When I was first introduced to Alana Blanchard in 2009, at an ASP World Tour stop in Peniche, she barely registered on my radar. I was there to interview the mighty Steph Gilmore, who was blowing up the women’s scene and ushering in a new dawn of punchy, progressive surfing. Then 21, she’d won two back-to-back World Titles and was about to score a third. Where as all I knew about Alana, who went off to shoot swimwear for a fashion mag while I spoke to Steph about Supertubos, was that she was the main bikini model for her sponsors and the only female surfer the guys in the office were interested in, for all the wrong reasons. If you mentioned her name they wouldn’t wonder how she’d handle a ten foot barrel, their eyes would just glaze over and they’d head to their happy place.
As I watched her surf a blinder at the Roxy Pro Gold Coast I’m reminded of what an awesome surfer she is.
Last month, as I watched her surf a blinder against Coco Ho at the Roxy Pro Gold Coast, (setting up a next round tie against Steph Gilmore which she lost, though to be fair the World Champ was on fire that day almost scoring a perfect ten for a tube ride), I’m reminded of what an awesome surfer she is and uncomfortable with my shallow first impressions. Though in my defence she wouldn’t have been the first girl to be sponsored on account of looking model-hot in a bikini rather than on for her wave-riding prowess. When we catch up after the contest I ask if she sometimes feels underrated as a surfer because people focus on her looks and she says, “I guess at times I do but all that matters to me is what my friends and family think so it doesn’t bother me too much.”
She’s also humble and perhaps wise enough to acknowledge that modelling has helped her surf career. Growing up on the Hawaiian island on Kauai she started surfing with her dad Holt (rad name) at four and was signed by Rip Curl at 14 for her talent but no doubt her looks too. My theory on why so many pro surfers are hot (with thanks to Malcolm Gladwell and his hockey players) is that when given the choice between two surfers in their early teens the brand will always pick the more beautiful one, then once signed said surfer will get access to product (and sometimes money) but more significantly mentoring by the brand and its older pro surfers, plus taken on trips which will make them a far better surfer than the original less hot one. A kind of unnatural selection, which would be fine if it didn’t have the potential to send back the message (perhaps even subliminally) to young girls that you need to look good in a bikini to be good or at the very least enjoy surfing.
But back on point, Alana won the Cholos Pipeline Pro in 2007 and first appeared on the ASP Women’s World Tour in 2009 aged 18. She later dropped down to the Star Tour but is firmly back amongst the 17 best surfers in the world this year, though her Wikipedia entry still describes her as a “professional surfer and bikini model”. I ask if she enjoys modelling? “I definitely prefer surfing but I am thankful for what modelling has been able to do for my surfing career. A lot of times I’m thinking about surfing when I’m modelling.”
The human incarnation of the phenomenon that is Alana Blanchard is definitely likeable and of course beautiful. She surfs super well and in big swell too. But is she good for women’s surfing?
She must have to think about surfing a lot, as alongside the more traditional lookbook shoots for her sponsors, she regularly posts her own shots on Instagram and clips on her Network A video channel, for which she is currently doing a web series with the Twitter trend-friendly title Surfer Girl. She has an insanely strong social media presence. The last time I checked she had over 450, 000 followers on Instagram with most of the pictures she posted getting a staggering 40, 000 likes and of course that’s a massive brand reach for her sponsors. Ker-ching! To put this in perspective Steph Gilmore (the next highest female surfer I could find) has 55, 000 followers. Only one of Alana’s last twenty shots was scenic, the rest were of her either in a bikini or surfing or kissing her boyfriend the World Junior Surf Champion Jack Freestone. No shots of crap sunsets or #bestbreakfastever for her.
I ask if she enjoys it? “I love Instagram. It’s fun and I think it’s important to be able to share snapshots of my life with people who are interested. It’s a cool way to communicate with them and I love photography so it’s a cool artistic outlet for me.”
And what do the shots say about her? “They express who I am and what I am feeling at that moment. They show how blessed and lucky I am to live the life I am living and in a way it lets my fans along for the ride.”
Some of the comments she gets are amazing. Some are super-polite “You are so pretty Alana!”, “U r the best girl ever”, “Wow” etc but a good proportion mention what Tetsuhiko Endo, surf editor at The Inertia, calls the “most ogled ass in all professional sport”, with “Oooo datass” and “Wanna bite your butt” being some of the more printable examples. Some accuse her of being overhyped though they’re quickly shot down by other posters defending her honour. Does she ever find the comments creepy? “I get all kinds of comments. I think a lot of them are hilarious. People are people and react to things in so many different ways. I love reading comments.”
We chat about surfing and I throw some stock questions at her. How high is the standard right now? “All the girls on tour this year are the best female surfers that have ever existed. I feel like everyone has learned and been able to progress from the girls before us and we’re now standing on the shoulders of the girls who came before us and trying to push the envelope even further.”
Does that mean it’s more competitive and less friendly? “No the vibe is super friendly. We’ve all grown up surfing with each other since we were little girls. It’s amazing to be able to travel with this awesome group of fun chicks who all push each other to surf at a higher level.”
Who is her favourite surfer? “I love Stephanie Gilmore. I think she’s so amazing as a person and of course as a surfer. She is such a beautiful person inside and out.”
And if she could change one thing about the women’s tour? “Getting an event back in Hawaii would be top of the list.” She’s proud of Hawaiian heritage and still very close to her friends and family, including Bethany Hamilton. She was with her the day she got attacked by a shark and lost an arm. Does she still think about the attack? “It happened when we were so young but I will always remember it. I almost always think about sharks when I surf but it was such a freak accident it’s not worth dwelling on.”
The human incarnation of the phenomenon that is Alana Blanchard is definitely likeable and of course beautiful. More importantly, for me at least, she surfs super-well and in big swell too but is she good for women’s surfing? I don’t know. She posts naked, although not remotely trashy, videos and poses for Sports Illustrated and certainly gets the guys frothing, plus I don’t begrudge her the right to cash in on her, ahem, assets but is it a helpful message for female surfers and especially young ones? Or as someone posting on The Inertia said is she “singlehandedly setting women’s surfing back 40 years,” I don’t know, the jury in my head is still out.
Sponsors: Rip Curl, Reef, Spy, Sticky Bumps, GoPro, Rockstar, Channel Islands Surfboards.