In 1995, Keala Kennelly showed up to Hossegor, France for a competition en route to qualifying for her first year on the ASP World Tour. Most of the best female surfers in the world were there. In the final, Layne Beachley and Rochelle Ballard paddled out for what many expected to be a memorable heat. As they hit the water, a voice blared over the loudspeaker to inform the crowd that the bikini contest was starting. Music pumped, models in g-strings and high heels began to prance up and down a makeshift runway. The majority of the crowd stopped watching the surfing entirely. Some of the judges missed scoring waves because they were leaning out of their tower to try to get a better look at the bikini models. Out on the fringes of the crowd and the music and leering eyes, Beachley and Ballard finished their heat.
Since the days of Gidget, women’s surfing has struggled to define its image. Is it an arena for serious athletes where appearance and sex are immaterial? Is it an extended fashion campaign for sylph-like young women to look good and sell clothes based on an image of youthful beauty? Or is it some amorphous combination of the two?
Former pro and current women’s representative on the ASP, Jessi Myley-Dyer, says sex appeal and performance have always coexisted in women’s surfing. “People talk about the ‘new sexualisation’ of women in the surfing industry, but in fact, Wendy Botha is a 4-tim ASP World Champion – winning her first title in the ‘80s – and posed for Playboy Magazine about ten years ago,” she says. “ I don’t think that the two images are contradictory, but rather complementary – women can be incredibly sexy and be amazing athletes; they are not mutually-exclusive qualities. Outside of surfing, someone like Natalie Coughlin has appeared in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, but still remains the first woman to swim the 100m backstroke in under a minute.”
Botha won her fourth and final World Title in 1992. The next year a sponsorless, and arthritis-wracked Pauline Menczer spent $25,000 of the $30,000 in the prize money she earned that year to travel the world, and managed to win her own World Title. Despite accomplishing what Matt Warshaw calls “one of the sport’s great achievements,” she quickly fell into the shadow of a young woman named Lisa Anderson whose career was on the ascendency based on once-in-a-generation skill, and an industry whose mid-‘90s growth in the female arena was based largely on the heavy marketing of pretty women. Menczer, who once airbrushed an Aussie “bushpig” on a surfboard (Oz slang for an ugly woman) was famously quoted as saying: “I don’t have sponsors because I don’t have big boobs, blonde hair, and blue eyes.”
Female athletes have spent over two hundred years trying to convince both men and other women that athletics and femininity are not “mutually exclusive” as Myley-Dyer put it. She’s right, of course, but that isn’t exactly the question here. No, the question is: what happens to all those women, like Menczer, who weren’t born with the right looks? Furthermore, what is the future of a sport in which women have to be both incredibly talented and adhere to a narrow definition of beauty to gain sponsorship dollars and media coverage?
“In 2012 a regular looking (or even homely) guy that surfs really well has a legitimate shot at sponsorship and editorial coverage in surf media,” says Chris Grant, editor of Jettygirl Online Surf Magazine. Grant has worked in the surf industry intermittently for 25 years, as a coach, contest judge, retailer, and photographer. “It certainly doesn’t hurt to be fit and good looking, and I’m sure the contracts reflect that. However, I have no doubt whatsoever that an ugly guy that shreds can still score a solid sponsorship package and make a decent run at making the World Tour. Female surfers on the other hand, operate under a completely different set of rules. With sponsored ‘lifestyle’ surfers getting more opportunities recently, it’s becoming clear that actual surfing ability is becoming less important.”
“The rules” that Grant refers to remain nebulous and ill-defined because very few people in the industry want to go on record to even discuss the notion of a double standard. The surf world is too small and too conservative to publicly shoot your mouth off about the best ways to market a young lady’s assets, physical or otherwise.
Myley-Dyer, for one, disagrees with the notion that the surf industry rewards women with the “right look.” “I’ve heard people talk about this…the ‘right look’ being the blonde hair and blue eyes,” she says, “but I have surfed with so many successful women, who have been spearheads of the marketing campaigns for the brands that they rode for, who all looked differently. If the blonde-hair-blue-eyes thing was real, someone like Megan Abubo would never have been the Roxy champion that she was, and Silvana Lima would never grace the pages of a magazine in a Billabong advertisement. But, she does.”
Kennelly believes that beauty is the ultimate leveler in the industry game. “If you are a hot, young female surfer that has that ‘Maxim Magazine sex pot’ thing going for you, this industry is going to love you, and you will have a great career,” she says. “Sponsors will throw money at you. Brands will use you in their advertising instead of hiring models that don’t actually surf. And the surf mags will run mediocre photos of you doing bottom turns because it shows off your “assets”(even if you have much better shots than that). Every year you will get a spread in the token “girls issue” and only a few of the photos will be actual surfing shots… The rest will be sexy shots of you posing and every year they will convince you to wear a little less because hey- its good for women’s surfing. The only downside is your shelf-life in the spotlight will be limited because there will always be younger, cuter girls coming up to replace you.”