New York - Naomi Campbell, the British supermodel as famous for her hot temper as her arresting beauty, says her campaign to counter racism in fashion was inspired by Nelson Mandela.
In an exclusive interview, Campbell told AFP that the global rights icon, who once dubbed her his “honorary granddaughter,” remains a huge influence in her efforts to help young models of color.
“Mr Mandela always said to me you have to use who you are, to speak up on certain things,” she said by telephone, a day before a photo shoot for Italian Vogue.
Campbell, now 44, has enjoyed phenomenal success, leaping almost overnight into the global stratosphere after being discovered as a 15-year-old Streatham schoolgirl out shopping in London.
She was one of the original “trinity” - the planet's first supermodels - joined by Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista - whose fame turned them into household names.
With cheekbones that could cut butter and mesmerizing almond eyes, the statuesque Campbell was the first black model on the covers of Time magazine, French Vogue and Russian Vogue.
She walked the catwalk for Versace aged 16 and was 18 when she first appeared on French Vogue.
Although Campbell has been in the tabloids nearly as often for assault charges and on-again, off-again romances as for her career, she remains in demand as a model as much today as ever.
She met Mandela and began doing charity work with him in 1993, growing close the Nobel laureate and former South African president, who died last December aged 95 after a lengthy illness.
Last September she lent support to the advocacy group “Diversity Coalition” that calls out high-profile designers who either did not use models of color at all in their fall fashion week shows, or only sent one down their catwalks.
Set up by former model agent Bethann Hardison, a woman whom Campbell describes as “like a second mother,” the coalition works to increase the number of black models in the profession.
“You have to help the girls, Asian, Black, multi-race, you have to help them. And they need help and support and that's all what it just boils down to,” Campbell told AFP.
Before her came Iman, the Somali model and wife of David Bowie, and Ethiopia's Liya Kebede, and after her there have been other black models, Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls and Chanel Iman.
This year Barbadian singer Rihanna was made style icon of 2014
at the CFDA fashion awards and Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o has been toast of the glitterati as a young, beautiful black woman.
But Campbell says when her career took off in the late 1980s, there were more models of color on the runway and that today it is harder for young women of color.
The difference now is casting directors, who wield much more power, and young models feel their careers depend on them.
“If I was ever told no, I always found another way,” she said.
“Now, it's a little different, you know because they're afraid to speak up now, because if they speak up, they won't get booked so we're speaking up for them.”
She credits some of Europe's top couturiers, Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld and the Tunisian-born, France-based Azzedine Alaia with being “extremely supportive.”
“For that I am very blessed and that's why I feel I need to support the young models now because the relationship with designers is not the same as it was when I started modelling.”
In the past, Campbell has spoken out against discrimination that she herself faced, but was reluctant to discuss it with AFP.
She also refused to see the coalition as anything “militant” - calling it “simply a conversation.”
“It's simply a group of people who are adults, just sitting down and discussing why is this happening, why has this happened, and how can it change,” she said.
She does believe people are more aware than before.
“The issue is out there, it's in the world, it's in social media, it's out there, so I think people are not able to escape like they were before,” she added.