Naomi Campbell was born in the working-class Streatham district of South London, the daughter of Jamaican-born dancer Valerie Morris. In accordance with her mother's wishes, Campbell has never met her father, who abandoned her mother when she was four months pregnant, and who went unnamed on her birth certificate. She took on the surname Campbell from her mother's second marriage. Her half-brother, Pierre, was born in 1986. Campbell is of Afro-Jamaican descent, as well as of Chinese Jamaican ancestry through her paternal grandmother, who carried the family name Ming.
During her early years, Naomi Campbell lived in Rome, where her mother worked as a modern dancer. Following their return to London, she was left in the care of her maternal grandmother, Ruby, while her mother travelled across Europe with the dance troupe Fantastica. At five years old, Naomi Campbell was enrolled at the Barbara Speake Stage School, and at the age of ten, she was accepted into the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, where she studied ballet.
Naomi Campbell's first public appearance came at the age of seven, in 1978, when she was featured in the music video for Bob Marley's "Is This Love". That same year, she played Snow White in two episodes of the Children's Film Foundation television series The Chiffy Kids. At the age of twelve, she tap-danced in the music video for Culture Club's "I'll Tumble 4 Ya".
In 1986, Naomi Campbell was scouted by Beth Boldt, head of the Synchro model agency, while window-shopping in Covent Garden. Her career quickly took off—in April, just before her sixteenth birthday, she appeared on the cover of British Elle. Over the next few years, Campbell's success grew steadily: she walked the runway for such designers as Gianni Versace, Azzedine Alaïa, and Isaac Mizrahi, and posed for such photographers as Peter Lindbergh, Herb Ritts, and Bruce Weber. By the late 1980s, Naomi Campbell was part of a trio of models—the others being Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista—known as the "Trinity", who became the most recognisable and in-demand models of their generation.
When faced with discrimination, Naomi Campbell received support from her friends; she later quoted Turlington and Evangelista as telling Dolce & Gabbana, "If you don't use Naomi, you don't get us." In December 1987, she appeared on the cover of British Vogue, as that publication's first black cover girl since 1966. In August 1988, she became the first black model to appear on the cover of French Vogue, after her friend and mentor, designer Yves St. Laurent, threatened to withdraw his advertising from the magazine if it continued to refuse to place black models on its cover. The following year, she appeared on the cover of American Vogue, which marked the first time a black model graced the front of the September issue, traditionally the year's biggest and most important issue.
In March 1991, in a defining moment of the so-called supermodel era, Naomi Campbell walked the runway for Versace with Turlington, Evangelista, and Crawford, arm-in-arm and lip-synching the words to "Freedom! '90". Later that year, she starred as Michael Jackson's love interest in the music video for "In the Closet". In April 1992, she posed with several other top models for the hundredth-anniversary cover of American Vogue, shot by Patrick Demarchelier. That same year, she appeared in Madonna's controversial book Sex, in a set of nude photos with Madonna and rapper Big Daddy Kane.
In 1993, Naomi Campbell twice appeared on the cover of American Vogue; in April, alongside Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer, Stephanie Seymour, and Helena Christensen, and again, solo, in June. She famously fell on the runway in Vivienne Westwood's foot-high platform shoes, which were later displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Despite her success, however, Elite Model Management, which had represented Naomi Campbell since 1987, fired her in September, on the grounds that "no amount of money or prestige could further justify the abuse" to staff and clients. Elite founder John Casablancas described her as "manipulative, scheming, rude, and impossible."
In 1998, Time declared the end of the supermodel era. By then, Naomi Campbell had mostly retired from the runway, but she continued print modelling. In 1999, she signed her first cosmetics contract with Cosmopolitan Cosmetics, a division of Wella, through which she launched several signature fragrances. In November of that year, she posed with twelve other top models for the "Modern Muses" cover of the Millennium Issue of American Vogue, shot by Annie Leibovitz. The following month, she appeared in a white string bikini and furs on the cover of Playboy. In October 2001, she appeared with rapper Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs on the cover of British Vogue, with the headline "Naomi and Puff: The Ultimate Power Duo".
In September 2010, Naomi Campbell appeared with Liya Kebede and Iman on the cover of the fortieth-anniversary issue of Essence. The following year, she posed while bound and gagged for the September cover of Spanish V, an homage to director Pedro Almodovar. Also in 2011, Naomi Campbell starred as Duran Duran frontman Simon Le Bon in the band's music video for "Girl Panic!", with Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen, Eva Herzigova, and Yasmin Le Bon portraying the other band members; they appeared on the November cover of British Harper's Bazaar with the headline "The Supers vs. Duran Duran".