Naomi Campbell on being the only black model early in career: 'I know what it’s like to be the token'

Naomi Campbell tackled the topic of tokenism in the fashion industry during her panel with WSJ Magazine at WSJ Tech Live. The supermodel, whose career spans over three decades, explained that she knows firsthand about being the "token" black model in runway shows, as it was a role she filled early on in her career.

"I know what it's like to be the token and it wasn't a good feeling to have to always be the only black model in a show of 70 girls," she shared, according to E! News. "It was uncomfortable. I didn't like it."

Campbell said she was between "a rock and a hard place" regarding whether or not to agree to walk in those shows. "So, if I said no, there’d be [no black models]," she explained.

The 49-year-old star also refuted rumors that she didn't want other black models with her. "Well, that's not true," Campbell said. "I did."

Naomi Campbell at Paris Fashion Week in Paris, France, Sept. 24, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes)

While she didn't want to name brands, Campbell said there have "been a few recently" with "red flags" in regards to tokenism.

"I'm not gonna call people out and I have to believe that everybody is coming from a good place," she said. "We'll discover as we go along — we will know who is doing it for the token and who is doing it for real."

Campbell, the first black model to cover Vogue Paris, at the age of 18, has spoken out about experiencing racism in the fashion industry and beyond.

"The word 'diversity' is everywhere today, but it did not exist when I started. I have always wanted people to be treated fairly. Do not believe that it goes without saying," she told Paris Mach over the summer. "The challenge is permanent."

The model said a hotel in the south of France wouldn't let her enter recently "because of the color of my skin."

She added, "The guy at the entrance pretended that the place was complete. But he let other people pass. It is for these kind of shocking moments that I will continue to express myself and make myself heard."

After 30 years in the industry, Campbell landed her first major beauty contract just last year as the face of NARS Cosmetics. However, a "certain country" refused to run the ads because of her race.

"I’m the face of a new campaign and I was told that because of the color of my skin a certain country would not use my picture," Campbell told the magazine. "For me, it was a reality check. I never believe in the hype, so it just kept things in perspective for me. Now I would like to know that models [of color] get the same opportunities and fees in advertising."

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