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Hot and Bothered : The Pop-Idol Publicity Wave May Be the Toughest That Surfing King Kelly Slater Has Ever Ridden

August 26, 1993|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Kelly Slater ducks into a pinball arcade on the boardwalk. The place is dimly lit, raucous with buzzes and bells. It seems like a good spot to hide from autograph hounds and reporters. And the girls who squeal his name.

All surfers on the professional tour put up with some adulation, but it's different for Slater. Barely 21, this slender kid in baggy shorts is being groomed as the sport's first pop idol.

He's regarded as the best surfer in the world, perhaps even a revolutionary, but that seems incidental. So does last year's pro championship. He already had a talent agent and a big-money clothing endorsement. People magazine had already named him one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world. And there was his role as Jimmy Slade on the syndicated TV hit "Baywatch."

"Kelly has charisma," says Michael Berk, one of the show's executive producers. "He's absolutely right for the '90s."

Or, as Slater's agent puts it: "He's the perfect marketing commodity."

Bright hazel eyes. A boyish grin. Doesn't drink or smoke. More important, in a sport awash with renegades and loners, Slater gives interviews and arrives at photo shoots on time.

"There have been other surfers who were just as talented," says Steve Hawk, editor of Surfer magazine. "But Kelly is willing to take the next step. He is willing to do the dance you have to do to become a mainstream personality."

Why then, on the opening day of a contest here, is Kelly Slater hiding?

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He hears the whispers, the rumblings: "A lot of surfers don't like what I'm doing. There are a lot of mixed emotions."

The tempest centers on what surfing wants to be when it grows up.

Perhaps Slater can lead the sport into an era of national TV and big-money contests. But traditionalists--the soul surfers--cling to a legacy of individualism. They don't want networks and corporations defiling what they regard as nothing less than a spiritual pursuit.

Consider the troubled history between corporate America and Surf City: When the California craze struck in the late 1950s, it became apparent that money could be made from these odd beach dwellers who rode the waves. Swimwear companies could market the surfing look. Beer companies could advertise by sponsoring contests.

Surfers, however, didn't quite fit the prepackaged mold.

Mickey Dora, a sleek and powerful man who ruled Malibu through the 1960s, surfed for the "Gidget" movies. When those films turned surfing into a fad, he escaped into a shadowlike existence. As a parting shot, Dora rode across the point at the 1965 Malibu Classic and dropped his shorts for the judges.

Many top surfers who followed--the revolutionary Nat Young, Tom Carroll and Barton Lynch--were Australians and unwelcome to the American star-making machine. Corky Carroll did a few beer commercials, cutting a slightly cartoonish figure. Tom Curren showed up with the right credentials--talent and citizenship. But after winning a string of world championships, he fled to Europe.

Then came Slater.

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As calculated as his career now seems, he swears that he never dreamed of stardom while growing up in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

Day after day, he practiced moves that would become flashy tailslides and floaters. Every part of the wave was open territory. He learned to bounce off the lip and spin through foam.

It wasn't just water that fascinated him. He would launch himself and his board off the tops of waves, airborne, to see how it felt. These experiments led to the "aquabatics" for which he is now lauded. They added a joy and recklessness to his style, bursts of wanton disregard to punctuate an otherwise fluid kinship with the wave.

"Glue foot," surfers say--the ability to stay on the board in situations that defy the laws of physics. Slater had that knack from the beginning and it earned him an armful of amateur trophies during the mid-1980s.

It also got him noticed far from the beach.

*

In 1986, Bryan Taylor was a junior agent at the William Morris Agency and looking for fresh faces. He saw Slater's photograph in a surfing magazine.

"Kelly had something unique," Taylor says. "I could picture his face on the screen."

A couple months later, Slater came to Los Angeles for an amateur contest. Taylor took him to "a power dinner at the Sizzler." The kid, only 14, had anything but stardom on his mind.

Several years passed before Taylor became his agent. Then things moved quickly. Slater signed a reported $1-million deal with Quiksilver, a Costa Mesa surfwear company, before he had entered a single pro contest.

All that money--and his amateur success--created tremendous pressure when Slater joined the Assn. of Surfing Professionals World Tour in 1992.

"Someone's put on a pedestal at a very young age and it sticks," says Martin Potter, who won the 1989 championship. "There was a bit of jealousy for sure."

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