [their] best.”
Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel Powder Necklace and founder of the blog People Who Write. Follow her on Twitter @nanaekua.