As one of the most glamorous people in the entire world, Naomi Campbell has, intentionally or not, become synonymous with unfathomable luxury, an iron exterior, and knee-buckling shade. That image is owed in part to her many unforgettable TV appearances, like the time dropped the epic poem "Check your lipstick before you come and talk to me!" from her time on The Face.
She has also, of course, actually acted on Empire, but, no shade to her friend Lee Daniels, it's the moments where Naomi is just being Naomi that make for the most captivating television -- a fact she's leaned into in with her YouTube show Being Naomi and now, her interview series No Filter with Naomi. It's on the latter program, which debuted in April, that her some 400,000 subscribers see a different side of the legendary model: vulnerable.
In a conversation with TV Guide about No Filter though, she is, like she is on her show, genuine, charming, sweet and philosophical, causing me to wonder aloud if the perceptions we've accumulated about her over the years missed some crucial nuances. So I ask her, when we talk via phone one April day, have you been misunderstood?
"It's not my business what people think about me," she said, coolly. That may read as defensive on the page, but she didn't sound that way to me, just secure and matter-of-fact. As I pay attention to her talking about being in recovery, both in our conversation and on her show, it dawns on me that the 49-year-old has had to find the space and tools she needed to work on herself, just like the rest of us, except we got to do that without our public pasts looming over us. "Everyone has a right to their opinion. I've grown up in front of the world. I own my sh--. I've grown. Things that were important to me then are not important to me now. [We all] are just growing in life trying to find your way."
Listen closely as she talks with pals including Serena and Venus Williams, Sean Combs and Paris Hilton on No Filter, and it's hard not to be struck by how grounded, down-to-earth and casual she is -- how easy she laughs and how often words like "compassion" and "love" fall off her lips. Yes, there is a lot of talk about clothes, parties and events that are so fabulously out of reach for most of us it sounds like dialogue from a movie, but No Filter also captures Naomi at place we haven't seen much of. It's not that Naomi Campbell is surprisingly deep, but the opposite; in these conversations, Naomi -- who said one of the things she's doing these days is reading the copy of Nelson Mandela's autobiography that Mandela, her friend, gave her -- sounds awake to her purpose, and a person with a genuine concern for humanity who just happens to be the fiercest woman on earth.
She said No Filter came about as an extension of her existing show, Being Naomi, as a means of connecting with people in the COVID-19 age. She's unable to go home to London to see her grandmother, and her mom, in remission, and yet feeling optimistic, happy and focused on using this time to grow. "I am a very private person. I fought for my privacy -- I'm in recovery. But then there are parts of my life I wanted to share. I think it's a blessing. Here we are in this situation -- this gave me something to do, to keep me connect to people I care about."
With Marc Jacobs, they ki-ki about the good old days, his pivotal collections and meeting Gianni Versace, but she nearly cries when he talks about a shoot for Harper's Bazaar that was his first after Naomi urged him to go to rehab. With Anna Wintour, they discuss ways to support people in the industry who are struggling now, and envisioning a more sustainable, kinder post-coronavirus world. With Diddy, she off-handedly mentions his penchant for reciting whole passages from the Bible around the house. She makes her subjects seem multi-dimensional in ways we never or have seen on standard talk shows, perhaps because they're not promoting anything. They're just chatting with a friend. "I've never been into the word 'celebrity.' I'm showing you, we are real people. You are getting to see us in the most relaxed state, at home, not rushing anywhere. We're just being our most honest authentic self."
Naomi knows she's not a trained journalist and, indeed, when she looks down at her notes or fumbles a question, her lack of experience as an interviewer shows. That's refreshing though, and admirable; here is a woman whose walk can turn a runway into ash, who can raise millions for people around the world with a few phone calls, learning something new on the job and letting us see her stumble a little bit. Here is a woman whose life has been full of impossible opulence, but shows herself being as "regular shmegular" as the rest of us. Case in point: when I ask what shows she's watching, she says she's been watching and loving #blackAF, her beloved Housewives shows and, I'm shocked to hear, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Naturally, I press for more specific reactions here. "I felt compassion for him!," she said. "He really loved those tigers! He was honest about who he was a person, he was authentic about who he is. I'm not sure about her [Carole Baskin]. I hope he can get a pardon."
No Filter is taking a two-week break to "reshuffle some things," she said with slight hint of mischief that I interpret as a clue it's coming back stronger, perhaps with enhanced production. I ask who dream guests might be and she demurred, deftly saying all the guests have been great; when I ask if she plans to turn No Filter into a proper syndicated talk show, she said she didn't know, and wasn't really thinking that way. This whole thing came together in a matter of days, with "no strategy, no plan" -- just an idea and a collaborative team to back her up.
However it looks next, it's going to be informed by something important she knows now after creating so many unforgettable moments on TV. "What attracted me to YouTube is that you own your content. With realty shows, you don't have ownership. We want to have ownership of our image and our content. Everything I do now, I have to enjoy it. That's the way I want to live my life now."
No Filter with Naomi is on YouTube.