Why doesn’t Naomi Campbell want to testify about her ‘blood diamond’?
Reported by Elizabeth Day, The Observer, Sunday, July 4, 2010
The supermodel is resisting calls to give evidence at the Hague trial of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor
Over the years we have become accustomed to seeing Naomi Campbell in court. In 2000 she pleaded guilty to attacking her assistant with a telephone in a hotel room. Six years later she admitted hitting her housekeeper with a jewel-encrusted mobile phone, causing an injury to the head that required several stitches. In 2008 she was arrested at London’s Heathrow airport on suspicion of assaulting a police officer after one of her bags was lost. Then, earlier this year, a limousine driver filed a report with the New York City Police Department claiming that Campbell had slapped and punched him.
Campbell’s court appearances, like the blooming of the cherry blossom or the migration of swallows, seem to have become a regular occurrence in the calendar. But not even the most seasoned Campbell watcher could have predicted that she would one day be pursued by the courts in The Hague.
And yet last week the model was ordered to give evidence at the war crimes trial of Liberia’s ex-president, Charles Taylor. The UN-backed special court for Sierra Leone issued a subpoena forcing Campbell to appear after allegations surfaced that she was given a so-called “blood diamond” by Taylor at a dinner party held by Nelson Mandela in South Africa in 1997.
The former dictator is accused of selling diamonds to fund a bloodthirsty war that cost thousands of lives. It was one of these uncut diamonds that Taylor is alleged to have given the supermodel. The actress Mia Farrow, who was a guest at the same dinner party, has claimed that Campbell told her she was interrupted in the middle of the night by some men saying they were representatives of Taylor before handing over a “huge diamond“.
Carole White, Campbell’s agent at the time, says that she witnessed the event. “I was there,” she says, speaking from the London headquarters of Premier Model Management, the company that she founded and that represented Campbell for 17 years. “He did give it to her. It was a small, uncut diamond. I am totally surprised that Naomi hasn’t admitted it.”
But Campbell has consistently refused to volunteer her own testimony to the tribunal, furiously walking out of a recent television interview with ABC News when the reporter had the temerity to ask about the allegations. It seemed a strange reaction for a woman who, having turned 40 earlier this year, has tried to distance herself from a youth-obsessed modelling industry and reinvent herself as a charity campaigner.
She is a “global ambassador” for the White Ribbon Alliance, which aims to raise awareness of the number of women who die each year following complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth. She has also campaigned on behalf of Aids charities, and raised money to tackle global poverty. In February she staged a catwalk show at London fashion week to support victims of the Haiti earthquake. So assiduously has Campbell developed her charity profile that she now counts Sarah Brown, the wife of the former prime minister, as a close friend.
And it is true that, despite her flaws, Campbell remains a role model for many in the fashion world for her trailblazing determination to put black models on an equal footing with their white counterparts. Campbell was the first African-Caribbean woman to make the cover of French Vogue and is one of the few models to speak out about racism in the industry. Steve Pope, editor of the Voice, the weekly newspaper aimed at Britain’s black community, says that Campbell is a pioneer. “It has always been an unspoken rule that if you’re a fashion magazine editor and you put a black model on the cover, you lose sales. Naomi turned that around and showed that, if you put her on the cover, if anything it would boost sales. Unlike some other models who have kept quiet about discrimination, she has actually started speaking out about it.”
It is hard to reconcile this Naomi Campbell – the pioneer, role model, tireless charity campaigner – with the petulant, aggressive woman who lashes out by throwing mobile phones at assistants and refuses to testify at a war crimes tribunal apparently in a fit of pique. But those close to Campbell say her behaviour is fairly typical for a woman who can flip without warning from one extreme to another. “It’s most definitely her temperament,” says White. “She’s a Gemini and she has two sides. One side is this generous, intelligent, witty, funny and vulnerable individual, but the bad side negates a lot of those things. The bad side is very self-destructive, with no self-control. She doesn’t care about the consequences when she’s like that, for herself or other people.”
White adds bluntly that working with the model was “a bloody nightmare… She was very hard work, unpredictable and you never quite knew if she was going to turn up. I just took care of her, almost as a mother would. I also worked out that you should never get close to her. I watched so many people think they were her best friend. In her case, familiarity did breed contempt. I think she is very driven by not wanting to go back to where she came from. She got out of that life into a fairy-tale life, meeting incredible people and becoming pretty powerful in her own way.”
Campbell was born in Streatham, south London. Her part-Chinese father was unnamed on her birth certificate and walked out when Campbell’s Jamaican-born mother, Valerie, was four months pregnant. Valerie danced in a 1970s go-go troupe and was on the road for long periods – until the age of 10, Campbell was largely brought up by friends and relatives. Her way out of Streatham came about by chance. When she was 15, she was spotted in Covent Garden by a model scout and signed up for a shoot with Elle magazine, whose then editor, Sally Brampton, later recalled the gawky teenager as “a bird of paradise”. Within five years, Campbell had earned her supermodel stripes, appearing on countless magazine covers, posing nude for Playboy and starring in George Michael’s 1990 Freedom music video alongside Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista.
It must have been quite a culture shock for a south London schoolgirl. In the catty world of high fashion, where models and designers were accustomed to smiling prettily while stabbing one another in the back with a judiciously placed stiletto, Campbell’s straight talking won her few admirers. The designer Alexander McQueen, who died earlier this year, once said that because Campbell “came from the street, like I do, people can’t handle her. They can’t handle that sort of aggression.” Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ magazine, puts it differently: “Naomi Campbell genuinely kicks up dust, and for that reason people find her fascinating.”
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey in May, Campbell tried to explain her outbursts as stemming from “an abandonment issue and also from trying to just build up a family around me that’s not my immediate family. If I feel a mistrust, then… all my cards go down.”
But for all that she might seek to build up a protective dam of friends and surrogate family, Campbell still cuts a distinctly lonely figure. She has never married, instead pursuing a succession of short-lived relationships with high-profile men, including Formula One boss Flavio Briatore, boxer Mike Tyson and dancer Joaquín Cortés (she has been dating her current boyfriend, billionaire Russian property mogul Vladimir Doronin, for a little over a year). Although her fellow model Kate Moss describes Campbell as “one of the most truthful and generous friends I have known”, she does not seem to have all that many people she can rely on.
“Her lifestyle is quite lonely,” says Carole White. “It’s very privileged in the way that she travels first class or on private jets or hangs out with princes and presidents, but that cuts you off from normal life. I think she finds it difficult to behave in a normal way and she’s plagued with hangers-on. She’s quite suspicious of the people around her. She has a few friends, but it’s a small group and because of her bad temper she falls out with people.”
Perhaps it is this innate mistrust of the motives of others that has made Campbell so unwilling to travel to The Hague to give her side of the “blood diamond” story. But for a woman who has so few constant relationships in her life, how sad that one of the main ones should apparently be with her solicitor.