By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2010; E01
The fact that model Naomi Campbell has become a participant in the war crimes trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor rings with a level of unfathomable weirdness that is hard to get around. Taylor, after all, is accused of funding and authorizing atrocities ranging from the conscription of children to hacking off the limbs of civilians. Campbell is most famous for her prowess on the fashion catwalk and for a temper that on occasion has spurred her to turn a cellphone into a projectile.
It's tough to believe that these two worlds could ever collide.
That they did, however, is testament to beauty as both valuable currency and irresistible narcotic. Campbell would never have found herself at The Hague if she were not an iconic beauty -- her stunning looks so universally celebrated and marketable that they have been used to sell everything from swimsuits to fur coats. Men, it seems, will be reckless in her presence. Even Taylor, accused of being a calculating war criminal, wasn't immune from trying to curry favor with her.
As the legal drama has unfolded, the prosecution has alleged that Taylor funded his criminal behavior through the sale of blood diamonds -- which he has long denied -- and believed that Campbell could strike down Taylor's defense by linking him to a gift of rough-cut diamonds that she rather mysteriously received.
Campbell protested for months -- including during an appearance on "Oprah" -- saying that she didn't want to get involved. When she finally took the stand this month, she explained that her hesitancy was caused by fear: She had Googled Taylor and been unnerved by his reputation as a mass killer, as a thug.
Her long-awaited testimony, which drew international media coverage and thrust the plodding case into the spotlight, centered on the aftermath of a dinner that she and Taylor attended in honor of South African President Nelson Mandela, whose charitable work Campbell has supported. That night, Campbell was awakened in her room by several men who gave her a pouch of "dirty-looking pebbles." The prosecution says they were uncut diamonds. Campbell says she didn't know the stones were valuable or even that they were from Taylor. Campbell has been gifted with her share of diamonds by deliriously smitten men, but they have usually been highly polished, of substantial carat and sparkling from inside a velvet-lined box.
Adding to the intrigue of the clandestine delivery is the conflicting recollection of fellow overnight guest Mia Farrow. The actress, in her testimony at The Hague, said Campbell knew the stones were diamonds and that they came from Taylor.
It will be up to the court to parse the statements and determine who has the better memory of an event that occurred 13 years ago. The court might declare Taylor evil, dangerous and violent, or he'll be vindicated.
Whatever the verdict, however, the trial -- in a twisted kind of logic -- has been slowly mythologizing Taylor, imbuing him with a sweeping, fearsome power.
But in telling her story, Campbell dealt a blow to the former president and the swaggering machismo he might have hoped to maintain as he stands accused of some of the most egregious crimes in history. Campbell managed to strip away his bravado and bluster.
She made him look pathetic.
In her testimony, her attitude toward the diamonds was nonchalant and even dismissive. She remembered handing them off to the head of Mandela's charity. Campbell, who had the pouch of stones with her at breakfast, didn't even recall if she bothered to open the bag to show them to Farrow. And when Taylor's name came up -- whether mentioned by either the model or the actress -- it did little to impress Campbell. She was not awed. They were still "dirty-looking pebbles."
In Campbell's world, the gift barely registered -- only the curious manner in which it had been delivered. And if the diamonds were, in fact, sent by Taylor -- but without remark or a note-- how cowardly, how feeble. How junior high: Somebody likes you. We can't say who.
With a few minutes of testimony, Campbell reduced Taylor to a modelizer -- that most pitiful sort of man who chases models simply because of what they do.
A modelizer isn't merely drawn to beautiful women. He runs after a specific kind of attractive woman. He wants a model not merely because she's good-looking but because she has been declared as such by society. Beauty is, to a degree, subjective. But models have bona fide credentials attesting to how pretty they are. Unlike with a beautiful starlet who might appear on the cover of a magazine, a model's talent -- her reason for being, professionally speaking -- is that she embodies a standard of beauty by which other women are measured. Being pretty, selling pretty. That's her talent.
It's as if the modelizer doesn't even trust his own desires. He's not looking to be happy. He's looking to be envied. He wants to win, and women are one of the prizes. Models are the ultimate big game.
Most models know that. And many of them will use that to their advantage. Others will steer clear of such men. Campbell certainly seemed to recognize the signs of a modelizer on the prowl.
In listening to her talk about the "pebbles" in the pouch, one can't ignore the cool tone to her voice. As she sat on the witness stand with her demure cream-colored cardigan and her hair smoothed into a Brigitte Bardot beehive-cum-twist, Campbell looked less like a flighty, superficial mannequin and more like a savvy businesswoman -- one whose "person" is her best-selling product. She did not seem intimidated by her surroundings. Indeed, she sounded more at ease than she did during her appearance on "Oprah" when testifying was still only a possibility.
Taylor's reputation might have spooked Campbell. But once she settled into her story, it became clear that while the actions ascribed to Taylor might have been real, the power was an illusion. In Campbell's tale of the diamonds, Taylor is revealed as a fearful man -- one racked with insecurity and obsessed with unattainable desires.