The model parent: If Naomi Campbell is Queen of Supermodels, Valerie Campbell is Queen Mother. For fans of gossip columns and Hello] magazine, her glamour has even begun to outshine her daughter's

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The Independent Culture
ON THE second day of London Fashion Week, a strange collection of people are gathered together in a large tent pitched on the lawn in front of the Natural History Museum. At one end of the tent, if they can squeeze past a great many security guards, the audience are arriving for the Red or Dead catwalk show. Red or Dead, as the name suggests, is held in the fashion industry to be young, hip, and terribly radical, and so lots of important people who work for glossy magazines are here to be seen and to see the show. At the other end of the tent, behind a screen guarded by more security men, stick-thin, blank-faced models are being dressed in Lurex trousers and sequinned boob-tubes; two of them, on closer inspection, turn out to be transvestites (no truly stylish event is complete without them these days). Hairdressers and make-up artists shriek; PR girls scurry around with clipboards; and to one side sits Valerie Campbell, mother of the more famous Naomi, looking serene in a sky-blue curly wig. Valerie is here to star in the finale, at the request of Sky TV, who are sponsoring the event.

Wayne Hemingway, one of the Red or Dead designers, is lurking by a clothes rail full of lurid Lycra dresses and hotpants. He is delighted to have Valerie here today: 'We had to have someone famous to appeal to Sky's viewers, which of course she does, but using her also fits into Red or Dead's sense of the absurd. We wouldn't want to use Naomi Campbell as a model - we're supposed to show the attainable, rather than the unattainable. And we wanted someone glamorous - but in a fun way. We thought of getting Danny la Rue or Shirley Bassey, but Valerie Campbell is just right. Using her is a bit camp, a bit kitsch, and it makes people smile, rather than saying, oh God, not a super-model again.'

His confidence in Valerie is justified: when she emerges on to the catwalk at the end of the show wearing a sky-blue ballgown, most of the audience erupts with cheers; even the grandest fashion editors in the front row allow a glimmer of warmth to flicker across their hatchet faces. Valerie has a satellite dish attached to her blue wig, she carries a pink mobile phone, and 'SKY TV' flashes on her dress in little twinkly lights.

The next day, pictures of Valerie are every-where: the tabloids love her, and so do the quality broadsheets. She's already been in Hello] and the Daily Star; now she makes it on to the front page of the Mail and the back page of the Sunday Times, among others. It's not surprising: not only does she look stunning, the story of her life is absolutely fabulous, too. Valerie Campbell is 42 years old, a black single mother from south London who gave birth to a super-model and is now 'close friends' with the Duke of Northumberland (a man well known to the readers of Hello] as 'Britain's Most Eligible Bachelor').

No wonder Sky TV wants its logo emblazoned all over Valerie's lissom body: for if Naomi Campbell is almost as big a celebrity as the Queen (or bigger, when one considers that fame is partly measured in column inches these days), then that makes Valerie . . . as famous as the Queen Mother]

When you look at it in this context, the recent fevered speculation in the gossip columns that Valerie Campbell might become the first black Duchess of Northumberland begins to seem a little less absurd. Perhaps the new classless society we were promised is not a myth, after all, now that fame seems to have become as potent a pedigree as aristocratic wealth.

VALERIE is too busy to be interviewed after the Red or Dead show, which is understandable because she is just about to have lunch with her friend the duke, who greatly enjoyed watching her performance on the catwalk that morning. So she suggests that we meet two days later, at the Lanesborough Hotel on Hyde Park Corner. The New Yorker is interviewing her first, and then she can fit me in at 1pm, but only on the understanding that I am not to ask her about her daughter Naomi. She wishes, instead, to concentrate on her health and beauty tips for readers of the 'Sunday Review'.

Valerie is waiting for me at the Lanesborough bar. It is rather like walking on to the film set of a Hollywood mini-series: the bar is a strange mock-library in a fake 19th-century mansion, with ranks of menservants in black tailcoats serving cocktails to people with mobile phones. Valerie is wearing a chic red jacket draped with an Yves Saint Laurent scarf, blue jeans, and high-heeled black boots. She has skin the colour of dark honey, wide

golden-brown eyes, sharp varnished nails, and a large quantity of ruthlessly bleached and straightened hair. She is 5ft 11in, long-legged, and thin as a pin.

Sitting with Valerie is a man dressed in black named Berge Khachwaji. His mobile phone keeps ringing. Lots of people want to talk to Valerie: business meetings are planned; photo sessions are arranged; someone wants her to star in a keep-fit video. It is not quite clear what Mr Khachwaji's role in all of this is, exactly. He tells me he usually keeps a suite in the Lanesborough, and he looks very rich - like a plump Middle-Eastern business adviser - but he turns out to be an Armenian-born dress designer. Valerie modelled his clothes when she appeared in Hello] last month ('in her Surrey home', which was also, confusingly, Mr Motivator's lovely home in the following issue, and later turned out to be neither of their homes at all). Berge and Valerie are close friends: they go to parties together when she is not accompanying the Duke of Northumberland to social engagements, and they are planning his first catwalk show next March. I ask him who buys his clothes. 'Rich, famous women,' he says, but refuses to elaborate.

Whoever his clients may be, Berge and Valerie agree that expensive clothes such as the ones he designs tend to be bought by older women. 'If I was buying something, I'd want to see someone from my age group wearing it,' Valerie says. 'I think a lot of designers in New York and Milan are using older models now - so that older women can see it and say, yes, that would suit me.'

She explains that Beth Boldt - the same woman who discovered Naomi Campbell at the age of 15 - suggested to her in 1988 that she should also do some modelling, for the English designer Jasper Conran. Since then, Valerie has appeared on the catwalk for

Thierry Mugler, and now Red or Dead. She also did 'bits and pieces' of modelling in 1969, but 'it was Twiggy fever then - everyone wanted Twiggy', instead of a teenage black girl from Brixton. 'I don't know it was so much prejudice,' she says, 'or if it was just that people never even thought it was viable.'

Her parents had come to this country from Jamaica in the Fifties, when Valerie was five (she is the third of seven children: three boys and four girls). 'Enoch Powell was saying: 'Come over, there's lots of work.' ' The family lived in Sheffield until she was seven, and then moved to London, to Brixton. Her

father was a carpenter; her mother worked as a seamstress for John Lewis.

Valerie left school at 15. 'I was supposed to be training as a nurse, but I realised in time that I wasn't cut out for such a job as that. The sight of blood - I'm gone. The sight of a needle - I'm gone. I'd be hopeless at it. I quickly realised, there's no way you're going to make it here, girl]' So she became a typist, and started taking dancing lessons in her spare time. When she was 16, she joined a dance troupe and travelled all over Europe and the Middle East. 'I went to Tehran, Beirut, Egypt. Beirut was amazing, just amazing.' At 19, she got pregnant; the father left her almost immediately, and she has always refused to name him (though she has been quoted in the Sun as saying he was 'good-looking, half-Chinese. But he turned out to be a complete rat').

'Naomi was born in Italy,' she tells me, 'and she lived there with me - I found a family to look after her when I wasn't there. But then she started to speak Italian, so I took her back to London.' From then on, Valerie's parents looked after Naomi when she was working abroad. She carried on dancing until 1980, sending home money to pay for Naomi to go to stage school. 'Then I got married and settled down. I was a housewife, just a housewife.'

I ask her about Clifford Blackwood, her ex-husband (they divorced in 1985), and the father of her son Pierre, who is now nine. 'Do I have to go into all of this?' she says tetchily. 'I thought this was about beauty.'

I apologise, and hoping to smooth things over, ask her instead what has kept her looking so youthful. Her answer is somewhat baffling. 'I'm a single parent. I don't know. I don't use water on my face. I wash my face once a week. I use a very good cleanser and then a very good toner and moisturiser and no make-up during the day.

'I do exercise - but I'm not fanatical about it. I can still afford to eat or drink what I want. I'm not overindulgent about anything. I haven't got an exceptionally sweet tooth, but I do like my Sherbet Fountain - that's my weakness.'

This is the most eloquent she gets; in fact, after a faltering start, her speech sounds rehearsed. Her advice to everyone, she says, is 'listen to your body. If my body tells me I need sleep, I go to sleep. If my body tells me I need two meals a day, I have two meals a day. If it tells me I need five or six, I have five or six.'

At the moment, her body seems to be telling her to have a peach-coloured cocktail with a cherry on top. 'I like a brandy or a glass of champagne, but nothing excessive,' she says. She makes porridge every morning for Pierre, and she usually has a bowl too. Talking of Pierre, she offers me her thoughts on child-rearing. 'I don't push. I encourage, not push. There's nothing more boring than doing something you don't want to do.

'I'm proud of being a mum. I'm proud of Naomi and of my son. But I'm a person in my own right too.' Perhaps mindful of recent tabloid reports that all is not quite as it should be between mother and daughter, she says: 'They try to make it look as if there is a rivalry - but there's not, I'm just trying to make an honest living. Being a single parent again, I'm a very independent person.' What she's doing is different to Naomi, anyway. 'I felt that there was a gap in the market - especially now that white older models are coming back - but there were no black ones. I thought, have a go girl, why not?'

I point out that she seems very famous all of a sudden, especially after the publicity about her relationship with the Duke of Northumberland. She looks pleased, and giggles. She was introduced to him two years ago, she says, by a mutual friend who runs a PR firm.

Apparently the duke had seen a photograph of her in the Sunday Express, and told her friend that if he'd seen her before, he might have used her in a film he had recently produced. (The duke is keen on developing a career in movies, as has often been reported in Hello]. His love of film is shared by his other close friend, Barbara Carrera, a former Bond girl who also makes frequent appearances in the pages of Hello].) Anyway, Valerie went for tea with the duke at Syon House, his palatial London residence (he also owns Alnwick Castle, set in 100,000 rolling Northumberland acres, which he kindly lent out as the location for Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves). Tea led on to dinners and parties and, naturally enough, an appearance together last year in Hello], under the banner 'While His Longtime Girlfriend Barbara Carrera Is Away In The States The Duke Of Northumberland Out On The Town With Naomi Campbell's Mother Valerie'.

Valerie, rather disappointingly, tells me: 'We became friends, just friends, nothing else.'

So where did the rumours come from?

'I wish I knew. He's a very nice person, very charming, he's fun to be with. He's very down to earth, Harry, very down to earth.'

And that's all Valerie Campbell is going to say today, sadly. She's got a meeting to go to; she's got to pick up her son from school and then there's Ivana Trump's party tonight, at Syon House. It sounds like great fun - and perfect for the pages of Hello], where dukes mingle with show girls, and everyone lives in lovely yet strangely unreal houses.

What becomes of all those people who inhabit the Hello] world? The Duke of Northumberland is still trying to produce a successful film but if that doesn't work at least he's got his stately homes and pounds 130m to comfort him at night. I'm not quite sure what has happened to Barbara Carrera: Hello] seem to have gone a bit quiet on her lately, but no doubt she will pop up again soon.

And who knows what the future holds for Valerie Campbell? According to Connie Fillipello, the ebullient PR woman who introduced her to the duke: 'I can see Valerie going into television and films and much more. She's very beautiful, and she's a very beautiful person. You could take her to meet the Queen one minute and down-and-outs the next. She is a woman for all people . . . She signifies Mother Earth.'

Others are less charitable. One of Valerie's friends says: 'I know she's desperate to get a part in a film. She looks good for her age - but there's not a lot else to say for her. She's not very bright. She's very insecure. I don't know what she's going to do with herself - apart from being famous, of course.'

Being famous, though, may be an end in itself these days. That's why the marketing men at Sky are so pleased with Valerie's appearance on the catwalk last week. One of them told me: 'Sky's appeal is to families and mothers - and Valerie Campbell is a mother who has done good. That's the raison d'etre, to speak in French, of us going for Valerie - and I think you'll agree it worked very well.'

I do agree, it was wonderful. Perhaps Sky could follow it up by making a mini-series based on Valerie Campbell's life; she could play herself, and so could Barbara Carrera, and so could the Duke of Northumberland (he wants to make it in Hollywood, doesn't he?). It's a fabulous idea: so fabulous, in fact, that if they've got any sense at all, the men with the mobile phones will be discussing it over cocktails at the Lanesborough Hotel right now.

(Photograph omitted)