Alana Blanchard proves that winning on Tour isn't a pre-requisite to winning in popularity. Photo: Clare Plueckhahn

Alana Blanchard proves that winning on Tour isn’t a pre-requisite to winning in popularity. Photo: Clare Plueckhahn


The Inertia

Alana Blanchard, as far as these things can be calculated, is far and away the most popular female surfer in the world today – despite finishing dead last in every single event thus far on the ASP World Championship Tour. Currently, you couldn’t fault her competitors for viewing her as a sure-fire “W” if they draw her in a heat.  Kind of like a “bye” round. And while it isn’t clear to me how her Instagram following (965,000 and counting) converts in sponsorship and endorsement deals, she has clearly conquered the popularity game of modern surfing, and she has done so without being a great competition surfer. To clarify, she hasn’t won a heat this year in a WCT event. Other women have similar records for the year, but other women are not the most popular female surfers in the world.

Yes, I know, “It’s all about the ass, stupid.” Much of the male surf world wouldn’t know Alana Blanchard from Bronte Macaulay if not for the advent of the Brazilian bikini and Blanchard’s genius/willingness, to take shots of herself bottom turning in it. That, like any sexist argument, sells her short, though. She is, after all, a very gifted surfer. There isn’t a bad surfer among the top 18, and if Blanchard isn’t a title contender, she is far from the worst who has ever donned the jersey. If you ever take a moment to peer beyond the sloppy torrents of T and A she dishes out, you’ll see a surfer who carries a lot of speed and power through her lines.

Aside from being the “most popular” woman in surfing, I think she is probably the most important as well, not necessary for who she is, but for what her rise says about the time we live in and the culture we call ours. As a public commodity, Blanchard stands for all that is fleeting and disposable. She’s 24 this year. At most, she has another six years of diminishing sex-pot appeal before the crows feet and/or plastic surgery see her replaced by other teenagers with the hunger to Instagram, Vine, and SnapChat their way into the hearts and minds of surfers everywhere. Unless she makes a late career surge, which is not out of the question, she will be forever remembered as she is now: a woman in the flower of youth who made men salivate and women wish they looked more like her. Her surfing, despite being worth remembering, will be largely forgotten.

Her popular success represents the triumph of the “sexy surfer” paradigm over that of the female athlete paradigm. It’s the maturation, or perhaps decay, of the late ’90s Roxy vision of female surfers as cute, girlish tom boys – the vision that used Lisa Anderson as its cover girl and saw its apex in the explosion of females surfing around the movie Blue Crush. That movement was, itself, an updated take on Gidget, who was yet another plucky young lady playing a boy’s game by her rules.

No iteration of the female surfing image has ever seriously threatened the archaic and wrongheaded view of women that surfing has always peddled – surfing women have, after all, never been allowed to grow past being “girls” or “chicks.” What is particularly unnerving about this current, Blanchard-esque surfer girl is that it is no longer enough for her to be cute. Now she has to be a girl who you, middle-aged man reading this article, want to fuck. And long after Blanchard has grown old and wrinkly, the image that female surfers are stuck aspiring to will be just that. What the surf world is selling is not the idea of sexy women, per sé, it’s the idea of the sexy pubescent. I have long railed against this kind of nasty, reductive marketing, but it’s not because I’m against selling the idea of sexiness or beauty, it’s because the idea that is being sold is so narrow and warped it really doesn’t do sexiness or beauty any justice at all.

Selling sex certainly doesn’t hurt all women. It has helped Blanchard immensely. The problem as I see it is that it effectively kicks the ladder down behind her for anyone who doesn’t look like she does. No matter what they do, the two best surfers of the last ten years, Moore and Gilmore, will forever find themselves in the shadows of women who were born with slightly different bone structure and body types.

This kind of mouth breathing, “But it’s only human nature!” focus on a narrow range of looks is perhaps justified in some types of performance art – acting and dancing come to mind, but even in movies and television, the lack of roles for not-spectacular-looking women is more of a reflection of these industries’ lack of imagination than it is a justified artistic requirement. Any industry in which a ridiculous ideal of beauty is held as a prerequisite for success is rotten from the inside out and run by a bunch of no-talent hacks who are too lazy and/or stupid to think of other ways to market their stars.

Is surfing like that? It sure looks like it. But it doesn’t have to be. If I look at the top 18 female surfers in the world, I can give you 18 different definitions of beauty, but all of them include things like being incredibly talented, hard-working, dedicated, passionate, and fearless. Last December, I happened to share a few surf sessions with Courtney Conlogue. She does not, at the best of times look like a stereotypical surfer chick, and after a few weeks surfing in Hawaii, she was cut up, covered in bandages, and radiating a take-no-prisoners attitude every time she paddled out. That is what raw beauty in its uncut, unfiltered, unphotographed form is all about. It might not be the type of beauty you see in magazine ads, but it’s the type that lasts and even deepens after your twenties. Until we construct a culture in which the Blanchards and the Conlogues can be valued for their different talents, instead of wrote, knuckle-dragging “sexiness” we, like Alana in a very literal sense (if you ask her WCT competitors), are all losing out.

  • rozenswag

    Chalk another W up for Tetsuhiko. Ted, where you at?!

  • Pirito Cordova

    Tetsuhiko always delivers, precise, insightful and provocative pieces. Great work Inertia!

  • wjwallis

    Why do women always have to made to feel bad if they promote their body? Beauty is in sexiness and beautiful bodies just as it can be about being a great surfer who wins contests.

    • Jeff Byrnes

      The problem is that Alana is sacrificing her abilities for her looks. She’s getting high off the attention and losing focus. If all she had were her looks to offer (nothing wrong with that if that’s all you have – make do with what you have) we wouldn’t need to have this conversation. But she’s capable of more and is ignoring the fact.

      She’s also one of the biggest candy-asses in surfing (literally and figuratively). There’s a storm brewing in her back yard that she is willfully ignoring out of fear that it may harm her ability to continue to cash in on her looks. Not cool.

      She needs to figure out what’s more important to her: credibility or celebrity. So far we all know the choice she is making as of now.

  • Avi Gur

    Great article Tetsuhiko, couldn’t be more on the nose…

  • Andra D

    All we get is age 30 and that’s it? What is this “Logan’s Run”? I know there are alot of stigmas going in this article, but it made my head spin to see “She’s 24 this year. At most, she has another six years of diminishing
    sex-pot appeal before the crows feet and/or plastic surgery see her
    replaced”. I won’t make female comparisons, but what an awful view of women you have to say that out load. If you think sex pot only means looks, you don’t know what truly sexy is. Thank you.

    • mrempty

      I believe he was speaking in marketing value, not personal taste. And he is correct, 98% of women who make their money on looks alone (Models, actresses who can’t act, etc) are washed up by 30. Hard truth, but truth nonetheless. For every Angelina and Kate Moss there are 100 Kate Bosworths and Tara Reids

    • Jeff Byrnes

      You totally missed the point of the article.

      Blond moment?

  • Jonathan Amante

    She should just be a free surfer!!!!

  • Stu Nettle

    Nice work Ted, been a while between drinks so to speak. On this score I find the railing against the “reductive marketing” of the faceless industry a little wayward. Look, there on the homepage, the second most popular article on The Inertia: “21 Great Photos of Alana Blanchard.” Another Most Popular article includes “Alana Blanchard” and “nudity” in the title. Whenever her name or photos appear they appear to do roaring traffic. I even remember an article that attempted to justify running bare skin shots of Alana. You can paint it however you want (I believe the justification was high traffic counts) but the logical extension is that by running such articles/photos The Inertia perpetuates the “wrongheaded view of women.” Multi-faceted media is great, however any publication that straddles both sides should keep in mind that they’re also complicit in that against which they rail.

    • Walt Whitman

      Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes.

  • Guest

    Just like Alana, Brett Simpson is the triumph of the “sexy surfer”. Anyone notice his board shorts getting shorter each season?

  • AngryPirate

    She probably still surfs better than you.

  • SurfGirlsUSA

    FROM @SurfGirlsUSA: Thank you for this very interesting article which includes plenty of food for thought. The “Alana” effect on surfing has many dimensions and, whilst I have never met her, I am sure that she is a nice girl. Furthermore, she is without a doubt a good surfer who must endure a lot of media attention.

    That being said, we all know, and surf with, women who surf better than Ms. Blanchard but these ladies do not have the sponsorship funds to travel the world and compete in contests which would enable them to climb that ladder to the WCT.

    In 2014, the female surfers of the WCT carry a heavy burden to constantly “take the sport to the next level” and to represent, not just themselves, but the sport as a whole. Each surfer must be invested in her fitness, nutrition, equipment and, of course, social
    media. It is unfortunate that when interviewed by the new ASP about her
    equipment at the beginning of this season, Alana could not even recall the
    dimensions of the board she had just ridden in her heat. It often appears that
    she does not take her role on the WCT seriously which begs the question of
    whether she even wants to compete or whether she would prefer a career in
    modeling and free surfing.

    If you are a female surfer looking for promotion & followers, feel free to tweet us and we will RT and try to shine a light on your talent. Twitter: @SurfGirlsUSA

  • tommy_one

    dead on

  • Jeff Byrnes

    Alana, sweet young lady that she is, does not deserve to be on tour any more. As her looks have been getting all the attention her performances have been slackening. The attention has her floating on a cloud more than carving on a rail these days.

    She needs to be sent to Ronda Rousey for a summer.

    Alana, you’re an athlete first. Or are you?

    (I also totally agree with Barca. Given her visibility she could – AND SHOULD – be using her influence to protect Kauai and Hawaii from Monsanto.)

  • rightcoast

    “What the surf world is selling is not the idea of sexy women, per sé, it’s the idea of the sexy pubescent” Thank you! Finally, a man has brought this issue to the table and is ready to address it with his fellow “middle-aged man reading this article” who want to bone Alana look a likes. Cheeky bikinis on teens are on the rise and so are dudes with age recognition disorder.

  • elliot linnington

    Shes a personality with a body, not a champion.