Naomi Campbell, Sisterhood, and Racism in Fashion

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On Wednesday, supermodel Naomi Campbell made Page Six for another act of girl-on-girl crime.  This time, Campbell is accused of denying fellow (black) model Jessica White entrance to her 40th birthday bash.  Rumors immediately started flying as to Campbell’s motives for the high profile snub – was Naomi jealous of young Jessica? – but this latest act of aggression fits Campbell’s long history of dissing other black models in her industry.

Campbell is known for many things.  Back in the 1980s, she launched her modeling career eventually rising to fame alongside other household names like Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington.  Known for her glamorous face, amazing body, and rock star lifestyle, Campbell managed an enviable career for close to thirty years.  However, Campbell’s road to fame was not easy.  The notoriously fickle fashion industry, known for running their talent into the ground, was especially cruel to black models.  Before Naomi Campbell, only Naomi Sims (widely acknowledged as the first black supermodel) and Beverly Johnson had managed to break through the walls of a white ideal and carve out names for themselves within the industry.  Campbell’s meteoric rise was fraught with tension, coupled with even more scrutiny and rejection simply because of the color of her skin.

While Campbell isn’t shy about vocalizing her anger with the industry about its treatment of black women, her support to other black models in the industry leaves much to be desired.  The most high profile of these squabbles was aired on national television back in 2005.  Fellow supermodel and business mogul Tyra Banks asked Campbell to appear on her self-titled talk show, presumably to heal the rift between the high-profile fashionistas.  Using a remarkable level of honesty, Banks admitted that the script for her interactions with Campbell had already been written – before she aired the show, she opened up about the role others played in exacerbating that tension:

“The press had cast Naomi and (me) as rivals before we ever met each other,” Banks says in a statement, which goes on to say that there will be no in-studio audience for the match-off, because, according to Banks: “I couldn’t have done this in front of people.”

On the show, reports New York’s Daily News, Banks says she abandoned modeling in order to escape Campbell’s shadow, and blames the media and the modeling business itself for pitting the two of them against one another.

“Back then there were 10 top models … but there was an unwritten rule that only one of them could be black,” Banks said, as quoted by the News. “And Naomi was that one black girl.”

Campbell played into the narrative, and became determined to be the only one, tormenting Banks by undermining her shows and using her influence with designer Karl Lagerfeld to ensure that Tyra was banned from his catwalk. Campbell appears cruel, but she was also reacting within the confines of an industry that had already labeled Banks “the new Naomi Campbell.”  Unwilling to be relegated to the dustbin, Naomi fought for her position, which may have been a shrewd career move, but was emotionally devastating for the young Banks. Writing for Bitch Magazine, Hawa Allan documented the entire conversation between the two, right up to the moment of televised confrontation:

Prior to the talk-show sit-down, the most Banks had been willing to publicly say about Campbell was that she doubted they would ever be friends. However, on the show, Banks elaborated on their strained relationship, offering up specific examples of unpleasant moments between the two, and pointedly asking Campbell why she had treated her so badly. Campbell, for her part, stopped short of outright denying Banks’s allegations, opting for an Oliver Northian failure to recollect. Responding to the recounting of one particular incident, Campbell said: “I know the person that I am and I’m not someone to go and give myself away and say that to anybody. But if that’s what you remember, I accept that, but it doesn’t sound like me.” Campbell also conceded that she was emotionally unstable during the period in question and was being advised by the wrong people.

Indeed, the two women were embedded in an industry that yanks adolescent girls from anxiety-ridden obscurity to magnify their assets and flaws for worldwide assessment. Given this backdrop, it’s not difficult to imagine Campbell’s distress at having to contend with a younger model who was literally being groomed to replace her. Campbell’s own career was launched in 1986 when she landed the cover of Elle in place of another black model who had canceled. Having established her livelihood on the missed opportunity of another black model, Campbell must have learned an indelible lesson, and would not allow herself to be so easily displaced.

But indeed, as Allan notes, the problem goes far beyond Campbell’s individual actions – her propensity to act out against other models she sees as competition are a result of being involved in the pernicious politics of an industry dedicated to wearing women down from the inside out.  Campbell’s perception is also colored by race – while Naomi is known for having a wicked temper, this was not unusual for her set.  The dramatically titled Time article “The Fall of the Supermodel” notes:

[T]he popular conspiracy theory explaining the supermodel’s disappearance is that designers and fashion editors, sick of their “I won’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day” attitude, made sure a small group of models would never again have the power of the Big Six. “By 1995 several of the girls had acted up so much, there was a building resentment against them,” says Michael Gross, the author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women. “They’d sit in the back of limos and kick the driver in the neck with their high heels when they weren’t happy with the way he was driving. Editors who had to deal with these girls probably weren’t sad to see them go.”

It is only Campbell who is openly vilified in the media for her temper, prompting specters of stereotypes about black women.  (To be fair, Campbell appears to have developed a penchant for striking people with mobile phones over the last decade – her last tantrum landed her a stint mopping floors to fufill court-ordered community service.) Her rage and malevolent behavior, while inexcusable, is almost understandable – she has managed to claw her way to the top of the fashion game for over thirty years, throughout countless trendy eras.  That type of pressure coupled with the already tenuous position for any black woman trying to fit within a beauty standard that excludes her by default would make anyone a little off-kilter.

However, Campbell’s continued separation from her colleagues appears more and more strange when we look at the new crop of black models poised for greatness: Chanel Iman, Sessilee Lopez, Jourdan Dunn, and Arlenis Sosa.  Tearing up the catwalk and gracing covers, the fab four first appeared all together on the cover of i-D (at right) and have been paired on photo shoots in various combination ever since.  The two most high-profile girls, Chanel Iman and Jourdan Dunn, were predestined to repeat the Banks-Campbell dynamic, once again due to the pressures the industry.  In an interview published in the November 2009 edition of Teen Vogue, both it-girls explain the predicament they found themselves fighting against:

“I could sit here and tell you, ‘I love Jourdan! We’ve always been the best of friends!’” she says. “But we haven’t. Until recently, we barely even spoke. We went from being superclose in the beginning,” she says, “to dead silence if we saw each other backstage at a show.” Not even a hello? “If we did say hi, it was hi, and that’s it.”

“It’s competition,” Jourdan says. “There aren’t a lot of us, but instead of sticking together, we’re pitted against each other. People will say things in Chanel’s ear like, ‘Jourdan is taking your spot,’ and then they’ll say to me, ‘Don’t trust Chanel.’”

This story has a much better ending than one would expect.  Eventually, Dunn and Chanel reconnected at a Vogue photo shoot, intentionally choosing to ignore the hype and instead focusing on their own individual strengths and talents.

Indeed, the older, but not necessarily wiser, Campbell could learn from Dunn and Chanel’s intentional reconciliation.  Instead of showing Jessica White the door, it would be far better to extend a welcoming hand.

Latoya Peterson edits Racialicious.com by day and secretly dreams of DJing a fashion show at night.

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