Andy Irons Walking Away

When Californian surf journalist Brad Melekian was commissioned to write an obituary of three-times world champion Andy Irons, who died this month, he was surprised by the number of people who were keen to discuss the previously unreported troubled side of Irons' short but brilliant life. Photo: ASP/Kirstin


The Inertia

When Californian surf journalist Brad Melekian was commissioned to write an obituary of three-time world champion Andy Irons, who died this month, he was surprised by the number of people who were keen to discuss the previously unreported troubled side of Irons’ short but brilliant life.

“Every single person I talked to, even those who were unwilling to talk on the record, said there was more to it (than a mere obituary),” Melekian said. “I couldn’t ignore that.”

The eventual 4400-word story detailed two alarming drug and alcohol-related incidents: one when Irons almost died during a bender in Indonesia in 1999, and another when he became almost uncontrollably violent towards a friend in Fiji this year.

Irons’s volatility and self-destructiveness were not news to the “insular” world of pro surfing, Melekian wrote. “But they were kept under wraps by an unspoken but understood code of public silence.”

That code is a consequence of the surf-publishing business model. Surf journalists do not feel inclined to ask difficult questions because the sponsors of the stars they write about also provide most of the advertising revenue for their publications.

Melekian formerly edited Surfer magazine in California, but his investigation was commissioned and published by Outside, a general sports magazine.

“It’s not explicit, but it’s completely understood (in surf mags) that if you push too hard, there’s a fear that a company will pull its ads out,” Melekian told me.

Such stonewalling extends to the companies themselves. In the immediate aftermath of Irons’s death, his sponsor, Billabong, published a press release saying Irons had “reportedly been battling with dengue fever”.

This may or may not be true. Irons had indeed withdrawn from a surf contest in Puerto Rico through illness, and was on his way home when he died. But Melekian’s story reported that Irons had also been out partying with friends the night before he died. Elsewhere, it was reported that prescription-drug bottles were found in the room in which Irons died. A toxicology report is due next month.

Repeated attempts to discuss the issue with Billabong elicited this quote from a spokesman: “Andy was a true champion and, out of respect for his memory and the whole Irons family, we have no intention of participating in any speculation about him.”

Brodie Carr, the CEO of the Association of Surfing Professionals, which administers the sport, was at lunch in France when I called on Friday, and, despite two subsequent calls, didn’t call back.

Irons’s former manager, Blair Marlin, isn’t talking either. “I’m not in a place to comment on (Melekian’s story),” Marlin told me. “He wrote what he wanted to write. I’ve heard both sides of the story, of people who are upset by it and people who thought it was a good piece.”

Marlin is an active manager. I compiled a profile of Irons for a surfing magazine in 2008, when Irons was behaving especially erratic, and Marlin refused access to the star. He also insisted on vetting interviews with people close to Irons before they were published. Asked yesterday if the media had been overly constrained to publish the complexities of Irons’s life, Marlin said: “I don’t even care to discuss this right now. The Outside magazine piece came out before the toxicology report. Until it does, I can’t talk about it.”

Plenty of surf fans can, though. Melekian was “shocked” by the amount of positive feedback about the story from surfers and people in the industry.

“It was really well received,” he said. “People are feeling relieved that it finally came out.”

The narcotic tendencies of surfers is nothing new. The sport attracts athletes who are inclined to pursue extreme experiences, and those at the top are not always exceptions to this.

But the companies that traditionally run the sport are now mostly publicly listed, and there is more at stake than just the reputation of a few people in a fringe subculture.

Also, surfing is attracting investment from companies outside the traditional industry (Red Bull, Nike and Target have all become major sponsors), which may finally break the cozy relationship between the magazines and the industry.

“The sport is being infused with more money,” Melekian says. “That has to change everything. The athletes are being treated like real athletes, and that changes it from a small group . . . who are doing some oddball thing down the beach.”

As an anonymous contributor poignantly noted in an online forum attached to Melekian’s story: “I’ve partied with Andy before. We definitely weren’t close, but I’d been around him. Maybe I couldn’t have done anything for him on my own, but the surfing world as a whole and its party scene let one its brightest stars go. In a way, we’re all a little responsible.”

This piece was originally published in The Australian on November 29, 2010. You can reach the author of the article here: pawlef@theaustralian.com.au


  • stuu

    I’m on the “it’s about time” side here. This article, written a few years earlier, might have saved AI’s life. I’m shocked, but not surprised, at the allegations aimed at Billabong. And they wonder why Carissa and Kolohe went elsewhere…

  • http://blasphemyrottmouth.wordpress.com/ B.R.E.W.

    The snowball is beginning to gain steam. Lookout below.

    And by “below,” I mean Big Corporate Surf Retailers.

  • Positive Vibrations

    Andy was a beautiful person. I worked with him during his golden period of winning world titles for around 4 years. He was always great fun, charming, funny, angry sometimes, quirky, voluble, appealing always. Surfers, like all athletes, party. Some party harder than others. This is nothing new. But Andy was different to all other surfers: Andy was the king of surfing. Oddly, no one really cares that Kelly has his 10. That is not the story. Now, in surfing, it’s the brand that wins.
    The king is dead, long live the king.

    • Nmartinez09

      positive vibrations: bro get off your biased butt, open your eyes and face reality.

      • Wally World

        The big cos. have ruined surfing for me and my friends. The Marketing Dept. Now this bullshit. The actors are just tools. It is all about the green for the boys in Emerald Bay. Look at the ruined lives of all the has been “surf stars”. If you don’t surf all day every day you can never get to that level. After it is over they are left at the mercy of those mfers. Stop buying all their crap.

        • Laird Gambleton

          The toxicology report was ready for dissemination a few days ago, but the report was withheld from release by Lyndie Irons though a court injunction in Texas for fear that it would cause irreparable harm to the Andy Iron’s brand and create negative financial impact. Many have said that opinions and comments about drug abuse are premature until the toxicology report is published, but the insights of many on comment boards such as this, as well as developments with the toxicology report, point to an indisputable conclusion. Nobody can blame Lyndie for trying to preserve what she can for herself and the baby, but it makes the loss of AI hurt that much more. Rest in peace AI.

      • Jeremy

        There’s far more reality in Positive Vibrations comments than all of you out together. Boo hoo. Why are you looking for someone to blame?. It’s so easy to backtrack after the fact and point the finger. “Duuurhhh…. Billabong are big nasty businessmen…..click….whirrrrr…….” It’s also very dumb.

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  • Steve Briggs

    Are you f–king kidding me. This really pisses me off. Go right to the source. Let’s name names here and flat out ask the person in charge of “press releases”, Graham Stapleberg, and his boss, Paul Naude, who is the genius that came up with the “Dengue Fever” excuse? Graham, or just “G” as he likes to be called is mutually hated throughout the surf industry. As for Stuu’s response below, look beyond Carissa and Kolohe for bailing on Billabong and look to someone that is second in the World right now. Jordy Smith. He was with the “B” from almost crib to adulthood. How did that end? With a subpoena at the U.S. Open when he came in from a heat no less. When O’Neill signed Jordy they had to pay off the big “B”. What is even stranger is that Naude, President and Stapleberg, VP of Marketing are both South Aftricans. So is Jordy. What went sooooo wrong. There is an institutional arrogance and attitude at Billabong, Irvine, California that is reeking thru the brand. Anyone that leaves will tell of the climate that exists. Their willingness to compromise is nonexistent and it is their way or the highway. With all of this in mind take a look at the coverup and press releases and the dengue fever excuse with Andy Irons and you have a major coverup. Get to the truth of this. Just go backwards from his death. Do you really think he had Dengue Fever? Why was it never mentioned until his death? Ask Billabong why they covered up his top secret third rehab in Australia and called it, “Andy is on walk about”. When he was released from this rehab where did he go? He went straight to West Australia for a surf movie where he got right back on the shit. Someone should go down for this. Someone at Billabong. They knew what was up every step of the way. To say they didn’t is bullshit. Start with Paul Naude and then Stapleberg. Tell the truth. Anyone still holding onto the lies should look to Lyndie and their unborn son and ask yourself if lies are any way to bring a new life into the world. Look yourself in the mirror and stop telling the lies and start telling the truth. It will set you free.

    • stuu

      Well said, Steve. But don’t throw all the blame at Billabong. For whatever reason, the ASP felt it necessary to clear themselves and the fine work their doctors did prior to AI’s death in the release itself. Not a few days later, not after the toxicology report comes out, but in the release. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything as pathetic.

    • Blasphemy Rottmouth

      @Steve,

      Marry me!

    • Geoffrey

      Not to mention they had said he contracted it in Portugal of all places.

  • Positive Vibrations

    Hey Steve, I agree with everything you wrote. But you also probably know that it’s not the only thing they have covered up. There’s a history of cover-ups at that company and within the rest of the industry. Ask about a certain surf photojournalist who after decades of being “suss” was finally blacklisted from ASP events. And then dig deeper and find out why he was blacklisted. The ASP and Billabong made sure the real story never came out about that. There are very high-profile surfers who are regularly in and out of rehab, sponsored by another company. There’s a LOT that is not on the record both from them and numerous others in the cosy little cartel called the surf industry. A lot of damaged people on the way to companies being publicly listed, but it’s all about the money. You are correct about the arrogance. It’s a culture within the industry, and sadly, not limited to that company. There is no such thing as the surf media. Its all PR.

    • Philbert

      I think reporting in surf media may have just been born on this site.

    • Durtyturds

      that story has already been published…with details of who and why

      • Positive Vibrations

        With respect ‘Durtyturds’ that story (that you are quite correct about having been published) is actually not the story I’m referring to. There is another, more deeply disturbing one.

  • Warny

    very much like the surfing industry….cover up when it suits to not impact the image
    poor andy…..he obviously had issues…luckily he lived 32 awesome years..
    shame on the in crew at billabong who knew what was going on
    he had last year off, due to these same issues…

  • http://www.facebook.com/josh.jaspan Joshua Jaspan

    In light of Wikileaks, powerful organizations must be transparent with the people who support them.

    Andy Irons death is only the tip of the iceberg with how the rampant drug use and partying is within the surfing community. And I’m not just simply talking about the professional surfing community, but the surfing community at large. This drug use has not been reported by surf journalists because of reasons we already know.

    The surf community has come a long way from the Spicoli “duuudee bro” days. I can take surfing breaks from my work which is investigating government fraud because my boss, a retired FBI agent has come to accept surfing as a healthy and suitable hobby. The surf industry has won over the hearts and minds of most Americans and has erased many of the negative stereotypes about surfers. Disclosing the drug issues about one of the surfing community’s brightest stars could hurt the overall public perception of surfers in general.

    This is why I understand the silence about Andy Irons troubles and subsequent passing. The surf industry is growing up however and a large part of growing up is accepting responsibility for ones actions. The surf industry and the ASP have to think about the culture they create and objectively remove the moral hazards which led to Andy’s unfortunate passing.

    Surfing should be no different than baseball, football, golf or soccer in dealing with their brightest stars battling personal demons and being embarrassed in the public spotlight by drug use and scandal. It shows class when one can honestly admit fault, take responsibility and fix previous problems. This fixes things for the future. It takes courage, strength and honor to do what’s right. The surf industry must not let Andy’s death become swept under the rug without honest assessment.

    Theres too much damn dust under that rug anyway.

    • Guthrie

      Josh, you’re right on. Well said.

  • LG

    The corporate surf media has been guilty of an infinite number sins since it’s inception, but promoting the “real surfers do nothing but surf and party” ethos is by far the worst. The number of well known surfers who have drank and drugged themselves to death has never deterred the media from continuing to tout this bullshit. Collectively, we learn very little from the passing of the likes of Butch Van Artsdalen, Peter Crawford, AI, etc, etc when the ugly truth is perpetually hidden.

  • Melster

    The more I think about it, the more I realize that the passing of A.I will not be in vain. People are sick and tired of being mislead and manipulated by all these big honchos of the corporate surf world. Full- on lying through their teeth- all for the sake of the almighty dollar. Did anybody out there hear Randy Rarick’s media spin on A.I’s death? He knows EXACTLY what the deal is, and it sure as hell ain’t dengue fever. It doesn’t take an MD to figure that one out. Don’t these people know that the toxicology report will eventually be released and the truth be known? The jig is up for the pro surfing world- why treat the surfers any different than other professional athletes? It’s time for mandatory drug testing, and if you fail- your out-end of story. ZERO TOLERANCE. Andy’s story is blowing up huge worldwide, and it’s time to expose the truth for what it is. Hopefully, changes will me made, lessons will be learned, and lives will be saved.

    • stuu

      unfortunately, I think you’re incorrect. Status quo is alive and well, even after AI’s death.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=755775390 Chad Bons

    A.I.is gone and that is horrible.He was a grown man and Champion Surfer.Champions,movie stars are surrounded by yes people.That never want to rock the boat.A lot of us don’t know the entire story.All we can do is try to help the people,groms that we know to make the right decisions.Lets stop pointing fingers and just let the Family heal.

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  • Chico

    Yeah, surf mags and journos bow to advertisers dollars… that’s probably the case. But what’s with all the calls for zero tolerance and drug testing?
    At the end of the day, we’re talking about adults here. If someone likes to party, that’s their bag. This is surfing, not golf or tennis. Who gives a toss if someone likes to choof weed or snort blow?
    The ASP is boring enough as it is. Imagine if half the WCT surfers are banned for drug use…

    • stuu

      nobody would care except these guys are plastered all over everywhere trying to sell kids product. At that point, they become more than just guys surfing and partying.

    • Melster

      Actually, I can think of a lot of people who give a toss-starting with anyone who’s ever lost a loved one due to drug abuse. The ASP and WCT are professionally sanctioned, just as the NHL, NBA, and NFL are. Call me crazy, but professional sports and snorting blow just don’t seem to go hand in hand.

  • Dcarson

    write on steve.
    billabong=evil.
    no wonder groms are going with nike, they at least take care of their athletes.

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  • Kainalu

    EVERYBODY!!! SHUT UP ALREADY AND JUST SURF!!!! ANDY WOULD GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    nalu leslie

  • JJR

    In light of Wikileaks, powerful organizations must be transparent with the people who support them.

    Andy Irons death is only the tip of the iceberg with how the rampant drug use and partying is within the surfing community.  And I’m not just simply talking about the professional surfing community, but the surfing community at large.  This drug use has not been reported by surf journalists because of reasons we already know.

    The surf community has come a long way from the Spicoli “duuudee bro” days.  I can take surfing breaks from my work which is investigating government fraud because my boss, a retired FBI agent has come to accept surfing as a healthy and suitable hobby.  The surf industry has won over the hearts and minds of most Americans and has erased many of the negative stereotypes about surfers.  Disclosing the drug issues about one of the surfing community’s brightest stars could hurt the overall public perception of surfers in general.  

    This is why I understand the silence about Andy Irons troubles and subsequent passing.  The surf industry is growing up however and a large part of growing up is accepting responsibility for ones actions.  The surf industry and the ASP have to think about the culture they create and objectively remove the moral hazards which led to Andy’s unfortunate passing.

    Surfing should be no different than baseball, football, golf or soccer in dealing with their brightest stars battling personal demons and being embarrassed in the public spotlight by drug use and scandal. It shows class when one can honestly admit fault, take responsibility and fix previous problems.  This fixes things for the future.  It takes courage, strength and honor to do what’s right.  The surf industry must not let Andy’s death become swept under the rug without honest assessment.  

    Theres too much damn dust under that rug anyway. 

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