In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Slick Woods has lived a life that few will ever understand. It's the extremity of her experiences that is remarkable; hers is the kind of story you'd imagine being turned into a biopic — and at just 21 years old, it's only the beginning.
In Los Angeles, about three years ago, she was a homeless teen — just another face on the streets — when a chance encounter with English model Ash Stymest changed her life. "He found me one day at a bus stop, and we spent the day together," she said in Palm Springs during the first weekend of Coachella, where Mercedes-Benz chose to launch its #WeWonder campaign. The company snagged Woods as the representation of youth for its manifesto, which brings together different voices — from singer Solange Knowles to designers Carol Lim and Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony — to discuss ideas for the future as part of the unveiling of its electric SUV, the Mercedes-Benz Concept EQ.
"He found out about how my life was and never let me leave his side again," she continued of Stymest. "He kind of took me under his wing and taught me about how life should be basically, and I never went hungry again."
Born Simone Thompson, Woods was raised by her grandmother after her mother was incarcerated when she was just 4 years old. She left Minneapolis, where she was born and raised, for LA, and by the time she met Stymest at 19, she was on a destructive path, embroiled in drugs with a stint in jail under her belt.
Fast forward to today, and she's one of the fashion industry's most sought-after models. Woods has worked with a roster of big names, from designers to photographers, but it's her appearance in Kanye West's Yeezy Season 2 look book (her first-ever modeling gig) and her rise as the face of Rihanna's Fenty Puma and Fenty Beauty lines — combined with her bold looks and personality — that have brought her a certain level of success and recognition.
Sure, she's known for physical features like her gapped teeth, tattoos and shaved head, as well as her audacious attitude, but it doesn’t take long to realize that she's so much more; she's grounded and wise beyond her years, something that can be overlooked if you don't get past her bluntness.
Here, our conversation yo-yos from lightheartedness to real-life issues as the model gets candid about her life, rise in the industry, her personal growth, not limiting herself and the importance of joining forces to take us into the future: "How else are we going to move forward when young people don't know shit about history and old people live in the past?"
What made you say yes to a career in modeling?
I didn't say yes to modeling. I said yes to Ash. You know? I trusted him and whatever he thought that I could do; he's the first person who believed in me, so I was like, 'Whatever you believe, I can believe that shit, too.' He took care of me like his own child. He was about my age at the time, 24 [years old]. I'm turning 22 this year. I was 19 then. He saw my potential before anyone else did.
Ash begged his agent to fly out to meet me, and then after that I moved into a mansion. I lived with Ali [Kavoussi, Woods's agent] and his girlfriend, and he tried everything he possibly could to get what he thought my career should be off the ground. He tried music; he tried anything that he thought that I could be branded off of easily, whatever could get the ball rolling first. He convinced the agency to put me on the board without a contract. He was like, 'If you guys don't want to sign her, just trust me, try putting her on the board just for fashion week.' They did, and after that, proved my case. And here I am.
The modeling industry likes to shape people, but you seem to have stayed true to yourself. When you first get involved, it's easy to try to please.
I love being the bad guy.
Oh, you've said that, that you like being the villain.
I love that shit. I love it. It makes it very easy. I'll be in the room like, 'You don't wanna be it?' I'll be the murderer today, fuck it. Being homeless, people don't understand ... when you're really on the streets, you might go years without someone talking to you. I went two, three years during middle school, high school where people walked past me on the street when I talked to them. Said nothing, nothing to me. Bitches kissing my ass right now, and it's so funny because the same people would step over me while I was sleeping on the street sit next to my head at the bus stop, waiting for the bus. That makes it a lot easier to just do whatever the fuck ... 'cause you know, none of these people are gonna give a fuck about you. They just want what you have. And you don't even want what you have, so it's like, 'I'm cool. You want it?'
It's a beautiful thing when you can offer something that someone wants so bad on a platter and watch them be too scared to take it. 'Yo, you want to be me? Here.' People are like, 'Well, I didn't really think we were going to get this far, oh shit.' [Laughs] It's just a funny thing.
What keeps you going in this industry and wanting to make things happen for yourself?
When it comes to modeling, I'm really around so that I can ensure a spot for a girl that actually does dream of this, and she might just be four years old right now. I just remember watching 'America's Next Top Model,' and there was this girl that Tyra [Banks] convinced that her gap was ugly, and she needed to remove it. She didn't give her braces or Invisalign. She fucking removed every single one of her top row of teeth and put them closer together. Imagine being a kid watching that. I was like, modeling is the last thing I ever want to do. I was showing my grandma like, 'Look what they're doing out here to girls!'
So you were familiar with modeling in that sense?
And only in that sense. That was the one thing. 'America's Next Top Model' was more for drama. None of that shit happens in the fashion industry. I'm gonna walk down a runway and jump into the crowd and crowd-surf, and then I have to look elegant in the poses? What the fuck! I don't want the spotlight to be gunning for me to hate myself. I feel like that's what the fashion industry does to you. It makes you hate yourself. That’s what’s dope about Mercedes-Benz and the #WeWonder program; this had nothing to do with beauty. We're talking about sustainability. What's gonna last?
Have you seen any changes in fashion in terms of inclusivity?
It's funny, because I'm coming at a level where brands can't afford me. I was watching a commercial the other day, and sometimes you work so much that you forget that you did something. I was watching this commercial, and there was this girl tangoing. I was like, 'I didn't do that. When did I ... I don't know how to tango.' And I was like, 'That's not me.' But I thought it was me. I thought it was me! I’ve got girls sending me their emails from their agents' castings [saying]: 'Eh, we need a Slick Woods girl. Make sure she has Slick nails and a shaved head, dyed eyebrows.' That's the concept. What? I need my 10 percent! [Laughs]
How do you feel about that?
It's very weird. You go from being the most unattractive thing in the world — damn near people always trying to make up an excuse for why they were attracted to me when I was younger. 'Oh Slick, you're so beautiful, what are you mixed with?' Black? That’s why … you feel me? It's always like, 'He likes Slick maybe 'cause he kinda gay, so he kind of has this thing for boy/girl.' It’s always trying to rationalize your beauty … It's always some backhanded compliment. Damn, that's how you feel about yourself? Just get over it. It’s just so funny 'cause you go through your life feeling very unwanted, especially growing up.
Is it a positive thing then, if that's changing?
I think it's good because it makes being different a 'look.' Even if being different is a fad, that's good. It's better than being fake being a fad. I'd rather real be a fad, then people pretending to be fake-real than being fake-fake, 'cause you're a step closer to real when you're being fake-real. You just gotta fake it until you make it — some people gotta do that, especially in LA I learned that. People fake it until they make it all day.
In terms of your experiences in the modeling, is there a particular shoot or job that stands out for any particular reason?
Two big things have been the #WeWonder and the Pirelli calendar. The Pirelli calendar was dope, because we had a collab. It's the same type of situation, this collab with people from all different walks of life. You've got me, Naomi Campbell, Diddy, Lil Yachty, Sasha Lane, Lupita [Nyong'o], Adwoa [Aboah], King [Owusu] … Thando Hopa, who's a dope activist from South Africa.
Social media, particularly Instagram, has obviously become a part of industries like modeling. How do you view it? Does Instagram help the industry? Does it help you?
Instagram helps as a networking tool, and people shouldn't take it above and beyond that. Put a limit on Instagram but don't put a limit on possibilities. Why would you not put a limit on your Instagram use and put a limit on what you think you should do in life? It kills brain cells. You might as well smoke a blunt. You can't kill brain cells doing that — you kill memory cells. Instagram shouldn't lead the expectations on how you live your life, your relationships.
What are you looking forward to most this year?
I'm looking forward to more collaborations with the less likely crew, like Mercedes-Benz. The #WeWonder program is very in my character but a lot of people don't know that about me. I feel like the more things that I do like this, it will showcase that I'm super about clarity. People don't understand how clear I really am most of the time. People are so used to having to read through cryptic undertones; I'm very clear, and I feel like people are always tiptoeing around my clarity.
Do you tend to surprise people?
Element of surprise is my middle name. I want to be as multifaceted as I possibly can be, because it comes so naturally in humans. I heard that, scientifically, you can't multitask. You can't do two things at once. It's really just you changing what you're doing fast by going from one thing to another quickly. Some people are faster at it. I'm just trying to get better at doing things faster, but in a smarter way and in a logical way — combining that part of myself and creating a new part that is more multifaceted and can do different things.
I need to see improvement, because I'm very tangible, and if I can't see improvement, I feel like I’m stationary. That's not cool for me, because I've been stationary for a really long time.
Is there anything you would tell your younger self with all that you know now?
Honestly, I wouldn't do anything differently. I don't believe in regret, and I don't believe in mistakes. That's when people start hating themselves and resenting life and people around them, blaming people for things that happened, living in the past, dwelling on things. Fuck it. It happened.
I still have my high school sweetheart boyfriend tatted on my arm. I'll never get it removed. I'll probably never see him again, either, but you just have to build on your story and you don't have to erase to unlearn.
I was racist as fuck. I used to hate White people … that's not reverse racism. That's racism. How is it reverse? Reverse to what?
What changed that?
Just understanding that you're not different from unlearning things and understanding that that's not who I want to be. And not necessarily wrong or right but that's not the best Slick that Slick can be.
What am I going to do? Hate everybody that I'm ever going to work with? There aren't too many Black people in the fashion industry. So, learning to unlearn and just to move forward. It's all part of becoming an adult.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Disclosure: Mercedes-Benz provided accommodations for us to attend and cover the event.