The globally-popular Naomi Campbell was in Durban, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal, for the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA 2019 Leading Women Summit, to talk about her abiding interest and investment in the African continent.
As a supermodel who has scaled stratospheric heights in fashion, Naomi Campbell has graced global runways and magazine covers, so when she came calling in Durban for a FORBES WOMAN AFRICA event, the anticipation was bigger than any cover shoot we have ever done.
For the 2019 Leading Women Summit held in the coastal South African city for the first time on International Women’s Day, the British-born supermodel, activist, philanthropist and cultural innovator exuded her signature grace and glamor in a sea-blue Marianne Fassler dress.
In 2017, Campbell was named contributing editor of British Vogue by its Editor-in-Chief, Edward Enninful.
When I complimented her March 2019 cover for British Vogue, she said, considerately: “I wish I could have brought you one, I could have grabbed a copy for you from the airport [in London] yesterday.”
Campbell caught her break as a fashion model when she was just 15 years old, and has featured in advertising campaigns for luxury houses including Burberry, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino.
Beyond her work in fashion, she has used her celebrity for fundraising and non-profit initiatives across the globe. In 1997, South African President Nelson Mandela named Campbell an “honorary granddaughter” for her activism. She also now has a YouTube channel, Being Naomi.
Campbell aims to integrate African and international luxury markets “bringing storied retailers to countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco, as well as introducing African artists to global audiences”.
“The strongest woman I have met come from Africa,” she told an audience of 500 during an on-stage interview at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit.
“There’s many great women. I was very blessed and lucky to meet Miriam Makeba when I came to South Africa. I didn’t know her story but it was just her presence. Then Winnie Mandela… I met many powerful and strong women with inner strength and I am very much attracted to women with strength. You learn from them, you take from them, you observe them and how they speak. I have always considered myself a work-in-progress.”
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She added: “For me, modeling has been a blessing in my life. I am very grateful. It led me to meet the most amazing people. Where I am at in my life today, is to use the almost 33 years that I have been in this business to help make awareness, to open the minds to the brands that I work with and have worked with all these years.
“They need to come to this continent, not just come in and out and take, but [invest] in the infrastructure and make a commitment to the communities in Africa.”
A day before the event, when FORBES AFRICA caught up with Campbell, and before settling down for our brief interview, she began with a disarming: “What do you think is a good restaurant to go to in Durban?”
“I am tired but excited,” she had laughed. More from the exclusive interview:
You have said that you are investing in communities and infrastructure in Africa. Can you tell us more about your Africa plans?
My plans are to start serving my industry, brands and the continent. And seeing that we are such big consumers [of brands] in the rest of the world, yet we don’t have it ourselves on the continent… And it’s what works in all businesses, like fashion, architecture and technology. We are big influencers so why don’t we have these things? It’s mind-blowing, so now is the time.
You are working a lot with African designers?
I want to take them out into the western world and bring the western world in… so vice versa.
Are African designers in demand in the West?
Yes, because of the textiles. I don’t want to see that their textiles are copied and they don’t get credit for what they have done.
For me, the workmanship, the textiles, this is what we need to keep on the continent. We cannot allow other brands and designers from the West to come in and take your textiles.
What are some of your best memories of Nelson Mandela since your first meeting in 1993?
I have many great memories here in South Africa, and undoubtedly always with ‘grandad’, when he would send me out to the people, to different townships and villages and just put things in perspective for me.
Yes, I was coming from a fashion background, but I am a human being too and coming from a middleclass family, it’s something you feel to do, it’s not something anyone can push you to do. I am not sure what he saw in me and thought that I could do it, but I really love him and miss him.
Lending your celebrity to important causes, you have worked for global health, women’s rights etc… is there any passion project that you are working on right now?
My passion project is Africa. It is such a beautiful rich culture, with minerals and so many natural resources.
The narrative and perception also have to change. It is understood in the wrong way.
All through your career, how have you managed to be so versatile across diverse industries?
There’s no plan to me, I just do what I feel. I [go with] gut instinct really of each thing I commit myself to doing, and I always follow through.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully, in the continent of Africa.
What’s it like being a contributing editor on British Vogue?
It’s great working with Edward Enniful and fun to be an editor. I travel anyway but I get to travel and interview people from all walks of life.
It’s interesting to hear other people’s lives, their experiences, strengths and their hopes to get them on their journey. It’s not really like interviews but more conversational.
What is the best part of being an African woman in the 21st century?
African women have always been extremely strong. On the African continent, people are really smart… I have always had high respect for them.
They are so smart and educated, and yet what do they do with it once they have got it, and this is where it needs to change.