Pro Chat: Keala Kennelly

The Kauai-born big wave surfer and actor on handling wipeouts, the objectification of women in surfing and how she misses her buddy Andy Irons

Interview by Sam Haddad, Action photo by Jason Childs, lifestyle photo by Tim McCaig

What were you like growing up?
I was a total tomboy. Always wanted to do everything the boys were doing. I grew up down the street from Andy and Bruce Irons and I was always trying to hang out with and impress those guys.

Do you remember your first surf?
No, I was too young to remember. I was only a baby when my father started pushing me into waves.

Do you remember the first time you realised you were really good at surfing and how did that feel?
I was probably about nine-years-old and entered my first contest in the “Open Women’s Division”. I was surfing against women in their 20s and 30s and I beat one of them. So I thought I must be pretty good to beat an adult when I was only nine-years-old 🙂 It made me happy, it also made me want to do more contests and win next time!

What’s been the best change in women’s surfing over the last 10/15 years?
The best change has been all the top surf brands creating a women’s line within their brand and paying their women athletes. Also I think the talent level keeps improving every year.

And the worst?
Sadly, the Women’s ASP World tour has lost all the events at world class challenging waves like Teahupoo and Tavarua and replaced them with events at crappy beach breaks. I think this has caused people to lose interest in the Women’s Tour and it’s a shame because the women are surfing better than ever.

Do you think women still get judged on their looks as well as their surfing ability and if so can anything ever be done about that?
Yes they absolutely do and it’s really unfair because that would never happen to the Men Pro Surfers. I don’t know what can be done about it… There is so much pressure for the women athletes to surf like men and at the same time look like models. I think that all the tits and ass that gets run in the surf magazines and in the advertising has definitely contributed to this problem. Women are constantly being objectified. I think that female pro surfers need to be celebrated for their strength and talent, not shamed into trying to look more pretty to please the surf industry.

Who impresses you most of the young crop of girls on the ASP right now and why?
Carissa Moore, Tyler Wright, and Malia Manuel, Coco Ho. They all surf with a lot of power and good style.

What do you think about the ASP adding in a lot of city events to the tour?
I think it is great for the hosting sponsor because there are much bigger crowds. It generates more mainstream interest in the sport by being accessible to more people but I think the poor quality of waves is really going to hurt the tour.

Congrats on XXL Award [Watch Keala’s winning clip here]. Why are you attracted to big waves?
There is a certain rush you just can’t get from normal sized waves and so it’s kind of like a drug in that way.

Do you still get scared and if so how do you cope with that?
I do get scared. I don’t want to die. I cope by mentally and physically preparing myself and also by being very calculated about the risks I take.

What’s been your worst wipeout?
The first time I went to Teahupoo I took a 15-footer on the head and had a two-wave hold down. I was sure I was going to die.

And what advice do you have on handling wipeouts?
Try to relax until you feel the force of the wave is letting up, otherwise you waste a lot of energy.

Do you prefer towing in to paddling out and if so why?
I like them both. With towing you can surf heavy barrels at Teahupoo that are not possible to paddle into. You also get such a rush from catching a big wave with your own power so I think they are both good.

Have you ever wiped out on a jetski?
Yes, I was on the back of the ski at Tavarua and the ski died in the impact zone and we got smashed by a wave. I held onto the sled, it was really scary. The ski got washed in onto the dry reef, the driver was gone. I had to climb up on the ski and restart it and get it off the reef. It all worked out, but the driver got pretty cut up.

How does acting compare to surfing?
I get a rush from acting. When you are working with a bunch of other actors and you nail a scene it feels amazing, kind of like getting barrelled.

Where are your favourite places to surf right now?
Hawaii, Tahiti, Indo, Mexico.

We hear you like to DJ, what are your guaranteed floor-fillers?
I love big pumping house bangers. Lately my go-to floorfiller has been “Devil Walking” by Mark Knight.

Who are your heroes?
Andy [Irons who died last year] was my hero… I still have such a hard time accepting that he is gone. I imagine that now he is watching over me so I will always try to impress him and make him proud of me.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Travel, surf and shoot with a lot of different photographers. Chase some big swells and spend the winter charging Pipe with the boys. I love my life!

Keala is sponsored by Billabong, Dragon, Da Kine, Aerial 7, Aftermath surfboards and Sambazon

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