Through the carnival mirror of Westerly Windina, writer Jamie Brisick sees what it feels like to be human.
Through the carnival mirror of Westerly Windina, writer Jamie Brisick sees what it feels like to be human.
The story of Aussie surf champion Peter Drouyn’s transformation into Westerly Windina is one of the most misunderstood and polarising stories in surfing lore.
Huck’s global editor Jamie Brisick first met Westerly in August 2009, on assignment for The Surfer’s Journal. A friendship developed as Jamie began to see elements of himself in Westerly’s story: a desire to be different, a yearning to belong and the pain of not being accepted by your own community.
As many people in surfing pushed Westerly away, Jamie was drawn further into the story, writing a book, Becoming Westerly and shooting a documentary, that’s still in production.
Writer Michael Adno caught up with Jamie to discuss his relationship with Westerly and the carnival mirror in which he sees elements of his own life reflected in her.
Michael Adno: Towards the end of the book, you’re speaking with Derek Hynd about surfing, Westerly, and how he knew Peter Drouyn. He speaks to what he sees as a lack of individualism in surfing but also staunch conservatism, and he seems to think it’s become increasingly so. And so in relation to Peter and Westerly – who I think are both spurned characters in the professional surfing community – I wanted to ask if you see Peter’s career as something that highlights the more narrow-minded conventions and machismo that shrouds surfing?
Jamie Brisick: When I came to surfing in the late seventies it was a place that embraced the outsider and the alienated, and I loved that about it. A big thing in my life is that I grew up in white bread suburbia, and I always felt self-conscious or ashamed of my own kind of weirdness or my own natural human unpredictability, the ease with which we contradict ourselves, etcetera. And I felt like there was a narrow box that we were supposed to fit into, in terms of how we were supposed to act. And then, surfing somehow represented freedom in the sense of actually going surfing, but then the community of surfers that I encountered in the late seventies paralleled that, and they were really open-minded and there was a lot of eccentricity within the culture. I loved that. I read a surfing magazine and I felt like these are my people.
But as years kicked on and the sport grew, it became narrower and narrower. I think on some level, Peter was very much a product of that time when surfing embraced the outsider and the eccentric, and Peter was that to the nines. And I guess it’s interesting because the same culture that he fit perfectly into, of which Peter was one of the great specimens of, would eventually boot him out because he was too eccentric or too out there for what they were prepared to accept. In terms of what Peter brought to the sport, there are some great things. Bringing surfing to China was a huge deal. Bringing the ‘man-on-man’ competition format to surfing was a huge deal, but there were also a lot of ideas that were really far-fetched and pie-in-the-sky, and they never happened. They were maybe too ambitious. But I appreciate how Peter always dreamed big. He was a visionary.
MA: Your book clearly illustrates how incredibly inventive, highly imaginative, and often plainly brilliant Peter and Westerly are and were, despite their inclination for self-destruction. I know myself included; I think people can identify with Peter and Westerly as marginalized socially and professionally. I’m curious to hear how after the book’s publication, all the press, touring around, and having conversations with people you worked with, how the reception has shifted in seeing Peter and Westerly today and maybe how people see them in a new light?
JB: The one really interesting thing for me, as a journalist, is when I first started on the story in 2009; Peter/Westerly’s peers and contemporaries were very critical and skeptical of the whole thing. They thought this was a joke and it was going to end very soon, and Westerly is going to go back to being Peter. So they were dismissive and disparaging. Over time, they realised, ‘Wow, this is for real.’ And several people I interviewed later came back to me and told me they regretted being so dismissive. And they were much more accepting, supportive, and compassionate towards all that Peter and Westerly had gone through. So that part of it is really interesting.
However, the interesting thing for me is bringing this book out to the surf world. To my mind, Peter/Westerly is one of the most interesting surfers ever. And it’s stunning to me that some of the surf media actually don’t want any part in this story. I recently did a piece. It was a Q&A for SURFER Magazine’s website, and the comments were just appalling to me. There were people saying, ‘This should never be on SURFER. I’m unsubscribing to you.’ When I think about surfing, it’s about being fluid and improvisational, all these qualities that should lend themselves to being malleable in one’s personality. To see such rigid redneck thinking is always a surprise to me. It doesn’t seem like it should go with surfing.
MA: The one kernel that you talk about is this observation about Westerly as a sort of carnival mirror. And what I find interesting about that is how Peter had this incredibly contradictory position as a professional surfer who was – like I said earlier – so ingrained in the social hierarchy of surfing, but he was always on the fringe in a sense or always just outside. What I’m wondering is do you think that his satirical and often clear rejection of surf culture speaks to the conditions of surfing? And I was also wrestling with whether it was a cause or the product of surf culture for Peter?
JB: That’s a great question, and I think about that very thing. Peter loved surfing so much. It was such an extension of who he was. Then to be an excellent surfer, a competitive surfer, regarded as one of the best in the world, and then to be marginalized within an already marginalized culture – I think it really hurt. When I talked to Westerly, she felt that Peter’s feelings were really hurt. There were a lot of things that went against Peter that made him feel like he was not getting a fair shake in this culture. And ultimately, he feels like he was booted out or shut out. It’s hard to say. It’s like a chicken or egg kind of thing, but I think there was a lot of sadness and despair in Peter for many years with regard to surf culture and the surf community, and the surf industry for that matter. I don’t know.
As a side note, a friend of mine who is a writer once said to me, ‘Anything that you want to write as a book, it requires so much time and attention and work that it should be something you care about so deeply, in fact that you reach something where you try to work something out in yourself through that book.” And when I met Westerly, I guess when I talk about her being a carnival mirror reflecting back what it feels like to be human, on some level I identify with so much of Westerly. And she is far more extreme than me, but I definitely identify with the need for attention, the need for acceptance and validation. Just my general communications with her, she’s just needy on a level that at times seems really desperate and at times seems like I can completely relate. I’m just better at holding it in, but she’s sort of demonstrative, and I would describe her as almost like the skin has been pulled off and you’re seeing the viscera and the whole of a beating heart right there in front of you, bleeding and bloody. And that part of her, I really admire. She’s brave that way. She’s very complicated, but she’s such an open book about it all, and I find that really interesting.
MA: What I thought was particularly complex is how Westerly rejects conventions of gay or transgender and she really tries to dissociate herself with those terms. Do you think that’s a residual trace from Peter’s career?
JB: I think so. I think that both Peter and Westerly have always constantly declared themselves as individuals. It may be pushed to self-sabotaging heights, but I also identify with that as well. Going back to the whole carnival mirror thing, I mean, I understand not wanting to be part of the group, and I think that in a lot of ways that’s why people came into surfing. I know that before I got into surfing, my parents were encouraging – or my Father was encouraging – about baseball, basketball, or football, team sports. And that was never my thing. I got into skateboarding first and then surfing.
I think that the idea of being alone out in the ocean, and yes, you might feel like you’re part of the surf community, but ultimately you’re out there by yourself allowing your mind to drift, allowing yourself to just feel the ocean without the pressure of a team, of having to kick or throw a ball over to someone else. Especially the generation that Peter came from, where there was a lot of competition but it wasn’t a viable career path so you wanted to win the Australian finals, you wanted to win the Duke contest in Hawaii or what have you, but the majority of your time surfing was just you and the ocean alone. So, I would almost say that not associating with groups or teams – or in the case of Westerly, with the GLBTQ community – it probably does go back to surfing and just being a one-man show, or now a one-woman show.
MA: It’s been a clearly challenging project with Westerly, the surf community, revisiting your own professional career, but also the course of your own life in its development. In the book, you have these really acute descriptions of densely saturated moments of tension and indifference not just between you and Westerly but also between Peter and Westerly, Peter and the surf community. With Westerly recounting so much of Peter’s life, I think that really prompted her to take a closer look at who Peter was, did she agree with Peter? Both of their lives are so rich with complexity and contradiction I can’t imagine what that must have been like for Westerly to recount all of that.
JB: Westerly was interesting and contradictory in a way, I don’t mean this in a critical way, but in a very natural way was really contradictory in that one minute she’d be saying, ‘This story is about Westerly. This is about the new me. Peter’s gone. Focus on Westerly and what’s happening with Westerly.’ But then of course I was so curious about Peter’s story so when I would ask, once it opened up, she would talk at length about Peter’s life.
The narrative is very very consistent in terms of Westerly feeling that Peter was just hard done by in terms of the surf world, and most people support that. I think that was a really tough place to live for a long time, ultimately being bitter at the surfing world. Whether justified or not, just to be pissed off at something all the time must be draining. I don’t think if you’re inquiring about whether there were moments where Westerly thought, oh maybe Peter took the wrong turn here or there. The one thing – and I give Westerly great credit for this – is her full conviction in everything. ‘This is how it was, and I’m not pulling any punches, and I’m not going to assume a humble stance and look at it from both sides. I’m saying this is how it went for Peter, and that’s how it went.’
MA: With Westerly’s transformation, it seems that grief could be a particularly apt way to look at how a lot of people have responded. I wanted to ask you how you saw grief in relation to Westerly but also her son, her brother Tony, and of course her peers as well?
JB: I feel like grief hangs over the book in such a big way. Westerly has various ways in how she describes what happened to Peter. Earlier on when I first met her, I asked, where is Peter now? And she pointed skywards. She said, “Up there with Mom and Dad,” insinuating that Peter had gone on to heaven basically. I think there is something of a death, saying goodbye to a former self. When I met Westerly, she was determined to have her surgery and to complete herself. That thing was there in a big way. So when I first met Westerly, I was married and then halfway through my five-year odyssey with Westerly my wife passed away suddenly. Then I was grieving and broken on many levels. There was a kind of commiseration happening between Westerly and me. And I must say, Westerly was so great to me through all of that, and it was a telling moment. Westerly could be extremely difficult at times, but she was very sweet and kind and compassionate through all of that. I think that there’s death. There’s death and a lot of pathos hanging over the book in a big way. I hope there’s humor, but definitely there is a sense of sadness.
MA: It’s clear with her brother, Tony, that his response is almost identical to somebody in the early stages of grief. I know that you speak about Peter Drouyn early on when you were growing up surfing, and you talk about Rabbit Bartholomew and other big figures in surfing at the time. I think for a lot of people that there is a sense of grief in losing that figure that they once looked up to.
JB: That was definitely one surprising thing for me. Particularly, Rabbit Bartholomew talked about how Peter Drouyn was his boyhood hero. Rabbit said, ‘This is all really difficult for me.’ At one point on the phone I was talking to Rabbit and he said, ‘I really hope that I don’t run into her, as Westerly.’ And there was a sense of maybe a broken heart. This is an interesting topic to think about, we have heroes when we’re young, and most likely those heroes depend on where you’re coming from. If you’re a writer you might have heroes who… When I was in my teens, I looked up to writers who were in their sixties and seventies, so a lot of them have died.
But in the case of surfing, the typical kind of surfing model, you’re a nine-year-old, ten, eleven-year-old kid getting into surfing and you have these heroes who are probably twenty-one, twenty-two and they are the best surfers in the world, and I think Rabbit had that with Peter Drouyn. Then you’re growing up and you’re looking to them perhaps to give you guidance and to show you how to grow old.
Much of my interest in surf journalism is because I’m looking for that. I grew up in the surf community and all these guys who I’ve looked up to, I’m hoping that they are going to help point me in directions that are fulfilling and rich in mid-life and beyond. I think for those guys who looked up to Peter Drouyn, they felt betrayed. I guess there was maybe a sense of grief within the Australian surfing community with regards to losing Peter.
MA: Towards the end of the book, there’s this kind of celestial moment where you’re filming Westerly surf. And you write about this moment where you realize how feminine good surfing is. You also make this compelling observation about this abyss between masculine and feminine earlier. Could you speak a little more to the feminine aspect of good surfing?
JB: I should probably learn not to think in these binary terms of male or female, but at the same time I can’t help but see these things. Watching Westerly surf, there is a delicate, balletic quality to how she moves with the wave, and she speaks about it really beautifully. At one point I was talking to Westerly and she said, ‘Sometimes I don’t even need to surf, I can just sit on the beach and just mind surf, and that fulfills me.’ I thought there was something really interesting about that, in absorbing surfing on an interior level where you don’t need to get your heart rate up, you don’t need to get the endorphins rushing, you just need to be thinking about it and watching it, and that enriches or fulfills on some level.
But in the literal sense, Peter came from the longboard era and then transitioned to shortboards. So the way Westerly surfs now there is a lot of that longboard era stuff happening, in the sense of walking up and down the board or hanging five and cross stepping, etcetera.
I remember watching Kassia Meador surf once at Malibu First Point and she was surfing so beautifully. Forgive me for making reference between male and female, but as I watched this I thought, ‘this is so feminine.’ And in so many ways great longboard surfing – the less high-performance longboard surfing, the more delicate version of longboard surfing—is very feminine. I think a lot of surfing is feminine. I think on some level just harmonising or connecting with the wave is about fluidity. It’s not about grunts and pushing against. It is at times. I mean I think of a big heaving top turn. I think of Dane Reynolds flying down the line and going into one of those full-rail hacks – that’s a man move for sure – but a lot of other parts of surfing in terms of positioning or finding the sweet spot is a more delicate thing.
MA: I’m sure you could use the term ‘man turn’ with someone like Peter Mendia or, like you said, Dane Reynolds. And in opposition to that you could say – it might not be the best thing to only have shortboard examples – Craig Anderson or Rob Machado. You could even speak of surfers like Miki Dora or Phil Edwards. There is such a feminine aspect to the way they handled themselves on a wave. And of course I don’t think Dora would ever want anything to do with a descriptor of femininity, but I think it’s such an inextricable part in that they both depend on each other.
JB: I love the idea of macho surfers being called feminine in their surfing. I have such a deep appreciation and respect for Westerly. Early on, I loved the fact that she was pushing against all these surfing taboos with regards to sexuality and gender, although they are entirely different. Most of the dudes that I encountered in the surf world, the whole thing made them feel uncomfortable, and I loved that. That made me more interested in the story and wanting to dive in.
MA: I know there has been this hugely positive response generated by Westerly. In the book, there’s an example of a high-ranking transgender Lieutenant Colonel of Australia, who refers to Westerly as an inspiration. Has Westerly gone on to embrace this kind of activism or is she still resisting that idea?
JB: I thought on one level that maybe Westerly’s calling would be a support and inspiration to people, particularly younger people who are struggling and feeling gender dysphoria or struggling with identity in general. I think Westerly would be absolutely pleased to know that people look at her as an inspiration, but I don’t think that’s what her focus is on. I don’t think she’s putting a lot of energy or thought into that. She’s just doing what she needs to survive, just like the rest of us.
MA: I’m sure it’s hard to distinguish between them, but can you recognize distinct differences in the way that surf communities have responded versus general audiences?
JB: For the most part, the surf community has been really supportive, or I should say the surf media has been really supportive. The reviews that have come out and the interviews I’ve done, I feel like they’ve all been really supportive and all have been helpful in building awareness. I do think there are younger generations who – just by virtue of this appearing in the surf media – will recognize that we’re a broad spectrum of people, we surfers. And I guess the mainstream take is looking at surf culture from the outside.
In particular, in Australia there was a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald and it opened up with, surfers are just a bunch of macho dudes, and it instantly called surfing out as not a place that would embrace a transgender woman surfer. Mainstream media has looked at surfing from the outside and perhaps been critical of it. Whereas the surf media has looked at it from the inside and for the most part been pretty open to the story and what it’s about. Though there are also those that dismiss it, think it has no business being in the surf media.
MA: It’s the ugly part of surfing rearing its head again, or at least an aspect of surfing that was present during your professional career as well as Peter’s, and there’s still a trace of it today. With that said, how do you see the trajectory of this conversation surrounding Westerly and your book developing in the surf community but also in relation to the global conversation about gender identity?
JB: The exciting thing for me is that I’m working with my co-director, an editor, and a couple of producers on a documentary about Peter and Westerly’s life, and I think that will reach far more people than the book will. I think there is a bigger movie-watching audience than a book-reading audience. So, I’m excited to get that out there, and there are things that happen in the movie that are not in the book. The thing that drew me to the story is that notion of Westerly as carnival mirror, and how I see a lot of myself in her. It just reminds me of how complex we are. On some level, it gives me a more compassionate sense of myself and how I approach other people, it reminds me to be less rigid about how we’re supposed to behave or how life is supposed to go. Ultimately, I hope that Westerly’s story promotes acceptance and open-mindedness.
Jamie Brisick’s Becoming Westerly is out now, published by Outpost19. Grab a copy in the Huck shop.