16 Sep 2013

Beauty, anger and Naomi Campbell's fight for diversity

You know the expression, “she’s not just a pretty face”?

Well, the supermodel Naomi Campbell has spent much of her 27 years in the fashion industry trying to prove that she is just that – a great deal more than her extraordinary looks.

And now she has found a cause which she seems ideally suited to articulate: alleged discrimination against models of colour.

The statistics are startling: over 82% of the model appearances at New York Fashion Week last year were by white women; 12% Latina and Asian, just 6% black. The figures haven’t changed much in years, and Ms Campbell says the situation is worse than when she started walking the catwalk almost three decades ago.

She is speaking to me now because London Fashion Week is starting, and the still startlingly beautiful former schoolgirl from Streatham does not want the industry which made her rich and famous to be disconnected any longer from one of the most multicultural cities on earth.

Two things struck me most about her interview with me. First, her refusal to name names. Yes, she points the finger at some of the best known fashion houses. But she prefers to talk about “racist acts” in her industry rather than accusing individual designers of racism outright.

At some point, she may have to decide whether to go further and turn against the designers and fashion supremos she must know well. It seems irrefutable that the concept of beauty on the runways of London, Paris, Milan and New York is indeed essentially white; and ultimate responsibility for this surely lies with the designers themselves.

For me, the second notable feature of this interview is Ms Campbell’s anger. She says she has been discriminated against herself and she clearly has much to be angry about: but this is anger on a different level.

Where does this come from? In part from frustration perhaps at years of bad press, caused in large part by her own well-documented mistakes.

“I don’t like the thing of the ‘angry black woman'” she warns me when I try to talk about the anger she so obviously displays.

But I reckon there is more to it than that. Naomi Campbell isn’t just defensive, but she also seems to lack confidence in expressing herself.

At the end of our interview, Ms Campbell accused me of trying to make her angry in the hope that I would make her storm out of our meeting, presumably for the sake of a “better story”. She didn’t level the accusation with much conviction, though, knowing that celebrity interviews with supermodels aren’t my usual journalistic fare.

Did I like Naomi Campbell? I wanted to, but too much anger got in the way. Though I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for the woman who launched a thousand magazine covers to be taken seriously, to prove that she is not just a pretty face.

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