When a fiery star falls to earth

She is described as a "manipulative, scheming, rude and impossible little madam", but is Naomi Campbell's soap-like life merely fitting into the pattern the public expects of celebrities?
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"What's botherin' me," said Richmal Crompton's scruffy schoolboy hero, William, "is that I'm 11 and I haven't had a statue put up to me yet". We all have our fantasies of fame. For most of us, life is a process of gradually shedding them. But for a select few the dreams become a reality and the rest of us are not sure if, deep down, we wholeheartedly approve.

Take the case of the supermodel Naomi Campbell, who was back on the catwalk in Paris yesterday after a weekend drama which saw her taken to hospital in the Canary Islands only hours after a blazing row in a five-star hotel with her boyfriend, the gypsy flamenco dancer Joaquin Cortes.

It was only the latest episode in a long saga of tempest and torment. Since she was discovered 11 years ago, she has dated a string of trophy men, including Eddie Murphy, Robert de Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Eric Clapton and Mike Tyson. She broke off her engagement to U2 bass player Adam Clayton amid newspaper reports of shennanigans with girls from an "escort" agency. An unauthorised biography reported suicide attempts after lovers' tiffs, a taped telephone dirty talk with Sylvester Stallone, and a feud with a rival black model, Tyra Banks.

Gossip in the fashion trade is of her legendary lateness, gross arrogance and wild insecurity. In 1993 she was fired by a top modelling agency after its boss described her as "a manipulative, scheming, rude and impossible little madam who has treated us and our clients like dirt". Then there were the moments when drama turned to farce - when she fell off her 10- inch Vivenne Westwood platform shoes at a Paris show or was sacked as an ambassador for an animal rights group after posing at a Milan fashion show swathed in fur. More serious were her complaints of racism objecting to media epithets like "the Black Bardot" and claiming that blonde, blue- eyed models got more work.

It is the stuff of soap. So far as the tabloids were concerned the point of Naomi Campbell was that she was black, bad and dangerous to know. The girl from Streatham - they never fail to point out her south London origins - now earns more than pounds 1m a year. Born of an unnamed father to an unmarried 19-year-old dancer, brought up by her grandparents and then sent to stage school on money sent home from her mother's continental tours with a dance troupe called Exotica - she has gone from nowhere to enter the gilded circle of the rich and the famous. She has even managed to drag her mother Valerie along, too - Campbell senior eventually struck up a relationship with the late Duke of Northumberland.

The rich are different from us, the writer F Scott Fitzgerald famously said. Yes, they have more money, was Ernest Hemingway's rejoinder. But there is more to it than that. Fame is one of the commodities that economists refer to as "positional goods". By definition fame is something only a few people can have and it creates a freemasonry among those accorded it. It conveys an odd kind of equality on people who can otherwise never be confident of their lovers' motives.

But the rest of us don't need our celebrities to be real people, says Andrew Evans, a clinical psychologist who specialises in working with artists, musicians and dancers. "They're a projection of a public need. They only have to correspond marginally to the media stereotype - Oasis as the bad boys on the rock scene, Prince Charles as ineffectual, the Duke of Edinburgh making constant social gaffes. People notice what conforms to the stereotype - and ignore what doesn't fit."

But a person who becomes a celebrity has to cope with the gap between the public image and their private reality. "If the two aren't too far apart it's usually not a problem. But where there's a dissonance the problems may begin."

Celebrities, in shrink-jargon, have "a lot of split in their fantasy ego structure". Andrew Evans elaborates: "We all have in ourselves the fantasy that we are wonderful and we all have the reverse - that we are useless; both parts are usually far away from reality. But if the wonderful fantasy becomes reality, that leaves your fantasy nowhere to go but down."

One result can be what the rock star Dave Stewart has branded Paradise Syndrome - an inversion of Murphy's Law - in which everything goes right and you are left wondering if it would have been better if it hadn't. "Fantasy then becomes a source of great fear," says Evans, "which is compounded for those like models and dancers whose professional lifespan is finite." The concomitant stress can be enormous. "It's high pressure up there. These people live under extreme stress. It's the same with concert pianists, who have to perform perfectly night after night after night and can't make a mistake, can't fall off the top shelf." The product is burn-out, listlessness or stage fright. Suicide attempts may follow or the stars may, in extremis, publicly lose their bottle, as Stephen Fry did.

Poor Naomi's problem is this. Her latest amour seems not to suffer from emotional dissonance in the way she clearly does. "E Cosi Sexy Che Sembra Una Rockstar," said an Italian periodical when Joaquin Cortes first took his "New Flamenco" on international tour. The gypsy dancer from Cordoba, whose glance has been compared to the slash of a knife, always knew he would be a star. He started at 12, was a star of Spain's national ballet at 17 and formed his own company at 20. Today, of his mission to bring flamenco to the masses with rock-stadium special effects, he says: "I am huge, I am doing important things for Spain."

No psychologist could doubt the 28-year-old dancer's sense of self-worth. Yet despite his soaring ego he manages - just - to come across as level- headed, articulate and relaxed. And there is no uncertainty about his emotional centre: he attributes his sense of identity to his gypsy roots and the closeness of his family.

Nor is there much ambivalence in his attitude to the opposite sex. This is the man who admits to sitting at sidewalk cafes awarding points to women as they walk by. He is said to have put an end to his former girlfriend Maria Pineda's career as a model because, she says, he didn't like to see her wearing clothes "where my neck's too low or my skirt's too short". But he did despatch her to run part of his business, and it was she who got him the deal with Spain's equivalent of Harvey Goldsmith which began the transformation of Cortes from a minority cult figure to an international idol.

By contrast, Naomi Campbell demonstrates the ecleticism of uncertainty. Not content with supermodel status she cast around for recognition, publishing a gruesome novel, Swan, and making a sad attempt at rock stardom with a spectacularly unsuccessful album called Babywoman. An acting role (in a Mike Figgis film) is said to be next.

There was a brave attempt at irony. She appeared in an episode of Absolutely Fabulous playing a rude, bitchy, unpunctual supermodel. And in a 60-second TV ad for Olympus cameras she parodied it all in a fantasy in which Swan won the Booker Prize, her hit single sold millions and the heels she toppled off were skyscraper-high. "It gave me a chance to make fun of myself ... and I had a great time during the shoot," the PR handout quoted her as saying. Unfortunately those on the set described her as imperious, arrogant, temperamental and self-obsessed. Some sense of irony.

It could be that her collection of macho celebrity boyfriends is an exercise in satire, too. There may be something sardonic rather than sad about the way she sometimes refers to her latest partner as her husband or "old man" and describes herself as "married". The marriage never seems to happen, despite on engagement and several imminent betrothals (if you believe the popular press). Why should it, you might ask. She is only 27 and is playing the field in a way that might go unremarked upon were she still Ms Average from Streatham.

Yet before Christmas, Campbell apparently chartered a plane to get to Madrid to meet Cortes because she had a spare six hours and a craving to see him. When his Gypsy Passion tour hit London, she spent pounds 10,000 on a party for him at which onlookers described her as besotted. The Spanish press have long suggested that Naomi is the one to have lost her heart, reporting her "alone and desperate" the other day, weeping on the shoulder of Cortes's former girlfriend while he was playing in Marbella with "another love". It could be Spanish national pride, portraying their boy in control and keeping his head. Or it could just be true.

Like many superstars, he claims to want both fame and privacy. Symbolically, in March he bought a flashy yellow Porsche - with smoked windows. "I work 24 hours a day," he said recently. "I have hardly any private life. I think I can keep this up for another five years, then I'll think about marrying and having children."

The high point of the Cortes stage show is a stamping, whirling solo lasting 20 minutes. Critics say he is bound to burn himself out before long. "You don't have this physical strength for long," he says. "I've got to exploit it while I've got it. I live for the moment because you don't know what tomorrow will bring. It's a very gypsy way of thinking."

Not much sign there of the "inner conflict around self-esteem and self- worth" that the clinical psychologist Andrew Evans sees at the core of the celebrity crisis.

Things seem rather different for poor, young Naomi. Yesterday her attempts to resume her flagging singing career were also knocked back when organisers of the Carlsberg Concert '97 refused her request to perform at the event. She had asked if she could do a duet with Jon Bon Jovi at the Wembley spectacular. The song she had in mind was the Human League hit "Don't You Want Me". The answer all round, it cruelly appeared, was No.