Written by Aaliyah Harris, CNN

In July 2019, Slick Woods had no idea that a routine dental appointment would leave her with a life-altering diagnosis. During an appointment, her dentist noticed suspicious spots, and took samples for further analysis. Soon after, she received the call informing her that she had stage 3 melanoma.

“I just dropped the phone. I couldn’t even cry,” the 24-year-old recalled in a phone interview. “It was so scary. The first thing I said to my doctor was at least I’m bald already.”

That November, Woods shared the news publicly for the first time on Instagram, informing her legion of followers (they now number at 933,000) that she was undergoing chemotherapy. At the time, Woods, born Simone Thompson, was at the height of her burgeoning modeling career. Since she was discovered at 19, at a point when she was homeless and sleeping in a bus shelter, Woods had appeared in the pages of Vogue, walked the runway for Fendi, Marc Jacobs and Jeremy Scott, and featured in 2018’s all-Black Pirelli calendar.
Rihanna and Slick Woods pose during the launch of the singer's lingerie brand, Savage X Fenty, in 2018.

Rihanna and Slick Woods pose during the launch of the singer’s lingerie brand, Savage X Fenty, in 2018. Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images North America/Getty Images for Savage X Fenty

Since 2017, she’s been one of the most recognizable faces of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line, which brought her distinctive bald head, full lips and gapped teeth to a global audience; and in 2018, she made headlines when she went into labor while walking the runway for the singer’s lingerie label, Savage X Fenty. (Saphir, her first-born child with the model Adonis Bosso, was born 18 hours later.)

But since being diagnosed with cancer and becoming a mother, Woods’ relationship with her body and the industry has shifted. Putting fashion behind her, she wants to use the money she’s earned to build a legacy of helping others.

Her focus has been on providing support to the homeless living on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles — home to the US’s largest concentration of homeless people. With the help of her best friend and business partner, Tai Savet, Woods has been working with community organizers to provide resources like food, money and shelter to those in need. The pair are also developing a TV show to cast a light on the realities of living in the area.

Slick Woods attends the 2018 Pirelli Calendar launch gala in New York in November 2017.

Slick Woods attends the 2018 Pirelli Calendar launch gala in New York in November 2017. Credit: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

“Beauty is about who you are — it’s what we do with our time — giving what you don’t even have,” Woods said. “I’m already up here. The least I can do is help somebody.”

Woods’s own experiences with homelessness date back to her childhood. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she was raised by her grandmother in LA, after her mother was sentenced to 18-years in prison when she was four. Woods recalled that the two moved often, sometimes living in hotel rooms. But as a teenager, Woods said she “slipped through the system” and became homeless.

She fell into modeling by chance in 2016, at a time when she was sleeping at a bus stop, she met British model Ash Stymest, who introduced her to his agency. In that first year alone, she appeared in Purple and i-D magazines, and was cast to model Rihanna’s Fenty x Puma collection in Paris and Kanye West’s Yeezy line in New York. “I went from no food at all to $1,000 dinners,” she said. “It just happened so fast.”

Slick Woods walks the runway at Jeremy Scott's autumn-winter 2018 show in February 2018.

Slick Woods walks the runway at Jeremy Scott’s autumn-winter 2018 show in February 2018. Credit: Peter White/Getty Images

However, Woods quickly became disillusioned with modeling. While she developed some lasting friendships with other models, including Leomie Anderson and Duckie Thot, she felt the industry often pitted models against each other. She was also put off by contracts that dictated how she had to look and behave.

“If you read through those modeling contracts, they basically tell you not to have a life,” she said. “But at the same time, one thing I never did was sell my soul. I never did anything I didn’t want to do… You don’t have to be starving yourself to be a model. I just don’t believe that I have to be so poised and so perfect all the time.”

Then there was the continuous stress of wondering when she herself would fall out of fashion: “You really don’t know when you’re gonna fall off, and I don’t have time for that type of anxiety.”

Pregnancy was a particularly difficult time for Woods, who, at 22, only learned she was pregnant at the end of her second trimester. “I had to grow up, and I didn’t even get to be a kid my damn self,” she said. “No one wants to hang out with the pregnant lady that used to be the party girl.”

Slick Woods holds her pregnant belly at the Savage X Fenty autumn-winter 2018 fashion show in September 2018.

Slick Woods holds her pregnant belly at the Savage X Fenty autumn-winter 2018 fashion show in September 2018. Credit: Brian Ach/Getty Images North America/Getty Images for Savage X Fenty

At the time, Woods felt estranged from her own body, and isolated herself indoors. For a month, she sat in the same spot on her couch until, eventually, she wore a hole through the fabric. But that feeling was eased when she started looking inward. “I was never alone a day in my life while I was pregnant,” she said. “Saphir was in me the whole time.”

Cancer brought another type of pain. Woods endured only one “gruesome” round of chemotherapy before deciding to end treatment. “It’s just not something I wish on anyone. I just got sicker, and I got weaker,” she said.

At one point, she developed neuropathy (a type of nerve damage) which led to mobility issues. She lost control of movement in both legs and one arm, and became dependent on a wheelchair and assisted support. “Everything feels like it’s right at the tips of my fingers and I can’t reach it,” she said, recalling the sensation.

Slick Woods (center) sit in a tent belonging to advocate Stephanie Arnold Williams' tent on Skid Row in December 2020. Woods has worked with Arnold Williams to distribute resources to the homeless in the downtown community.

Slick Woods (center) sit in a tent belonging to advocate Stephanie Arnold Williams’ tent on Skid Row in December 2020. Woods has worked with Arnold Williams to distribute resources to the homeless in the downtown community. Credit: Courtesy The Quincy Dash Co.

Today, Woods is no longer in a wheelchair, but without treatment, she knows her cancer will be fatal. Her focus is on enjoying the time she has left with her son, and furthering her charity work.

“I just want to get to the point where I can dedicate my life completely to this project that me and Tai started,” she said speaking about her efforts on Skid Row. “That’s the only work I do, other than lifting a blunt to my face or changing a pamper.”

Other than that, she’s content to see where life takes her, to do what feels natural. “I don’t really believe in goals, because you kind of limit yourself when you set them. I want to do things that feel right with me and are part of my journey.”

Top image: Slick Woods prepares backstage at the Savage X Fenty Show at Barclays Center in New York, in September 2019.