The Best Of The Best And That Beyond It

An interview with Stephanie Gilmore

Stephanie Gilmore, Five-Time ASP World Champion, full-time master of style. Photo: Kotch

A feature from the December 2012 issue of SURFER.

The champagne, which has now dried into the neoprene of Steph's springsuit, is starting to smell. She turns 45 degrees to answer the same set of questions into a different camera lens, for a different news station that will be airing the same story. She smiles and laughs and says all the right things. She's mastered the art of the candid, yet calculated, response. This is not her first rodeo. The energy that has been coursing through her veins since her victory is starting to wane. It's been hours since her entourage placed a crown of pink roses on her head and carried her up the beach amid a crowd of screaming French fans. It's been hours since she was hoisted on stage and presented with her fifth ASP World Championship trophy. Now she's finally reached the end of the media marathon. She takes a deep breath and heads off to change her clothes and continue the festivities.

The following morning is blanketed in a hangover haze--lack of sleep, adrenaline withdrawal, and a few too many celebratory cocktails. But shutting the blinds and ordering room service is not an option. There's already a crew waiting at the Quiksilver music studio in St. Jean De Luz to film another set of TV interviews. Steph sips on an Aperol spritz cocktail between shoots, a European hair of the dog that unfortunately proves useless. From there, she's whisked off to Paris where another chorus of journalists await, with their cameras and their assistants wielding makeup brushes and light reflectors. Later, she'll find the energy for a shoot with a high-end French fashion magazine. The following day, she'll fly out to New York, where her managers and agents have booked back-to-back photo shoots and interviews with Monster Children and The New York Times style section, and a slew of others. She'll be laughing flirtatiously into the same medium-format camera used to capture covers of Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Harper's Bazaar. Then media dinners, and parties, and hobnobbing with the artists and fashionistas and other city folk she's come to associate with over the last year.

You don't earn this kind of attention from sheer surfing talent alone. In fact, no Women's World Champion in history has ever had this sort of mainstream appeal. Even after her first four titles, Steph herself wasn't in such demand. But something happened in 2011--in late 2010, technically. It began when a homeless sociopath brutally attacked Steph outside her Coolangatta apartment, leaving her physically battered and emotionally scarred. Steph continued to compete, but her heart wasn't in it. By year's end, we crowned a new world champion, hoisted her onto a pedestal buttressed by our own enthusiastic adolescent-worship. We heralded the arrival of a new era. Steph was over the hill. Eighteen was the new 23. Good job, Steph. Four titles were good enough. Hello, youth.

But that wasn't the end. In fact, relieved of the burden of being a champion, Steph took a moment to reassess, to ponder whether she indeed wanted another title, or whether her time was better spent pursuing other interests outside the jersey. Turns out, it wasn't a decision she had to make. During the lull between seasons, she dipped her toe into the mainstream and came away more inspired to surf. At the first event at Snapper back in February, Steph returned with the same impeccable style, but with a newly reignited confidence and redefined steaze. It was this new energy that got her back on top of the sport, and simultaneously attracted the attention of those beyond it. The thing is, delving into what's beyond the surf industry is infinitely easier when you also happen to be the best female surfer in the world.

You're consistently recognized as one of the most stylish surfers--man or woman--in the sport. How would you define good style?

I think style is someone's confidence in their own personality and confidence in the way they approach a wave. There is no hesitating, no second-guessing what maneuver will lead into the next. It's the composition of grace and power. It's everything all mixed together, and style is the way it's sewn together. But I love that there are so many different styles out there--some are aggressive and some are more feminine, some are beautiful to watch, and some are way more assertive. But that's cool, that's punk. It's sort of like different genres in music. When I think of the word "style" the first people that pop into mind are Tom Curren, Lisa Anderson, Dave Rastovich, Kelly Slater, and Joel Parkinson--people who have flow and grace.

Do you think style is something you can consciously change?

I definitely think style is a natural thing. I feel like you're born with a certain style and you can change things here and there and work on technique, but I think the most beautiful styles are the ones that people have been born with, where from Day One they have that intuition and are going for that feeling rather than some technical aspect.

In competition, how much do you think that someone's style dictates scoring?

Put it this way: Human beings love to watch something that is beautiful, something that is pleasant to the eye. I think you'll find that, yeah, a lot of times it affects judging. When the judges are watching someone, they can see the difference between a surfer who is aggressively, tactically doing things on a wave compared to someone who is spontaneously going for that feeling. It's a different approach, but I think that having nice style and being pleasant to watch is still important and the judges definitely enjoy that. I mean, they're watching surfing all day, they want to watch something appealing to the eye. The most powerful word when I think of style is grace--I mean, even the most sexy male surfers have that grace. And grace means they're surfing with a feminine touch--and I'm not saying they surf like girls, it's just that they have sort of a softer approach. But then again you watch a guy like Andy Irons who had so much grace, but it was like an aggressive grace and that is just so beautiful to watch, because it was that perfect mix between masculine and feminine. And to watch someone perform like that on a wave is the ultimate.

And it seems to be that femininity that's attracting mainstream attention.

You know, there are so many people that have been interested in surfing since the '50s and '60s. It's gone through phases where it's harder for the outside world to get in and show the perspective of surfing that they want. But now it's really accessible and in particular the women are getting so much more coverage in mainstream fashion and music and art because I feel like we're willing to show our personalities more. We're willing to let the outside world come into our Tour and see what we do. I mean, our lifestyle is so dreamy--for young girls to be able to travel the world, and surf, and surf in bikinis, and hang out with the cute surfer boys. It's just such a dreamy lifestyle. We're stepping into magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair and all these areas that are shining the light on women's surfing in the right way. And I think right now it's because of the way the girls are surfing--with that style and grace. I feel like we're being perceived in the right way, we're being put out in the world the right way, which hasn't been the case in the past.

Steph's surfing has made her Queen of the surf world, but it's her good looks and carefree attitude that have attracted everyone else. Photo: Maassen

When you do things outside of the surf world, how are you received by photographers and others on the outside?

The general feeling I get from people is curiosity, like, "How do you make a living from surfing?" "Aren't you scared of those big waves?" "Is your hair color really natural?" But they all seem to adore the lifestyle that we live. And of course all of the cool adventures we go on and hanging out with the sexy surfer boys are things that they are in awe of too. I think they get a little surprised at how relaxed and easygoing I am. I guess a lot of them are used to working with models and divas, so they find it refreshing to shoot with me when I'm smiling so much and want to work well with them to achieve a nice shot.

And with some of these shoots, you've begun taking the sport to a sexier level than it's ever been.

There's a lot of controversy about female athletes who are stripping off their clothes and trying to use their nudity or whatever to push the sport or themselves, or to get more attention, but I think the best way to look at that is just to say, "Hey we're women." We have to embrace that, to use that as an advantage--the female body is beautiful. No matter which industry you look at, beauty and sex and all that sort of stuff is basically a woman's most powerful thing. In one sense it's an advantage to girls that we can show the world how great we are and what we do as professional athletes, and then we can look beautiful doing it. I think that the fact that women can do that and the fact that people are interested to see that is natural, and I think that we should just use it as an advantage.

Do you think that young girls could get the impression that you have to be sexy now to be a female surfer?

No, I don't think that's the case. I just think that the cool thing about the Women's Tour right now is that all of the girls are just being girls in the sense that we want to look good on land. It's not about saying, "OK, well if I look good right now I'm going to get more money from my sponsors." You know what I mean? I just think that it's just a natural thing--any young girl wants to look good, no matter what they do. We want to be stylish and we want to be pretty and, you know, that dates way back to the fairy tales of princesses and stuff like that. So I think it just kind of goes hand in hand, but it all comes down to the way in which the media actually portray the images and the way it's styled, and whether it's classy. I mean, there's a difference between going and posing nude in FHM, and doing a classy, beautiful black-and-white photo for a magazine or shooting at ESPN where it's actually just appreciating and embracing the beauty of an athletic body. I just think that's the biggest misconception--as soon as someone gets nude it's like, "Oh my God, she's nude. That's outrageous. My daughter can't look up to her anymore." But you have to look at how it's done and what magazine it's in and how it's being portrayed to the world.

The surf industry seems to have a separate set of standards for women's surfing. The ASP has even allowed non-endemic brands to sponsor Women's Tour events, but not men's. Do you see letting the mainstream in as a positive thing?

I just think that the opportunities are endless for women--I mean, think of all the beauty products that women use every single day, and the fashion stuff and all the stupid shit that we buy. I think that the ASP are really going to push for that on the women's side more than the men's. And the industry might be more willing to let the ASP Women's World Tour be endorsed by these non-endemic brands before they let the Men's Tour do it, which is pretty interesting. And maybe that's the thing that will actually push us to greater heights.

Now that you're back on top, can you just talk a little bit about what it felt like to spend a year not being "the best"?

I was fairly lost and frustrated last year. It wasn't until the latter part of the year when I officially was out of the running to be "the best" that I really enjoyed not being there. Pressure was completely off. It was maybe the most valuable year I've had and I feel like I returned this year with a new and improved version of me.

Which of your accomplishments outside the water would you say you're most proud of?

Shooting with Boo George and Tabitha Simmons for Vogue and seeing myself in such beautiful photos in their June issue was truly awesome. But I don't feel I have really achieved much out of the water just yet. I like to focus a lot on inspiration and I love to find that in creatives from the other worlds that I pass through. I try to take that open mind and stimulus back into the world I'm in almost every day, and my approach to a wave just takes on something a little extra…well, in my head anyway.