The skate pioneer has found that as horizons broaden, it's hard to retain a one-track mind.
A pioneer for female skateboarding, Elissa Steamer has found that as the years pass and her horizons broaden, it's hard to retain that one-track mind.
Elissa Steamer has life locked down. “If I went out and got hit by the 38 Limited bus that goes past my house every day, I’m pretty sure I’d die happy,” she says from her sunny home in San Fran. “I had, like, three badass waves this morning and I skateboard all the time, so I feel pretty pleased with what I’ve done.”
It’s a simple answer to a simple question, but weirdly not a common one. Ask a random pool of thirty-five-year-old women what makes them happy, and chances are the badassness of a wave or gnarliness of a skate session won’t be indicators of whether or not they’re fulfilled. In fact, stats suggest that, in America at least, money and happiness are still strangely intertwined. (According to the OECD’s Your Better Life Index, the US is the second-best place to live if ‘income’ makes your world go round – but for ‘life satisfaction’, it drops to seventeenth.)
Elissa, thankfully, is in the enlightened minority. “Maybe it’s because I come from a poor family, but I’m just stoked to have anything,” she says. “I pretty much live the same life that I’ve lived since I was a child. I keep it minimal. I don’t buy fancy cars. I’m a homeowner, but I don’t have a multimillion-dollar mansion in the Hollywood Hills or nothing. It’s just a pretty little house in Florida that I rent out.”
As a kid growing up in Fort Myers, Florida, Elissa had her priorities straight from the start. “I was a total skate rat, that’s all I thought about,” she says. “I wanted to turn pro, but I didn’t believe it could happen.” Spurred on by her “fucking badass friends”, Elissa became a familiar face on the “seriously heavy” street skateboarding scene – a face that couldn’t help but stand out from the crowd. “There weren’t really any other girls skating where I grew up,” explains Elissa, who shot into the spotlight when she appeared on Toy Machine’s Welcome to Hell in 1996, bagging the first female part in a legit skate video. “It’s not like I’m special… well, I guess I am special in that I came along at the right time and all I did was skateboard.”
What Elissa humbly sees as serendipity has in fact developed into a prolonged career. But as the years pass and her horizons broaden, how easy is it to retain that one-track mind? “I have a lot of other hobbies so I don’t like to focus all my energy into skating,” says Elissa, who starts every day by checking the surf report. “But I like to devise a lot of plans; I’ve been devising plans for sixteen years. Like, right now I have a goal to shoot eight photos by July 31. That didn’t used to be a tall order, but I’ve only shot one so far. If I skateboard all the time, good things happen. It’s when I don’t that I have to start plotting how I’m going to make this thing last.”
As the only female on Zero skateboards, Elissa’s standalone status, far from ebbing over the years, has simply become more entrenched. She hasn’t missed an X Games since 2003 – a fact that may take the uninitiated by surprise. “I was skating the other day and this little kid at the skate park was like, ‘How old are you?’ and I just ignored him. Then I was skating around and he came up to me on his racer-scooter and goes, ‘You look old!,” says Elissa, mimicking a condescending sing-song tone, “but you’re good!’ I was like, ‘Thanks kid.’ Then all I could think was, ‘Fuck, I hope I don’t look that old!’”
“I was a total skate rat, that’s all I thought about.”
Other than this blip and the odd physical twinge – “I feel my knees more than before” – Elissa sees skateboarding as a great levelling force: a place where age is “all in the mind”. To this end, she recently launched Gnarhunters.com – where she posts pictures of skateboarders she meets day to day, whether they’re young, old or hovering in between – as a kind of testament to skateboarding’s cross-generational appeal. “It’s like we’re all on the same page,” says Elissa of the groms and granddads she’s met through skateboarding. “It’s not like, ‘I’m older than you so I know something you don’t.’ It’s more like, ‘Here’s a nice little kid who’s really good at skateboarding,’ and then we talk to him like a human and see what he has to offer. We share the same love and that makes us the same. Maybe it’s the fountain of youth or something?”
Elissa, like every skater who sees through age, may well be defying the sands of time, but hanging out with a younger crew is not without its own ills. “Skateboarding is more attractive to a young crowd, and when you’re young, you party!” explains Elissa. “I had to push that to one side. It’s not skateboarding’s fault – it’s up to the individual, but I was behaving like a grown-up little baby.”
These days Elissa rocks the clean-cut life, prioritising waves and skate time above all else. But in a world where “skateboarding is still seen as a crime”, is she rebelling against what an adult ‘should’ and ‘should not’ do? “Skateboarding still has a stigma attached to it, even though we know it’s the coolest thing in the world,” she says. “But you can’t really wonder what society has planned for people my age. If I’m doing what I love to do and it’s working for me – and I have a good view of the world – I don’t think it matters. So am I defying society? Yeah, I guess so. If what society says still matters or is real.”