NEW YORK (AP) — When Naomi Campbell first ventured in front of a camera to earn her keep there really was no such thing as a supermodel.
That was nearly 30 years ago and Campbell was just 15. She went on to be the first black woman on the cover of French Vogue at 18 – and the first black model to hit the cover of Time. Now, at 43 and going strong, she thinks the word supermodel has lost its oomph.
“To be quite honest, today I don’t know if I want to be called that name because everyone and their mother is called a supermodel and I’m like, `OK, I’m just a working model,'” said the most-definitely-a-supermodel as she sat in an NBC conference room with hair and makeup people madly preparing her for a round of interviews.
“I never believed in that hype,” Campbell added. “It’s a name and yes I say it for promotion but it’s not what I deeply think inside of myself. I feel that I’m just a model who loves what I do.”
On this day, what she does is show up late, which is OK when you’re a supermodel. Her adorable pocket dog Milo offers a friendly hello jump on a reporter who sits awkwardly by as Campbell silently taps on her phone, finally heralding the start of an interview – after a very long minute – with a perfect smile.
The occasion? The second season of “The Face,” a drama-dripping modeling competition she executive produces and appears in as one of three mentor-coaches to a dozen aspiring young ones in search of their big break.
During the show’s inaugural season on Oxygen, Campbell was joined by two other supermodels, but Coco Rocha and Karolina Kurkova are gone this time around. They’ve been replaced by working – but not quite Campbell-level super – models Lydia Hearst, the publishing heiress, and Anne V, a Russian beauty who owes her start 12 years ago to a contest she won at 15.
Campbell said the two replacements were not unplanned. She thinks “it’s good to change each season and work with different people.”
Asked at a New York Fashion Week show about her stint on “The Face,” Rocha offered: “It was pretty tough when you have three women that are very competitive in what they do on their own, and then having it broadcast is just something I didn’t want to have to do anymore. And then again I still love mentoring so I keep doing that.”
In fact, one of Team Coco’s girls worked during Fashion Week. Campbell considers it a priority that all the tasks and challenges the “modeltestants” are put through on the show actually lead the winner, at least, to regular modeling work.
“I didn’t want that she wins and we just don’t see her anymore,” Campbell said, explaining that she, too, loves being a mentor to young talent.
Anne V, who has worked as a Victoria’s Secret angel and appeared in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, said she wishes she would have had an experienced model mentor to guide her when she first landed alone in New York at 15 a week before 9/11. She had little more than a model apartment to live in and a list of casting calls to get her started. She was on one downtown when the World Trade Center towers were hit.
“I didn’t even know what the World Trade Center was,” she said. “I ran to a subway. I thought that would be the safest thing. I didn’t speak English so I couldn’t even ask anybody what was going on.”
Hearst is the daughter of kidnapping victim Patty Hearst and Patty’s former bodyguard, the late Bernard Shaw. She has known Campbell for years and has been modeling since she was 16.
Mentoring, she said, “was definitely challenging at times because I’ve never actually mentored people and had to act as a stylist and a tech coordinator and a photo editor and even a choreographer at times. But it really was remarkable to see these girls transform from rookies into real models.”
Today, dreamers on “The Face,” which begins anew March 5, and many thousands of prospective models around the world are in a much tougher game, she said.
“You’ve got to have a thicker skin,” Campbell said. “You have to definitely have that something special that catches the eye of the casting director, of the photographer, of the editor, of the hair person, of the makeup person, of the magazines. Where you had five girls up for a job, you might have 1,000 or 500 today.”
She is known for toughness, which is sometimes called something else when she – or any woman – is involved. Perhaps Devyn, one of last season’s finalists on “The Face,” said it best when she observed during the finale: “You can be THAT bitch. That’s cool. But no one likes A bitch.”
Campbell, who has faced assault charges, dated a Russian billionaire and befriended Nelson Mandela, has a thing or two to say on that score.
“I think when women get called a bitch is when they’re taking control, when they’re strong, when they’re being assertive,” she said. “And I’ve always said it, men can do that and it’s fine. So, I mean, you have to have that bitch aspect. You just do, because you’ll be trampled on if you don’t.”
“My life is my life. I don’t live in the past. I live in the present,” she said. “I’ve had a blessed life, a very colorful life, so there are no changes. This is the way it’s meant to go and I’m grateful for it.”
Among her many gifts is confidence, she said, like the stuff required to pose full body sans any clothes at all in Interview magazine last year at an age when many models have long moved on. Nude is something she’s done before, when the moment was right.
“There’s probably a handful of photographers that I will do that with and Mert (Alas) and Marcus (Piggott) are two of them,” Campbell said of the Interview shoot. “It’s based on trust. They’re going to make me look good. I wasn’t going to look vulgar. I think when you do something like that it’s really because you have nothing to hide.”
AP writer Nicole Evatt contributed to this report.
Follow Leanne Italie on Twitter at http://twitter.com/litalie