On the centenary of Nelson Mandela's birth, the supermodel opens up about the activist who called her his honorary granddaughter.

By Romy Oltuski
Jul 09, 2018 @ 4:30 am
ANNA ZIEMINSKI/AFP/Getty Images

“He’s always with me,” Naomi Campbell says of Nelson Mandela, who would have turned 100 this month.

To South Africans, Mandela is best remembered as “Madiba” or “Tata,” the beloved activist who fought to end apartheid and, after decades of imprisonment, became the country’s first black president.

But to Campbell, who shared an unlikely, close friendship with Mandela, he was also “Granddad,” a personal mentor who welcomed the supermodel into his family and called her his “honorary granddaughter.” Now, she says, “I light a candle for him every day.”

This December, Campbell will be among the co-hosts of Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 in Johannesburg, where a glittering lineup including Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Ed Sheeran, Chris Martin, and Oprah will celebrate the centenary of Mandela’s birth with a day of performances raising money to end extreme poverty.

Ahead of July 18, which would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday, Campbell shares her favorite memories with "Granddad"—including how they met, the most surprising lesson he taught her, and that time she gave him 50 Versace T-shirts, courtesy of Gianni himself.

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On her strongest memories of Mandela… “He was a man of few words. We’d speak at the dinner table, but it was his non-word that was powerful to me. Other times, we’d just sit and hold hands. He was very aware, very observant.”

On how they met... “I went to South Africa to judge Miss World 1994. They paid me to be there, but I wanted to donate [my time to Mandela’s political party], the African National Congress. When I got off the stage, they said to me that I was going to see President Nelson Mandela tomorrow, and that’s how it all started. He was bigger than the sun, that’s how I describe him. Granddad was very charismatic and easygoing. I couldn’t believe I was there. I had no idea that I would later have a relationship like granddaughter-grandfather.”

On that eye-opening 1994 trip… “I had heard about apartheid, and growing up in London I knew about Nelson Mandela. But I didn’t really know much about the history. [Learning about it] shocked me so strongly. I was there in South Africa with Iman, and I remember I would knock on her door every night and say, ‘I can’t sleep,’ and Iman would let me come and sleep with her. I wanted to do something.”

On the training Mandela gave her... “I used to work in South Africa quite a lot. I would always say to him I’m coming, and he mentioned me getting involved with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. I did, and they started to utilize me more, sending me to hospitals, to the bush, and to the rural areas to talk to young people. I would ask Granddad—I call him Tata—‘Why are you not coming with me?’ He’s like, ‘It’s better that you speak to the young women.’ I learned. I didn’t plan to do philanthropy, but I liked what I was doing and I liked the way they guided me. Anything to help Granddad, really. Anything to make his life easier. It was an eye-opener. For me, when I go to South Africa, I want to do the work. More than ever in my life, now, I want to do the work that he told me I could do but I didn’t understand at the time.”

On the epic Versace runway show she brought to Cape Town to benefit the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund… “In 1998, I took 78 people from New York City—we all traveled to South Africa: Bridget Hall, Erin O’Connor, Karen Elson, hairdresser Orlando Pita, my BFF Christy Turlington. And I shared [Mandela] with everyone. I wanted everyone to know the special human being that I’d met that was a ray of light in my life. He grew on everyone. It was amazing. Gianni Versace was very pro me going and loved Nelson Mandela.”

On the 50 shirts Gianni Versace made for Mandela… “Granddad loved the shirts and designs Versace was so famous for. I remember Gianni made him about 50 shirts I took with me to give to him. That’s what [Mandela] taught me: to share. So that’s what I do today.”

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On becoming a part of Mandela’s family… “I realized that this man truly cared and brought me into his family. I became friends with his daughters Zinzdi and Zenani. Being close to them, I also always got to visit Mama Winnie [Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mandela’s second wife, an anti-apartheid activist who became polarizing for her use of violence and corruption]. Mama Winnie was a very important figure in my life too. Now is the time of the woman, and she stood for that. I understood early on that without her, we wouldn’t have known what was going on with Granddad while he was incarcerated. Of course I have the utmost respect for Mama Graça [Graça Machel, Mandela’s widow], and I’m very close to her and her kids too.”

On what Madela taught her… “He taught me to be my true, authentic self and to stick to my integrity. Not everyone’s going to like me, and I’m not asking everyone to like me, but I’m going to be true to whatever I commit myself to supporting. He also taught me to share with other people. He became a significant person in my life and will always be.”

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On Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100… “This is a very special year and a man who was very special to me. Music is a wonderful way of teaching, so I’m very happy to be part of this event. All the people we’re calling to come onboard, everyone wants to be there. They know that this will be an historical moment.”

On her goal… “That the next generation will understand what this man did for them and learn about how they can change in the world, how we can eradicate poverty. No one should be hungry; everyone should have the right to an education. These are all the things that Granddad fought for, and these are all the things that we’re still fighting for—and we shouldn’t be.”

Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 marks the culmination of a campaign to raise $1 billion in new commitments to go toward children’s education and the eradication of extreme poverty by 2030. It is a free, ticketed event. Donate to the cause here, and sign up for tickets beginning Aug. 21.