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Kelly Slater's the World-Champion Surfer With All the Perks. So, Why Isn't He Having More Fun? : Different Office, Different Stress

June 11, 1995|DAVID SHEFF | David Sheff, who lives in Northern California, is a free-lance writer and a contributing editor to Playboy. He is also a bad but dedicated surfer.

There's nothing conventional about the group milling around in the San Diego Convention Center. A CEO in striped shorts is negotiating with a buyer who has a pierced tongue and tattoos on his bald head. A retailer with a parrot on his shoulder haggles with an apparel-company rep, who is topless under her clear plastic raincoat.

Outside, teen-age girls wearing halter tops and boys balancing on skateboards beg passersby for passes into the hall, as if this were a rock concert, not the trade show it is. Suddenly, one girl squeals and points in the direction of a young man not much older than she is. As she and her friends stampede in his direction, the man flinches, then smiles nervously, dutifully signing photos and posters and posing for snapshots. He makes his way into the building and winds through the crowded aisles until he arrives at a Tahitian-style hut. There, a dozen buyers, sellers, executives, PR agents, reporters, photographers and fans are waiting for him. Again he hesitates, then smiles and deferentially shakes hands all around, signing more autographs and answering questions.

This is the Action Sports Retailers Trade Expo, and world-champion surfer Kelly Slater reigns supreme. After a few disastrous years, board sports are again on the cutting edge of youth culture. Snowboarding is one of the fastest growing sports in the country and surfing is everywhere--in ads for trucks and soft drinks, fashion spreads in Rolling Stone and MTV videos. To a greater extent than in the past, mainstream advertisers, including record, car and telephone companies, are buying commercial spots on surfing broadcasts. And the sport may even get some respectability--the International Olympic Committee has tentatively approved surfing for a future Summer Games. "All eyes are on these kids," says Bob McKnight, co-founder and chairman of Quiksilver, the world's largest surf-wear company. "Surfing is hard, groovy environmentally, and there's Kelly Slater."

Slater is just under six feet tall and compact, with a low center of gravity that helps ground him on his surfboard despite his height. Most surfers tend to be on the small side. There are rails of muscles along his chest and back. The Florida surfer was on People magazine's list of the 50 most beautiful people in the world in 1991. And as his sponsor, Quiksilver knows the only thing that Slater does better than master the sport is market it. "Kelly sells clothes like no one in this sport ever has," McKnight says.

Surfing drives a $1.2-billion industry, nearly half of it fashion: baggy trunks, hooded flannel shirts, jeans and skater shoes, all mostly bought by surfer wanna-bes, many of them living thousands of miles from either coast. Which explains why the industry views Slater as heroic. He is its first marketable champion, whereas in the past, many have been too eccentric and media wary. Mickey Dora, one of the more well-known surfers of the '60s, reacted so adversely to the overexposure of the sport that he quit the circuit after a hostile farewell: He mooned the judges at the 1967 Malibu International Surfing Contest. Many of the big-name surfing champions of the recent past, such as Nat Young and Tom Carroll and four-time winner Mark Richards, are Australians, though Americans now dominate the pro ranks. The last American champ, Tom Curren, lived for many years in the South of France. Though he's back, Curren is media shy and rarely returns phone calls.

Slater, on the other hand, has been amiable and eager to please ever since he began winning an unprecedented string of amateur contests when he was 8. He turned pro at 19, winning the Association of Surfing Professionals World Championship Tour (WCT) in 1992 and 1994. His surfing was lithesome and combative, and his good looks didn't hurt. Not surprisingly, the combination has led to a career, which includes television and recording deals, like no surfer has ever had. "He's the first major crossover star the industry has seen," McKnight says.

"He's the perfect champion," adds Michael Kingsbury, a spokesman for the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn., which represents the companies that make the boards and clothing. "No one has ever been in the position to do more for surfing."

And at the convention, Slater is the All-American champion--congenial, modest and cooperative. But he is also reticent, embarrassed and uneasy. Despite his looks, he is not a hunk; he is shy and awkward, sometimes even morose. "Just when I'm in the water I feel at home," he says.

As his friend Brock Little, one of the world's greatest big-wave surfers, later observes: "He wants people to like and respect him so much that he never says no, but his fame and success don't seem to feel very good to him."

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