God, models are so boring these days. Even when it comes to so-called “super” models today, all they do is wear tiny sunglasses, date pop stars, and get engaged too early. And where are the feuds? If you’re going to be one of the most beautiful, worshipped women in the world, and you’re not using your looks to terrify everyone into submission on a daily basis, then what are you even doing?
Fashion needs more soap opera drama. Case in point: the long, long, long, feud of Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell. Here’s a special edition of Unwrapping the Beef, bringing you a definitive timeline of what on earth was (and has been) going on between these two.
Tyra Banks made her runway debut at Paris Fashion Week in 1991. By that point Naomi Campbell was a bonafide, not-to-be-fucked-with supermodel, having started her runway career in the late 1980s. In 1990 Campbell was dubbed by Interview magazine as “the reigning megamodel of them all,” rising in a holy fashion “Trinity” with Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington.
Campbell was also breaking boundaries as a black model, landing cover after cover. She was the first black model on British Vogue in 1987 since 1966; the first black model to appear on Paris Vogue in 1988 (a spot she landed with an assist from Yves Saint Laurent, who personally threatened to pull his advertisements from the magazine if she didn’t land the cover); and the first black model to appear on American Vogue’s September issue in 1989, Anna Wintour’s first September cover for the magazine. “I remember all the men in suits being absolutely stunned by the fact that I would put a black woman on the September cover of Vogue,” Wintour said.
It’s impossible to walk through the Campbell/Banks “feud” without considering that it was happening in an industry that made space for dozens of white women in a runway show but considered the inclusion of more than one black model just too much to handle. In 1992 Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, and other black models even held a press conference in New York as the “Black Girls Coalition,” a group helmed by models Iman and Bethann Hardison, to protest the fact that certain designers didn’t book them for shows. But Campbell and Bank’s rivalry seemed to begin not long after the younger model’s career took off.
The two models appeared in photo shoots together in the early 1990s including a Patrick Demarchelier shoot for Vogue in May of 1992, but by 1993 the Toronto Star reported that while Tyra Banks’s star was rising, Naomi Campbell wasn’t thrilled about Banks being quickly nicknamed “the next Naomi.”
That same year, Campbell allegedly told Karl Lagerfeld to ban Banks from the Chanel catwalk. “If she appears, I don’t,” she reportedly told Lagerfeld. The press reported that Campbell did more than push Banks out of shows, she also put pressure on Elite Model Management founder John Casablancas to drop Banks. “She made me lose Tyra Banks because she didn’t feel there was room for her and Tyra at the same agency,” he told Tom Sykes in an interview. “Last week, Tyra left Elite to join IMG Models,” The Dallas Morning News reported. “So far so good. Both models were in fine form at the Nicole Miller and Anne Klein shows.” Campbell also accused Banks of copying her look and walk, and the Evening Standard reported Campbell was convinced Banks was angling to be her replacement as designer Rifat Ozbek’s favorite model.
“Naomi Campbell calls her—well, who knows what she calls her,” the Chicago Tribune wrote in a 1993 profile of Banks. “Although neither Tyra nor supermodel Campbell will publicly sling a bad word in the other’s direction, the word in the fashion press is: They aren’t friendly.”
In interviews, Banks was consistently vocal about how she hated that the fashion industry only allowed for one top black model, often outright disputing the comparisons to Campbell. “Why do I have to knock Naomi out to be successful?,” she told People magazine in 1994. “With white models they don’t do that.” In a 1993 profile for the Sacramento Observer, Banks said, “Unfortunately, this business only embraces one African American beauty.” “If Beverly Peele, Lana Ogilvie and I were all walking down the street together, they would still call out ‘Naomi’ if she were chosen as ‘the one.’” she added.
While press at the time seemed to delight in comparing Banks and Campbell though they looked nothing alike, the two models were ultimately on very different paths. Naomi was the posh ice queen who walked Paris shows and went to parties, but Banks, as the Chicago Tribune profile was quick to point out, called herself “homegirl,” drank virgin piña coladas, and didn’t wear designer clothes.
In 1993 Banks landed the CoverGirl contract that would follow her all the way to her Top Model years. Becoming the face of a drugstore brand stood in stark contrast to the high-fashion work Campbell was doing. Banks’s appearances on high-fashion runaways waned throughout the 1990s as she moved into more commercial spaces, becoming the first black woman to appear on Sports Illustrated and Victoria’s Secret catalog, and appearing in films like Coyote Ugly and Life-Size into the 2000s. While Campbell might have dabbled in book “writing” and acting, Banks pursued mainstream moguldom more aggressively.
“My idols weren’t Naomi Campbell or even Linda Evangelista; they were Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford. They took their name and made it into a business and that’s what I wanted to do,” Banks told The Daily Telegraph in 1997. “I didn’t want to be another model waiting for the phone to ring and hoping that Karl Lagerfeld, as much as I love him, would use me for his collection. I wanted to be in control of my career.”
Campbell was eventually dropped by Elite not long after she reportedly kicked Banks out of the agency, and the feud waned in the headlines. In 1995 Campbell opened the Fashion Café along with Claudia Schiffer, and Banks was even in attendance on opening night. But the two still were far from besties.
“I don’t feel it’s my job to make up,” Banks told GQ in 1995. “I didn’t do anything.” A Hamilton Spectator profile of Banks reads: “‘I’m not saying anything about Naomi Campbell,’ Tyra snaps; her opinions on the tears, tantrums, and legendary arrogance of her London sister are nonetheless made abundantly clear with an eloquent wrinkle of her little nose.” And then again in 2000, when asked about Campbell, Banks told The Daily Mail, “‘I don’t want to get drawn into all that stuff. I have always been very independent and have a very clear idea of where I want to go.”
Banks leaned in so hard to the kind, supportive model routine that she ended up making it her entire brand. “I think my experiences with the person you’re talking about helped me realize that there are so many spots, and everyone has their time to shine,” Banks said in a 2003 interview with the Sacramento Bee ahead of the premiere of America’s Next Top Model, alluding to Campbell. “I’m all about helping. I want to see somebody else be a star.”
But even after all the zip-lipped smiling and repeated (repeated) professions of being done with the past, Banks still seemed like had a few words to say about Campbell. “She did so many hateful things, like getting me thrown off shows because she was more famous,” Banks told Newsweek in 2004, though she still didn’t name Campbell. “It got so bad that I called my mother and told her I wanted to just give up.”
Meanwhile, Campbell was building a reputation for her now-iconic coldness, even as employees alleged that she berated and even physically abused them. “Being a bitch for me, if that’s what people want to think of me as, has protected me in so many ways,” she told Barbara Walters in a 2000 interview. “If I’m gonna be remembered for something, I want to be remembered for being a bitch, but a hard-working bitch, and a loyal bitch.” In the interview, she also copped to having anger issues, which she says stemmed from loneliness and insecurity, and over the next few years would speak openly about her struggles with drug addiction, her experiences with rehab caught in the tabloids.
In 2005 the two models had an imperfect reunion. That year Banks announced she was officially retiring from modeling as she approached her sixth season of Top Model. She “retired” by walking in Victoria’s Secret fashion show, posing at one point on the runway with a group of supermodels including Campbell. It was also the year that Banks tried to, once and for all, settle whatever was going on between them by inviting Campbell on her short-lived talk show.
“Today is about telling the truth, today is about being honest,” Banks said opening the episode, with a dramatic seriousness better reserved for a eulogy, in the absence of a live studio audience. “Because without honesty, there’s no way you can heal.”
Immediately, there is an imbalance between the two in terms of how seriously to actually take this conversation, with Banks getting teary-eyed in the first few seconds of talking to Campbell, who pats her arms sympathetically. It’s unclear how upset Banks thinks Campbell is going to be when she presents her with a list of offensive incidents, and throughout Campbell is smiling and politely affirming incidents like when she called Banks “the B-word” at a show or got upset that photographers were styling Banks like her with dry “oh my gods.” At one point Banks says that modeling was “one of the most difficult times in her entire life,” and Campbell replies that while she loves modeling, “it’s not that deep.”
Banks explains at the top of the episode that their rivalry was orchestrated by the press, endorsed by an industry that would only give black models one spot at a time in the top tier of supermodels. And while the press certainly did churn an arguably racist feud between the two models, Banks comes to the table more interested in walking through Campbell’s alleged attacks which apparently weren’t orchestrated by the press, which included Campbell throwing her out of a Versace show, telling Banks she’ll “never be me,” and asking photographers to stop working with her (all of which Campbell denies).
“To be honest Naomi, I am fearful of you to this day,” Banks says. But at the end of it all Banks seems confident that the two have begun their process “of healing,” and Campbell apologizes to her straight-up for how she’s affected her.
It’s unclear how the process of healing worked in practice (perhaps the two went crystal shopping off camera?) as Banks and Campbell would continue to talk about the feud for years to come. “The world told her, ‘There can only be one and here is the new one and Naomi, you better back up.’ So she reacted very strongly to something that was already negative,” Banks told Howard Stern in 2010. “You know that movie Showgirls? Just do that and make it the modeling industry. My life was a living hell.”
In 2012 when the modeling reality show The Face premiered with Campbell as a judge, The New York Daily News reported that Campbell had told model Coco Rocha that if she signed onto The Face she could never appear on ANTM again. The Face opened up a new era of Campbell and Banks comparisons, suddenly with the roles reversed: Naomi was now walking in Tyra’s shadow.
Fielding comparisons between The Face and ANTM, Campbell told Elle in 2013, “I don’t watch the other reality model shows. I’ll never have anything to say. If you ask me about Tyra Banks, I’m proud of her as a woman of color. She’s given girls opportunity, and God bless her.” Proud of Tyra and has never watched ANTM. Got it! When a reporter who is perhaps braver than the Marines asked Campbell that same year if she would continue even further in Banks’s footsteps in terms of her TV career, Campbell replied, “I’m not looking at anyone else’s career. I would consider a chat show but it would have to be in the right way. I’m not out to get anyone. I know what that feels like.” Elsewhere she is clear that winners of The Face will, you know, actually be famous, unlike those ANTM girls.
Then on an episode of Watch What Happens Live when Andy Cohen asks Campbell on the status her friendship with Banks, Campbell tries, once again, to put a definitive end to the rumors that they still have beef:
We are in a good friendship… I really do not feel, and it does bug me and irk me that two women of the same ilk, we’re women of color, have to be pitted against each other, and that’s something I always felt back then. When I did Tyra’s show…we cleared that up! I’m very proud of Tyra and what she’s done with America’s Next Top Model… I’m proud of her, I’m proud to know her, and I’m not into the pitting game.
But as much as Campbell flogged herself in the press for being sorry for her past altercations with Banks, Banks, an adult woman, still expressed some fear towards Campbell. In 2016, Banks told the press of Campbell, “to this day I’m very scared of her.” And while she still credits the pressures of the industry for Campbell’s behavior, Banks hasn’t entirely absolved her. In 2018 talking to Buzzfeed News, she said:
All the press said get over Naomi, step back, there’s a new black girl in town… Of course that person who has that spot, the incumbent, is going to get nervous. Now she got very nervous and was extreme in her nervousness but as an adult I understand it and I get it. Would I do that? Hell to the no. I wouldn’t do that based on my mom and how she raised me but I’d probably be scared as hell.
It doesn’t matter how old they get or how many times they insist they’ve made amends: Naomi Campbell will apparently always be the powerful megabitch, and Tyra Banks will always be the nervous girl-next-door, with a simmering rivalry not quite ready to be moved off the burner.
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