Jenice Armstrong: This year's model: S. Philly girl struts her stuff with Naomi Campbell

Woodley showing off the form that's caught lots of eyes.
Woodley showing off the form that's caught lots of eyes.
Posted: March 05, 2013

GENERALLY, I don't think of anyone who engages in cat fighting on a reality-TV show as a success.

But, for Sandra Woodley, who was raised by a teen mother, bounced from school to school and lost a brother to street violence, becoming the most-talked-about contestant on Oxygen's modeling reality show, "The Face," is a huge accomplishment.

It could turn out to be the career break of a lifetime. Supermodel Naomi Campbell, one of three leading ladies on "The Face," has taken a personal interest in 21-year-old Woodley's modeling career. And if Woodley manages to emerge as the winner on "The Face," which premiered Feb. 12, she could be named the face of ULTA, a fast-growing retail beauty chain.

But even if Woodley gets eliminated from the show, she has still won a taste of fame. When I caught up with her last week, she had just flown in from Los Angeles, where she'd attended a pre-Oscar party sponsored by OK! Magazine. After we spoke, she rushed off to New York to attend an event for Cosabella, a luxury-lingerie line.

Monday, she meets with a big-time agent in New York, and Tuesday, friends and fans will attend a watch party for the next episode of "The Face" at Tashan, at Broad and Catharine Streets.

Then, on Wednesday, it's back to New York for another meeting with a potential agent. That's heady stuff for a young woman more accustomed to navigating tough South Philly streets than catwalks.

As her manager, Nichole Sanders, sees it, "It's kind of like a Cinderella story."

Not that long ago, Woodley was getting into real-life, off-camera fights. After being expelled from Hope Charter School, she enrolled at Martin Luther King High School, but her mother pulled her out after continued problems. Woodley was home-schooled for a while before finally graduating from a Christian academy.

"She's a lovable kid, but at the same time, she felt she had to defend herself because of the friends who would tease her," explained Dorthea McNeil, who gave birth to Woodley at 16 and raised her as a single parent. "She got teased because she wasn't cute. She didn't have a lot of hair."

It didn't help that Woodley has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which can make her behave impulsively. "A lot of people will come at her, 'You're crazy. You're crazy,' " McNeil told me. "She's just hyper. That's just the way she is. A lot of people don't accept that. My daughter has a problem verbalizing how she feels, so she comes off as being angry."

Woodley must have grown into the looks she once got teased about. At 5 feet 10, she's model-lean and strikingly attractive. Her modeling career began in 2009, when she signed with MMA/Model Management Agency, in Langhorne, and started booking gigs. She's done photo shoots for Urban Outfitters, Burlington Coat Factory and Delaware Bride magazine. She's also modeled for Saks Fifth Avenue and designer Tory Burch.

Woodley tried to make it in New York, but wasn't getting much work. "She did OK, but obviously every girl wants to become a star overnight," said Ellen Wasser-Hrin, MMA's director. "It does take work."

Next stop: reality TV

Last summer, Woodley learned that the "The Face" was hosting an open call. She didn't think much about it until the morning she woke up and saw a notification about it on her computer screen. She took it as a sign from her brother, murdered in 2010, that she should audition.

After that, the stars aligned. She was picked for the show, and Campbell - who has had her own anger-management issues - selected Woodley for her team.

Hosted by Nigel Barker, formerly of "America's Next Top Model," "The Face"follows three veteran models - Campbell, Coco Rocha and Karolina Kurkova - as they mentor teams of young women who compete in various challenges to become The Face of ULTA.

Challenges include modeling lingerie and striking as many poses as possible with a pair of sunglasses - all while fending off the other contestants.

That last point is Woodley's Achilles' high heel: In one episode, she gets into a heated, curse-filled back-and-forth with a cast mate. It's an ugly scene. I almost canceled this column.

But then I saw another clip, during which she has a nervous meltdown before a fashion show, and Campbell rushes over to console her. After that shaky start, Woodley manages to flawlessly sashay down some really steep stairs in a gorgeous white gown.

So maybe - just maybe - Woodley will be OK.


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: philly.com/HeyJen

Email: armstrj@phillynews.com

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