Tom Curren, everyone’s favorite surfer, turns 50 years old today.
I’m deeply invested in Tom Curren’s greatness as a surfer. So deeply invested that I’ve sometimes wondered, over the past 30-plus years, if his awkward turns on the public stage are maybe a kind of long-running performance art piece designed to shame the rest of us at the way surfing has been chopped, mixed, adulterated, and pressure-molded into a tool of commerce. Jesus, I mean, look at Tom here. And here. You older guys: remember sitting at the local Bijou and squirming through this 1986 interview?
When I put on my tin foil Tom Curren hat and light candles at his altar in my basement, I imagine that Tom, in these and many other cringe-inducing media moments, was simply bringing his artistry to bear in a new and different way. Big ideas were at play. Atonement. Purification. The creative thought process being something like, “Yes, I will do the Bucci Sunglasses ad exactly as described. I will lay back on a beach towel wearing these crap knockoff Ray-Bans, and make a surprised face because there’s a giant shark—delicious unintended metaphor, anyone?—swimming through the sand right behind me. The shot will run full-page. The juxtaposition between the way I surf and the absurd way surfing is presented will trigger a conversation about the aesthetic, even moral, dangers of commercialization. Oh sweet muse, thank you!”
Every interview I ever did with Tom Curren was a bust. Except one. It was winter, 1996, early evening. Maybe Tom was relaxed from a good afternoon of surf, maybe he had the beginnings of a convivial beer buzz, maybe he was in trouble with his sponsors, maybe I just caught him off guard. Who knows. But he picked up the phone, we exchanged a pleasantry or two, and the man suddenly just opened up. Didn’t evade. Didn’t string together clichés. When he compared professional surfing to a non-fatal form of cancer, my fantasy version of Tom Curren melded into the real Tom Curren.
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For the past five years your life as a surfer has mostly been spent traveling the world to shoot movies and photos, rather than surfing in contests. Does traveling better fit your idea of what a pro surfer’s life should be like?
No. Competition is really the pure form of pro surfing, to me. Because it’s not trying to be anything more than it is. Contests are the most honest way to make a living in surfing. The whole point is: “Who’s going to win the contest or the world title?” Once you bring money into it, that’s the way it ought to be. It’s more of a source of pride, to me, to make money from contests rather than endorsements.
So this recent soul-revival thing…
A lot of surf companies are trying to say that contests are bogus, and it’s all about soul, and they’re trying to sell the idea of soul, but…well, I think that might be called “crass roots.”
The photo pro deal is kind of a scam, then?
It is a bit of a scam, I guess. But it goes both ways. I actually spend a lot more time now conforming what the company wants. Since I quit the World Tour, my job, basically, is to fulfill the wishes of the company [Rip Curl]; just do whatever they want me to do, in whatever way they want me to do it. I have way less choice in the matter. It used to be that I’d say, “Look, I have to concentrate on the next contest, and I have two weeks off next month, so I’m going to go home and rest.” I can’t do that anymore. So from that standpoint, it’s become [long pause] basically a corporate-type job. Not that I can really cry about it. I’ve got money, and the money is good. But we’re all polluted and perverted to one degree or another by being pro surfers, or working in the surf industry.
So where does that leave you?
Right where I am. I mean, it gets uncomfortable at times. It’s kind of like a big polyp. You have to ask, “Can I live with the polyp?” If you can, and lots of people can, that’s fine.
You sound kind of frustrated.
Yeah, well, it’s a little hard to talk about. We’re all really fortunate, anyone who gets to travel around the world and surf. But basically its a three-ring deal between companies, pro surfers, and the magazines.
Do you think things were better in the past?
That’s a good question. I don’t think I can really answer. I know it used to be that surfers usually made their own boards, or promoted boards, and that’s how they generated income. Now most of the money comes from clothing, which really doesn’t have all that much to do with surfing.
How would you improve professional surfing?
What would be nice, and what I’d hope for in the future, is that surfers would be free agents, where they’d get paid—according to demand and how much people want to see them—to get together at different places around to world to surf in contests and give demonstrations. So everyone gets a paycheck, but meanwhile they’d be independent, and not have to put stickers all over their boards from companies they may or may not believe in.
How much money did you make, a year, at your peak?
[long hesitation] Maybe about $250,000
How come surfers are so secretive about the amount of money they earn?
I don’t know. Maybe they think the IRS reads surf magazines.