Too cool for school.

That’s the look clients like Ralph Lauren want when Pierre Woods ’04 steps in front of the camera. Woods consistently delivers, striking a flawless image whether he’s sweating through a summer shoot on a Miami rooftop in a wool blazer or shivering on Mount Hood in a snowflake sweater.

The 30-year-old GQ cover model has come a long way from his days as a boy who hated trying on clothes. Woods has modeled everything from boxers to eyeglasses on shoots that have taken him to polo fields and tarmacs. He’s ridden bareback and held the reigns of a sleigh pulled by Clydesdales. And he’s taken a five-hour shower while shooting an ad for Kohler, with the scene plastered on a downtown Chicago billboard.

“I had so many people calling, saying, ‘Pierre, is that you taking a shower?’” he said, laughing. “That was the first time it really hit me that I was actually a model.”

Pierre Woods at work.

Woods is now five years into a sensational career. He does photo shoots for high-end department stores, including Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. He also appears in ads for The Olympic Collection by Ralph Lauren, an official outfitter of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team.

This could be the second Olympics campaign for Woods, who has already shot the ads for this year’s games.

He makes a living standing in front of stylists as they tug at his shirt and tie his shoelaces in a perfect bow. The experience is not what he anticipated as a skinny teen who was teased for his looks. It wasn’t until he became a swimmer, adding 20 pounds of muscle, that people started seeing him differently.

“I was so accustomed to people looking at me because they were going to make fun of me, and then it changed,” Woods said. “I don’t think I ever really warmed up to the change.”

His current New York City lifestyle is indeed a radical shift from his childhood in Galesburg and his days at Illinois State. He attended on a track and field scholarship, while completing his marketing degree. He entered a modeling competition as an undergraduate and won, but he had to decline a contract or lose his athletic scholarship.

He pursued a more traditional career after graduation, taking a job refinancing mortgages with Wells Fargo. On his way home one evening, he heard a radio spot for a model search. Unable to resist the urge to try again, he answered the Chicago casting call.

Woods was among those chosen. Told he’d have to pay a $600 fee to go in front of agents at an event in Washington, D.C., he headed for the door. But Woods was stopped by agency representatives who liked his look. They waived his fee and covered his expenses, asking only that he work the registration table.

He left the D.C. event with a Ford Models Chicago contract. Woods balanced the agency’s shoots with his job, until he was offered a month-long casting call in Italy. There was only a slim chance he’d be selected, yet he left the security of Wells Fargo.

“I had my education and some experience. I decided this was the opportunity of a lifetime, so I took it,” he said. With no idea what to pack, he squeezed in everything from a first aid kit to cans
of beef stew and jerky.

The risk paid high dividends. Woods was selected for a runway show, and began working with high-end designers Dolce & Gabbana and Ferragamo. Now represented by New York Model Management, his work takes him from Manhattan to Los Angeles.

Woods is now accustomed to chaos behind the runway scenes, which gives him an adrenaline rush. “I don’t think of it as being nervous, I think of it as being excited. There are so many things going on around you, you just can’t wait to get out there.”

He credits his Illinois State experiences with helping him handle the challenges and setbacks that come with a modeling career.

As a student-athlete, Woods’ events were hurdles, the high jump, 400-meter, and relays. While competing he suffered a freak accident that almost cost him his foot. He was practicing for the high jump when someone ran in front of him. To avoid a collision, Woods altered his landing and came down on a metal rod. He lost circulation in his dislocated foot.

He redshirted, gaining an extra year on campus that allowed him to pick up an economics minor. He also became active in the Student Government Association, serving as an off-campus senator.

“Being involved helped develop my personality,” he said. “Knowing ISU entrusts so much to its student body helps build your confidence. It makes you feel like you can actually do whatever you want to do after college. That helped when I had to decide whether I was going to choose modeling.”

Pierre Woods sporting a look.

Confidence also helps Woods deal with rejection. He noted that for every client who says yes, 10 will say no.

“When I first started, it was very frustrating. I had a lot of days when I asked myself why I was doing this,” he said. “What I had to realize was not every casting was going to turn into a job, but every casting could be a learning experience. I went back to my old track and field days. You’re not going to win every race.”

Woods is, however, steadily moving to the head of the field. He was voted in an Internet survey as one of the world’s most beautiful men, and fashion bloggers suggest he could become the next black male supermodel. Tyson Beckford, the Ralph Lauren model turned actor who is host of Make Me a Supermodel, has met with Woods.

Although he’s known for his slightly serious, conservative look as a model, Woods relishes the chance to show his cheerful side—like the time he danced with gifts in a JC Penney holiday commercial. He’d like to find more opportunities to smile, and his next step could be acting.

Despite his success and bright future, Woods remains an average guy with a laid back personality that makes him approachable. Friends track him on Facebook and Twitter, which he uses to respond to questions.

“One of the things I pride myself on is trying to give guidance to people who want to know more about modeling,” he said. “I love to interact with people, and I’m always very honored to hear from them. When people say they’re inspired by my work, that makes me feel really good.”

One of the most common questions he gets is whether he keeps the clothes. He doesn’t. Usually they’re samples. A shirt might even be missing a piece in the back that was turned into a swatch.  And when it comes to what’s in his own closet, his style is simple: jeans, a button-down shirt, and a blazer, often in drab New York colors.

Woods surprisingly is not into shopping, perhaps because of the struggle involved. He is 6’2″ and has long arms that make it tough to find shirts that fit. Sometimes he’ll wear his sleeves rolled up, but not because it’s cool.

“That means when I bought it, it fit, but then I washed it and it shrank.”

And yes, sometimes his wife will ask him if that’s really what he’s wearing when they are getting ready to go out.

“She will definitely check my outfit,” he said, laughing. “She’ll say, ‘You might want to dress nicer,’ and I’m like, ‘But this is nice right here.’ She gives me fashion tips, which I think is kind of funny.”

The exchange shows how grounded Woods remains, despite being described by fashion writers as having flawless features. They penned the phrase following the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when Woods appeared in a Time magazine ad wearing a navy blue blazer and white newsboy cap.

Woods response to such praise?

He laughed, leaned forward, and pointed to an inch-long childhood scar on his forehead.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “there is Photoshop involved.”