Naomi Campbell: Celebrating 40 Years Of A Fashion Icon

British born, internationally renowned supermodel Naomi Campbell celebrated her 40th birthday in style over the weekend. Still very much in demand in today’s youth obsessed fashion industry, the age defying beauty leaves most of her peers in the dust and outshines the majority of today’s fresh faced young models, despite being 20 years their senior.

The fiery diva has broken all the rules and conquered a world that doesn’t particularly embrace many ethnic models with open arms. Despite this potential set-back, Naomi has achieved iconic status around the world and is one of the most recognisable and in-demand models of her generation.

She has fronted campaigns for the likes of Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana and Yves Saint Laurent, worked with the best photographers in the world, including Mario Testino and Patrick DeMarchelier, as well as appearing in over 100 magazine covers, whilst enjoying a runway career that very few models can match up to.

It’s fair to say Naomi Campbell has lived (and continues to live) a colourful, somewhat extravagant and glamorous lifestyle – but for all her highs, there are some controversial lows. As she enters her fourth decade in life with a career that spans over three, we take a deeper look at the woman who pushed the fashion door, demanded her presence, conquered the scene, rocked the tabloids, and earned her stripes to become one of fashions biggest (and most controversial) icons.

Born in England on May 22, 1970, raised in Streatham, South West London, her father abandoned Naomi and her then 19-year old mother Valerie Campbell just two months after the birth of their daughter. As a child she was predominately raised by her grandmother, as ambitious teen mum Valerie travelled the world as a professional dancer – something Naomi would later site as the root to her volatile behaviour.

Campbell got her first taste of the spotlight at the tender age of seven, when she appeared in Bob Marley’s music video for his classic 1978 hit, “Is This Love.” Since then, the starry eyed youngster yearned for a life in the spotlight and at 10 years old was accepted into the Italia Conti Academy stage school. Countless TV extra work followed, but it was a chance encounter in Central London five years later that would dramatically change Naomi’s life forever. One afternoon 15 year old Naomi was window shopping in Covent Garden when Beth Boldt, a former Ford model and head of the Synchro model agency, spotted the teen beauty and was immediately drawn to her tall and slender frame. From that moment, a star was born.

Shortly after her discovery, Naomi decided to pursue modeling as a fulltime career – a decision that has proven to be very wise – and signed with prestigious agency Elite Model Management. Just like her mother, the career-driven teen wasted no time in living out her passion – and began a successful runway career.

Naomi Campbell’s presence on the catwalk is like no other. When she ‘struts’ her stuff, she demands your attention. Her physique is a mixture of a ‘typical’ model (tall, slender and lean) and a female athlete; strong and muscular, but in a sexy feminine way. Her no-nonsense attitude is visible when she sways down the runway, making her ‘walk’ one of the most distinctive ones. Advertisers lapped it up; by the mid-’80s the new model was fronting many high profile campaigns, breaking both the European and American market.

The rising starlet broke down some major barriers on her way to the fashion elite. In April of ’86 – at just 15 years of age – Naomi fronted the cover of British Elle and in August of ’88 made history by becoming the first black model to grace the cover of French Vogue, after the late Yves St. Laurent – a friend and mentor of the model – threatened to remove all of his advertising from the publication after it initially refused to use Naomi – nor any other black model – on its cover.

Miss Campbell had officially arrived. From this moment onwards she was everywhere, gracing the covers of many elite magazines (including Time Magazine and British Vogue), socialising with the likes of Madonna and dating Hollywood legends such as Robert De Niro. The South London Girl was not only a Model, but bona fide celebrity as well – a term that would be coined the ‘Super Model.’

The early ’90s were seen as the ‘super model’ era. Now-a-days fashion magazines are likely to shift more sales when they use singers and musicians on their front covers. Advertisers are keen to splash big bucks to get stars like Beyonce and Scarlett Johansson to be the face of their cosmetics, in favour of the traditional model. But during the super model era, the front pages were usually granted to models – these women were the celebrities.

Naomi wasn’t just part of the Super model era; she was a part of the “Big Six,” which consisted of herself, fellow Brit Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford Claudia Schiffer, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington. These women “ruled the world,” the world of fashion and celebrity that is. Throughout the ‘90s Naomi and co strutted their stuff around the world, fronting major campaigns, made millions in endorsement deals, whilst enjoying life in the fast lane. They conquered the fashion world in every single aspect and wouldn’t “wake up for less than $10,000 a day.” They seemed to be living the dream, but later down the line it would be revealed that all that glitters isn’t exactly gold.

With the turn of the century, the super model era had slowly declined and models were not as relevant in mainstream popular culture as they once were during the previous decade. Whilst many of her peers faded away at the turn of the millennium, Naomi and a handful of other supermodels form that era, including Kate Moss and Tyra Banks have managed to reinvent themselves and are still very relevant in today’s fashion and media culture. Naomi believes that these days the term ‘supermodel’ is used too freely; “Models need to earn their stripes,” the veteran model said in 2008. “I just think the term is used a little too loosely. Kate Moss is obviously a supermodel but, after Gisele [Bündchen], I don’t think there’s been one.”

Although Naomi has remained successful over the years and is still a very prominent figure in the fashion industry, her private life has heavily tainted her image. These days your more likely to read about her fiery temper and brushes with the law, than her work credentials. She’s been convicted of assault on several occasions and is now just as famous for her quick temper. The sassy Gemini has a history of attacking staff – a phone being her object of choice – and has been reported on many occasions as being ‘difficult’ to work with.

The supermodel pled guilty to attacking two police officers at London’s Heathrow airport in 2008, resulting to her being banned from flying with British Airways. She was sentenced to community service in 2007 for attacking a maid, accused of assaulting an assistant in 2005 and pled guilty to assaulting another assistant in 2000.

Despite her wrong-doings, the controversial model embarks in an enormous amount of charity work. She has been heavily involved in charity projects for over 10 years now and in 2005 helped create Fashion for Relief, a non-profitable organization that has helped raise millions of dollars worldwide.

In February of this year the former Prime Minister’s wife, Sarah Brown, defended Naomi and praised the supermodel for all her charitable efforts, stating the troubled diva had put all her problems behind her and was now a “global ambassador.” Just when it seemed Naomi had finally turned a new leaf, in March her limousine driver filed a report with the NYC Police, claiming she had slapped and punched him. A story we’re all too familiar with now. And just like that, her good-will work was once again over-shadowed by her volatile violent behavior.

Earlier this month Naomi sat down with US chat show host Oprah Winfrey, opening up about her anger management problems and giving audiences a little understanding as to what triggers her violent outbursts. During the emotional interview, a very tearful Naomi said her behavior stems from deep-seated “abandonment issues” revealing that she felt “abandoned” by her mother, who left her as a child to travel around the world with her ballet group. “I do feel abandoned by my mother,” she told Oprah. She also expressed her “remorse” and “shame” for the way she has acted in the past and claims to be a “work in progress.”

There are many things that one can say about Naomi, but there’s no denying she’s an iconic figure in the fashion world (and popular culture in general). It is said that the solid indication of supermodels status in the fashion industry is being recognized on a first name basis. Naomi sure fits that bill… and then some. Her achievements and career longevity speak for themselves.

Having battled the odds to reach the top of the fashion hierarchy and barricaded barriers that held previous black models before her, Naomi Campbell has helped to pave the way for the Jourdan Dunns of today. Gracing the runway and fashion magazines for 25 years now, it’s safe to assume there’s still a lot more to come from the iconic Catwalk beauty.

–Vanessa Laker

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