I’m not ready to meet her. Not just yet, anyway. Lisa Andersen is waiting for me to rock up, Dictaphone and hackneyed questions at the ready, and I’m stalling. As the first lady of surf, the thirty-nine-year-old inhabits a spot in our collective conscious reserved solely for those who make history. Icons, legends, paragons of talent – whatever the label, it’s intimidating stuff.
Just check the credentials. Claiming four world titles and total ownership of the women’s tour between 1994 and 1997, Lisa was the only woman man enough to obliterate surfing’s monoculture of masculinity. As the poster child for Roxy, her saltwater prowess coupled with the brand’s pioneering boardshorts helped unite power and grit with sass and sex. In short (short shorts, in fact), Lisa Andersen made it okay to be a girl who surfs.
You were at the forefront of one of the biggest changes in surfing – you helped the professional women’s circuit become a credible entity in its own right. People credit you as a legend, an icon of the sport. Do you wear that label with ease?
Lisa Andersen: I get a little weird about it. But I was always a goal-oriented person so it may have been in there somewhere that I wanted to be remembered. But I feel bad when little kids are afraid to say hi – you want to tell them you’re just as scared as they are. I’m pretty much at that age now where I can appreciate it. Earlier on, when I was called a ‘legend’, it kind of aged me. I was like, ‘I’m not that old!’ I think it’s something you earn and I’ve always wanted to earn respect through my peers – almost as much as I wanted to win. It’s a great feeling to have earned that. It’s humbling. It was important to me when I was a world champion to open myself up to the other girls. I noticed through the years there were a lot of other competitors that were not willing to share – I didn’t want to be a threat to other champions, I wanted to be liked. It’s important to feel inspired by each other.
Do you think it’s that attitude that allowed you to make such an impact on surfing – that helped you open doors for other girls, and give them the confidence to strive for something?
I hope so. I hope it has come from my attitude. When I was younger a lot of the older girls told me I was cocky and unapproachable. I kind of distanced myself from people for a reason – it was partly from being shy, and it took me a while to trust people. I learned from watching everybody else how to be liked. It’s tough when you’re travelling away from home, you don’t have any friends and you’re really competitive – it’s lonely out there. You wanna make sure that along the way of being world champion you don’t step on anyone’s toes. I wanted the experience to be a great one.
Do you think pro surfing can be a very solitary experience, especially when you’re hitting the professional circuit and riding at a high level?
When you’re winning everybody wants you to lose. So you get to that point where you’re like ‘Okay, do they love me or do they hate me, which is it?’ Kelly [Slater] goes through that too. I’ve seen competitions where everybody cheers for anyone who goes against him – even though he’s the best surfer in the world. I may have been the best surfer, but everyone else wanted to be the best surfer. You have to prepare yourself for things you might hear and see – it gets you down sometimes, but you have to use it in the proper way to a positive advantage. Women’s surfing is very competitive. The girls are friends during the day but as soon as the bell rings it’s straight to work. You just gotta have respect, that’s all.
What do you make of women’s surfing today?
There’s been a lot of changes for sure, the average age is way younger. With all the surf camps available, it’s created a boom for the sport. There’s younger girls out there, like Carissa Moore, surfing against the pros and doing a good job. It’s refreshing to see young talent doing surfing moves you only see the guys do.
What kind of determination did it take for you to enter surfing at a time when it was even more dominated by a masculine monoculture?
I grew up with brothers and was used to taking beatings. I was mentally prepared for it, and I wanted the guys respect first, because they were my heroes. So whatever they dished out I just took, because I figured eventually they would back off. I laughed with them instead of getting offended. I guess I had set myself apart from the other girls anyway. I liked my solitude – I just liked being alone. And if I wanted to go surfing, I wanted it to be with the best – and most of them were guys. I tried to learn from them and in turn got a lot of crap, but at the end of the day earned respect. Instead of rebelling against their views on women’s surfing I agreed with them, ‘Women’s surfing sucks! The girls suck, everybody go to lunch during the women’s heats’ – you know, it was an ongoing joke. Deep inside I was pissed off, but that just drove me to do good.
To be a successful female surfer, is it enough to simply be talented and powerful, or do you also need to be marketable and sexy?
Right, it helps. I was such a Tomboy that even the word sexy gave me the creeps. When you’re young and travelling and competing in a sport, the more male aspect of you comes out. You have to put up the shield of security from guys, so you’re constantly trying not to be sexy. I was attracting the wrong guys – had many relationships that didn’t go anywhere. People started to see beyond the Tomboy in me, and as you get older you realise ‘I kind of don’t want to look like a boy’. But surfing in bikinis was super uncomfortable so I wore shorts. The collaboration between Roxy doing the first girls boardshorts and me doing well just suddenly meshed together.
How did the notion of boardshorts for women come about?
It’s hard to imagine a world without them now. But there was a time when they didn’t make boardshorts for women. I believe some executives in Hawaii noticed some girls on the North Shore wearing guys boardshorts over their bikinis and they thought, ‘That’s kind of sexy. Why don’t we make shorts for girls?’ So the idea was in their heads and I was the poster child. As I tested the products I started to feel more like a women, especially because my approach was aggressive. And I felt held back when I had to wear swimsuits: I always felt nude. Having the shorts gave me the confidence to surf how I wanted to.
Did the shorts become the great equaliser between the guys and the girls?
Yeah. I don’t know what guys thought of them at the time. At first, like anything, they felt invaded maybe, because guys had boardshorts for a long time and then women were getting all this attention. But it was long overdue.
Why do guys always feel they have to protect their culture and sport?
It is weird. I remember when guys had floral prints on their shorts, they didn’t want to put it on the girls shorts – which were totally plain at first – because they were worried about sales and everything, and that guys wouldn’t buy their shorts anymore if girls had flowers on theirs. It was kind of like, ‘C’mon can’t we all just get along?’ But eventually that proved wrong.
Female surf apparel now outsells the guys. What do you make of that?
It’s kind of crazy. Now every department store carries boardshorts. It’s almost taken for granted. Even in our own industry, which started it all, it’s gone off into so many lifestyle items; luggage and children’s wear. The boardshorts have kind of taken a back seat. But I still look for my favourite pair of trunks to call my own each season and go surfing in.
That kind of signals how much surf culture has been taken in by popular culture. At what point did you realise you had infiltrated popular culture? When did you start getting recognised outside the surf world?
That only started to happen when I left my home state of Florida, because I was such a recluse for a while. Being a four-time world surfing champion, living somewhere removed from the surf industry, I didn’t get a lot of attention. When I moved to California, or visited Australia, I’d get noticed within the first forty minutes of going somewhere. When I first moved to California, I didn’t realise how much, but everywhere I went someone knew me.
How do you deal with that?
It’s fine, but sometimes I give off a bad vibe, like ‘Don’t bother me’. Just because for what ever reason… maybe something though childhood. For the most part I’m pretty friendly, but sometimes it’s in an awkward place. People are usually nice, though.
How have you found juggling life as a pro, business executive and mom?
Well, the mom thing definitely put a dampener on the competitive career. I really wanted to continue and probably could have – it was hard watching all those world titles and no-one was coming close. But it’s hard to get on planes and leave the kids. Travelling for all those years and not having a home base – once that was established it was hard to get me to pack. But now, life after pro surfing has been pretty cool – it’s a new experience. It’s been another adventure for sure, and an educational one. Putting the corporate hat on for a change has been interesting. First I started out in contest directing – sort of a slow transition, still being part of events but on the other side of the fence. It turned out to be kind of a stressful job, because the pressure was on me to make the right decisions, because the world title’s on the line or whatever. But I tried to give the voice back to the girls as it really was their voice. So whenever I was contest director and had to make a decision, I’d get them all together and have them make the decision and then I would approve it. I liked being close to the girls and connected to the sport – but I didn’t like having to be in a position that would piss people off. I hate confrontation, I’d just as soon get shot than go to war. Then moving to California, and becoming a global brand ambassador for Roxy and Quiksilver – speaking on their behalf – it was definitely time to turn things around and continue to do stuff.
Do you still have any other ambitions?
Umm, win another surf contest?! It’s hard to let that one lie. I just finished my book with Nick Carrol, writing it, getting the photos in line and publishing it has been a chore. I didn’t get to do a lot of travelling. I’m in a new relationship, and may want to extend the family, but I do still wanna travel – it’s just hard to find the free time. Seems like the other things in life are more important. My daughter is almost fifteen. She is so the opposite of me it’s not even funny. She is my daughter for sure, on the outer-shell she has some of my looks, but she’s totally not like me at all. She can talk to total strangers 24/7, and I wouldn’t say a peep. She’s not athletic, doesn’t wanna surf. She thinks I want her to be a four-time world champion. But I’m like ‘That’s the last thing in the world I want! Go and be the doctor or whatever you wanna be, don’t be a pro surfer.’ My son, is gonna be seven, and he will probably surf. I just hope they discover surfing for the fun of it, because it’s a blast.
Who do you still look to for inspiration?
Well, I’m forever looking at Kelly winning and he’s only a couple years younger than me – we grew up together. He’s reminding me all the time that it’s so close – but kind of a long road to train and get all that back. When I finished I was in a good place. I wouldn’t wanna go and scar that up, try and make a comeback and completely fail. It’s hard for him to let it go. I mean really, what’s he gonna do? He doesn’t have kids and all that stuff – he cant tie a girl down that’s any good. So he’s doing what he knows he can do.
When do you say ‘Enough is enough.’ Should you leave at the top of your game?
I just wanted the family thing more than anything. But right now I’m not really jealous of any surfers. I’m happy where my life is. I was inspired by legends before me; Tom Curren was one of my heroes, if not my favourite hero. He reminds me of myself; unapproachable at times. Even though I’ve known him for so many years, you don’t wanna go and bother him. So I kind of know how he feels. His surfing is so impressive and I wanted to emulate that in my own surfing. There’s a hundred surfers between then and now that have inspired me, but when it comes down to approach in everything, the physical part was Tom Curren. Other than that, my mom is one of my legends. She’s done amazing things – or rather not been able to do amazing things. And she put up with me.