08.30.09

Surf Girls: The Next Wave

The women’s surf tour has never been more glamorous and the new generation is getting recognition beyond their sport. So why are sponsors bailing? Plus: A gallery of teen stars.

“You have to wear brown eyeliner, because the black smears really bad,” Sage Erickson explained. And waterproof mascara.”

It was a hot July afternoon in Huntington Beach, California—aka Surf City, U.S.A.—and Erickson, an 18-year-old pro surfer who was competing in the Hurley U.S. Open of Surfing, had a few things to say before hitting the water. Standing beside her surf board, which she’d personalized with paint pens—a cartoonish Barbie on a cellphone with a dialogue bubble that read: “Blah blah blah”—she went on to dish about the differing social dynamics between guy and girl surfers: “ We all get along,” she said, tugging on her thick, yellow-blond braid. “It’s not like the guys—they definitely hang out more like countries. All the Australians are friends, the Hawaiians. With the girls, Australians are best friends with South Africans.”

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Then, Barbie surfboard tucked under one arm, she marched off to kick some ass.

Erickson’s goal that day was to rack up points so that, by the end of the year, she’ll qualify for the ASP Women’s World Tour—i.e., the ultra-elite organization whose 17 members are the best surfers in the world, and who spend the year traveling from one surf mecca to another (Australia, Hawaii, Peru, Portugal) to compete.

Being on the tour is technically a job: You get paid to surf. But it’s also an opportunity to live the modern-day Gidget dream. As Steph Gilmore, the 21-year-old 2007 World Champion said: “I travel around the world with all my best friends—and surfer boys are cute, too, so it works!”

Never has being on the tour been more glamorous, or more sought-after by girls like Erickson—the current crop of top women surfers are attracting world-wide attention for their badass moves that are as daring as anything the guys are doing, and their youth: Last year, 14-year-old prodigy Malia Manuel became the youngest winner at the U.S. Open. Vanity Fair ran a double-page photo spread. Rolling Stone has been calling. And naturally, there’s talk of a reality TV show.

But however sexy it looks, women’s surfing is under siege. After support—and sponsor dollars—peaked in 2002, with the release of the movie Blue Crush, which had every tweener running out to buy a Roxy long board and considering a career on the North Shore, the sport has taken a hit, made all the worse by the recession. In recent months, surf sponsors looking to cut back have canceled some of women’s world qualifying series events. Now there are just six—down from eight last year—compared to the 24 men’s contests.

Adding insult to injury, when Hurley jacked up the men’s top purse money at the U.S. Open this year from $20,000 to $100,000 in order to attract world-class talent like Kelly Slater—the God of all surfers, and Cameron Diaz’s ex—the women’s prize remained a paltry $4,500.

“I always refer to this generation as the silver platter generation,” says Layne Beachley, the 37-year-old seven-time women’s champion. “They don’t really have to work that hard. They have the coaching, the team support, and they’re really young when they get picked up by sponsors.”

According to Hurley International marketer Pat O’Connell, the men’s favoritism is based on business: Unlike more female-oriented companies such as Roxy, Hurley’s men’s business (men’s board shorts got a big push at the U.S. Open) is where the company makes most of its money.

But O’Connell admitted that Hurley would be “looking into a bigger women’s strategy” in the future geared around the young turkettes of the surf. “These girls are legitimately amazing surfers,” he said. “For me, there’s marketability and visibility—I think this new crop has both. They’re good-looking girls, they’re very likeable, and their ability levels are so high that they’re catching everyone’s attention.”

As for what distinguishes the new generation of girl surfers from their predecessors, 18-year-old Coco Ho (daughter of surf legend Mike Ho, sister of Mason), who joined the tour last year, said: “We’re really progressive. And we’re all feeding off each other. I think we extend a little more, push it a little harder. The girls in the generations above are, like, the most powerful and solid surfers. I think the younger generation’s just a lot more into the tailslides and spins off”—surfer terminology for moves that are particularly difficult.

Ho, who has long, sun-bleached hair and a petite face with mischievous brown eyes, was hanging out in the VIP tent (inside, one section was cordoned off with a velvet rope, where the cool kids were lounging on white couches), waiting for her next heat. The room felt like an O.C.-themed beach party. The outfit of choice for girls was cutoff shorts and bikini tops. For guys: no shirt, low-slung board shorts; some had towels draped over their heads. Surfer groupies chugged Red Bull and munched on Power Bars and said things like “The guys are goin’ large out there” or “That was sick, dude!”

Ho was sitting in a white plastic chair, flip-flops kicked to the side, her bare feet were propped up on a chair in front of her as she fooled around on her BlackBerry. “I don’t Tweet,” she confessed. “I gotta try it.”

At times, the women’s tricks wrankle the old guard. During the final of the Reef Hawaiian Pro last year, Ho dropped in on Layne Beachley, the 37-year-old, seven-time women’s world champion—cutting her off before launching an aerial. Beachley, who retired this year, was not charmed. She maintains the tough-love attitude of a pioneer, when it comes to her protégés.

“I always refer to this generation as the silver platter generation,” she said over the phone from Australia, where she was competing in the Aussie version of Dancing With the Stars. “They don’t really have to work that hard. They have the coaching, the team support, and they’re really young when they get picked up by sponsors.

“It’s a lot different now,” she continued. “I was No. 2 in the world back in 1994, and I was only making $8,000 a year from a primary sponsor, working four jobs and 60  hours a week. I was working at a bar from six at night until three in the morning, and during the week I managed a surf shop. I also worked in a pizza shop and teaching people how to surf.”

Beachley doesn’t entirely withhold the love, however: “They’re a lot better than I was when I was 13,” she said. “They’re throwing more aerial maneuvers and 360s, doing more dynamic things than we were. It’s exciting.”

But while the new generation of surfers may be beasts in the water, on land, the ladies play up their girliness, with the effortless sexiness that comes with having a killer bod, year-round tan, and a wardrobe that consists of bikinis and short shorts. Foundation-colored sunscreen is assiduously applied all day long. Shades are a must—if not to protect the eyes, then propped up on the head, keeping those long, inevitably blond, locks in place. When, after her heat, 19-year-old Alana Blanchard peeled off her wetsuit to reveal a teensy bikini, she could have been headed to a Maxim photo shoot. Rolling Stone, apparently, agreed. The magazine recently included Blanchard in its “Hot List” issue.

It all comes with the territory but it’s also encouraged, by sponsors, and ASP Women’s Tour Manager Brooke Farris, who, since taking the job two years ago, has been aggressively selling the women not just as world-class athletes, but as sex symbols, in a bid to generate the kind of publicity that will make the industry take notice, and, hopefully, bring more leverage to the sport.

“More than ever, the girls are under pressure to build the profile of themselves and of the sport,” said Farris, who said it’s not enough to just win anymore. Equally important is presenting themselves well and being “personable and approachable.”

The message seems to be sinking in. “You have to network and get yourself out there,” Gilmore said, enthusiastically, before heading off to an autograph-signing. “You’ve got to hang out. Hurley and Nike and these guys have put on such an incredible event, so we should be supporting the parties and the things they put on, because they want the athletes at the parties—that’s what they’re about.”

But the real thrill remains in the water. After sailing though the semifinals, Courtney Conlogue (who would go on to win the whole thing) was visibly pumped after her heat. In the VIP tent, her coach steered her toward a buffet of food, barking: “We need to get you fed! Your next heat’s at three!”

A few minutes later, having consumed carbs and received a lecture from her coach, Conlogue—decked out in sponsor swag (Smith sunglasses and a pink Power Balance wristband that “neutralizes electrons” and “affects body magnetism,” she said)—made her way out to the viewing deck. “I feel really good,” she said. “I’m stoked to have waves like this, especially in my hometown.” (Conlogue hails from nearby Santa Ana.)

Asked what her strategy had been that day, she shrugged, and said, “I want to give everyone a show. That’s what we’re out here for.” Then she excused herself to go talk to some cute surfer boys.

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for  The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.