Editor’s Note: On August 17, The Inertia’s EVOLVE Summit in Los Angeles will celebrate individuals making positive contributions to surf and outdoor culture. Keala Kennelly, 2018 Big Wave World Champion, will join freeskiing icon Michelle Parker and big wave surfer and Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing co-founder Bianca Valenti to discuss their respective journeys breaking boundaries for women in surf and outdoors. Tickets sold out quickly last year, so grab one before they’re gone: enter code LASTCALL to save $35 on tickets until midnight PT on 8.10.
Keala Kennelly has never been one to shy away from a challenge. She has dedicated her life to surfing big waves, but as a lesbian woman in a male-dominated sport, it hasn’t been the easiest of roads. Through everything, though, Keala has fought tooth and nail for both what she loves and what she believes in. When faced with a struggle that lasts for decades, one might think about giving up. Not KK, though. Because, in her own words, she’s “a stubborn bitch.” And thank God for that. Below is a recent phone conversation – Keala in Hawaii and me in Canada – and even over that vast distance and fuzzy cell reception, one thing stood out: Keala Kennelly is a force to be reckoned with—and we need more people like her.
You’re kind of the godmother in surfing right now. Where did that passion come from?
When I was a little kid, I wanted to commit suicide when I realized I was a girl. I just so bummed that I wasn’t born a boy. Being a girl just meant there were so many things you couldn’t do. It meant there were all these limitations put on you just based on your gender. I felt like I had been cursed. I’m sure there are a lot of little girls that feel that way, because there’s just not the same opportunities in this life. For me, the equal pay thing isn’t even about the money or greed or anything like that — it’s about creating more opportunities for females so they can make a career out of sports and doing the things that they love. Just having the resources is so important. Look at what I’ve been able to do with very limited resources. Like, every single time I flew down to Tahiti and towed into a big swell and won the barrel of the year or whatever, I was doing that with no Jetski, no water safety, no resources. It was just me flying down there by myself, usually paying my own way, sitting in the channel for hours and hours all geared up, just hoping one of the boys would get tired and let me borrow their ski.
Do you think it was worse growing up in Hawaii?
I think it’s male-dominated anywhere you go. In Hawaii, I wasn’t just dealing with being in a male-dominated sport, I was also dealing with being a haole. I was dealing with multiple things over here.
In the last couple of years, the equality movement has really been snowballing. Do you think it was just a long time coming, or do you think there was one particular thing that set it off?
It’s been a super long time coming, but I think there are a few things that have been happening that really got people’s attention. Like when I got nominated for and won an open gender category in the XXL Awards. When we started getting women’s big wave events at places like Peahi—even the free surf sessions, like when Paige got that barrel at Peahi. She rode that barrel as good as any guy. I think there’s just been performances that make people say, “there are a couple of these chicks who are really stepping up their game and surfing better waves than some of the better men out there.”
You were one of the first to really show to a wider audience that this is possible for women. Why aren’t more women doing this?
They’ve been discouraged all their lives. They were told they couldn’t. I was told my whole life that women can’t ride big waves; women can’t get barreled; women can’t surf Chopes or Pipe. I got told that I can’t so often, and if I would have listened to people’s opinions, I wouldn’t have accomplished even half of what I have in my career.
Why didn’t you listen to those opinions?
Because I’m just a really stubborn bitch, Alex. I’m a really stubborn bitch, and when I was six years old thinking about killing myself because I was girl, the thing that stopped me from doing that was the idea that maybe you don’t come back when you die. Maybe reincarnation doesn’t exist. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is all we get. We just have this one life. I decided when I was six that I would just live my life the way I want to with no limitations put on me by other people. I was just going to see for myself what could and couldn’t be done.
Those are some deep thoughts for a six-year-old. What made you stop feeling suicidal?
I mean, I went back and forth with it. Being a female in a male-dominated sport, you’re subjugated and treated like a second-class citizen all the time. It’s really hard. Also, you know, I had that other aspect of being a closeted gay person in a very homophobic environment. I’ve battled depression a lot. All my life. It was rough.
There aren’t that many surfers who are out. There has to be more.
Oh, there are tons. Just based on the numbers and the ratios, there has to be a lot more gay surfers, but none of them are out. There’s a reason for that: it’s a super homophobic environment. You risk losing way too much to actually be an out homosexual when you’re a professional athlete. You risk losing all your sponsors, you risk being alienated by all your colleagues, you risk the fans turning on you, you risk the judges having a bias against you and scoring you less. You risk so much. I was in the closet for a really long time—for most of my WCT career, for sure—because I wanted to have a successful career. I didn’t want to be like the other presumed lesbians on tour who had no sponsors and could barely get to events. Even though they were excellent surfers, they seemed to get underscored and the industry wanted them gone.
You’ve been fighting for equality in surfing for longer than pretty much anybody else. Did you ever feel like, “This is a losing battle. I should just give up on this.”
I had those thoughts for sure. I rode for Billabong for a really long time and when I left the tour and decided to pursue big wave surfing, they cut my salary in half. Then they said that if I could get them exposure, my salary would go back up to what it used to be. Even though I got more exposure since I left the WCT tour and just started focussing on big wave surfing — like double-page spreads in the Big Issue of SURFER magazine, stuff that other women weren’t getting — my salary kept getting cut every year. The year they dropped me was the year that I won the men’s award, was nominated for an ESPY, and was the first woman ever to be an alternate in The Eddie. Nothing made sense. Nothing added up to me. I thought, “if I was a dude getting all these accomplishments, I wouldn’t be having money problems right now.”
The struggles you’ve been through just to maintain a surfing career seem way harder than anyone else.
When I left the tour and came out as a homo, I lost three out of four of my main sponsors. I lost Red Bull, I lost Converse, I lost Spy and Vestal. It kind of happened right around the economic meltdown of 2008, so it was always kind of like, “oh, we don’t have the budget. Sorry.” They had a good excuse. They weren’t going to come right out and say that they were cutting me because I was gay. No one’s going to say that.
Talk about crowdfunding the prize money for the Puerto event. That was impressive.
Yeah, we were able to put some money in the men’s pockets, as well. We don’t want to take anything away from the men. We want equal pay, but we don’t want it to come out of the men’s pockets. There’s been a lot of backlash from the men who think they’re going to be losing money. I don’t really know how all that works, but I know they were really upset about the money at the XXL Awards. Last year, it was less than it was before. So that’s definitely caused some animosity towards the women, which sucks. But I get it. The men probably want to be supportive, but if it’s going to cost them their livelihood… you know, the big wave men don’t get paid very much either, considering the risks we’re taking as athletes. We really only have one to three events per year, so you can’t rely on prize money to float your boat. Nobody is really killing it as a big wave surfer just yet.
So now that there’s equal pay in surfing — for the most part, at least — do you feel like the job is done?
There’s definitely a sense of “Ok, got that one.” But is that it? No. I mean, I’m a world champion, and I have to work two other jobs. I want to see the sponsors paying the women salaries that are closer to our male counterparts and sponsoring more women. Giving them more resources. When Billabong started cutting my salary and I lost a bunch of my sponsors, I just kept going. I kept trying to win XXL Awards and trying to push things in big wave surfing for women. I ended up running up my credit card to chase swells. Finally, two years ago, I had to do a debt management program because my debt got way too out of control. Trying to keep my career going with inadequate sponsorship was hard. So for the last two years, if you’ve noticed, I haven’t been in the top of the XXL performance awards, because I haven’t been able to chase swells. I have to work two jobs to pay off my debt. All that time that I could be spending training and surfing and flying to swells — being able to go to Nazare or chase a last-minute swell in Fiji — instead, I have to look at and go, “Fuck, can I really afford that?” There’s no prize money there. It’s just going to be something that will count towards my performance at the XXL Awards, but there’s no guarantee on that.
If I were you, I’d be really angry at the surf industry in general. Do you feel like that?
I’ve gone through moments where I felt really angry and felt really fucked over. I’ve dedicated my whole life to this sport and this industry, and I just feel like I haven’t reaped a lot of the financial rewards. But now I’m at a point where I just love it. I do other jobs so I can do it. The last year and a half, I’ve been bartending and DJ-ing a ton. I’ve been trying to book more speaking engagements. I’m really pumped to be doing EVOLVE because that’s one more thing on my resume. Everything’s a hustle to just keep doing the career that I feel like I’m destined to do. I try not to get angry about it anymore. I’m just trying to chase big swells when I can and be grateful when it works out.
Life has changed a lot for you in the last decade or so. How have you dealt with it?
Going from being a person who was a sponsored athlete with a monthly salary and the ability to not have to worry about it to a person who really has to pick and choose the trips I go on is hard sometimes, but not getting getting paid to do what I love has really made me realize just how passionate I am about it. I’m working other jobs to keep doing the thing that I used to get paid to do. It’s helped me realize what I’m really passionate about, and I’m really passionate about surfing big waves. It’s made that clear.
Do you ever think about retiring?
I don’t know. I’d like to win three world titles, and I’d like to actually compete in The Eddie and beat some hombres. I don’t want to be the token chick that finished last or second to last. I want to take some guys down.
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to our partners OluKai, 4ocean, Zola, Caliva, Klean Kanteen, Pau Maui Vodka, Qalo, Kindhumans, Rise Brewing Co., All Good Products, and 805 Beer for making this monumental gathering possible. Thank you also to STOKE for enabling us to host this event as sustainably as we possibly can. Tickets sold out quickly last year, so grab one before they’re gone: enter code LASTCALL to save $35 on tickets until midnight PT on 8.10!