Stephanie Gilmore's Biggest Challenge

Womens surfing is an interesting thing. Surfing has been, and remains a male-dominated pursuit. But unlike other sports, where women are largely absent from their early history, females have always been a part of surfing.

Of course, women have always been part of the "scenery" of surfing - the healthy, somewhat sexy, youthful ideal. But there have always been women looking to be more than just a beach prop, and no one can argue their place in our history.

There are women who surf, and will continue to surf where, when, and how they want, despite what we collectively consider their "role." But this role is forever in a state of flux. How do you market women's surfing so that the most driven can make a career without waiting tables on the side? How do you portray a female without a little sex appeal? How much does sex undermine her actual abilities? Does the competitive hunger counter the essence of femininity?

Recently, I was lucky enough to sit down with 21-year-old Stephanie Gilmore on her recent trip to NYC and discuss some of these issues over a pleasant lunch in the West Village.

With a pair of World Titles under her belt, Steph currently leads the Womens ASP Tour again ('07 being her rookie season.) You'd be surprised how many surfers don't know that.

So, Steph, I am hearing all this talk that the Womens' Tour is struggling. You're 21 with two titles under your belt and a great public image. You really have the chance to be the face of women's surfing and take it in a forward direction. Do you see this as a big responsibility on your back?
Yeah. I think about it a lot. There's so much talk about how stagnant the tour is. Everyone of us can picture how far the sport can go, like women's tennis or golf. But right now, we're struggling to find what it's going to take to get us there.

It's been fun talking to different people about it. For the new generation and myself, it's a good position to be in, but I need help.

We're always sort of brainstorming new formats and different ways to involve the general public. The ocean is always going to be a factor. You can't control it. We know we could get a TV audience, it's just so hard for media at an ASP contest. You have a 10-day waiting period and the event may - or may not - run. It's expensive to send a crew for 10 days.

Since '03, competition has stagnated a little. And that has something to do with the economy going to sh*t. We've lost events and the prize money has actually decreased.

But I think overall, that pressure is going to keep me interested.

Well how do you promote women surfing and femininity, without selling them as sex objects?
With the lifestyle images, you have these beautiful and sexy women, they're at the beach, hanging out, going surfing. That's not stagnant. So, how do you combine the two? I think you show more of the lifestyle with maybe reality TV or whatever. We travel the world and surf. That's interesting. It's an adventure and people would love to get a taste of that.

So, what goals have you set to achieve this?
Well, I'm lucky because I have room to move. I can travel to cities and different places to see what's out there and how we can fit surfing into that, while pushing it to the feminine side.

Is that what the ASP was going for with the recent The Life Campaign?
Yeah. That was a long overdue press release. It portrayed the women as they are, natural and beautiful. It appeals to most of the market. The lifestyle shows that we're fun and we're friends, not just to be competitors. Being portrayed as a competitor is not very feminine.But on the other hand, I'm a competitive freak (laughs.) It's softer, but people still want world champions. It's tough. People still want stories of world championships and battles.

I would imagine that it's hard to promote women on waves. The women's mags haven't done really well and the other outlets have male demographics. I would think it's a shot their ego to see a woman in a serious wave. They realize that they wouldn't take off on that wave and just turn the page.
That has crossed my mind. As far as women on big waves, is that really what people want to watch? Yeah, the guys find it intimidating. Places like Teahu'poo? That's a whole other realm. It's so far-fetched that a lot of them can't relate to it. And, I'm not the biggest trick surfer. I'm more about style and flow. I keep my fins in the water. Silvia (Lima) and Carissa Moore are amazing with what they are doing — aerials and fin busts. But I'm not sure how people react to it, or if women should have to care.

And you have to consider that when a teenage guy looks at a shot of Mick Fanning, he may want to buy that boardshort to look like Mick or surf like Mick. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way with girls. We're not as exposed to athletes as much as we are to someone like Kate Moss. Young girls want to look like models, so they go out and buy what they are wearing instead of supporting the companies that support surfers.

That is such a good point. You just made this interview.