London Surf Film Festival: Stephanie Gilmore talks aerials, sexuality and success

Still from ‘Stephanie In The Water’

Last night London’s East End hosted an appearance by five-time ASP world champion surfer Stephanie Gilmore. She was there to present the UK premiere of the documentary Stephanie In The Water: a film about her journey to title number five via her true grit in tumultuous circumstances.

Throughout meeting cinema-goers and taking part in a Q&A session, Stephanie’s grin had her living up to that ‘Happy Gilmore’ nickname as usual. Perhaps it’s because the film has gone down a storm… or it might be something to do with that stunning performance at Cascais last week.

After the screening, Stephanie sat down with the film’s director Ava Warbrick and editor Isabel Freeman to be questioned by London Surf Film Festival organiser Chris Nelson and the enthusiastic audience. Here’s a selection of some of best questions and answers from the session.

Stephanie Gilmore, Ava Warbrick and Isabel Freeman at the London Surf/Film Festival

Chris Nelson: The film follows you through quite a transitionary period in your life – you’d changed sponsors and then there was the attack. Was there any time when you were doing the project when you thought you didn’t want to continue with it? 

Not really. I always thought from the start of the filming that my movie would be so boring because there’s no… well, it’s just success! Another trophy! There would be no real raw emotion to it. And yeah, it’s funny when you throw something out into the universe what comes back. I never wanted the filming to stop though. It was just part of the journey. The road got a little bumpy but I knew if I could make those things part of the filming process then it would be great. 

Audience member: Obviously you’ve had a lot of cool victories, which was the coolest?

Oh, all of them! I think, definitely winning in great waves in Honolua bay is definitely a highlight. For any World Tour surfer to win when the surf is really good is so much more fun. And also winning in France in Biarritz, that was probably one of my most favourite wins. The waves weren’t that great, but it was Bastille day and crazy on the beach. Everything just fell into place perfectly. And having to come back and fight for it meant so much to me. 

AM:  Will there be the final event at Pipeline on the Women’s Tour? And do you think there will be a yearly event at Teahupo’o? Also have you managed to sneak in a cheeky surf here in the UK?!

Are you going to take me surfing?

AM: With pleasure, yeah!

I brought my boards actually, I had to drag them through the street the other day and everyone was staring at me like “what on earth are you doing carrying a massive surfboard around London”?

I don’t think it’s been officially announced yet but they’re going to do a women’s exhibition at Pipeline this year during the men’s event, so fingers crossed we don’t drown! I’m not sure if we’ll ever have a World Tour event there… maybe soon. I think the girls’ surfing level has really risen in the last few years and we could probably handle it. Teahupo’o? I think we could do an event there if we had a waiting period, but Fiji Cloudbreak is a good start for us with a heavy left reef break. The ASP is really looking after the girl’s right now, so you never know! 

And yeah, Bournemouth. It’s going to be pumping this weekend!

AM: How is the tour psychologically? If you’re in a football team or a league situation, you win some, you lose some. But in competitive surfing, it’s so ruthless because each event only has one winner, so the chances of suffering a knock-back are quite high. How do you approach that?

Everybody’s different but I’ve just always approached things pretty relaxed! At the end of the day I love what I do, I love travelling the world and I love showing up to an event; the emotions, the excitement, the nerves. There’s so much that goes into it. I always feel like whether I win or I lose, I take something from that and go to onto the next event. You know it’s not the end of the world if you lose a contest, you just have a little more shelf space! You just wait until the next one and come back. You just have to approach it in a way that you feel comfortable. Everyone’s different but you figure out a little strategy.

Still from ‘Stephanie In The Water’

AM: If there’s one piece of advice you could give yourself back when you started out what would that be and would that apply to people just starting out in surfing now?

At the start of my career I was so cool, calm and collected and I never really thought about things too much. I just went out there and figured why would I want to be in the top ten in the world when I could go and win a bunch of world titles? It seems kinda easy. And nowadays I’m stressing and trying to figure out how to beat these girls that are so so good and I think I can probably learn more from when I was younger today. I think I’d probably say to myself… just take it all in. I floated through a lot of my career at first and didn’t really… things happened and the next moment I was trying to win my fifth world title and was like “woah, what happened in the last five years of my life?” I was always having fun, I guess that’s the most important thing, right?

I think everyone would be excited if female athletes were not only celebrated for their feminine beauty but also their athleticism and their power

AM: From the outside it seems that there’s a lot of social pressure that as a female surfer you almost have to use your body to help sell and get sponsorship. Is that an accurate perception from the outside or is it just how it’s portrayed? Do you feel those pressures within the surfing community as females? 

I think for any female athlete there’s definitely those pressures. And I think for male athletes as well. I’ve always sort of taken it as a pressure to represent your brand and yourself personally the best way that you can. To do something sexual and feminine – if you’re okay with it and comfortable with it, go for it. If it makes you feel good, go for it. Just make sure it’s done with class and make sure it’s done in the context of what you do.

There’s definitely a blurry line there and sometimes you can cross over into something that doesn’t quite work. But I think that female athletes are beautiful and why not celebrate that? I think everyone would be excited if female athletes were not only celebrated for their feminine beauty but also their athleticism and their power. As long as it’s all in context I think its fine.

Chris Nelson with Steph, via SurfSistas Instagram

AM: When thinking about the evolution of women’s surfing, we all know you guys can pull off air reverses and major manoeuvres, but when are we going to start seeing those big moneymakers in competition?

A few of the girls are really pushing themselves with aerials, which is a great thing. It’s definitely where we need to be. I feel like the guys and the girls were really starting to level around three years ago and then the guys just went crazy and now.. I mean I’m so inspired watching those guys in their competitions. I think also watching guys like John John Florence and Gabriel Medina in competition is sort of giving a big kick up the arse to a lot of the freesurfers around the world. Before they thought “we can’t really get great footage unless we’re freesurfing and don’t have the pressure of events,” but now these guys are doing it in events under the pressure of the clock and the judging panel. I think that’s really really cool. The girls are learning and it’s all part of progression. I’m sure in a couple of years time we’ll see more of those big aerials at events.


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