The Truth Behind Naomi Campbell's Complicated Legacy

Photo: Andrew H. Walker/REX/Shutterstock.
Naomi Campbell won’t be making any appearances on Empire tonight — her character was killed off a season ago when Lucious Lyon cruelly coerced her into committing suicide. I can’t help but think about this as a metaphor for how the public has engaged Campbell over the course of her decades-long career. She's broken barriers, broken molds, and broken the law since she began modeling in her teens. It’s been widely reported that she’s difficult to work and get along with, and her highly publicized bouts of violence in the early ‘00s seemed to support those claims. But there are racial assumptions undergirding these accusations that it would be reckless to overlook.
If you think that Campbell’s career is solely the result of the right person thinking she was pretty, you are mistaken. One way or another, Campbell was going to be an entertainer. Her mother was a dancer who toured Europe while Campbell herself studied at various performing arts schools. She was in a Bob Marley music video at the age of 7. At 12, she was tap dancing in another. So, even if the head of a modeling agency didn’t think 15-year-old Campbell was pretty, it’s likely that she would still found her own way into the entertainment industry. Although, she clearly had knack for fashion. For nearly a decade, Campbell worked almost exclusively as a runway and print model, honing her craft and earning herself a spot as one of the first-ever supermodels. One thing you can’t deny is her work ethic.
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Very early on, rumors about Campbell’s volatile personality began to emerge. She would show up late to photo shoots without apology and didn’t want to collaborate with other models. People magazine documented the messy falling out between her and her former agency Elite Model Management in the ‘90s. It was a “he said/she said” battle with each party trying to prove if Campbell had been fired for being an “impossible” diva or quit because of the racial discrimination she faced during her time there. The article itself is pretty damning of Campbell, relying on testimony about her background as a poor girl from a “rough part” of London as evidence of her instability.
We know that fashion has a problem with diversity. It’s a cause that Campbell has taken up since she began modeling in the ‘80s, and in fact, she has been the person to break through some of those barriers since she’s stepped onto the scene — she was the first Black woman on the cover of Vogue Paris and carried the same torch for the American version's famous September Issue. I’m not inclined to think people were particularly welcoming and pleasant to the Black woman who was forcing them to confront their own internalized racism and privilege. Combine this with racist assumptions about Black women as unreasonably angry and uncivilized, then the insider accusations against Campbell bear a little less weight.
I’m not advocating that Campbell be pardoned for abuse that she has inflicted on other people. I was grateful that Oprah quickly got her together during a 2010 interview in which Campbell honestly addressed her past drug use and history of violence. However, being a “mean” person can very easily be used to justify racism, and Campbell has never been one to let that slide, no matter the cost. Campbell has been given more than enough proverbial rope to hang herself, but she outmaneuvers the trap every time. On the sheer strength that Campbell has kept going for all of these years, there is a lot to be learned from the woman who is at once a hero and a villain.
We can still find today’s Naomi Campbell consistently employed. Her pop cultural relevance extends beyond fashion industry nostalgia. She’s an actress, an activist, and a 46-year-old unicorn who can and does put models half her age to shame on a catwalk. Ironically, it's her ability to lean into and resist tropes — that Black women are ghetto and angry, that supermodels are divas, that Campbell herself is talentless outside of modeling (I intentionally avoided mentioning her failed singing career) — that keeps Campbell in business. And honestly, the fact that Campbell continues to use these boulders as stepping stones and not barriers is something that we can all aspire to.
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