Interview: Not just another pretty face: Intelligent, cultured and articulate - as well as being every man's fantasy - Veronica Webb is a supermodel who defies the stereotypes

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Indy Lifestyle Online
No, Veronica would rather be interviewed in your flat than in her suite at Claridge's.

No, she prefers to eat something hot at lunchtime.

No, she doesn't drink wine. She likes tea.

She won't be with you for another 15 minutes. She's been held up in heavy traffic.

SUPERMODELS are the queens of all creation and however watertight the arrangements, they are always changed at the last moment.

They do more than simply wear the clothes; they embody the whole world's fantasies. Impossibly slim, impossibly lovely, impossibly highly paid, they are everyone's wildest dreams made flesh. They are generally assumed to be stupid, perhaps on the grounds that nobody should be that beautiful and have a high IQ. Veronica Webb is not only intelligent but well aware of the fantasies superimposed on supermodels.

'Being wanted for your beauty, glamour and fame is inescapable. It's hard to take the disappointment in men's eyes when they realise you are neither bitch nor incredibly sexually-charged nor docile object. It disturbs them when you violate their fantasy because they've invested faith in what they perceive you to be.'

Veronica Webb enters my drawing room as delicately as a gazelle, tittuping on slender legs shod in clumpy boots. She is 5ft 10in but looks taller because her legs are so long and her leather miniskirt so short. Her torso seems the size and circumference of a child's.

Her face is astonishingly beautiful. Her dark eyes shine with energy, emotion and the occasional flash of malice. But beauty, in an internationally successful model, goes without saying. Her mind is the surprise. She is articulate and cultured. 'For me,' she says, 'it works to my advantage when people think I'm stupid. If somebody who disdains you or wants to control you underestimates you, you can play their game right back.

'One of the things that fascinated me about modelling was that you had the freedom to look any way you wanted. There are no constraints like abuse from construction workers or groping by men in the subway, which means that modelling is an arena for experimenting with your looks the way acting is an arena for experimenting with your emotions.'

After 10 years at the top, Veronica now spends less time being photographed; more time being a writer and spokesperson for black women. She runs a consultancy and also writes monthly columns in Interview and American Elle.

She was 18 when she was 'discovered' in 1983, selling kitchenware in New York's SoHo. She was not the first black supermodel - that niche is occupied by Iman, discovered a decade earlier and now married to David Bowie - but in the Eighties they were rare. Yet within weeks Veronica Webb was on a magazine cover, and on the Paris catwalk within months.

Her rise to the top was swift and uncomplicated. How has 10 years of this artificial life affected her?

'I have very, very few friends. I live in a very tight circle and emotionally I'm probably not as generous as I once was. In an average week I probably meet 150 new people and that's uncomfortable sometimes. They know who I am, but I can't remember their names, and that makes me worry that I'm not treating this person well.'

Is it stressful, a model's life?

'Everything changes - the city, the bed, the clothes you wear, your haircut, the people around you - every third day. Physically, I look different all the time. After two hours in hair and make-up you look in the mirror and the monster is ready: this very beautiful Frankenstein. Your shell is now different and, even though it's impermanent, when it happens all the time it does something to your sense of identity.'

Veronica Webb had a rigid, highly disciplined childhood and an expensive private education. 'My parents were both in the army for 20 years and then worked in government departments; but they had gone through the Great Depression and known lean times. They always remained extremely frugal and lived far below their means. They saved money and spent it all on educating me and my two older sisters.

'Our parents were extremely strict. To this day I'm more afraid of my parents than I am of the police. I always knew that if we did anything wrong, they weren't going to negotiate - they were going to kill me] When I was a kid I thought you could open up the piano lid and there was a chute going straight to hell. Sometimes, when they yelled at me, I felt they hated me, but that's the passion of childhood.'

Was she ever beaten?

'We got whupped, but my father was no sadist: just an old-fashioned Victorian disciplinarian. It was to do with the fact that he was in the army and his father was a minister in the church.'

It sounds very harsh: does she resent that now?

'I have a lot of friends who are either in jail or their lives have been ruined by drugs, or they had babies when they were 14. That's a nightmare. I'm taking Concorde and staying at Claridge's. My elder sister is an oncologist. The other teaches math and English. My sisters both have children now, and watching their families is like going into a time-warp. I guess my parents did OK.'

Born and brought up in Detroit, Veronica believes her parents were the last generation fully to embody the American Dream: work hard and not only will you be rewarded, but your children will have even better lives.

Her father died last year, aged 90, surrounded by his family. He was nursed by his daughter, the oncologist. Veronica had never seen someone die before.

'To be holding his hand and feel the life go out of it - that's a hard thing . . .' Her eyes fill and she weeps, blotting her tears with Kleenex. Recovering herself a few minutes later, she says: 'Death has great enormity for us because we cannot overcome it with technology. We can't point the Hubble at it and see to the other side. But that's what Christianity is there to explain.'

So, is she a Christian?

'I love the Bible and I think the story of Jesus has enormous power, but I'm not that interested in religion, except as a means of getting people together to promote goodwill. I have yet to have a profound religious experience, though my mother and sister have a close and daily relationship with God.

'I'm not sure that everyone's entitled to have everything. Or maybe I'm too afraid or too lazy to work for it.'

Let's go back to safer ground. Her childhood?

'I grew up on Detroit's east side between Fisher Body and Mack's stamping plant, where they made vehicle body parts. Our landmarks are all automobile manufacturing plants. Even though Detroit has lost its lustre, it's the most American of cities - the Hollywood of the proletariat.'

What does that mean?

'The automobile transformed not just America but the whole world, just as the movies did.'

Is this a good thing?

'I think it's fabulous. It has made the world smaller, more friendly, but at the same time it forces you to realise how privileged you are, as an American. With all our problems and shortcomings, we're nothing like Brazil, or China, or West Africa.' Veronica has been to all these places. Top models have been everywhere, twice.

Has it been hard for her, as a black woman, to get where she is?

'It was very interesting, for a black child like me, going through school, to find out that I was invisible. They don't teach you anything about black women. It's like, you have no place and have made no contribution to the culture. The history they do teach you is about slavery - and while it's certainly inspirational that as a race we were able to survive that kind of torture and mistreatment, it's not till much later that you figure out that without the African race, America would probably be like the Third Reich, fucking Nazi Germany]'

It is a splendid sentence: a crescendo of scorn.

'There'd be no gospel or soul music, no rock 'n' roll, and precious little joy.

'Another part of my family is Iroquois, and what you're taught about the Indians in school is incredibly depressing. You know about the March of Tears? That was in 1790, when the army rounded up all the Indians from Minnesota and North Dakota in the cruellest of winters, tens of thousands of people, drove them off their land and put them on a death march, with no food, clothes, nothing. And this is meant to feed your fantasy life - at 10, 11 years old - about who

you are? It certainly provides you with a certain level of stoicism.'

What does she do with all the money she earns?

She laughs. 'I do have a major interest in money, but I don't equate wealth with personal value. But there's no perception in America that a certain group or class of people should be poor; that that's their status and their place. But also inherent in capitalism is that you have because somebody else doesn't have; and it's hard for society to look at the monsters it's created . . . rich, poor, violent - or beautiful.

''I'm not into acquisition. My apartment in New York is a way- station; I could move out and be gone in 24 hours. I invest my money. I've made it and lost it more than once, which is good for you: it means you don't become obsessive about it but see it as a piece of paper that you can exchange for anything you want. Money does protect you, by not allowing you to be at anybody's mercy.'

Last of all, what about men? It would be a paradox indeed if this lovely gazelle were living a solitary life; yet she admits that the beauty and power of the supermodels often attracts the wrong sort of men, and intimidates the right sort.

'I was madly in love once, and it made me happy, and then when he left me I thought I was going to die. There's no pain like it. You feel like a pig whose throat has been cut. I haven't done it since - allowed myself to be totally at someone's mercy, emotionally. It took me three or four years to get over it. That's the only person in my adult life with whom I was totally naked, in the metaphorical sense. Even though you're very close to your girlfriends, your sexuality brings in a level of intimacy, vulnerability and self-disclosure that doesn't happen any other way.

'I'm attracted to men who are intellectually extremely powerful. People might say I'm old- fashioned, but the idea of having someone to protect you is enormously appealing. Men and women both want sanctuary, and women offer the protection of intimacy, men the protection of control.

'After the age of 25 there's a lot of pressure on you to become an adult, to get married, to have a family, to settle down. Well, my life is not necessarily conducive to doing that. It is difficult to sort out what you feel you want and need, against what you're told by society, biology, the culture, your peer group, that you should want. Every time I go home for Christmas and see my nephews and nieces getting bigger, I think: 'Is this what it's all about for me, or not?'

'As a child, I wanted to move into the world that creates and feeds people's fantasies - by writing, modelling or acting. I still want to create some kind of cultural document: a book, a movie, a presence . . . anything that's going to live on behind me. I don't want to be forgotten or destroyed.'

(Photograph omitted)

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