Naomi Campbell: How acting is now the height of fashion for supermodel
Naomi Campbell has two high-profile roles in current TV dramas. And it was an Anna Wintour dinner party that helped seal the deal, the supermodel tells Sarah Hughes.
Naomi Campbell sounds happy. Which is a relief. Before I spoke to the 45-year-old model, actor and activist (as her Twitter biog has it) I was a little nervous.
All the clippings suggest that Campbell is not the easiest of interviewees: that she can stonewall with the best of them, answering questions she doesn't like with a flat 'No' and allowing silences to stretch out indefinitely. Because she can, because she's Naomi Campbell. She's been at the top of the modelling game for almost 30 years and is arguably the most 'super' supermodel of them all.
But the woman speaking to me today about her new role in Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story: Hotel, is friendly, relaxed and warm. Since she entered her forties, Campbell's career has gone from strength to strength, taking in acting roles, a much-praised stint as a judge and mentor on the fashion reality show The Face, magazine covers and a return to the catwalk this year, when she was hailed as "the ultimate catwalk queen". "It's as though my higher power kicked in when I least expected it. I've had so much fun," she laughs.
The move into acting has perhaps been the most unexpected. When Lee Daniels announced that he'd cast Campbell in a recurring role in his new show, the hip-hop drama Empire, the reaction was surprised, if not incredulous. She looks amazing but can she act? The answer, it turned out, was 'yes'. As the strong-willed Camilla, older lover to the youngest Lyon son, Hakeem, Campbell was all purring danger and witty threats.
Now she's following that up with an appearance on American Horror Story: Hotel, playing fashion editor Claudia Bankson, another woman not to be messed with. Something of a pattern here? "Camilla's a bit more calculating," she says.
Given her sometimes turbulent past - in 2000 she pleaded guilty to assaulting her personal assistant with a mobile phone; in 2007 she admitted assaulting her former housekeeper with a BlackBerry; in 2008 she spat at two police officers in Heathrow and was banned by British Airways for five years; in 2009 a paparazzo alleged assault (the case was settled out of court); in 2010 she testified in The Hague about receiving blood diamonds from the former Liberian President Charles Taylor, memorably telling the prosecutor "This is a big inconvenience for me" - it's tempting to see Campbell's new roles as an extension of her personality.
Tempting, but unfair. "Look, every actress is going to put an element of themselves in a role, sure," she says. "And yes, there's a bit of me in both Claudia and Camilla, maybe like a quarter. The rest is acting."
She landed the role of Claudia in part because of Anna Wintour - "she sat me next to Ryan at a dinner party, so I should really thank her. I loved playing Claudia," she says. "She knows just what she wants - I created this back story that she checks into the hotel because none of her staff will go there and she wants to find out what's going on, so she thinks 'I'm going to have to do it myself'."
Having been outspoken about racism in fashion, she is equally forthright about the television industry. "I'm working over here and it's fantastic to see wonderful, talented people like Lee Daniels and Shonda Rhimes doing so well, and I can't help but hope that television in the UK will become more like that," she says, referring to the fact that Empire is the number one show in the US, while Rhimes dominates Thursday night with three back-to-back shows - Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.
Does she feel there are more opportunities in America? "Well, look, my breaks came in America so obviously I'm going to say that it's better there, but I don't forget the country I was born in," she says. "But it would be nice to see British television explore more diverse casting. There are still struggles, as there are in modelling. It's the same in a lot of businesses - Lenny Henry emailed me about this and I've talked to Idris Elba … I just hope London becomes more like America in that way."
She now divides her time between London and LA: "I spend a lot of time on long-haul flights watching television. I just caught up with the first season of American Horror Story." Yet, while her career might be her focus, she clearly hasn't forgotten how to have a good time. Famous for her opulent bashes (in 2012 she celebrated her then-boyfriend Vladislav Doronin's 50th birthday by renting a 15th-century fort in Jodhpur, India), she celebrated her 45th birthday in May by hiring a 15-bedroom chateau outside Nice. Pictures showed her cutting a lavish cake while wielding a bottle of Champagne.
It has been rumoured that she was to appear in her own reality show, I Am Naomi, an idea she now dismisses. "I don't mind producing shows like The Face for other countries, and working on the format behind the scenes, but I don't want to give my life away."
Much of that life remains firmly off limits. Linked in the past to a host of famous and powerful men, including Robert de Niro, Adam Clayton, P Diddy, Italian businessman Flavio Briatore, Brazilian billionaire Marcus Elias and, most recently, Michael Fassbender, she is now rumoured to be dating Bert Hedayam, owner of an electric racing car team, after he attended her birthday party.
Whatever the truth, she's not commenting, preferring to talk about her TV habit. "I'm a huge Scandal fan and I love How To Get Away With Murder … I love reality TV shows, I watch all the Real Housewives … I'm into acting now, not into digging into my private life."
The hint of steel in her voice is a reminder that, like the characters she plays, Campbell does not suffer foolish questions gladly. Does she feel she has been unfairly judged for speaking her mind as a black woman?
There's a pause so long, I worry she's finally had enough. "I always speak up when I need to. I can speak how I want to, based on what I have done. People can make their own minds up. I know how I feel."
And with that, she makes her excuses, still just about warmly, and says time's up, she must go.
- American Horror Story: Hotel is on Fox at 10pm every Tuesday; Empire is on E4 on Tuesdays at 9pm