If Slick Woods had a business card, she’d want it to describe her as “multifaceted,” “intellectual,” and “hood”. Those are words you don’t often see associated with her job title: model. “I model to have a platform. I use my platform for whatever the fuck I want. So, basically, I’m whoever. I’m everyone. I’m nobody.”
Today, though, I have to disagree. She is definitely somebody. At a midcentury hotel in Palm Springs on the first Saturday of the Coachella festival, Woods is leaning against an electric car that’s so new it’s not yet on the market. She’s wearing a candy-pink bathing suit with mesh insets, matching pink low-slung shorts and a light trench. Her buzzed hair is dyed a fiery red, her chin is tilted up, her lips slightly parted to reveal the gap in her front teeth, and her gaze is steady. The southern California sun is blazing above us, but all heads are turned towards Woods, as if she’s the source of the warmth.
As the photographers circle her slowly, she exudes self-assuredness and control. If you didn’t know better, you would think she’d been posing her whole life – and not in the way that most 21-year-olds are comfortable with their front-facing iPhone cameras. In the three short years she’s been a model, she’s walked the runway and appeared in ads for Moschino and Marc Jacobs and Fendi. She was featured in the 2018 Alice in Wonderland-themed Pirelli calendar as the Mad Hatter. She is the face of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty and Fenty X Puma lines, and boasts a few other huge partnerships, too.
Which is why Woods is currently leaning on a vehicle made by New York Fashion Week sponsor Mercedes-Benz. She’s one of a handful of “cultural visionaries” – including the Met Museum social media manager Kimberly Drew, the Serpentine Galleries artistic director Hans-Ulrich Obrist and the musician Solange Knowles – chosen by Mercedes for its #WeWonder campaign. Each of the visionaries has a theme they’re focused on, and Woods has picked “youth”.
Woods knows a thing or two about the power and potential of youth. In 2015, at the tender age of 19, she was sitting at a bus stop in Los Angeles when the English model Ash Stymest saw her and asked if she modelled. He connected her with his agency and that autumn she appeared in the lookbook for Kanye West’s Yeezy line. She took off from there.
People keep asking her if she’s going to see Beyoncé’s headlining performance at Coachella that evening. She’s not. “What am I gonna do, hold up a lighter?” she asks, laughing. Later, she’ll treat her 489,000 Instagram devotees to a photo of herself, cross-legged in the grass at the festival and sinking her teeth into a taco, and caption it “Best part of @coachella cause @badgalriri [Rihanna] didn’t bless us.” You can’t accuse her of being a follower.
When Woods is done posing with the car, we head to the pool to cool off. As we dangle our feet in the water, she tells me her story.
She was born Simone Thompson in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and moved to Venice Beach, California with her mother when she was two. “I never really had a childhood,” Woods says. “My mother went to prison when I was four. I was on my own.” Her mother, whom Woods says is her best friend, is serving an 18-year prison sentence for manslaughter in upstate California.
Her grandmother took her in, but their lives were unstable, and Woods spent the rest of her childhood bouncing between Los Angeles and Minneapolis, living everywhere from apartments to motels to cars. She got her first tattoo when she was 12, an eye of Horus on her wrist. Her grandmother used to tell her the story. “It’s a pharaoh named Horus, and he had a brother who betrayed him,” she says. “And he used magic to take one of his eyes out and then separate it into pieces, and the pieces were supposed to represent different characters that he lacked. So one is loyalty, respect, humility, family and community. He had to look for each one and go through different tasks to get the character he needed back so his family would accept him.”
She paid $7 for the Horus tattoo – some lady did it at her house. It was the first of many. Now she has “Loyalty” written in large script on her right forearm. A rifle on her solar plexus. FENTY in block letters on her neck. Her favourite tattoo, though, is curling script on the right side of her neck. It’s her mother’s sign-off at the end of one of her letters to Woods. “I truly love you more than life itself,” it reads.
Woods’s grandmother enrolled her in Santa Monica High – which was a good school, but Woods never really clicked there. Just 11% of the students were black. “On my first day I sat down in class and the guy sitting next to me asked me if I could read… If my mom has taught me how to read,” she says. “I’m really dark-skinned. They’d turn the lights off and be like ‘Where’d Simone go?’ I was like, ‘Are you serious?’”
People used to stop her on the street and ask if she was Willow Smith. (Now they confuse her with the model Adwoa Aboah. “She has freckles all over her face. She has big eyes, little mouth. I have a big mouth, little eyes. Complete opposites,” Woods says, shaking her head.) As a teenager, her friends started calling her Slick Woods “because I roll really nice… cigars,” she says, clearly alluding to rolling something more potent. “Slick just stuck. I talk slick. I talk shit. My grandma will be slipping up and call me Slick.”
During a few periods of her teen years, she lived in her Chevrolet Monte Carlo with her dog Cleo, a black pitbull with yellow eyes. Back then, Woods did not aspire to have a modelling career. “I never had time to look at magazines,” she says. “You know how rich people don’t hear buses pass by? I’d walk past a magazine store and not look twice. You know what I mean? I didn’t even see it.” But she drew pictures of who she wanted to be: “this Tank Girl superhero situation”. In the dystopian comic book series of the same name, the main character drives a tank, which doubles as her home, and fights against the mega-corporation that controls the remaining water supply on the planet.
Woods pauses to order a margarita. She’s not in touch with many people from her childhood, she tells me. “I’m not a bag lady. I’m very easy to let go of things – and people especially,” she says. “There’s things I know I can’t tolerate: disloyalty, dishonesty, lack of integrity, kissing my ass. I hate that shit.” She dropped out of Santa Monica High when she was 17. In general, she made “a lot of bad decisions as a teenager,” she says. “The worst things you can possibly do. Just because I like to prove people right. So people were like: ‘Oh, you’re going to be just like your mom.’ I’m like: ‘Let’s do it. Fine, cool. Let’s do it.’” At 18, she went to jail for a few months. By 19, she was using a range of drugs and living in a crack den.
Woods was waiting for the bus one day when Stymest approached her with an “Oi!” Woods was wary, because, she says, “I hate English accents.” He asked if she’d ever modelled before. “Nah,” she replied. Then he asked: “You smoke weed?” She did. He passed her a joint and they struck up a conversation, but she didn’t believe Stymest was actually a model until he Googled himself on his phone and showed her the results. “There’s something about Ash that we’re very similar,” she says. “I just saw myself in him. And when you’re trustworthy, you trust other people. I’m a very trusting person, so what’s the worst that can happen?”
Stymest’s agents flew from New York to Los Angeles to meet Woods. She had to borrow a pair of stilettos from a friend for the casting call. “I just took them off and was like, ‘I can’t walk in these,’” she recalls. “They all laughing and shit. I literally just told them I can’t do my job.”
It didn’t matter. Since then, she’s clearly figured out the sky-high heels – I watched her navigate the landscaped hotel grounds in a pair of 5in platforms. But “it is a constant struggle to keep your face,” Woods says, not seeming to struggle at all as she makes a photo-ready expression that’s somehow simultaneously posed and relaxed.
“After that I never went hungry again,” she says of the day she met Stymest. “I never slept on the streets again. He made sure I lived the way he did.” When she first started getting big paychecks, she “used to go crazy”. But not so much any more. The last thing she bought herself was some Fenty lip gloss – even though, as a face of the brand, she probably doesn’t have to purchase it in a store.
But she loves supporting Rihanna, who is one of the few people she cites as an inspiration. “I watch her because I like the way she moves and I like the way she portrays herself as a woman,” she says. Woods identifies as a woman, too, and likes to be called “she” and “her”. But “when it comes to ‘girl’ versus ‘boy,’ I like ‘boy,’” she says. Her Instagram bio identifies her as, among other things, an “unappreciated loverboy”. One of her gold rings reads DAD.
Woods makes a point of ensuring her perspective comes through on each shoot and in every photo. The fact that she’s not willing to act like a human clothes hanger has caused tension with some designers and photographers. “Sometimes there’s a lot of beef, but it’s cool,” she says. “I never give in to anything. I’d rather be broke and happy than unhappy and rich as fuck with somebody else’s vision.”
Two years ago she moved to New York and she now lives in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bushwick. She has talked openly about her tough breakup with fellow model Ebonee Davis last year. These days, one of her best friends is the rapper Joey Bada$$. “We stay in Brooklyn and don’t worry about nothing else,” she says. “We take care of each other.” She says she’s more likely to find kindred spirits in the music industry than among her professional peers. “I started noticing that girls were becoming models just to become bullies,” she says. “They were gaining a platform just to tear other people’s platforms down. So I just try to do my opposite of bullying routines.”
Two margaritas arrive. I ask if she’s ordered a back-up drink for herself.
“No, bitch, that’s for my friend,” Woods says, laughing. I look around behind me.
“No, bitch,” Woods says, still laughing, “it’s you.”
The opposite of bullying, indeed. I sip my margarita and feel like I’ve just been asked to sit at the cool kids’ table.
When I ask Woods about the future, she brings it back to the present. “My goals are very in-real-time,” she says. “My goal is just to be very happy and live every day exactly how I want to do it.” Some days, that means she cries in the shower (hey, it keeps the skin clear). She might stay in bed all day with her dog. She might go to Six Flags amusement park and eat 10 funnel cakes.
But her vision seems bigger than that. After I press her a bit, she admits that if she were the kind of person to set goals, this is what she’d want to do: she wants to keep working for Fenty. She wants to build homeless shelters in Los Angeles where people can actually stay for a period of time, not just stop in for a shower, and she wants to open a branch of Homeboy Industries in New York – it’s an LA organisation that serves former gang members and the recently incarcerated. She would love to create, direct and style her own Vogue cover story – and cast it. “It would look like every old 90s black film that you’ve seen combined,” she says, grinning at the thought.
And yeah, she wouldn’t mind if she is still modelling when she’s old and grey. “I’ll still be on my cool shit,” she says. “This is Slick’s ‘old campaign’. You know, like me and my grandma driving through the Hamptons smoking a blunt, like going to get some mimosas. White hair…It’d be popping.”
Slick Woods joins the #mbcollective as one of seven visionaries building the Mercedes-Benz #WeWonder Manifesto
Styling by Jessy Cain; Make-up by Lucy Halperin at The Wall Group using NARS and REN Skincare; Hair by Johnnie Sapong for Leonor Greyl at Salon Benjamin