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How Naomi Campbell Found Her Footing

As she prepares to host her latest Fashion for Relief fundraiser at the Cannes Film Festival, the supermodel tells Tim Blanks about the personal resonance behind her philanthropic work.
Naomi Campbell at her Fashion for Relief London headquarters | Source: Courtesy
  • Tim Blanks

CANNES, France — Last Wednesday, Naomi Campbell was in Venice, attending the dinner for Mark Bradford, the artist in residence for the US Pavilion at the 2017 Biennale. Saturday, she was at the Formula E race in Monaco, dazzling in white Alaia. Monday was a tantalisingly NDA-ed shoot in London. Tuesday, still in London, she was re-fitting the vintage dresses she planned to wear in Cannes. Hours later, she hosted a screening of "Can't Stop, Won't Stop," Sean Combs' new documentary. Lacy black McQueen for that one. All in all, a week that was pretty much par for a peripatetic fashion icon.

But throughout it, Campbell’s overriding concern has been the event she is hosting on Sunday night at the Mandelieu Hangar in Cannes on behalf of her charity Fashion for Relief. She’s devoted every spare minute — outside three hours of sleep a night — to organising Sunday’s show, dinner and auction. In a way, this is the most private part of a very public life. It kind of flips the usual formula. The after hours things that people customarily do as part of their private life — shopping, partying, dinners with friends — are the activities that keep Campbell in the public eye. Her philanthropic work is something else. “It isn’t for press or public observation,” she says. “It’s something I’ve been doing privately for decades.” Ever since, in fact, Nelson Mandela sat her down and had a talk with her when she was 22, about the ways she could use her own success to help others.

The quarter century since has occasionally been tabloid-turbulent for Campbell. The fashion industry has indulged her in many ways, and denied her in others. She made no bones about the fact that her race made a difference, which helps explain why she came across as less secure than her equally entitled supermodel peers. If, watching from afar, you felt Campbell was a woman trying to find her footing, it’s probably safe to assume that Fashion for Relief may at last be her solid ground.

She founded the charity in 2005 as a response to Hurricane Katrina, mobilising her model and designer friends for a fundraising show during New York Fashion Week. In the years since, her events have continued to raise funds for victims of natural disasters (the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan), and Fashion for Relief has also worked with international charities to raise awareness about women’s health issues. But its growing focus on the millions of children caught up in humanitarian crises around the world seems to have a particular resonance for Campbell. She insists she hasn’t wondered why. “I was raised by a single parent. Maybe there’s an abandonment issue on some level I don’t know about.” It’s a thought she quickly sets aside.

I was raised by a single parent. Maybe there's an abandonment issue on some level I don't know about.

This year’s event is raising money for Save the Children’s Every Last Child campaign. In February, Campbell went to Jordan, where King Abdullah and Queen Rania have opened their border to refugees from Syria. In Zaatari, the largest refugee camp, she sat and listened while mothers and children told their stories. “That’s all they want. And that’s all I wanted, to listen. Not getting it second hand.” It’s really no surprise to hear that the stories were about resilience, hope, young girls wanting to go home so they could continue their education, young boys who just wanted to build a house for their families. Campbell said she saw hardly any men in their 20s or 30s in the camp. It was women who were extending their hospitality, sharing what few rations they had, in makeshift aluminium tents they were able to heat in the desert chill for an hour a day if they were lucky. And the hospitality had nothing to do with their visitor’s celebrity. Campbell says they didn’t have a clue who she was. “But they felt comfortable with me, and they knew I’d be back.”

The issue of personal resonance returns. When I ask whether the deplorable plight of the children she met stirs any maternal instincts, Campbell chokes up. She insists she never loses heart, because they don’t. “I cannot afford to be pessimistic,” she adds. “Even if my heart is broken, I’m always going to love again.”

It’s striking how often she talks in terms of family. When she met Mark Bradford, for instance, she says there was an instant brother/sister connection. He was raised by a single mother. He’s also a gay black man who has pointed out the paradox of representing a country he feels no longer represents him. That feeling of being outside, despite massive success, is something Campbell might identify with. “I only went to Venice for him,” she says. “I got to meet his professor, his friends from school, the people who were with him from the beginning.”

It's the same thing with her "family". She calls Azzedine Alaia "Papa". She regarded Mandela as a grandfatherly presence in her life. Edward Enninful, the new editor at British Vogue, is another "brother". Best friend Kate Moss is clearly all about sisterhood. The death of Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani left a mentor-shaped hole in Campbell's life, but Donatella Versace (sister? Mother?) is stepping up to fill the gap. Campbell can call on any of them in a heartbeat. And she does, for Fashion for Relief. They're her roots. And it's Campbell's acute appreciation of the importance of roots — her own and others — that gives her charity its soul.

To purchase a ticket for the 2017 Fashion for Relief event, click here

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