R.J. McIntyre
8 September 2022

Naomi Campbell was the face of high fashion in the 90’s and in many ways she still is. The supermodel has always been sharp, poised and preening. In an interview, Barbara Walters, with an acerbic tongue, started: “Naomi, you know that people call you a bitch. And you don’t mind.” Campbell, in a rosy pink mini-dress, pushed back. According to the supermodel, she has been unfairly criticized because she is powerful and domineering. Many lurid headlines of the mid-2000s suggest Campbell’s self-diagnosis is incomplete.

Campbell was charged with assault in 2006 after hurtling her cellphone at her own housekeeper. While performing court-ordered community service with the City of New York Department of Sanitation, Campbell burlesqued her own arrogance, strutting into the sanitation department in Pologeorgis furs and Christian Louboutin heels. Campbell has been spotted sporting a black t-shirt that read, “Naomi hit me.” On the back: “And I loved it.” Campbell did not shy away from her unsavory reputation.

Despite bearing responsibility for a litany of moral and legal transgressions, Campbell remains one of the most successful and celebrated models of all time. In spring 2019, Campbell was invited to close Maison Valentino’s haute couture show and received thunderous applause as she  swept down the catwalk in a Pierpaolo Piccioli-designed sheer black gown.

So, why haven’t we cancelled Naomi Campbell yet? Why are we still applauding? Although the public, media, and judicial system have persistently admonished Campbell for her behavior, the model has never been “cancelled.” Cancel culture relentlessly convicts and charges public figures for their moral transgressions via social media. Unlike many, Campbell has never endured the process. She has never been viciously attacked online by millions, abandoned by brands, ostracized.  In an era when an insensitive comment, poorly-worded tweet or inappropriate gesture ends a career, Campbell has the endurance of Teflon. Some may argue that Campbell and her career have survived because she committed her crimes before cancel culture ignited. But cancel culture has no statute of limitations. Ask Justice Kavanaugh, Al Franken, and Harvey Weinstein. Others may argue Campbell never attempted to conceal her actions like other famous perpetrators; she flaunted her crimes. Exhibit A: the “Naomi hit me” t-shirt. If anything, Campbell’s flagrancy underscores her arrested moral development. 

It seems we are more forgiving of the fashion industry’s mistakes. Campbell is not the only beneficiary of such forgiveness. In January 2018, H&M received backlash for featuring an online advertisement of a young black model in a green hoodie inscribed with “COOLEST MONKEY IN THE JUNGLE.” Although some boycotted the brand in South Africa, most accepted the brand’s apologies and kept on shopping. Just months after the incident, Nicki Minaj and Janelle Monáe proudly walked the red carpet at the MET Gala in head-to-toe H&M. There was no national boycott or internet bloodbath.

A year after Alessandro Michele designed a red and black turtleneck balaclava evoking blackface, charges of racism resounded. However, Gucci is still wildly popular, and Dapper Dan remains one of the faces of the fashion house. While these missteps may not compare to the atrocities surrounding the #MeToo movement, they are nonetheless offensive and harmful to many.

Our inexplicable forgiveness affords the fashion industry a great opportunity to learn. This is not the kind of forgiveness that perpetuates misogyny and racism; this forgiveness allows for self-assessment and intercultural awareness. Following the balaclava blunder, Michele took full responsibility and announced the initiation of inclusion and equity advisory council, the hiring of a diversity chief, and a thorough review of the fashion houses’ design practices. It seems cancel culture graciously abstained, and Michele transformed the unfortunate sweater incident into a historical learning experience for the entire fashion industry. Since the incident, Michele and his brand has continuously unveiled daring looks, respectfully weaving together a plethora of historical and cultural references. Michele surely would not have been able to learn from his mistakes without forgiveness. Cancel culture does not just correct errors; it destroys the wrongdoers.

The legendary Naomi Campbell has been forgiven many times. Perhaps the public pitied Campbell, attributing her malice to substance abuse problems and the bullying she received as a child. The supermodel has retired the “Naomi hit me” tee and learned from her mistakes. Campbell leads a slightly less glamorous life and focuses on giving back through charities such as the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and Made in Africa. Naomi Campbell does not merely possess a “magic runway boom boom” as Vogue once noted. She has a powerful voice and implores the world to refocus its collective perspective of African countries. One speech, interview, and television appearance at a time, Campbell aims to amend the western narrative of a downtrodden Africa and encourages the western world to explore and celebrate the cultural richness of the enormous continent. Perhaps unintentionally, Campbell is also rewriting her own story, transforming from an enfant terrible to a force of positive social change.