One of the elite group of models who were directly responsible for the term ‘supermodel’ being coined, and its only black member, Naomi Campbell’s ongoing career spans decades thanks to her enduring editorial and campaign work. She is also credited as a trailblazer for black models.
Born in the South London area of Brixton, Campbell studied at Italia Conti Academy stage school and appeared in music videos for Bob Marley and Culture Club before signing with Synchro modelling agency at age 15. Her career quickly took off. Just before her 16th birthday, Campbell fortuitously appeared on the cover of British Elle, following another model dropping out at the last minute.
As the first black model to feature on the cover of British Vogue, in August of 1988, she also became the first black model to appear on the cover of French Vogue, allegedly after her friend and mentor Yves Saint Laurent threatened to withdraw his advertising from the magazine if it continued to refuse to place black models on its cover. The following year she appeared on the cover of American Vogue, which marked the first time a black model had graced the front of the September issue, traditionally the year's biggest and most important issue.
When faced with racial discrimination, Campbell received support from her model friends and colleagues. She later quoted Turlington and Evangelista as telling Dolce & Gabbana, "If you don't use Naomi, you don't get us." In 1997, The Guardian reported Campbell as stating, "There is prejudice. It is a problem and I can't go along any more with brushing it under the carpet. This business is about selling, and blonde and blue-eyed girls are what sells."
Despite the industry’s prejudice, Campbell has amassed an impressive roster of advertising campaigns in which she has starred, including Versace, Ralph Lauren , Dolce and Gabbana and Louis Vuitton. In addition Campbell was appointed the face of Yves Saint Laurent. The model’s editorial work includes shoots by fashion’s greatest photographers Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchelier, Richard Avedon, Ellen von Unwerth , Herb Ritts, Steven Meisel , Peter Lindbergh and Helmut Newton.
In 1999, she signed her first cosmetics contract with Cosmopolitan Cosmetics, a division of Wella, through which she launched several fragrances. In November of that year, she posed with 12 other top models for the "Modern Muses" cover of the millennium issue of American Vogue, shot by Annie Leibovitz. The following month she appeared on the cover of Playboy. In October 2001, she appeared with rapper Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs on the cover of British Vogue.
In 2002, Naomi Campbell was involved in a high-profile lawsuit with London's Daily Mirror over publishing photos of her leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. After several appeals, the court ruled in Campbell's favour. Campbell has sought treatment for both addition and anger issues. The supermodel famously recorded a period of court-ordered community service, following a lawsuit brought about by her assistant in a diary for W, with accompanying photography shot by Steven Klein .
In 2005, Campbell founded the charity Fashion for Relief, which has organised fund-raising fashion shows to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the India terrorist attacks in 2009, the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the Japan earthquake in 2011. Fashion for Relief is reported to have raised £4.5 million. Campbell is also an active fundraiser for breast cancer and started a charity to battle poverty in Brazil. She has also donated funds to her “honorary grandfather,” Nelson Mandela’s political party the ANC.
In 2019, Campbell was awarded the British Fashion Council 's Fashion Icon award, in which she took the opportunity to foreground her South London heritage.