Supermodels and drugs: The truth

Naomi Campbell is suing a tabloid over revelations that she attended Narcotics Anonymous. But she isn't the first model to have spent too long in the powder room.

James Sherwood
Wednesday 13 February 2002 01:00

Narcotics Anonymous has a new poster girl. Naomi Campbell, the last of the supermodels, is currently starring in a High Court case against The Mirror newspaper, which splashed her leaving an NA meeting across its front page under the headline: "Naomi: I am a drug addict".

Miss Campbell is suing The Mirror for breach of confidence and unlawful invasion of privacy: fair point considering the name above the door read Narcotics Anonymous, but a shocking revelation? No. "Model on Drugs" has about as much shock value as "Footballer's Wife On the Make" or "Cilla Black on HRT".

The Mirror claims that Naomi "misled the public" when she told Paris Match, "I never take stimulants or tranquillisers", then told the US TV chat-show host Barbara Walters that she'd never been offered drugs. Frankly, anybody naive enough to believe that a supermodel was never offered drugs – in an industry that operates in a blizzard of cocaine – deserves to be left in blissful ignorance.

Drugs and fashion are old friends: co-dependents you could say. The death of the 20-year-old photographer Davide Sorrenti from a heroin overdose in 1997 brought the industry's catnip out of the powder room. His girlfriend at the time was the teenage model James King, and his model brother Mario was dating Kate Moss. Sorrenti's death blew the lid off fashion's affair with Class-A narcotics, and is an accurate snapshot of the pressures facing teenage models in fashion.

King, now an actress, was 14 when she was first offered heroin on a fashion shoot. "I was surrounded by drug abuse. It was something that was always there. The editor, the photographer, everybody was smoking or shooting drugs, so it was natural for me. I just thought that was the way things worked. Did I shoot heroin? No, I sniffed it."

Heroin didn't have a real fashion moment until Grunge in 1993, when a young Kate Moss, photographed by Corinne Day for UK Vogue, became the face of "Heroin Chic". James King says of those years, "I looked so skinny, with black circles under my eyes. It makes me sick, so sick, that's what they wanted."

King was essentially caught in the act and had to bear her soul or kiss her career a not-so-fond farewell. She blames the fashion industry for its don't-ask-don't-tell policy. "My habit became a full-time job", says King. "It cost money but I had money. If you give a 15-year-old thousands of dollars, she's going to buy lots of shoes, clothes – whatever she is into at the time. Magazines will talk shit about you but they'll still book you."

Kate Moss was a major part of the Davide Sorrenti scene. When she was interviewed for a Channel 4 documentary in 1998, David Bailey's Models Close-Up (for which I wrote the script), she said, "I don't do any more drugs than anyone else. Not class A – especially heroin after everything that happened to Davide." This cool, coy attitude is much more in tune with the public attitude to drugs than Naomi's categorical "no". But can Campbell be blamed for denying drug use? How was she expected to respond to Barbara Walters's probing?

Many supers claim that they've never even seen drug-use in the fashion industry. "I hear rumours but I've never seen it," Cindy Crawford says. "Maybe it's me being naive," Christy Turlington says. "I experimented with drugs and alcohol at school but not when I started modelling. I never saw drugs in fashion. People were not doing drugs in the make-up room."

"Most of the girls you work with are not taking drugs," agrees Brana Wolf, fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar. "Of course, there are a few that are."

The photographer Patrick Demarchelier believes that the claims are "blown up out of all proportion. Modelling is a very hard job. It's a 12-hour-day job. People don't understand." "And they have to go to sleep to look fabulous the next day," adds the photographer Peter Lindberg. "It is impossible for a model to be so successful and be on drugs."

It is far from impossible for a successful model to be on drugs, as Naomi's career proves. The impossibility rests with a girl staying successful with a drug or alcohol addiction. A teenager can handle excess with little physical short-term repercussions; a supermodel in her early thirties cannot. "The more wild a girl is today, the more people want her," says Davide Sorrenti's mother Francesca. "I had one model tell me of how they held her up to do a beauty shoot. That's sick. Another, who is an alcoholic, was sent away to rehabilitate and, on her first day back on the job, at eight in the morning, was offered a vodka by the photographer."

As far as the drugs rap is concerned, Campbell is arguably the victim not the villain. She was a 14-year-old Streatham schoolgirl when she was discovered in 1985 and photographed for British Elle. Life is hard enough already for a suburban teenager without the pressures and temptations of a demanding, surreal finishing school like fashion.

To find the reason behind heavy drug- use in the modelling métier, you have to consider the lifestyle of a typical teenage model. "You want a girl to go stand on the paper and do what you tell her to do. You need to get the picture so, although these children are dressed as adults, mentally they are kept as infants and that contributes to drug use," says the fashion writer Michael Gross.

A point in Naomi's favour is that she has actually gone to Narcotics Anonymous. Whatever her other faults, she is no fool, which is more than can be said for many other members of the fashion pack, past and present. The history of modern fashion is littered with examples of models who have been less wise. The Seventies model Gia Carangi, for example, is more famous today for her heroin addiction and death from Aids in 1986 than she is for her work. In Models: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, Michael Gross recalled Gia stumbling out of her dressing-room on a Vogue sitting, wearing a Galanos couture gown with blood streaming from the needle punctures in her arm.

"In the Seventies, the downside of modelling was flying off the handle and spending two nights in Studio 54 and taking too much cocaine," says Anjelica Huston. "I've done 'em all," says Iman. "Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. I am doing the rock'n'roll now [she's married to David Bowie] and some sex, but no drugs." Marie Helvin and Jerry Hall were leading models in the Seventies. "Drugs are the killer for a lot of models," says Hall. "There are a lot of people flattering you, a lot of loneliness, and a lot of people offering you drugs."

"There were drugs but they were expensive," adds Helvin. "They weren't used to keep your weight down and I don't recall much heroin. It was more cocaine because coke is such a nightlife drug. We would drink a lot of champagne but, again, that goes with being young."

Anyone who has attended a catwalk show has witnessed the glossy menagerie at work. "Stress, boredom, backstage at the shows it's chaos", says the model Kirsty Hume. "Photographers fight to join the bank of cameras surrounding the catwalk. Fashion editors fight for their front-row seats. Everybody has an attitude. Backstage, the girls are attended to by an army of hairdressers, make-up artists and dressers. A pack of TV crews watch them work. Champagne is dispensed like Evian water. Put a teenage girl in the middle of this madness, and does anyone really expect her to walk the runway without a little something to calm her nerves?

"The (fashion) world is scary," says the model Amber Valletta. "I've seen lots of stuff that I don't know how a 16-year-old girl could handle. There's strange men, good-looking men who may not be particularly good for you at the time, all kinds of stuff. I tried everything I wanted to try."

In the context of the past, Naomi Campbell's involvement with drugs might be described as tame. "There was a model in the early Seventies whose body was found in a hotel room battered and burnt," says Michael Gross, "after a night of, as her agent put it, 'Partying too hard'. Naomi was never going to go the same way."

Sure, the lady has her teeny faults. No stranger to the dock, she's already been sued for assault after hitting a former PA over the head with a mobile phone. But remember that Campbell is a former sparring partner of Mike Tyson and Raging Bull DeNiro. She has, as the Americans say, "issues" with anger, admitting in the High Court that her behaviour is "notorious" and she has "a reputation for tantrums". Call the Department of No Surprises. Campbell is one of the world's highest-paid models and she's still at the top of her profession at the grand old age of 31. You're going to feel a little peeved and picked-on when grubby paparazzi photographers stalk your every move and the tabloids make baiting and criticising you a national sport.

Perhaps there is an undercurrent of racism in all the relentless criticism of Naomi: almost as if the tabloids won't take attitude from a black girl from Streatham. Naomi Campbell may be a bitch. It's her prerogative. If you're going to be a diva, you've got to act like one.