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Valerie Morris-Campbell sweeps into the room, all long, slender limbs and youthful elegance, in a floral maxi -dress and trainers. It’s when she removes her sunglasses, though, that the improbability of her having a 49-year-old child really strikes. At 67, her caramel-coloured skin is unlined and glowing, without a scrap of make-up.
Her ageless beauty is a gift she has passed on to her supermodel daughter, Naomi, with whom she also shares her extraordinary, razor-sharp cheekbones, feline eyes and full lips. But where Naomi’s spikiness is legendary, Valerie is immediately friendly and quick to break into infectious peals of Caribbean-inflected laughter.
We meet at the office of Models 1, the agency that represents both mother and daughter. While Naomi continues to dominate the catwalk, Valerie’s own career is going better than ever. “Years ago, when I first came to Models 1, it was really hard,” she says. “Now, opportunities are really opening up for older women. Fashion is coming around to the way women think – we don’t want to cut our hair short and look dowdy just because we’re a certain age.”
Last year, she and Naomi appeared together in Burberry’s Christmas campaign, clad head-to-toe in the brand’s classic check. Now, she is the new face of catalogue brand JD Williams’s high summer campaign, modelling summer dresses and swimwear for women aged between 45 and 60.
For Valerie, who underwent a mastectomy on her right breast after being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in 2005, the shoot was a chance to show that it’s possible to feel body-confident after transformative surgery. “Life goes on, and if you go to the beach, you’re not going to sit there in a long dress – at least, I don’t,” she says. “I don’t see why I should hide my body.”
It’s brave, particularly as she decided against reconstructive surgery. “It would have meant putting on a lot of weight so they could transfer it from my stomach in a nine-hour operation. I didn’t want that. And I was never a busty person anyway, someone who thought my breasts were my best feature. That’s always been my eyes and my legs.” She usually wears a prosthetic, but didn’t use it for the shoot. “You can’t really tell,” she says, “but you can see the marks on my skin from the radiation.”
She attributes her longevity in the industry, and Naomi’s, to graft, explaining that they both work out regularly, eat well and look after their skin. “You should invest in yourself,” she says firmly. “That’s the job.”
Valerie came to modelling after a career as a dancer in the troupe Exotica, which performed around the world for the likes of Aristotle and Jacqueline Onassis. Born in Jamaica and brought up in Streatham, south London, she was just 18 when she conceived her daughter and has never named Naomi’s father.
Today, the mother and daughter relationship is close – they speak twice a week and see one another regularly – but it has been complex. Naomi spent much of her early childhood living with Valerie’s mother, Ruby, in Streatham, while Valerie lived in Switzerland. During a 2010 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Naomi broke down in tears as she explained that the mobile phone-hurling volatility, which earned her four assault convictions, stemmed from “abandonment issues”.
Valerie, sitting in the audience, was asked for her take. “I was just sitting there listening and minding my own business and suddenly I heard my name,” she recalls, her eyes widening. “But you just tell it as it is, so I stood up and said: ‘Well, as a single mum, I had to take care of my child and the only way I knew how to do it was to work. Unfortunately, sacrifices had to be made.’ ”
From her earliest years, Naomi wanted to perform. “She was always posing,” she says, flinging out her arms in an imitation of her toddler daughter. “I asked what she’d like to do and she said dance, which is why she went to Barbara Speake [the London stage school] at five. But when you’re a child, you don’t think about how much it costs. You just think Jane’s mum is with Jane and you want to be with your mum. I can understand that a child might feel ‘Mum’s abandoned me’.”
She became accustomed to young Naomi sharing the news that she’d been cast in pop videos for Bob Marley or Culture Club. But when Naomi began to find success as the only black one among the original five supermodels in the late Eighties, Valerie knew she would face discrimination.
She believes fashion is now a far more welcoming world for people of colour. “Of course, there’s room for improvement, but now you’re seeing so many campaigns with people of every ethnicity taking their place,” she says.
A landmark moment for her was when Edward Enninful, the son of Ghanaian immigrants, became the editor of Vogue in 2017 – “and quite rightly so,” she says, beaming proudly. She’s known him since the Nineties, when he was fashion director at i-D magazine. “He’s lovely,” she says. “Naomi and I visited Ghana with him last December. He’s really turned the magazine around. No disrespect to the editor before, but maybe you can become complacent. He’s refreshing it, bringing a real diversity.”
She longs to meet the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle and reacts with delight to the mention of her name. “I think she??s an absolute breath of fresh air,” she says. “A mixed-race member of the Royal family is a big deal.”
She believes race has been at the root of some of Naomi’s negative publicity. “I’m not saying she’s a saint; she herself has put her hands up and said she’s made mistakes,” she says. “But I think some of the criticism’s been unfair, or it’s got more attention than it would if she was Caucasian. Her charity work isn’t mentioned as often.”
She also thinks her daughter’s behaviour has been influenced by the prejudice she’s faced. “When you think that because of the colour of your skin, you have to fight and knock down doors to get through, it can wear you down,” she says. But Naomi has mellowed as a result of the greater inclusivity today, “because things are changing”.
Naomi said recently that she may still have children one day. “Grandchildren would be lovely, but I wouldn’t push,” says Valerie. “It’s not for me to decide, it’s for her.” One suspects that even her mother would struggle to push Naomi into anything.
Valerie’s former boyfriends are reported to include the late Duke of Northumberland, but now she lives alone in Surrey and values her independence. “I don’t have to answer to anybody else,” she says. “I can do anything I want at the drop of a hat.” To the possibility of another relationship, however, she says: “Never say never.” As a devout Jehovah’s Witness, any potential husband would have to be of the same faith.
Naomi and Pierre, her son from her marriage to Cliff Blackwood, a minicab driver, in the Eighties, encourage her to go out and meet someone. “They say, ‘Mum, why are you always staying at home?’ ” she laughs.
She may be playing down the glamour of her lifestyle; earlier, she mentioned meeting Riccardo Tisci, Burberry’s chief creative officer, while staying with Naomi at Lenny Kravitz’s house in Paris. Recently, she and Naomi went to the uber-exclusive Vivamayr spa in Austria, where she fasted for three days and underwent a foot detox – so she’s certainly not averse to enjoying some of the trappings of showbusiness.
After recovering from the illness that threatened to claim her life, few would begrudge her. “Since then, I’ve tried to live life to the full,” she says. “I’ve found myself again.”