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‘I’m Not Sugarcoating Anything for the Camera.’ Naomi Campbell Talks About Her Social Media Rise During the Pandemic

8 minute read

People who have been following Naomi Campbell on social media as of late have gotten frequent access to her home, social circles and time. Since the course of social distancing began, she’s been hosting her YouTube miniseries, No Filter With Naomi, where she interviews famous friends like Anna Wintour, Serena Williams and Sean “Diddy” Combs. For those looking to stay fit without leaving the house, she invites her more than 9 million followers to join her daily at-home workout via Instagram Live, and for those looking for recipe guidance, she does food tutorials on her YouTube channel. The iconic supermodel is expectedly grand but surprisingly relatable in all of these settings. She was active on YouTube before this moment, gaining over 21 million views since joining in 2018, and on social media, she’s just shy of over 10 million followers across Twitter and Instagram. But in the last few months, she’s become more prolific, making headlines and endlessly fascinating her audience with her lifestyle and quirks.

Of course Campbell, who celebrated her 50th birthday last week, is best known for spending the last 35 years as one of the top talents in fashion. She’s successfully parlayed her larger-than-life glamour into other industries, most recently appearing as a much-lauded judge on the fashion reality competition show Making the Cut. She helped break the color barrier (she was the first black model to appear on the cover of TIME, in 1991, a moment that she told us prompted Gianni Versace to tell her that she had “made it”) in an exclusive business and has used her platform to aid her activism.

And while it can feel like there’s currently an oversaturation of celebrities sharing, streaming, broadcasting and dancing on TikTok and Instagram Live, Campbell has broken through, sans gimmick, with unapologetic candor about living life on her terms and speaking her mind freely — whether that’s wearing a Hazmat suit to the airport or coyly asking Serena Williams for an update on Meghan Markle. She sacrifices none of her dignity as one of fashion’s most revered figures, but also shows her human side — expressing real emotions, from reacting to fellow travelers who don’t exercise the same caution to delivering a tear-filled tribute to her late friend, the influential music executive Andre Harrell.

“It’s great, the connectivity of the way the world is today,” Campbell told TIME over the phone. “I didn’t realize it would get the reaction that it did, it wasn’t planned. I loved the whole setup of having your own platform and owning your content and that was appealing to me. I feel safe to open myself, to show my true self because as everyone’s seen me in magazines, you can’t tell who a person is. So you’re getting to see me on YouTube.”

The most obvious conversation-driver has probably been Campbell’s extensive cleaning ritual while flying before the virus hit. Ten months ago, Campbell was trending on the Internet after she uploaded a clip titled “Naomi Campbell’s Airport Routine – Come Fly With Me” to her YouTube Channel. In the video, which has netted over 2 million views to date, the supermodel wore a mask and rubber gloves to meticulously clean her seat and all surrounding surfaces with disinfecting wipes, ahead of a flight from Nice, France to Qatar. Her dedication to thorough health precautions while flying was met with both amazement and derision for seeming extreme to some online at the time. But now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, most of the world has adopted similar practices and Campbell has emerged as a prescient (and very chic) oracle of our new reality. Comments like “she was totally ahead of our times,” popped up in March from those who wished they took notes then.

“Not passing on germs is something I’ve always been aware of,” Campbell explained. “This is just one of my normal routines and it makes me comfortable when I travel. Some people might have taken it as being arrogant or rude, but to me, it’s not offensive. It’s part of being mindful to others.”

Since the pandemic started, Campbell has remained a symbolic character of health and safety measures to her followers on the Internet, especially when she upped the ante for her flying precautions. While traveling now, she wears a Hazmat suit, goggles and a face shield, in addition to her requisite mask and gloves, which has provided plenty of fodder for social distancing memes. Not that she’s flying much these days — she spent the last nine weeks socially isolating at her home in New York City, before relocating to the west coast last week.

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Campbell has not only adhered to or exceeded social distancing guidelines outside of her home, but within it, as well. Take, for instance, the pure delight the Internet found in another YouTube video Campbell made in honor of this year’s canceled Met Gala. When watching the clip, which features Campbell showing her favorite dresses from past parties, one eagle-eyed viewer spotted Campbell’s cameraman filming in a full Hazmat suit in the reflective surface of her stairwell, resulting in yet another viral moment sparking comments about her commitment to precautions.

“It’s very limited, the people who can come into any of my homes, where I am,” Campbell told TIME of the moment. “Even though I know the person, it’s how I feel comfortable in my home. So I gave them masks, I gave them goggles, I gave gloves, I gave Hazmat suits — some people might think it’s extreme, but that’s how I feel comfortable to let them in my personal space.”

Her new 15-part No Filter with Naomi series, which began after the virus hit, feels like listening in on an intimate chat between friends — which is probably because it is. The videos are far from slick or highly produced, with major FaceTime vibes, and Campbell doesn’t shy away from talking about politics or personal affairs, mostly because, as she tells it, “there’s no strategic planning” for the show — just “genuine, authentic conversation.”

The series was primarily filmed during stay-at-home orders, which means she was able to reflect on the moment and connect with her guests virtually, filming new segments as part of her social distancing routine, a diversion she was grateful for.

“I’m not someone who’s ever been bored in my life and I’m just trying to adapt with the time and keep busy,” she says. “I really am happy for this still time, although I’m not happy for the circumstances and am definitely saddened by the lives that are lost and sad for the people that I’ve lost.”

When she’s not filming, Campbell has used her social distancing time to indulge the hobbies she can’t always do while she’s on the road. She bakes a cake every week and just finished ESPN’s The Last Dance series about Michael Jordan. She has curated the perfect Prince playlist and is re-reading Nelson Mandela’s The Long Road to Freedom, an experience she says has profoundly affected her perspective on social distancing.

“It’s really something, reading it now in isolation,” she says. “It’s different because he wrote it in a confined space. We’re not in a confined space out of our will, we’re in a confined space in the luxury of our homes — he wasn’t! Reading it now is just a whole different take.”

Campbell is, naturally, looking forward to the post-pandemic future. When asked about the potential of hosting her own reality television show again (she formerly hosted a fashion competition show called The Face,) she said she would do it if it were “right for me.”

“I would be open to it. I enjoyed Making the Cut; for me. The most important thing about these shows is about the contestants, it’s not about me. It’s about the opportunity, the skills, and what I can tell them of my knowledge, and how I can give them insight of what they’re about to step into, and just seeing people growing into their passions. I’m happy to be a part of that.”

But make no mistake about it, whether Campbell does another reality show or continues to offer more access to her life by focusing her YouTube channel, the forthrightness that has garnered her such an enthusiastic following so far will remain.

“What you get from me in these shows, what I’m saying on-camera — believe me, if the camera wasn’t there, I would be saying the same thing. I’m not sugarcoating anything for the camera.”

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com