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Brand Bethany

With her 15 minutes ticking down, friends and family of the shark-attack survivor pitch in to extend her shelf life. As Ashley Powers reports, it takes a village to seal the deals.

June 01, 2004|Ashley Powers

This girl, the publicist says, "is the most difficult interview to get besides Kobe Bryant after a bad game."

"She's more famous than Hilary Duff."

"She's the first girl to cross that 15 minutes of fame."

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On the surf radar, she was just a perky blond blip with potential.

Months before the media swarmed her island of coconut palms and broadcast her tragedy to the mainland, she won a surf competition. The local paper's overview of the event buried the then 13-year-old's thoughts: "This was my first time doing this contest, but I wasn't that nervous."

The corporate scouts who chase action-sports talent asterisked her as one to follow, but the Hanalei, Hawaii, girl was hardly on the same star track as 11-year-old Carissa Moore, already known for beating boys in contests, or Peru's 20-year-old Sofia Mulanovich.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 03, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Surfer -- A photo caption accompanying an article on Bethany Hamilton in Tuesday's Outdoors section erroneously said that the surfer was wearing a prosthetic arm. She was not. The photo was taken before the shark attack that cost Hamilton her arm.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 08, 2004 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Surfer -- A photo caption accompanying a story on Bethany Hamilton in last week's Outdoors section erroneously said that the surfer was wearing a prosthetic arm. She was not. The photo was taken before the shark attack that cost Hamilton her arm.

At most, she was the equivalent of a high school football standout. Even if the elfin, sun-bleached surfer had eventually pulled off a long-shot triumph as women's world champion, kudos would have come from her peers, with little money compared with men's contest purses. If she had strolled down the street in a state where surfing means searching the Net, no one would have stopped, stared, whispered, "Is that her?"

A morning session last autumn changed the trajectory of her quasi-career as abruptly as a hard-cranked bottom turn.

On Oct. 31, the Honolulu Advertiser ran this headline: "Shark Severs Arm of Kaua'I Girl."

Now another species began circling.

Bethany Hamilton was a Survivor.

And Survivors sell.

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Book her

It's May now, and Cheri Hamilton is on the line, explaining why her daughter could not be (and, indeed wasn't) interviewed for this story. Cheri's speech is slack, like an overheated beachgoer's. She is patient, and firm: If the family agreed to an interview now, it might jeopardize their deal with Simon & Schuster for a book, still untitled.

"They want people hungry," she says, cheerily. To talk to anyone now "would be giving away what they're trying to sell. Call us at the end of October and we'll do all the media you want."

She has to go. Bethany -- who turned 14 in February -- is meeting with her co-author. There's homework to catch up on. Goodbye. Click.

Bethany is one in a long line of anonymous outdoors enthusiasts thrust into the limelight by a brush with nature's temper. Members of this insta-celeb subset endure peril and become famous telling everyone how they soldiered through. The motivational speaking circuit buttresses their financial security. Their legacy is a title: "that guy who ... "

Bethany -- that girl whose arm was snapped off by a shark -- just happens to be a younger, spunkier version of Beck Weathers (that guy who survived Everest), Aron Ralston (that guy who hacked off his own arm) and, most recently, Anne Hjelle (that gal who was mauled by a mountain lion in Orange County).

They join a club inhabited by adventurers whose tales enthralled audiences a century ago. Lectures to explorers' clubs around the country were the forebears of the morning news show circuit.

In 1891, a Times story brimming with hyperbole described Henry M. Stanley as a man who seduced danger "from savage, reptile, beast and swamp." A trek through African forest had killed his companion. Survival transformed Stanley into "the world's greatest explorer."

The primal pull of such tales stems from hunter-gatherer times, when the way to conquer the wilderness was to mimic those best at navigating it, says evolutionary anthropologist Francisco Gil-White. To find a hunter worth emulating, men sometimes relied on others' reactions -- if everyone is fawning, the thinking went, the object of admiration had something worth copying.

Channel that philosophy into an Internet-scanning, channel-flipping, multi-tasking world. If one face dominates all outlets, "you think this person deserves to be watched," Gil-White says.

So picture Bethany Hamilton: thin, tan, long blond hair wetted by the ocean, a sunset shadowing her innocent smile. She is aspiration personified. She stared down Jaws and she's still beaming. Maybe she'll tell us how she persevered.

"She is an attractive person and articulate," says Irving Rein, who co-wrote a book about crafting celebrity. "She has an archetypical look that people could relate to. She seems real, authentic." The inevitable result: "She could be manufactured and marketed."

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The package

Rick Bundschuh, a Kauai pastor the family handpicked to help write the Bethany book, wants to get off the line. He rambles about North Shore water babies, a subject he explored in a story for the Christian magazine Breakaway about Hawaiian bodyboarder Mike Coots, who lost his right leg at mid-calf to a tiger shark in 1997 after pummeling its head to free himself. The incident got some press. The kid's reaction to the fanfare: Whatever; let's surf.

Bethany's reaction?

"I really have to go," the author says. "I'm running out the door."

Dial tone.

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