Super model: yes, role model: no

WHEN A stunning black model called Naomi Campbell burst into the national consciousness more than 20 years ago I felt as well of pride for her achievements.

Still just a teenager, the striking young woman from South London made history by becoming the first black woman to appear on the covers of French and British Vogue.

As a young black woman myself, then pregnant with my daughter, I felt a rush of excitement. Naomi was lovely, a true ambassador for Britain's growing black female population.

Here was a woman who had been raised in Streatham by a working single mother and who had dared to dream of stardom. Despite a tough background her ambition, drive and rare natural beauty had allowed her to achieve her goal in what had previously been - and still is - a white-dominated industry.

I'm a novelist and know from my own experience of raising two children in the inner city how difficult it is to overcome the barriers of race and poverty.

So when Naomi made that breakthrough, a mood of excitement ran through my community in Manchester and countless others across Britain. Not since the heyday of the Jackson Five had we felt so inspired by black youth.

On Naomi's wide eyes, coat hanger cheekbones and impossibly lithe limbs, we pinned our hopes for the future, and that of our daughters.

At first, Naomi did not disappoint. Almost overnight it seemed she had joined the ranks of true supermodels, counting Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford among her elite friends.

Soon she was earning a fortune, leading a jetset lifestyle, dating a string of the world's most high-profile men and meeting, and campaigning for, Nelson Mandela. No wonder we were so proud of Naomi.

So why did I feel such despair at her comment this week that at 38 she could not retire from modelling because if she leaves the catwalk who will young black women look up to?

After all, today Naomi is every bit as gorgeous, on the outside, as she was 20 years ago. But now when I see her making headlines I cringe. I no longer feel pride, only embarrassment. For instead of inspiring and empowering Britain's black women, Naomi has brought shame upon us.

Instead of being an ambassador for us she has become a stumbling block in our quest for equality. For me and a whole generation of black women, she has let us down badly.

The ugly truth behind the beautiful facade is that Naomi Campbell has only ever truly promoted one black woman: Naomi Campbell.

Not only that, but it has often been at the expense of her so-called 'sisters.' The British model's rivalry with black US supermodel Tyra Banks has been well-documented and far from championing her fellow model, so anxious was Naomi to be the top black model that she made it almost impossible for another black woman to come close to her.

Off the catwalk her example was every bit as damaging. Almost everything we read of Naomi, be it in her professional or private life, is negative.

Naomi the bully; Naomi and her uncontrollable anger; Naomi and her outrageous abuse of others. She has misused drugs and been so violent - verbally and physically - to those she has worked with that she has had to seek anger management therapy.

Eighteen months ago she pleaded guilty in a Manhattan court to reckless assault. The model was sentenced to five days' community service for throwing a mobile phone at her housekeeper, Ana Scolavino.

Then, earlier this year, Naomi sunk to an all-time low when she claimed to have been the victim of racism when she was arrested for assaulting two members of cabin crew aboard a BA flight.

The supermodel spat and kicked at police officers, and accused BA staff of racism after it emerged that one of her bags had not been loaded onto the flight in April as part of the confusion surrounding the opening of Heathrow's Terminal 5.

Her defence? She claimed she had been "disrespected" by the airline crew. This from a woman who has habitually "disrespected" just about everyone with whom she's ever come into contact.

She was ordered to do 200 hours of community service and incurred fines totalling £2,300. Hardly the sort of example most mothers would want their daughters to follow.

In my home my own daughter, now 19, long ago tired of attention-seeking Naomi and favoured instead, her rival, Tyra Banks.

Banks, unlike Naomi, comes across as a genuinely good human being on her TV show America's Next Top Model, which scouts for the faces of the future. An astute businesswoman and champion of black females, she is indeed an inspiration.

So too is Sudanese-born Alek Wek, a civil war refugee who has used her own high profile as a model to raise awareness of the plight of refugees across the globe and conditions in Sudan in particular.

Role models are vital to young people if they are to fulfill their potential and not go off the rails. Unfortunately, too many of our soccer stars and media celebrities do not realise just how much the young look up to them.

This is why I appeal to Naomi: If you really want to further the cause of black women, step aside and let someone more worthy take on the mantle.

You would be of far greater good promoting the African modelling agency you have set up. The sad truth is, no matter how beautiful your features, you now carry a lot of unsightly baggage, and every time you make front-page news, the country is reminded of your temper, your selfishness and your hypocrisy.

I do not believe you have any interest in promoting the cause of black women, but are once again simply intent on greedily hogging the limelight for yourself.

Yes, Naomi, you're right. Young black people do need role models. They just don't need you.

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