It should be no surprise that Naomi Campbell—supermodel, icon, love child of the words “fabulous” and “glamour,” and enigmatic diva extraordinaire—was ahead of the trend.
In July 2019, Campbell, who can currently be seen as a judge on Amazon’s Making the Cut fashion competition, uploaded a video to her YouTube channel demonstrating the extreme cleaning regimen she employs to sanitize her airplane seat each time she flies.
Even sped up with a timelapse, the process takes over three minutes. With gloves on, Campbell wipes down everything—as in everything—with a sanitizing wipe, from the seat-back tray to her iPhone cord to the air vents and even the floor. She then drapes a personal seat cover she brought herself over her chair and puts on a face mask, long before they were en vogue.
“No matter what plane you take, private or commercial, as the plane descends people start coughing or sneezing,” she says in the video. “And the coughing and sneezing makes me... I just can’t.”
At the time she posted the video earlier this year, she received a fair amount of blowback. The phrase “snobby hypochondriac” was used. So was “crazy.” Now, of course, we all know she was onto something.
“That was not to be on a trend,” Campbell says, a definitive forcefulness in her voice when we connect on the phone to discuss life in quarantine and the recent release of Making the Cut. The video demonstrated a routine she’s spent the last 18 years honing, carrying it out every single time she flies. “That’s how I travel when I travel, which is a lot. It makes me feel comfortable. That’s all. There was no secret about it.”
A nonplussed attitude towards criticism might be one of Campbell’s defining characteristics. It might also be a saving grace, for a woman who has seen an altercation with a maid fuel years of tabloid coverage and countless rumors, on a spectrum of veracity, of divadom. As viewers start to sample Making the Cut and witness the unexpected seriousness with which she’s taken her role, it’s a trait that’s proved a boon to her position as a reality TV judge as well.
Off-screen, for example, there is the reaction to the instantly viral photo series that Campbell posted to her Instagram March 10, which showed her at an airport and boarding a plane in a full-on hazmat suit. (“Safety First NEXT LEVEL,” the caption read.)
“I don’t really care what the reaction was,” she says when asked if she got any strange looks while wearing that outfit. She was flying to the West Coast to be with a friend who wasn’t doing well—not coronavirus-related, she clarifies—and had been monitoring the news fastidiously for weeks by that point. She takes a long, serious pause before continuing.
“I was scared to get on the plane,” she says. “I’m not gonna lie, I was very scared. And this is my way of dealing with getting on the plane and doing something I was afraid to do. A lot of people thought I was ridiculous, but that’s on them. I don’t really care if they think that.”
Then there’s Making the Cut, which counts the model on a judging panel that includes former Vogue Paris editor Carine Roitfeld, designer Joseph Altuzarra, actress Nicole Richie, and Heidi Klum, who also co-hosts the show with her Project Runway work husband Tim Gunn. She says she never thought about whether or not she would be a good judge. Insecurities like that have no value to her.
“I don’t think that way,” she says. “I don’t think about myself being a judge. You want me to be on the show to tell you my authentic opinion. It’s also not just for my opinion. It’s also to share my knowledge of what I’ve seen and learned in my 34 years of the business. So that’s what I did. I don’t know that there’s a handbook about being a judge. I’m just being me.”
Of course, “being me” carries an elevated meaning when the “me” in question is Naomi Campbell.
Her luxurious purr, which elongates the last syllable of any word ending in ‘r’ so that it lingers longer than it already does for a Brit, lends a heightened, aristocratic air—excuse me, ayahh—to her speech. It’s a soft, yet precise whisper, with a hint of rasp. That rasp is important. It lends her edge, mystery, and a sense of danger.
Decades into a career as one of the most famous supermodels of her time, there’s this packaged idea—oversized sunglasses worn indoors, sly smirk perennially plastered to her face, never once appearing unkempt—that she’s of another echelon, therefore intimidating to us mere mortals who reflexively prostrate to her ravishing existence.
At the insinuation that fans likely envision her spending her coronavirus self-isolation swanning about a palatial mansion, dripping in high-fashion wares with the sounds of her stilettos clacking against rare Italian marble flooring, Campbell lovingly scoffs. “High heels? Absolutely not.”
She’s been staying active cleaning, going through photographs, dancing, and exercising. She’s been broadcasting her workout with trainer Joe Holder on Instagram Live for others to follow along with everyday at 12 pm. “Well,” she clarifies, showing a bit of self-awareness that, even with the world on lockdown and confined to self-isolation, she was an hour late to this phone interview, “12:15...ish.”
But she’s grateful that Making the Cut, which premiered its first two episodes last week, has been such a salve for people struggling with the monotony of quarantine and eager for a distraction from the onslaught of terrifying news.
Critics and TV reporters—ourselves included—have praised Campbell as somewhat of a revelation on the series.
Much of that has to do with our delight in the utter decimation whenever one of her withering criticisms land. (May the soul of the designer whose creation was greeted with an exasperated “I don’t like”—she couldn’t be bothered to even finish the sentence—rest in peace.) But she’s far more dynamic than anyone tuning in just to see her level cutting insults, like a Simon Cowell in custom Armani, expected.
She holds the contestants to high standards, because those are the expectations she herself keeps of the fashion industry, a world she is protective of. Because of that, she is also noticeably invested in being constructive and coaching the designers. Touchingly, she gets emotional when they don’t live up to their potential.
“I come from a mentoring angle because I want to see them better,” she says. “For me, it’s always about the next generation. Always.”
She hasn’t watched many reality TV competition series, and didn’t see value in bingeing the genre as homework to prepare for Making the Cut. Instead, she employed the same jumping-in-blind strategy she held when hosting and executive producing the model talent search The Face on Oxygen in 2013.
“I know about fashion and no one can ever tell me that I don’t,” she says. “I mean in the sense that no one can ever tell me this isn’t my neck of the woods. They say stick to what you know. Well, I know this part. That’s what I'm trying to say.”
That much is evident in what will likely rank as the most iconic moment of Making the Cut’s first season. After a premiere episode that dazzles viewers by whisking its contestants across the ocean from New York to Paris for a debut nighttime fashion show with an illuminated Eiffel Tower as the jaw-dropping backdrop, the series finds some grit and really comes alive in the second episode, “Haute Couture.”
When designer after designer sends looks down the runway that fail to match the spirit of the assignment, Campbell doesn’t just take them to task for ugly fashion. She delivers a searing lecture on the audacity of disrespecting the art of haute couture.
“With couture, there’s a certain respect you have to have,” she tells a quivering contestant in the episode. “I mean, it goes back centuries. I feel like you disrespected the whole entire word and this assignment because we can all pin a wrap.”
It is a capital-M Moment.
“I did my first couture with Mr. Saint Laurent,” Campbell tells me, the kind of singular grand introduction that punctuates itself with both an ellipsis and an exclamation point, basically saying, “Listen, dear child. Naomi Campbell is about to tell you a story.”
Before she and her fellow models were even allowed in the presence of the designer, she explains, their hair would have to be pulled back into a chignon bun. They each had to be wearing the same white cape over black tights and black satin court shoes. And each had to use the same shade of red lipstick, picked out by Saint Laurent himself. All that just for a fitting.
“So I come from a very disciplined background,” she says. “I’m so grateful I got to be around for that time and to live that because it makes me have the discipline of how you have to present yourself in the world of couture. The young kids today have no idea.”
It’s tempting to read the “young kids” comment as a bit of a shade, and maybe it is. But it speaks to something larger when it comes to how we view Naomi Campbell.
Part of the surprise in how engaging she is on Making the Cut stems from the filter through which we’ve come to view her. This reputation that she’s intimidating, or cold, or a diva. The fact that nothing is written about her without at least one joking reference to the time she threw a cellphone at her maid. The image of her performing court-mandated community service in high heels seared into our minds.
Campbell is aware of that, both absorbing it with a modicum of good humor and using that perception to her advantage. But as she starts to diversify her career and, as she brings up herself, approaches her 50th birthday next month, she also has a stronger sense of self than ever before. In other words, she kind of doesn’t care.
“It doesn’t bother me,” she says. “What people think about me is their business. Having the platform of my YouTube channel is now a way for me to show who I am. It’s because I’m ready to. That’s it. There’s no strategy. I just want to show who I am now.”
“I didn't feel comfortable before,” she continues. “I didn’t feel comfortable enough within myself to do it—as weird as it may sound, because that's my job as a model. I'm 50 in a month, and I feel like now I can do this. Everyone's in their time.”