From teen single mum to cancer survivor, Valerie Morris-Campbell has always been a fighter – and she’s handed more than just supermodel looks down to her famous daughter. By Bridget Harrison.
Valerie Morris-Campbell pulls down the scooped neck of her T–shirt to show me her mastectomy scar. ‘See it’s flat, nothing here,’ she says as we sit in her model agent’s offices in London’s Soho. Valerie’s finger is on the jagged honey-coloured vertical line that starts above where her right breast once was. Her tone is matter of fact, jaunty almost, revealing just a trace of Streatham, the South London borough where she raised her daughter, supermodel Naomi Campbell.
At first sight of Valerie, it’s clear where Naomi got the genes that have fuelled her 30-year career at the top of the fashion world. Valerie is just off 5ft 11in, slim as a reed, with golden-brown eyes and high, rounded cheekbones. But for someone whose daughter has a reputation for diva-like behaviour and for dating high-profile, wealthy men, Valerie is strikingly down to earth. ‘I don’t get involved in her love life,’ she says, ‘I am sometimes the last to know.’
She was showing me her scar not because we are talking – yet – about the advanced breast cancer she was diagnosed with 14 years ago, aged 53, which resulted in a mastectomy. We are, in fact, talking clothes. ‘See, there are certain things I can’t wear,’ she explains. ‘I can do something quite low cut because I can use stickers to hold the fabric in place to cover it, but I couldn’t wear something that cuts straight across my chest, like the one Helena had on.’
She’s referring to her daughter’s friend, model Helena Christensen, who sparked a huge debate about age-appropriate dressing after she wore a strapless lace bustier to Gigi Hadid’s 24th birthday party in New York in April. Former Vogue editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman criticised 50-year-old Helena’s choice of outfit in her column in The Mail on Sunday. ‘She looked fine!’ Valerie exclaims. ‘Those comments were not very nice.’
Dressed in skinny jeans, a fitted black T-shirt and black high-top trainers, it’s almost inconceivable that Valerie is 67. She’s comfortable with her age. ‘Can I lie?’ she says, throwing her head back with a peal of throaty laughter which she does often. ‘People know how old my daughter is!’
Valerie, whose parents – a seamstress and a carpenter – moved to the UK from Jamaica in the 1950s, was just 19 when she had Naomi, now 48. She was working as a dancer in a troupe that toured Europe and the Middle East and has never named the father, who disappeared almost immediately. When Naomi was a toddler, Valerie left her with her mother – Ruby Morris – in Streatham and sent money from the road to pay for Naomi’s education.
‘It was tough, I had to grow up very quickly,’ Valerie says, but she never questioned whether she would keep her baby: ‘Life is precious. I had created a life and I had to look after her to the best of my ability.’
Naomi was enrolled at London’s Barbara Speake Stage School at the age of five and later at the Italia Conti Academy. By seven she was winning parts in music videos, with Valerie proving to be a formidable stage mum. ‘I’d say, “Do your best, that’s all you can do. But if you do your best and you get it, I’ll take you to Hamleys and you can choose whatever you want!”’ She laughs gaily at the memory. ‘And if things didn’t go well? I’d say, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself down. Job’s gone. Move on.”’ She was forthright for good reason, she says. ‘When you are black, it’s not easy. You have to let your child know it’s not going to be easy. That you have to work twice as hard.’
Naomi was spotted at 15 by a model scout while window shopping in Covent Garden and got her first big shoot – with Elle – just before her 16th birthday. A year later she made the cover of Vogue. As catwalk jobs for designers such as Versace and Isaac Mizrahi came flooding in, she quickly became known for her gazelle-like strut, one that Valerie had taught her when she was parading around as a young teen. ‘I said, “What are you walking like that for?”’ recalls Valerie. ‘That’s how I spoke with her from a young age.’ Valerie’s advice to Naomi was always: find your style, what makes you different. ‘I told her, if you want to survive in this world, there has to be something about you that makes people stop and say, “Wow, who is that?”
That Naomi in part owes her career to her mother’s determination and sacrifices is clear. So it must have been a hard blow when Naomi blamed a sequence of violent temper tantrums – including her arrest in 2006 for throwing a mobile phone at her housekeeper – on ‘abandonment issues’ caused by being left with relatives as a young child. She did so during an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2010; it couldn’t have been more public.
‘I was a bit hurt,’ Valerie says quietly. ‘It’s not the way I would have phrased it, although I respect how she felt. As a parent, you sometimes have to listen to your children. But I know in my heart of hearts that I did what was best for her.’ Her tone turns defiant. ‘A child will see things through a child’s eyes. She might have seen it that way but it ain’t Santa Claus putting food on the table, or shoes on feet, or paying for private school. Somebody had to pay for it and that someone just happened to be me.’
There have been times when Valerie has disapproved of her daughter’s choices. They had ‘a big row’ when Naomi contributed naked photos to Madonna’s explicit coffee-table book Sex, published in 1992. And she disapproved but defended Naomi for her honesty when she confessed to a cocaine addiction in her early 20s. ‘When something is not right I tell her. I am still her mother, just as when she was young.’
But Naomi is quieter now. ‘She has mellowed a bit,’ Valerie says. Their relationship is on a good footing – they have recently visited Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa together – and is evident in the loving Instagram dedications they post to each other. And although they live an ocean apart – Naomi in New York and Valerie in Kent – Valerie doesn’t take her maternal role any less seriously. ‘If she needs advice, Naomi knows that she can pick up the phone at any time. I am only a call away.’
We are not here just to talk about Naomi, of course. Valerie has bagged plenty of modelling jobs herself since her daughter was discovered. In December, she and Naomi featured in Burberry’s Christmas campaign alongside actors Matt Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas. However, her latest assignment is perhaps her boldest job to date – a swimwear shoot.
‘When the job came up, the first thing that came to my mind was my situation,’ she says. ‘I haven’t had a breast reconstruction and I don’t intend to, so I can’t wear every shape of one-piece. But I knew the shoot would be tastefully done.’ And after all, you see bodies in all shapes and sizes on the beach. ‘If everyone looked the same, how boring life would be,’ she says. As for her age, why not? She’s laughing again. ‘We all need to get some vitamin D!’
Does she see herself as a role model, I wonder, pointing to the trend for people to be out and proud about their ‘battle’ scars, just as Princess Eugenie was on her wedding day last year, showing her scar from an operation she had aged 12 to fix her scoliosis? ‘If you are OK with your body – which I hope I am – then fine, but if you are not comfortable then that is understandable, too. It shouldn’t be about being politically correct, it’s about how you feel.’
It was in 2005 that Valerie learned she had invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) – cancer affecting the cells lining the milk ducts. She noticed a lump in her breast while showering so visited her GP who advised her to have a biopsy. The diagnosis was all the more upsetting because she’d had a clear mammogram the year before.
‘I went in for the biopsy by myself. It was so painful,’ she shudders at the memory. ‘So when I went for the results I asked my sister Yvonne to keep me company. When the doctor called me in he asked if there was anyone with me, and told me to call her in. Then he broke the news. “Unfortunately you are advanced,” he said. My sister burst out crying. I was looking at him like he was talking to someone else. To have had a mammogram and be told you are fine then to come back a year later and have advanced cancer, I was just in shock.’ Valerie was referred to the Royal Marsden Hospital in London for six months of chemotherapy, followed by surgery to remove her right breast. ‘Naomi was on an assignment abroad when my sister rang to tell her. She was amazing, ready to drop everything to be by my side. I think she was going through a court case with one of her employees and she had recently lost a very close friend to breast cancer. But she pulled out all the stops to be with me when I needed her most.’
Naomi flew her mother to America for a second opinion, hired a nutritionist to help her through the chemotherapy and later arranged for her to have the mastectomy at the famous Mayo Clinic in the US.
Valerie says her hairdresser and good friend Brian Messam was also ‘amazing’, attending every chemo appointment with her. ‘“This is a time to have strong people around you,” he said.’ He also supported her when the chemo caused her hair to fall out. ‘I went to him one day to have my hair washed and I think half of it fell out into the sink. He put a towel around me and the next thing I heard was the buzzing of a razor and he was shaving my head. He said, “Go on, cry then, do what you want, kill me! It’s done!” So that was that.’
Remarkably, Valerie applied this same resolute attitude to the removal of her breast. ‘The doctor at the Mayo said it had to come off. I said “fine”. You realise that you have to take control of the situation. No one can do that for you. This is your life.’ Her faith – she is a devout Jehovah’s Witness – also kept her strong.
Did it take a while to adapt to her new body shape? ‘No, it wasn’t as traumatic as it is for some women,’ she says. ‘I met some women who struggled to face going out after their operation because they didn’t feel complete any more. I could sympathise, especially for those women who might have thought that their breasts were their best asset or maybe their husband felt like that. It wasn’t like that for me; I never had massive boobs anyway. For me it was about survival. It was about wanting to live as long as I possibly can. If it is with one less t** – so what?’
Naomi has offered to pay for her mother to have reconstructive surgery but Valerie has declined. ‘It’s a nine-hour operation.’ Instead she wears a prosthesis. Her faith keeps her pragmatic: ‘One day I will be resurrected and this old body will turn to dust anyway.’ Since coming off the last of her cancer medication in 2013 Valerie tries to think about it as little as possible. ‘Because otherwise, what? You can’t live your life worrying.’
She stays fit by walking and meeting friends in the gym, enjoys all food and alcohol in moderation, and tries to do a week-long lemon-juice fast twice a year. She regularly goes out evangelising, a key obligation of the Jehovah’s Witness faith. ‘Some people try to bang the door in your face, but I say, “Do you know why I am here?” I might show them a scripture or ask if they remember saying the Lord’s Prayer as a child. And we start a conversation from there. It’s very rewarding.’
As well as being a mother to Naomi, Valerie has a son, Pierre, 33, by her former husband to whom she was briefly married in the mid-1980s. Her spiritualism plays an important role in her life and gives her contentment. In her 40s she was linked to the late 11th Duke of Northumberland, and for a while was a regular fixture on Hello! magazine’s society pages. But nowadays single life suits her just fine, she says. ‘If the right person came along then maybe… But I think I am just a little bit set in my ways. I don’t have to answer to anybody.’ She lets loose her wonderful throaty laugh again.
These days, when Valerie’s not attending fashion events with her daughter she’s often in bed by 10pm. ‘At my age you can’t burn the candle at both ends,’ she laughs. How does she feel about doing her first ever swimwear shoot as she nears her 68th birthday? ‘I’m petrified!’ she shrieks – but you get the impression she isn’t remotely.
Valerie models the JD Williams spring/summer 19 collection, which is available at jdwilliams.co.uk in sizes 10-32.