Naomi Campbell is celebrating her 50th birthday today. And while the star may currently be enjoying a career turn as a talkshow host of sorts on the “No Filter” series on her YouTube channel, she has a long history as one of fashion’s most famous (and infamous) models, a career spanning nearly 35 years.
Campbell may be best known in fashion history as one of the original “Supers,” a group of ’90s-era, larger-than-life supermodels that dominated the runways of the time (especially those of Gianni Versace, who treated the group of famous faces like a close-knit family backstage after the fashion shows). The phrase “supermodel” had been used here and there through the 1960’s and ’70s (referring to names like Twiggy, Beverly Johnson, Janice Dickinson and Gia Carangi), but it was the ’90s faces gave the term its permanence — and Campbell was an integral part of the group.
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Born in South London in 1970, Campbell actually got her start in front of a camera appearing in the 1978 music video “Is This Love,” by Bob Marley, followed by a tap-dancing cameo in the Culture Club’s “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya.” Her mother, originally from Jamaica, was a modern dancer and traveled across Europe during the model’s childhood. Campbell herself studied ballet at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, at the age of 10.
It was during that time, while studying ballet, that she received her modeling break at the age of 15, when a scout spotted her window shopping in London’s Covent Garden. By the next year, she had landed her first cover, for British Elle.
A few years later, a 1990 photo by Peter Lindbergh of Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and Tatjana Patitz solidified the said group of Supers, whom she walked on the runway with at Versace, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta and Chanel. In the same year, the group also appeared in the iconic music video for George Michael’s “Freedom ’90”.
Campbell also early on in her career formed a close bond with designer Azzedine Alaïa, whom she called “Papa”. “Like me, she is intuitive, stubborn, quick, generous and honest. Naomi is an amazing person; nobody truly understands her. She is much deeper than she first appears,” Alaïa said of Campbell in an interview with British Vogue in his final press appearance before his 2017 death. The designer may have been alluding to a 2007 incident in which the model pled guilty to reckless assault for throwing a cellphone at a maid in New York, an indiscretion that resulted in five days of community service, anger management classes and an apology in Manhattan Criminal Court. (She then documented her community service experience in W magazine.)
Despite this and a few other legal issues through the years, Campbell has continued prove herself as the ultimate fashion chameleon, and the supermodel has rubbed elbows with everyone from Oprah to Nelson Mandela. She has also been involved in myriad charities, including Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Fund (she organized a Versace benefit runway show in 1998 in South Africa), White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, Breakthrough Breast Cancer and We Love Brazil. Campbell has also been a vocal supporter of emerging black designers like Kenneth Ize.
In Campbell’s new YouTube series, she has interviewed friends like Diddy, Serena and Venus Williams plus Paris Hilton, Sharon Stone and Nicole Richie, along with fashion names like Marc Jacobs and her fellow Supers, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford. She has also been reminiscing on early career moments lately, including a tumble on the runway at Vivienne Westwood in 1993 wearing the designer’s imposing platforms.
Click through to see more of Naomi Campbell’s most iconic style and best runway moments through the years.