Supermodel, activist, philanthropist, and troublemaker, Naomi Campbell made waves in the fashion industry, paving much of the path for today’s new talents. Constantly facing discrimination in her line of work, Campbell never backed down when faced with injustice—and this fiery, tenacious attitude got her into trouble more often than not. From her fights for diversity to her fistfights with staff, let’s dive into the tumultuous life of Naomi Campbell.
1. She Never Knew Her Dad
Campbell’s father, a man of Jamaican-Chinese heritage, left her mom when she was just four weeks pregnant with Campbell. Campbell never expressed any interest in meeting him—her mom, Valerie, asked her not to go looking for him, and his name is completely missing from her birth certificate! Not knowing her dad didn’t bother her though—after all, she learned everything she needed to know from her mom.
2. She Took After Her Mom
A modern dancer, Valerie encouraged Campbell to follow in her footsteps. At age 3, little Naomi was already attending a prestigious dance school, and at 10, Campbell received her acceptance into the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, where she chose to study ballet. At a young age, Campbell already knew that she wanted to be a dancer, just like her mom. Life, however, had other plans for her.
3. They Discovered Her As A Teen
While window shopping with friends in Covent Garden one day, Campbell’s life suddenly took a sharp turn. That was the day that the head of the Synchro Model Agency, Beth Boldt, scouted her. Campbell was surprised—there were two other girls with her, so why would Boldt choose the girl that was “all angular arms and legs?” Excited nonetheless, Campbell shared the news with her mom… Who was less than thrilled.
4. Her Mom Didn’t Trust Them
Already paying a hefty sum for Campbell’s schooling and lessons, her mom, Valerie, was suspicious of these agency people. Valerie had heard stories of con artists posing as “agents” who approached girls with the promise of modeling jobs in exchange for a “fee”—only for them to take the money and run. Besides, Valerie wanted Campbell to concentrate on finishing school, so she was against the idea. This didn’t stop Campbell though.
5. She Met The Agency In Secret
Naomi Campbell was never one to sit idly by while something she wanted was within reach! Determined to meet Boldt again, Campbell snuck off to see Boldt on her own a couple of weeks later. During the meeting, Boldt took Campbell’s first professional photos in black and white. Valerie, after some convincing, relented, letting her daughter model, as long as it didn’t interfere with school.
Just three months later, Campbell got her big break.
6. She Was A Teen Model
At just 15 years old, Naomi Campbell shot her first big assignment with British Elle in New Orleans. Blown away by her “glorious smile” and unabashed displays of emotion from the Elle shoot, she soon got calls from agencies from as far as the US, who hoped to recruit her. Her career was taking off, and a year later, she was called to Paris to shoot for French Elle…where she ran into a bit of trouble.
7. She Lost Everything In Paris
During a shoot in Paris, Campbell faced a heartbreaking setback. She had neglected to lock her stuff away and had all her money and valuables taken from her. She was on her own—her mom trusted her to be able to take care of herself—and didn’t know anybody in Paris. Taking pity on her, fellow model Amanda Cazalet guided her for the day and took her to a fitting with a designer—who became one of the most important people in her life.
8. She Met Her “Papa”
Through Cazalet, Campbell met Azzedine Alaïa, a high-end Tunisian fashion designer. Alaïa intimidated the young teen at first, but his patient demeanor caused her to open up. He suggested that she should stay at his home while she was in Paris, and after a phone call with her mom, Campbell moved in the next day. From then on, Campbell called him “papa,” and through him, she met even more people that shaped the future of her career.
9. She Became The First Supermodel
As she made more connections in the industry, Campbell soon began to model for fashion magazines all over the world. This made her a household name, and she, along with five other girls, became a part of the “Big Six,” the first elite group of what the fashion industry decided to call “supermodels.” Unfortunately, being a supermodel didn’t stop her from being a victim of prejudice.
10. She Faced Discrimination
Due to the color of her skin, Campbell found herself barred from modeling in certain shows. Big names like Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Armani, and others, while not overt in their discrimination, tended to only use one, or even zero, models of color. To this, Campbell said, “I understood what it meant to be black…You had to be twice as good.”
Determined, Campbell used this attitude—along with her connections—to smash through the barriers in the modeling world.
11. Her Friends Had Her Back
Campbell wasn’t alone in fighting back against discrimination. Her modeling friends, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista, stood up for her by giving designers a fierce ultimatum. They repeatedly told industry professionals that, “If you don’t use Naomi, you don’t get us.” Thanks to their support, more doors opened for Naomi, and in 1987, she graced the cover of British Vogue, becoming the first black model to do so since 1966.
Of course, things weren’t smooth sailing all the way…
12. Her Skin Color Caused Problems
In June 1988, Campbell got to shoot for the cover of Italian Vogue. Unfortunately, the makeup artist on set was unable to do her makeup correctly because he had not brought the correct color of foundation for her skin. Disappointed by the blunder and by the resulting photos, Campbell made sure to always bring her own makeup with her from then on. This would be just one out of many events that sparked Campbell’s desire to change the modeling world.
13. Executives Discriminated Against Her
Naomi Campbell modeled regularly for French Vogue, but never appeared on the cover. When she asked about being on the cover, the editor’s response was devastating. She was told that “a cover wasn’t a possibility”—in fact, the magazine never had a black model on the cover before! Knowing how important it was to push for minority representation in the industry, Campbell continued to fight for a spot on the cover, and would get some help from a famous friend.
14. Famed Designers Fought For Her
After hearing of her rejection, famed designer and friend Yves St. Laurent threatened to withdraw advertising from the magazine if they continued to refuse to put black models on the cover. Soon after, Naomi Campbell became the first black model on the cover of French Vogue, where it made a huge impact on cultural representation in the fashion world. Her magazine success soon started to trickle into her runway success as well.
15. She Had No Training
With no formal trainer, Campbell had to teach herself how to work the fashion runway. Drawing on her dance experience, Campbell soon created her signature, fierce walk. Her accompanying gorgeous, beaming smile turned her into one of the most sought after runway models in the world. The runway wasn’t always kind to her though, and it was there where she made one of her most famous blunders in her career.
16. She Fell On The Runway
High-end fashion shows often have models dressed head-to-toe in weird, wacky, and sometimes impractical pieces of clothing, and Campbell was no exception to this! During a show where she was showcasing Vivienne Westwood’s 12-inch high platform shoes—you read that correctly—disaster struck. Campbell took one wrong step and ended up tumbling onto her backside in front of the entire crowd. Her reaction to this was priceless.
17. She Ran Backstage
Campbell ran backstage, where a very concerned Westwood arrived to check in with her. Campbell cheekily told Westwood, “Vivienne, I am going back on that catwalk now, but if I fall down again, I am not getting up, and you [will have to] come and get me!” True to her word, Campbell went back onstage and finished her walk—without falling this time!
The resulting press attention meant the event took a strange turn.
18. Designers Wanted Her To Fall
The next day, Campbell’s tumble on the stage was all over the front of the British newspapers. Soon, Campbell got some very strange calls from several designers, asking if she would be willing to fall down on stage wearing one of their outfits too! It turned out that her fall received so much attention that other designers wanted the free press as well!
Campbell rejected the offers, but it wouldn’t be the last time that she got negative attention from the press.
19. They Fired Her
September 22, 1993, would become an infamous day for Campbell. After many years of working with Elite Model Management, they fired her. John Casablancas, the head of the agency, called her “crazy, irrational, and uncontrollable,” and that “no amount of money or prestige could further justify” what Campbell was putting their poor staff members through. What exactly did Campbell do?
20. She Reduced Them To Tears
When people asked Casablancas why he fired Campbell, his response was chilling. “She has been having people around here in tears,” he explained. Furthermore, according to Casablancas, the staff lied about Campbell’s behavior to cover for her. Campbell, after receiving the news of her being fired, allegedly waved off Casablancas’s accusations, saying it was just “sour grapes.”
With her superstar status, Campbell wasn’t without an agency for long.
21. They Couldn’t Handle Her
Naomi Campbell quickly joined Ford Models Inc., and insisted that she had walked away from her old agency, not fired. President of the agency, Kate Ford, said in a statement that “Naomi is a top star. She’s expanding her career into other areas and thought we could handle her better.” With that last bit of oh-so-subtle shade thrown at Casablancas, Campbell did indeed start expanding her career…with disastrous results.
22. She Made Terrible Music
In 1994, Campbell released a music album called Baby Woman. Unfortunately, critics mocked the album and it failed to make a splash in the United Kingdom. The album was so bad, in fact, that it inspired the Naomi Awards, with “awards” going to those who made terrible pop music. The “awards” included categories like “Outstandingly Bad Contribution to Music.”
And her other ventures didn’t do much better…
23. She Wrote Terrible Books
In the same year that she released her album, Campbell published a book called Swan, about a supermodel being blackmailed. This, too, received poor reviews. To make things worse, Swan was ghostwritten by Caroline Upcher—Campbell said that she “just did not have the time to sit down and write a book.” This was definitely a less-than-flattering reveal and a precursor for more bad news to come.
24. She Tried To Mix Fashion And Food
Alongside several other models, Naomi Campbell invested in the Fashion Cafe, a restaurant that used fashion icons as its theme. Unfortunately, the image of tall, skinny models, alongside large portions of food, didn’t make a ton of sense to diners, and Campbell’s name wasn’t even spelled right on the menu, which offered “Noami’s Fish and Chips.” This was small potatoes compared to an even bigger problem, though…
25. She Partnered With A Thief
The difficulties for the restaurant didn’t stop piling on—and one day, they reached a disturbing breaking point. Campbell discovered that one of the founders, Tommaso Buti, was taking about $10,000 per day from the restaurant to cover his personal debts and lavish, playboy lifestyle. After reporting it, the federal government ended up charging Buti with conspiracy, money laundering, and more.
Soon though, Campbell also found herself on the wrong side of the law.
26. She Repeatedly Attacked Her Staff
Quick to anger, Campbell didn’t just let her words fly during heated arguments—she let objects fly as well, including several instances of throwing her cell phones (yes, she kept more than one on hand!) at staff members who raised her ire. In 1998, Campbell pleaded guilty to attacking a personal assistant in Toronto, agreeing to anger management classes. Not that they seemed to help much…
27. She Incited Scandal
By the early 2000s, several employees had stepped forward to accuse Campbell of instances of physical attacks on their person, forcing her to pay damages to some, and to attend more anger management programs. She clearly didn’t learn her lesson, because Campbell’s next move was mind-blowingly tone-deaf. Adding more fuel to the fire, Campbell walked around in a shirt that said “Naomi Hit Me… And I Loved It.”
It was a forehead-slapping moment of decision-making, but this didn’t even come close to how shocking her next move was.
28. She Cleaned Sewers… In Style
As a part of her sentence, Naomi Campbell did five days of community service for New York’s sanitation department, where she swept the floors and scrubbed the walls of New York’s sanitation system. Not wanting to look drab though, Campbell showed up to her shifts in furs, fedoras, and—most famously—a silver gown worth $300,000. The press was in an absolute tizzy, but as for Campbell herself…
29. She Found The Sewers Pleasant
Despite the dirty and unglamorous work, Campbell liked the change in routine, calling it “pleasant” and “peaceful.”. In an interview, Campbell said that, “Maybe doing this service at the Sanitation was meant to be like a humiliation punishment, but it isn’t at all.” This softer side of Campbell—despite her faults—would make her a powerhouse in the world of charity and activism.
30. She Fought For Diversity
Campbell, along with other famous black models, created the “Diversity Coalition,” an advocacy group that fought for minority representation in the fashion industry. Through the Coalition, Campbell successfully created policies and guidelines for diversity, even going so far as to personally call designers who neglected to use models of color in a meaningful way. She soon took her advocacy work to the international stage.
31. She Met Someone Extraordinary
Inspired by her own fight for diversity, Campbell decided that she wanted to support Nelson Mandela and his fight against apartheid during a trip to South Africa. She did a photoshoot in Tanzania, donating the proceeds to the cause. To her surprise, she got a call soon after saying, “You are leaving tomorrow for Johannesburg. The president wants to meet you.”
And just like that, she met Nelson Mandela. The two formed a deep bond…deeper than even Campbell expected.
32. She Became His Granddaughter
Campbell began working closely with Mandela as a part of the Nelson Mandela’s Children Fund. She frequently visited sick children in Africa, on top of donating regularly to the fund. In recognition of her work and their bond, Mandela decided to make a surprising and heartbreaking announcement. One day during a press conference—and without her knowledge—he told those gathered that she was his “honorary granddaughter.”
Touched by the honor, Naomi became a close member of the family—which made the next bit of news all the more heartbreaking.
33. She Thought Her Granddad Was Immortal
In 2010, Campbell received a devastating call from Mandela’s family—he was bedridden and very ill. Campbell had always thought of her granddad as practically immortal, so she knew this was serious. Unfortunately, Campbell didn’t make it to his bedside, and his passing left her feeling adrift. Purposeless without her adopted granddad, Campbell didn’t find her feet again until many years later.
34. She Propelled Fashion Forward
Naomi Campbell slowly found a way to support Mandela’s cause—in her own way. Campbell started connecting up-and-coming designers in Africa with industry professionals in the Western world, bringing the fashions and colors of Africa to the global stage—and with it, she brought to light the issues of poverty and women’s rights in Africa as well. Not content with just Africa, Campbell turned her eyes to other countries as well.
35. She Founded Her Own Charity
Marrying her deep love of fashion with her deep love of philanthropy, Campbell founded “Fashion For Relief,” a charity that runs fashion shows and donates the proceeds to different causes all around the world. Campbell raised money to combat poverty, improve education, and to help those struck by natural disasters. Through her charity, she met a ton of world leaders—and a ton of trouble.
36. They Accused Her Of Accepting Blood Diamonds
In 2010, charges against Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia, came to light. He was accused of selling blood diamonds to fuel a conflict in Sierra Leone—diamonds that he allegedly gifted to Campbell during a charity dinner event. Campbell initially refused to testify in his court case—she was afraid for the lives of her friends and family. A subpoena forced her onto the stand, and she became embroiled in Taylor’s high-profile criminal trial.
37. She Didn’t Know About Blood Diamonds
Campbell testified that she had simply received “dirty-looking” stones after the dinner party from two unidentified men, and didn’t realize that they were probably from Taylor until the next morning. She later gave the mystery rocks away, and had absolutely no idea they were uncut blood diamonds. However, fellow dinner attendees Mia Farrow and Carole White told a different story…
38. The Testimonies Were Contradictory
Farrow and White testified that Campbell and Taylor flirted throughout the evening, with Taylor promising her the diamonds by the end of the dinner party. Furthermore, they testified that the blood diamonds excited her, and she planned to donate them to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. Campbell denied these claims, and under cross-examination, Farrow and White’s testimony came under fire.
39. They Were Shady Witnesses
Campbell’s defense questioned the legitimacy of Farrow and White as witnesses. Attorneys brought Farrow’s memory into question—she had trouble with recalling basic info, such as her son’s age. On top of that, White was in the middle of filing a lawsuit against Campbell for a “breach of contract.” With both witnesses compromised, in the defense’s opinion, it took a fourth party to clear up what really happened during that dinner party.
40. The Diamonds Resurfaced
Jeremy Ractliffe, ex-director of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, finally stepped forward and made a jaw-dropping revelation. He confirmed Campbell’s story, revealing that he had taken the illegal diamonds off her hands and had been holding onto them this entire time. Campbell had done nothing illegal. This was an end to one problem in Campbell’s life, but another one surfaced soon after.
41. Her Ex-Boyfriend Sued Her
Naomi Campbell had dated numerous men throughout her career, but the relationship that might have given her the most trouble was her relationship with the Russian billionaire, Vladislav Doronin. After breaking up in 2013, Doronin sued her, stating that she was hanging onto $3,000,000 worth of his personal possessions. The case is still ongoing…and of course, her troubles didn’t end there.
42. She Attacked The Paparazzi
Naomi Campbell was on vacation off the north coast of Sicily when Gaetano di Giovanni, a member of the Italian paparazzi, started taking photos of her. Less than pleased, Campbell started hitting di Giovanni with a handbag, allegedly scratching his eye. For that, the Sicilian Court sentenced Campbell to six months’ probation in July 2015. This wasn’t her first time getting in hot water while traveling either.
43. British Airways Banned Her For Life
Campbell was going through London Heathrow Airport on a routine trip when she lost her luggage. She approached two officers, demanding assistance, but the conversation soon took a dark twist. Campbell wound up attacking the two officers. For her behavior, Campbell served 200 hours of community service, and British Airways banned her for life. Sadly, her airline shenanigans didn’t end there…
44. She Was A Total Germaphobe
Naomi Campbell is a quirky airline passenger—before taking her seat, she thoroughly sanitizes everything she can during flights. Donning a mask, gloves, and sanitizing wipes, Campbell completely wipes down everything she might possibly touch on the plane, stating “I do not care what other people think of me. It’s my health.”
In later months, she took her routine to a whole new level.
45. She Flew In A Hazmat Suit
Campbell kicked her sanitization up a notch. On her next flight, she donned a $16 hazmat suit she bought off of Amazon, along with a face mask and goggles. The dramatic outfit caused quite a stir, with passengers on the flight moving uncomfortably away from her—to which Campbell said, “… that’s cool. I don’t wanna be around them either.”
Campbell had no issues with breaking convention!
46. She Started Her Own TV Show
Campbell continued to expand her modeling career and used her expertise to create the TV series, The Face. A modeling competition show, The Face pitted supermodel coaches and their team of models against each other to find the next “face” of a major brand. Practicing what she preached, Campbell opened the competition up to anyone in the world and used an interesting method to choose models for the show.
47. She Ignored Their Faces
In the first episode, Campbell and the other judges chose girls purely on their skill. Competitors hid their faces, forcing the judges to pick their girls based on the ability to walk on the runway, not their looks. The result was a show that featured several models of color, confirming Campbell’s belief that, “If you’ve got the right talent, you should be there having the opportunity to do the job.” Other TV roles opened up to Campbell as well.
48. She Was Late To A Meeting—And Got A TV Role
Naomi Campbell is legendary for being late to her meetings. So, when she arrived three hours late to an audition with producer-director Lee Daniels, she didn’t expect his harsh reaction. He immediately told her to go home. This resulted in a screaming match between the two. When things calmed down, Daniels actually offered her a role in his show, Empire, and the two became fast friends. Her media presence continued to expand.
49. She Took To Social Media
Campbell soon took to Youtube, with the goal of sharing more of her personal life with others. A notoriously private individual, this was a big step for Campbell. The newly-minted, one-year-old channel sports both videos about herself, and interviews with several celebrities, such as Whoopi Goldberg, Paris Hilton, and James Charles.
50. She’s Proud Of Her “Firsts”
In a recent interview with Sean Evans in Hot Ones, Evans asked her which of the magazine covers that she’d appeared on was her favorite. In typical Campbell fashion, she noted that her favorite covers were the ones where she was the “firsts”—first black woman on Times magazine, first to be on the cover of French Vogue, just to name a few—and celebrated their role in “breaking barriers.” Here’s to Campbell breaking more barriers to come!
51. She’s Had Plenty Of Romances
Naomi Campbell has been linked to many famous men, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Mike Tyson, Michael Fassbender, Skepta, and Liam Payne. But few people remember her relationship with Robert De Niro. The duo got together in the late 80s and apparently, Campbell never quite gave up on the romance. In 2003, years after they first split, rumors claimed that Campbell wanted to get back together with a newly single De Niro. She allegedly wanted to have his babies, felling that his “calm” demeanor was the right thing for her.
52. She Cried On The Runway
In 1997, the unflappable Naomi Campbell made headlines when she suddenly started crying on the runway. At first, the crowd was confused. But when they learned the heartbreaking reason for her tears, everything changed. Campbell was wearing a dress from the last collection that her friend Giovanni Versace would ever design. Versace and Campbell became close in the 1990s, only for their bond to end in tragedy. The serial killer Andrew Cunanan shot Versace at the designer’s home. He died instantly.
53. She Had A High-Profile Feud
Although she was a hit on the Paris runway, Tyra Banks claimed that her early modelling days were tough because of one person: fellow model Naomi Campbell. According to Banks, Campbell absolutely hated her and even used her clout to “throw her off fashion shows.” It took over a decade for the supermodels to finally end their feud.