Wendy Botha & The Extraordinary Era Of Surfing In the '90s
RUNNING UP THAT HILL
Interview by Lauren L. Hill
The more things change : A conversation with 4 x World Champ Wendy Botha
Lauren L. Hill
“That’s so nineties!” Apparently that’s the modern adage for ‘rad.’ And if, in the bizarre cyclical world of fashion, the 1990s are now the bee knees, then Wendy Botha should be known as the queen bee. Or at least one of them.
Oh, the 90s: think ladies’ shoulder pads, high cut neon bikinis. Everyone wearing over-sized flannos and baggy boardies. Grunge and doc Martens.
The fashion of the early 1990s probably wasn’t the most generous to the female form. Neither was the era generous to women’s sport.
As Matt Warshaw puts it in The Encyclopaedia of Surfing, “In the three decades leading to the 1990s... sexism … remained the sport’s default setting.”
In 1992, Kelly Slater became the youngest ever world champ, Miley Cyrus was born, tow surfing was ignited and a young Wendy Botha powered her way to her fourth ASP World Title. It was the year before women’s boardshorts even existed, before surf companies had caught onto the insane moneymaking potential of the other half of the population. Women were mostly wearing men’s surf gear and culture at large still wasn’t reconciling the ideas of woman and sport.
Just before the industry caught on, Wendy Botha did something pretty radical for the time: she got naked. For Playboy. Hers was the first Australian Playboy to sell out. For her, it was a stand against rigid homosexual stereotypes for women in sport and in surfing. Plus, it was damn good money then, just like it is today.
In a way, she took some of the first steps down the path of the debate that still stands in women’s surfing: how do we celebrate women as athletes without neutering them? Where’s the fine line between celebrating womanhood and outright objectification? When will ability be rewarded as handsomely as nudity?
While Lisa Anderson ultimately became the personification of the new ‘have it all’ beauty/brawn female surf star archetype, Wendy Botha fuelled conversations about femininity, the hypersexualisation of women’s sport, and genuine empowerment. She helped thrust women’s surfing into the mainstream, circumventing endemic brands, and aiding in the looming boom of women’s surfing. Historian Warshaw confirms, “ the women’s surfing movement in the 1990s and 2000s was responsible for the deepest profits…the sport had ever seen.” (417)
Wendy Botha is still surfing her brains out today, with frequent trips to the tropics to score uncrowded surf. She’s full of passion and is as inspired as ever by the “mind blowing” standard of surfing today.
As a standout figure in the history of surfing we wanted to know: What’s really changed about women’s surfing over the last 30 years?
LH: I’ve been loving your surfing shots on Instgram!
WB: (laughs) Ah, I get a bit embarrassed. But you always love putting surfing footage up. I’m not surfing as good as I’d like to be, but it’s pretty fun.
LH: Ah, I reckon you’re still ripping. It’s inspiring to see a woman at 50 continuing to surf. It seems like surfing doesn’t often survive parenthood for lots of women….
WB: Oh, really. Yea, I guess I don’t really see a lot of the girls that I use to surf with. Every now and again I talk to Pam (Burridge) and I know that Pam still surfs a lot. I mean, I love it. I live and breathe it still. But, geez, I carry a few injuries. There’s always something that aches and hurts.
Yeah, I know for me when I had kids all of a sudden I developed fears about things, because I had kids. And I think that’s quite normal. I wasn’t that keen all of a sudden to surf really huge waves. I think that’s just what happens when you have kids. It obviously doesn’t take away your competitive edge though—Lisa Anderson had her first child and went back on tour and did really well, so it’s not everybody. But I found that I changed quite a bit after I had my kids. I mean, I still love to surf more than anything, but the competitive edge wasn’t really there. Well, actually it is because if someone said to me ‘you should go in this event’ and it was competitive, I probably wouldn’t. And the reason being that I wouldn’t want to come second (laughs). I’m a really bad loser.
LH: Well, after winning four world titles, I guess that’s a fair attitude to have developed.
WB: I actually retired really young, I think I was 27. Mainly because I’d had lots of knee surgery. It was probably a bit early, but I was sorta ready. In those days people didn’t stick around as long as they do now.
LH: Were there many other women or girls surfing in South Africa when you were growing up there?
WB: There weren’t a lot. I started surfing when I was 13, and made the state team at 14 – I still wasn’t a great surfer, but I came on really quickly. There weren’t a lot of other girls, so when I started beating them super easy, I pretty much started surfing in the age division I was in against the boys all the time. Those boys were my best friends. They were so good about it when I think back on it. I would beat them quite often and it must have hurt inside, but they never showed it. They were the nicest kids, I don’t ever remember them making a scene or being mean. It was just super competitive between all of us. And I competed in a lot of men’s events in South Africa, which is how I ended up coming to Australia. I was competing in an event at Jeffery’s Bay --- it was all like Shaun Thompson and Michael Ho. It was just ridiculous. I got knocked out in my first heat, no problem. But that’s how I met Bill Bolman from Australia who ran the Stubbies event at Burleigh. He came up to me at the event at Jeffery’s Bay, and I was only about 15, and he was going “ You should come and surf in Australia against Pam Burridge.” And then I started annoying my dad until he bought me a ticket and I came over when I was 16.
LH: And how did that first event go?
WB: I think I got second? Maybe to Pam or something. I think I beat a few people. I ended up winning the Stubbies twice, but I don’t think it was that year. But I had a ball --- Martin Potter won it that year, and he won a car, we both had no driver’s license and he drove us fro the Gold Coast to Sydney, where we picked up some mates, and all the way to Bell’s Beach without a license in a brand new car. It was awesome.
LH: I wonder what the women’s prize was that year?
WB: I think it was a trophy, that was it. (laughs) Big fat zero. Maybe it was $500 bucks or something, but I couldn’t take it anyway because I was still amateur and in those days you couldn’t accept money until you turned pro.
LH: It’s really interesting to see the pay gap in men’s and women’s surfing become and issue right now in the WSL. Even Steph Gilmore stepped up and said that there should be pay equity, not just parity, since costs are the same regardless of gender. I was wondering what your thoughts are on that, and what your experience was coming up through such radically unequal times…..
WB: Basically, we fought that all the time, you know? As the peak of my career when I was winning events, we were winning always around $5000USD and then there were a couple of events that actually doubled it. And I remember a couple of guys actually complaining. It was ridiculous, they should have been ashamed of themselves. One event they equalled the prize money, I won the $10K which I think was the same as the men’s and some of the guys complained. It was just ridiculous and so chauvinistic. So we use to fight about the prize money all the time, but nothing really happened, it stayed pretty much the same. I think at the time men were typically earning around $40,000 for the win.
LH: That’s pretty radical…
WB: What is it now? Is it $60,000 for women and $100,000 for the men?
LH: Yea, I think that’s right. Just over half.
WB: Right, around half. Once again, my argument then was the same as a woman now: I train just as hard, I surf just as much, I pay the same for my airfares and my accommodation. All my costs are the same and I put in the same effort --- so why don’t I get better prize money, or equal? That’s the reason women’s tennis players and golfers do.
You know what they generally use to always say to us? ‘Nobody cares about women’s surfing, nobody wants to watch it.’ And you know, I get it, we didn’t surf as well or as exciting. But on par, there was probably the same pay gap then as there is now…. But I think women have bridged and caught up to men’s surfing a lot. So, I just can’t see how they cannot award equal prize money.
And, you know, the other thing they always say is ‘Well, there are so many more male surfers on the planet.’ But I don’t know how that’s an excuse for them. And there’s more men on the WSL…and that’s what they’d say to us, too. That ‘there’s 32 of you and however many of the men.’ So they always have an excuse, but when all of the costs are the same and you put in the same amount of effort ….
LH: Equal pay for equal work…
WB: Yeah, and that’s how it should be, but they’re just behind. Don’t you think?
LH: I do. It seems like a whole generation will have to die off before there’s much more change.
WB: That’s exactly it. That’s what I’ve always said, even about the ASP – there’s just too many old farts in there that have been there forever with their stupid rules and their stupid opinions. And they were chauvinistic. There were the good ones, there were some great guys that really cared about the women surfers and talked us up and were great to us. And then there were the total chauvinistic pigs. There were just too many of them. And that just holds the sport back.
I mean, there’s still guys around from my day in the administration.
LH: Women drive 70-80% of all consumer purchasing. Though none of the endemic surf brands would give me the stats outright (not even percentages) there’s a sneaking suspicion that many of the women’s surf brands are on par with, if not outselling, their brotherly brands. If broader consumer habits are any indication, then women are probably making the lion’s share of surf wear purchases, including buying for the men in their lives. Who’s spending the majority of money that trickles down into marketing budgets that largely favour male athletes, men’s surfing and events? Possibly women.
WB: I wouldn’t be surprised. When all the brands came out with women’s clothing, they’d be making so much more money. Guys don’t buy anything, they buy one pair of boardies per season, and that’s it! It’s insane! And that sorta came after me, so I was wearing men’s t-shirts. But now, the Billabongs and the Quiksilvers that sponsor those events, they’re making more money out of the women than they are the men.
LH: How were you paying for your travel when you were on tour
WB: I had sponsors at that time. I also had amazing management, which not many girls did. Greg and Donna Day were outstanding. Donna was a real go-getter, so I had brands outside of surfing supporting me. I had Suzuki four-wheel drives and MBF, the Medical Benefit Foundation, so I was earning pretty good money. But then I’d pay my airfare and travel costs out of that sponsorship money.
LH: How did the opportunity to pose nude in Playboy (and grace its cover) come about?
WB: A really, really good friend of mine, who I’ve known since I got Australia, he was a photographer and his name was Adam Watson then, but now it’s Adam Parcell. He’s a brilliant photographer. I think he shot for Playboy at the time, so they approached him. He came to me and said “Playboy want to do a nude shoot” and I went “oh yeah, okay, whatever.” I didn’t really say ‘yea, sure I’ll do it.’
Actually, his first mention of it was Penthouse, and I went “not a chance.” That’s ridiculous. You know how those shoots are. Then he came back and said “Well, what about Playboy? It’ll be really subtle and great.” And I went “ahhh, I’ll have a think about it.” And then the money started coming into play. Because he [the photographer] was a friend of mine and I was really comfortable – I’d done a lot of shoots with him anyhow, not nude, but for swimwear or watches or whatever. And, ah, I got to the point where I went, you know what --- at that age I felt pretty good abut myself and my body. And then the money got to the point where I couldn’t refuse it because it was going to help pay my mortgage off.
I was never prudish, I was a typical Australian. Like, I never wore a swimsuit top on the beach or anything. So wasn’t a prude. So I went ‘hell yea – let’s do this thing’ and we did it. They chose a bunch of photos and I got to go through them and say yes, no, yes, no, yes no. And when I was happy with the ones they were using, that was it.
There were times as my kids got older and the internet, where I was like geez ahhh, here we go. But my kids know and they’ve seen them. And my daughter thinks they’re awesome. My son doesn’t say anything – I’ve never actually gotten the photos out and showed him, but he would have seen them on the internet.
Frikin hell, we’ve all got it haven’t we? I’m that kind of person – it really doesn’t phase me at all. There were a couple of negs. There’s always a few negs in your life, but most of the feedback I got was positive. Which was good, I suppose, because too much negativity probably would have bummed me out about it.
LH: Did it feel like a statement at the time? Or was it just good money?
WB: It did. It did. When I got interviewed at the time, I think I said things like ‘I just wanted to prove that we are women – but we get treated like second class males on the tour.’ A lot of the women on tour at the time were sort of butch and more aggressive than the girls now, as far as surfing goes and all of that. It was different then, you know. We were still learning how to speak to the media. But for me it was a statement, “This is me, I’m loud and I’m proud.” (laughs) Suck on that…. And I paid my mortgage off! (laughs).
LH: Yea, it was an interesting stand as a woman – in the early 90s when ….XXX.
It’s interesting to see how a lot of female surfers today have taken your strategy to heart. Your issue was the fastest sell-out copy of Australian Playboy ever. You helped to break women’s surfing into the mainstream by being at the top of your game athletically and choosing to do Playboy. It’s pretty fascinating…
WB: (laughs) Yea, as surfer a lot of people wouldn’t have even known who I was. It was kinda cool. I don’t really talk about it that much, you know.
LH: There’s a lot of talk about the sexualisation of women’s surfing now and how it’s good for the popularity of the sport, or bad for the image of the sport. What’s your take ?
WB: I don’t think it’s oversexualised. It’s one of those sports where you’re pretty much not wearing much anyhow. It’s not like there’s a uniform for surfing. If you surf, you’re in swimwear.
LH: Do you think with the younger female surfers focusing a lot more on their bodies and creating a sexier image, do you think it detracts from their surfing ? Does it detract from them as athletes.
WB: Maybe a little. A lot of the time men are commenting on that instead of their surfing. So maybe that is a little bit of a distraction, but that’s their choice. I’ll sit and watch and I’ll often go ‘oh, wow, she’s adjusting [her bikini] all the time, that must be a pain,’ but it doesn’t take away from me seeing what an incredible surfer they are.
LH: For me it largely comes down to the money. Because there are fewer sponsorship opportunities for women, and women are making less from their sponsors than men generally are and making less in terms of prize money ---
WB: Yeah, they’ve got to put it out there more ---
LH: --- maybe they’re trying to make up for the bias in the industry by using what they’ve got, the thing that our culture does value above all else --- it was true for you and it’s still true today: nudity is lucrative business for women in ways that few ability based attributes are.
WB: …Which is a little bit sad in that way, isn’t it? They can’t just be themselves. She might actually be the kind of girl that would rather cover up, but she feels that that’s how she has to portray herself so she can pull in a few more sponsors. So, that side of it is probably a bit sad.
LH: Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure, especially with social media involved. It doesn’t feel like there’s a pure choice to be made because our culture radically skews the playing field toward the sexy and rewards that kind imagery with more fame, money, etc.
WB: Exactly. It worked in our day, as well. I had all of those sponsors at one point and I was probably earning $100,000 a year, which was really good money in those days. But I remember some of the other girls saying to me ‘how are we supposed to get sponsorships if we don’t look like you? Blonde haired, blue eyes and tanned.’ I mean, on top of that I was winning world titles, but it was the same sort of thing. There were only so many dollars to go around. If you were super popular, photographed well and you surfed reasonably well, you would get the sponsorship.
LH: So at the end of the day, was your decision to do Playboy about money? About doing what needed to be done, which was pay off your mortgage?
WB: Absolutely. That was more than 50% why I chose to do it. It was financial. I bought my first home, a little apartment in Sydney, when interest rates were 6-7%. Within 8 months they went to 18%. So I was under the pump. I was under a lot of pressure to pay the mortgage and surf on the Women’s World Tour in the 80s and 90s and there wasn’t that much money around.
LH: What changes stick out to you most in surfing culture over the last couple of decades?
WB: Oh wow. For one it’s just the sheer number of women and girls that surf. I just love it. I surf out the front here at Miami/Mermaid sometimes and I’ve had a few surfs where there’s 6 or 8 of us out and 3 or 4 guys and we’ll sit there laughing – going oh wow, there’s more girls in the water than guys. Just everybody surfs. Which can be kind of a bummer because the crowds are just horrendous on the Gold Coast. I love the way grew up, you could get any wave you wanted.
And the standard of surfing is mind blowing. I’d have loved to have been born two decades later. I believe I’m coming back anyhow … and when I come back I’m gonna start surfing when I’m like four. It’s all about the front foot stuff now. They surf like they skate and snowboard. I would have loved to have been able to do airs and tail slides and stuff like that. I’m just too old to learn it now because everything just hurts (laughs).
LH: Who inspired your surfing most?
WB: Martin Potter was a massive hero of mine and so was Tommy Curren. They were probably the two biggest influences. And probably Shaun Thompson, just for an all-around nice guy who looked out for me.
LH: When I was researching for our chat, I was surprised at how few interviews I could find with you, in your own words. I’m surprised at how few of the female forerunners get played or documented in surfing culture and media. What does it feel like to see the guys who were winning world titles at the same time as you get celebrated in our culture, while you’re not really getting recognized for your achievements? Is that something that you’ve even thought about?
WB: It actually hurts, to tell you the truth. I mean its life, it doesn't hold me back or anything, but when you see they are having a men’s heritage heat in Manly or wherever and all the men from our era are in it and its just a fun expression session really, why would they not include a few women? The WSL contacted us when they first took over and said they were going to include us but nothing has come of it as yet for our generation of women.
At the end of the day it doesn't really matter, but it stings a little. And I'm glad you asked that question because I gave up a lot when I changed my citizenship at 19 (everything and everybody I knew and loved really! ) and haven't been acknowledged as an Australian in any surfing history museums (that I’m aware of).
So what am I? Its like I don't have a country. I have lived here for all these years. I am 50 now and don't have a country. I had to give up my South African passport, as in those days you could not keep both. While I was winning World Titles I was recognized as Australian, but now I'm not in any surf museums as an Australian or anything. I’m just not sure why.
LH: Is there a heat that you look back on most fondly?
WB: Probably, but the thing that I look back on the most is 1989, where I won 7 out of 12 events and ran the world title in before we even got to Hawaii. Nothing beats that, winning 7 events in a year. I don’t know if anyone else has even done it. I only did the full tour for about 7 years, and I won about 24 major events in those 7 years.
We never really got to surf sensational waves, ever. Our waves were always average. So I don’t have memories of like perfect, perfect waves in heats. We had fun Bells Beach, but, once again, we were the second class citizens so whenever it was crap, we’d get put out there. I had better freesurfs at Winkipop than I ever, ever had in any heats in my whole life cause we’d always get put out when the tide was bad and the wind was onshore.
LH: After more than three decades surfing, what’s been the most fulfilling part of your surfing life?
WB: Ahh, I think it’s a bit of everything. The funnest part was probably learning how to surf in South Africa and all the friendships there. The guys were amazing. I was treated like a princess – they would all drop everything to give me a lift to the beach, just endless help and support. That was the most amazing thing ever. And going in amateur events in that first three or four years – I had a lot of fun at that. Those memories last a lifetime. And then obviously the four world titles, that was amazing. It’s almost a blur now. And then having my kids, Jessica and Ethan. Those were probably my three biggest achievements.
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