It’s the end of September and in the southwest corner of France the summer season has shifted to let in an autumn chill. We’re following Stephanie Gilmore’s black 4×4 rental car around the outskirts of Hossegor, heading to a concert in nearby Bayonne. Having only met the five-time World Champion that morning, I’m still trying to work out how far into her inner-circle we’ve really been let in.
It was decided, by Steph, that we’d take two cars. She says she likes to know she can leave a place when she wants. I can’t help but think we’ve been gently placed at arms-length; we don’t even know where the concert is.
“Don’t worry, you can follow me,” Steph chirps, plugging her iPhone into the car stereo.
When we lose her over a roundabout, it looks as though the night could end sooner than we’d planned. But there she is, pulled to the side of the road, hazard lights flashing. And when she slips off our radar again, sure enough there’s her car, awkwardly balanced on the curb and causing traffic chaos.
By the time we make it to the centre of Bayonne, the crowds have beaten us. People have abandoned their cars on every empty patch of grass, but Steph keeps circling and circling, until she finds a place where we can park together.
Inside the Arènes de Bayonne, where the concert is taking place, Steph seems relaxed. It’s the first time she’s been back to France since winning her fifth world title at the Roxy Pro in Biarritz in July, and she looks at ease in the coastal town. We climb to the top of the staggered theatre seating and look down as a mass of teenagers gather at the stage. Despite being the face of female surfing, she walks past the crowd without being recognised; only those in the VIP area realise who is in their midst. At the makeshift bar she orders a red wine and coke mix – a calimocho – laughing that she’d rather stick to something “local”.
In between the acts, giant screens on either side of the stage repeatedly play the same Quiksilver promo, a montage of their ambassadors doing their thing around the world. The first voice to be heard reverberating around the stadium is Stephanie’s, and for a moment she seems slightly put-off, staring at the screen as though analysing it. I ask if it feels strange to hear her own voice, and without turning her head she says with slight concern, “I sound like I’m pronouncing my words waaay too much,” shortly followed by, “do I really sound that Australian?”
Stephanie Gilmore is the most medaled female surfer in the world. With twenty-one elite World Tour victories and five World Championships already under her belt, she has the potential to become the greatest champ of all time. Now twenty-four, Steph won her first world title in her rookie year – a feat unmatched by any pro surfer, male or female. In 2010, she was named Laureus World Action Sportsperson of the Year, and Female Action Sportsperson of the Year at ESPN’s ESPY awards (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) the following year.
Her role as an ‘ambassador’ for Quiksliver – a position she took on shortly before her twenty-third birthday – has only added to the speed of her upward trajectory. Add to that her undeniable archetypal-surfer good looks and lively public persona, and it’s not hard to see why her profile is rapidly rising, both within the surfing world and beyond.
On our second day with Steph we head over to where she’s staying – a modern, designer house nestled in the sand dunes, complete with an outdoor pool and jacuzzi. When we arrive she’s already been for a surf, and is pottering around the kitchen with clear honey smeared over her face (“It’s a great natural face mask,” she says).
Although Steph spends most of her time on the road, her home in Australia is clearly never far from her thoughts, and she speaks of her family frequently and with warmth. She was born in Murwillumbah, New South Wales, the youngest of three girls. Now she has her own apartment in Tweed Heads, a coastal town right on the New South Wales/Queensland border. “I see a lot of Dad in myself, which is really creepy,” she laughs. “Dad was probably more of a party animal, he travelled a lot when he was young.” She describes her mum as ”cool,” but also “quite conservative,” adding, “she’s probably never even been in a nightclub all her life.”
Like a lot of the Quik entourage – her marketing manager and a handful of team riders staying at the house – Steph frequently checks in on Instagram, saying she’s “fascinated” by Rihanna and the way the singer uses the App: “I love that she’s just so herself, and there’’s no filter, and she’s just exactly the way she is. I mean, you see the people who absolutely hate her for it, and the people who just cherish her for it, because she’s just purely being herself.” I ask her if she admires that about Rihanna. “I do admire that, and sometimes I wish I had more of a, you know… more balls to do some craziness,” she says.
This year we’ve seen a lot more of Stephanie Gilmore in mainstream media, culminating in June with an article in US Vogue. The two-page feature is dominated by a photograph of Steph in a pair of DKNY bikini bottoms and a sun shirt, standing in an open-top car with a board in the backseat, one hand touching her loose blond hair. As the Quiksilver blog happily exclaimed, the piece “shines light into her personal style and lifestyle.” It certainly succeeds in putting her right under the high-fashion spotlight. The style pages of the New York Times have also opened their pages to Steph. After winning her fifth world title in Biarritz, they ran an interview that quizzed the pro on the beauty products she used, her diet and fashion sense.
“I love that surfing is what has taken me to these places,” she says. “From winning world titles, to ending up in Vogue; it’s kind of a strange dynamic, but at the same time it’s totally fitting. I think it’s cool that I can try and find a medium to take surfing into those different worlds; I enjoy being able to try and link the two together, the lifestyle of what we do and the competitive professionalism of it as a sport.”
In 2011 Steph was featured in ESPN’s annual ‘Body Issue,’ posing nude for a feature that celebrates the physique of some of the world’s top athletes. Whether she’s posing in a bikini or a pair of hot pants and vest – like she did for a recent cover of Monster Children magazine – Steph insists she has an instinct for what she feels is setting the right tone: “That’s when you need the right people to come in and the right people to work with – to market you and your brand the way that suits you.”
Steph may have a handle on how she wants to be portrayed, but in a world where a female’s professional credentials can all too easily be brushed aside (her Monster Children cover was accompanied by a blurb that read, “God, she’s a gorgeous specimen, and she’s minted, too. Why didn’t we ask if she had a boyfriend?”) some may argue that the world’s best female surfer should be celebrated as the world’s best female surfer. Unfortunately, says Steph, image still matters a great deal. “I know a lot of young female surfers who have had potential to be great surfers, but maybe they didn’t have the stereotypical beach look, so they weren’t given the opportunities by companies to lead that lifestyle. It’s a hard one, but at the end of the day, that’s the way the world works [she slips into a quiet, ironic tone], ‘in a sick, twisted way.’”
She continues: “One of the biggest things right now is everyone is so bummed that female surfing is only portrayed in this sexy light, and that the only way they’re going to take it to the masses is with sex. I actually think, to put a positive spin on it, what we need to do is embrace this, because it’s an advantage for girls that we have this, to use as a powerful tool to take us to whole new worlds. And it’s just a matter of using that sexiness but using it in a classy way.”
Later that afternoon, a makeup artist and hairdresser arrive to prepare Steph for a photoshoot for next season’s Quiksilver women’s range. She’s at ease with being made-up at the kitchen table; even with everyone hovering around, she chats away as if nothing is happening. When they’re done, she heads off with the photographer over the dunes, alone, keeping the new collection under wraps.
As a professional athlete at the top of her game, it’s interesting to see Steph’s role at this kind of event. She isn’t here to compete, but still has to work. On our last day, we watch from afar as she’s escorted by her marketing manager up and down the beach, giving back-to-back interviews with TV crews and reporters – and although she doesn’t say it, she’s tired by the end of the afternoon and retreats to the house to rest alone by the pool. Her next stop after France is the US, where she’ll spend a few months travelling around – visiting New York and heading to a music festival in Texas. “I’ll still be doing photo shoots and things along the way,” she says.
Alongside a strong work ethic, Steph seems acutely aware of what’s going on around her and where she’s heading to next. You don’t become a five-times World Champion without real drive, but her ambition seems to stretch beyond the water. “There’s a lot of people who have come through and won events and won world titles, but they haven’t really wanted to work harder on this part of the job,” she explains. “Some guys and girls think, ‘Oh, it’s just surfing and that’s it,’ but there’s so much more to it when you want to create a brand and have that longevity in your career. I learn more about my brand and what I want my brand to be associated with – how I want it to be portrayed, which magazine I believe will portray the image of me in the best way or the right way.”
She continues: “At first, when I was a tomboy and young, I just didn’t care what was going on, I just wanted to surf and that was it. And then moving with more of a vision of a brand that can be appreciated, or appeals to such a much more broad market then the niche of surfing, I love that, I embrace that. I loved that it meant being more of a woman and bringing some glamour into surfing. And just being a more multi-dimensional personality…I think that’s so valuable, for any athlete to have. I think companies see the value of that too, and it’s something they grab on to.”
Over a glass of wine on our last evening, talk turns to surfing. She speaks about issues that impact both male and female pros, mentioning events lost from the tour in the last couple of years. And there’s also the issue of money and funding. A recent commentary piece for ESPN looked at the WCT’s payout structure. It noted the obvious differences that result in less money for the women; the men’s tour is longer, with double the number of competitors, and so a larger pot is shared between more people in the draw. But at this year’s Billabong Rio Pro, men’s champ John John Florence still walked away with $100,000, where the women’s winner, Sally Fitzgibbons, received $25,000.
It’s an issue Steph speaks about with passion: “[We need] more prize money for the women. I saw the females in tennis fight to get equal prize money and they did, which is pretty inspiring. I see a lot of the girls on tour who struggle. There are so many talented girls who don’t have sponsors and they can barely even make it to the next event because the actual costs of travelling to get to the events is pretty difficult. So I’m in quite a special situation, where I don’t have to worry about that stuff, and I’m sure that’s also a factor in helping me to achieve the results I can achieve.”
When I ask if anything more could be done to help support the women’s tour, she fires back: “Oh so much more could be done, so much more. Even the men’s tour, there’s so much more that could be done. I think right now what we’re seeing with a lot of the industry companies, they’re starting to hurt financially. I mean, they created this world of professional surfing, and it’s turned into a monster; now it needs more and more and more to take it where it needs to go, to support it to be where it needs to be. And they can’t really keep up. I don’t know, it’s a really interesting time right now.”
She’s happy with the number of girls on the tour (currently seventeen) but adds: “We just need to be in really high-performance waves, that’s something that we’re missing right now. […] We just need to have that stage where we can perform and put on a good show.”
Steph’s open about what she’s trying to accomplish, both as a professional surfer and with the ‘brand’ she’s building. During our time with her, she often jokes that she’s “spoilt” or “lucky,” but ultimately she’s working hard and has earned every one of her five world titles – all at the age of twenty-four. Layne Beachley, another female surfing great, didn’t win her first World Championship until she was twenty-six, and has openly said she thinks Steph will smash the record she currently holds of seven world titles.
As for balancing her role in the water with her responsibilities on the ground – as a world-class athlete and the face of a brand – Steph seems unfazed by the challenge. “There’s definitely a level of responsibility that comes with that stuff. I feel like I’ve always been aware of how I’m presenting myself, and how I’m treating people, and it’s just natural for me to be honest and genuine. And the morals we’ve been taught when we were kids, it’s just quite natural for me to feel quite comfortable to be in that role model sort of position, and being okay with it and not freaking out and going off the rails.”
She takes a sip of her wine, smiles and looks down. “I don’t know about being on tour when I’m forty, I’ve changed my mind all the time,” she says. “Sometimes I see myself getting drawn in other directions as well, doing different things. I’m not exactly sure what they are, but they could involve being behind the scenes more, like in a company or, I don’t know, being more involved in music. But then at the same time these are all things that I can do while competing anyway. So yeah, it’s a hard one. But I don’t really like to look too far into the future – I’m pretty bad with that.”