Alana Blanchard is late. We’ve chosen to meet for lunch in Newport Beach for an interview at an old-money restaurant on the waterfront, the kind where you can pull your yacht up to a slip in the back before motoring out to…another restaurant for cocktails? Your investment banker’s office? The yacht shop to buy another yacht? I do not know where you motor a yacht after lunch.
I do know that several people appear to be arriving by yacht, and that this is the type of place where the entry door features a brass plaque that reads, “Dress Code,” with no further explanation. The men’s restroom features ornately framed New Yorker cartoons, the raison d’etre for all of which seems to be that “the wife” can be a real pain in the ass, am I right you guys? In the bar, where I wait, the crowd runs older, but all the women are made up to look much younger than they are in the manner of the Southern California spring. Flowing maxi dresses, Tory Burch sandals, collagen injections, double-cheek kisses.
Alana is late because…well, because of course she’s late. She’s a busy woman—Internet celebrity, Sports Illustrated and Maxim swimsuit model, watery sex icon, and, oh yeah, Women’s World Tour surfer. She’s on the go so much that meeting up for this lunch in Southern California—one hour, that’s it—was something that took a few months of planning. When she finally had an open spot to make it into town, Monday became Tuesday morning became Tuesday afternoon became Wednesday morning became Wednesday lunch before she had to jet off again. Now it’s one o’clock, and we’ll have to leave by two. And now she is running late.
Alana Blanchard is the 10th-ranked female surfer in the world, and she is easily one of the most famous surfers on the planet, male or female. If that seems preposterous, it’s not.
But of course she’s also charming about it, and of course I get continual text message updates that indicate that she’s on her way, and she’s so sorry, is that OK? Of course it’s OK. I sit in the bar, and I watch rubber-molded women knock back elderflower cocktails with impressive efficiency. I wonder about what they’ll do with the rest of their day, and I decide that the word “treatment”—spa, botox, psychologist’s—will probably be involved in whatever’s next. Fifteen minutes later, Alana is here, 5’7″, light tan, long sandy-blonde hair down and straight, black jeans and a black top—an outfit that looks so effortless when set in relief against the women in the bar that I wonder if they’ll order one more and forego whatever treatment was scheduled to be next.
As we are seated on the patio, and as we make small chat, and as I contemplate the yachts in the back, I realize how ridiculous it is that I’m here, given that, to me, Alana Blanchard is more or less just a name I’ve heard a few times. I know next to nothing about her. I know that she is 23. I know that she is from Kauai. I know that she surfs. I know that surely there is somebody more qualified to write about her. And that’s about all I know. And then I realize that it’s exceedingly likely that I have been given this assignment primarily because I’m a married father of two with a daughter, and because I will behave myself around someone whose fame in surfing has much to do with…well, not surfing. In fact, Alana has become much bigger than a surfer, morphed into something much closer to an actual celebrity, which is why I was asked not to shadow her for a few days in the manner of the typical surf magazine profile, but rather to do a sit-down lunch, to treat Alana the celebrity in the same way that a men’s magazine would treat her.
Here’s something I learned when I did some last-minute enterprise reporting in the bar, by which I mean I Googled Alana Blanchard: Alana is not an uncommon name. And yet, type “Alana” into the world’s largest search engine and wait for it to suggest a search, and the first result will be “Alana Blanchard.” The next will be “Alana Blanchard bikinis.”
This will be followed by “Alana Thompson.” Alana Thompson, I now know because I clicked on that link, is the child reality TV sensation that your white-trash cousins know as “Honey Boo Boo.” I don’t know anything about Honey Boo Boo, but I know enough to know that plenty of people in Internetland really have a lot to say about Honey Boo Boo. The next search result will be “Alana de la Garza,” who, best as I could tell, is the actress who played a stern-but-sexy D.A.-type on Law & Order.
The point isn’t that Alana Blanchard is more popular than Honey Boo Boo and the lady from Law & Order. The point is that Alana Blanchard’s bikini is more popular than those two as well.
Which is probably why, when you Google Alana Blanchard, here’s what you get: You get a photo of Alana Blanchard disrobing in a shower while giggling at something just off frame (a shoot for Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, I’d later find out). You get a link to a YouTube video that I didn’t click on but which has a still image of what appears to be Alana Blanchard’s wet sideboob. You get Alana Blanchard in a bikini, slightly bent forward, giving you a come-hither stare (SI again). And finally, there in the bottom right corner, you get what I think is a picture of Alana Blanchard doing a bottom turn on a surfboard on a wave, but which is probably just a picture of Alana Blanchard’s ass in a thong. I’m hard pressed to say, because the photo is so closely cropped that I couldn’t tell what is actually happening on that wave, let alone how Alana Blanchard is riding it.
When you search for Alana Blanchard, you also get an excerpt from a Wikipedia entry that reads, “Alana Rene Blanchard is an American professional surfer and Bikini Model.” I do not know why “Bikini Model” is capitalized in this description and “professional surfer” is not, but I think it means something. Finally, at the bottom of the page, you get Google’s list of “Searches related to Alana Blanchard.” Among these are: “Alana Blanchard hot,” “Alana Blanchard photos,” “Alana Blanchard video,” “Alana Blanchard wallpaper,” “Alana Blanchard Instagram.” One thing you do not get, out of the eight suggested searches, is “Alana Blanchard surfer.” (Although, if you do a Google Image search for Alana Blanchard, the second recommended subcategory is “Bottom Turn.” And this, men of the world, is why everyone thinks that we are disgusting pigs.)
Despite the fact that nobody seems to notice, at the time of this search, Alana Blanchard is the 10th-ranked female surfer in the world, and she is easily one of the most famous surfers on the planet, male or female. If that seems preposterous, it’s not. Consider that fame is simply a metric of how many people recognize you, and then consider Alana’s 675,000-and-climbing Instagram followers, 200,000 more than Kelly Slater.
The question with the obvious answer is why? So let’s cut the shit. As we sit in this restaurant in the sun, and as I look out at the yachts, I know and Alana Blanchard knows that she is famous because she is attractive, and more specifically, she is famous because she looks good in a bikini. And I know and she knows that she is also famous because she seems aware of this fact, is unapologetic about it, and actively promotes it, regularly posting pictures of herself in a bikini online. And, lastly, I know and she knows that it would be incredibly fucking stupid to stop right there and choose to dismiss Alana Blanchard as simply a nice ass with a surfer attached to it, to ignore her considerable surfing accomplishments, even if plenty of people do.
But whatever. Because as we sit here on the back patio of this restaurant, and as I wonder when a Bento box became a lunch thing, and as Alana and I talk, I realize that Alana Blanchard is very aware of everything I’ve just written. She just doesn’t care.
“This is what’s comfortable,” she says, confidently. “Think about it like this—this is my job. If I went to a regular job, if I was a secretary or something, I’d want to look good. I’d dress up for that part. I like looking cute. So I want to look cute in the water. Because I’m a girl. Female athletes have bad reps of being butchy and all that. I just thought, I’m going to be a girl and see if I can do this. It’s probably half the reason I’m here. Not necessarily because I’m wearing little bathing suits, but because I actually wanted to be a girl. I wanted to be feminine.”
As I listen to Alana say this, I imagine a thousand feminists’ heads exploding in unison. Then I walk myself, as quickly as possible, through what I would presume to be their argument—that Blanchard’s fame has come primarily from the fact that she has sexualized herself, and that the sexualization of women in this way robs them and, to an extent, all women, of their humanity and their individuality and their natural female power. Maybe I got it right and maybe I didn’t, but before I can think it all the way through, I start to think about the historical precedent in surfing, and the fact that it was only two decades ago that Lisa Andersen and her generation made headlines by wearing boardshorts, a move that was taken as a statement regarding gender equality. Then I think about the fact that, although she says she did not do so consciously, Alana Blanchard and her bikinis have made headlines for exactly the opposite reason—not because she wanted to be able to dress like the guys, but because she wanted to be able to dress like the girls. Those girls. The sex-icon girls.
“Think about the top performers in the world. Look at Beyonce,” she explains. “She’s wearing these tiny little outfits, and everyone wants to see her sing because she’s looking amazing. Why can’t we? We want to look cute, too. Rihanna is wearing tiny little things. Not that we’re Rihanna and Beyonce, but they look hot, so why can’t we? Just because we’re athletes?”
And we’re back to the exploding of feminists’ heads. Except…is she wrong? At all? If equality is about choice, then isn’t Alana free to…oh, fuck it. I don’t know. Regardless, Alana says there was no calculated contemplation that informed her decision to surf contests in small bikinis. It was just happenstance, and perhaps a little bit of naivety.
“Looking back, I just didn’t care,” she says. “There’s a picture of me online in a straight thong at my first ’QS contest, thinking it’s totally normal. I just thought that’s what everyone wore, because coming from Kauai, that’s what everyone wore. Little bathing suits. Then at some point, I was like, ‘Oh, shit, I guess not all the girls wear these.’”
That realization didn’t stop her. “I didn’t care. I mean I still get hated on to this day, but I just don’t care. I think it looks cuter, and they stay on way better, too.”
I can’t speak to what form of women’s swimwear stays on the best, but clearly the Internet—and Blanchard’s legions of Instagram followers—have decided that her bikinis do, in fact, look “cute.” And Blanchard isn’t shy about the fact that much of her popularity is owed to those bikinis. Which explains why it’s tough to remember that Alana Blanchard can surf, that she’s more than just the girl who was played by Jack Nicholson’s daughter in the Bethany Hamilton biopic Soul Surfer. But Alana Blanchard can surf. Really well. Perhaps she hasn’t won any World Tour contests, and perhaps she’s not a favorite to ever win the World Title, but a lot of girls haven’t done either of those things. Alana Blanchard is the 10th-ranked female surfer in the world, and being the 10th best anything in the world, regardless of what you do or what you look like, is unfathomable for most of us.
“I had a good heat on the Gold Coast,” she says of a contest earlier in the year, “and the commentators were like, ‘I didn’t even know she could surf.’ I was like, ‘Thanks, guys.’”
“I am on the Tour,” she says, assertively, “and somehow people question that. I think people are just haters. When they see people doing well,
some people, if there’s something wrong, they’ll pick at that.”
In Blanchard’s case, it’s not that there’s anything wrong so much as it is that she’s easy to dismiss as a pretty face whose way was paved by being attractive. But of course being attractive doesn’t get you to the highest level as a professional athlete. And Blanchard’s surf pedigree runs deep—her father and uncle were vagabond surfers who finally ended up on Kauai in the ’70s, and Alana has been surfing since she was four.
“I had a good heat on the Gold Coast,” she says of a contest earlier in the year, “and the commentators were like, ‘I didn’t even know she could surf.’ I was like, ‘Thanks, guys.’ It’s cool that people finally know I can surf, but after that heat, everyone was saying, ‘Whoa, I didn’t even know you could surf.’”
Blanchard doesn’t necessarily blame sexism or a focus on her bikinis over her surfing for this misconception. It’s a misconception, she says, wrought by the fact that nobody watches women’s surfing.
“Obviously I wouldn’t be on the Tour if I wasn’t that good. But nobody sees our contests. We just had a contest in New Zealand, and no one heard about it. Not even my close friends.”
With the ASP under new management, a management that has plans to make promoting women’s surfing a priority, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t take advantage of Blanchard and all of her marketability, which is a polite way to say that it’s hard to imagine that they won’t promote women’s competitive surfing by selling its sex appeal. Girls frolicking in bikinis on beaches around the world, surfing, having a good time. That’s an easy sell. For her part, Blanchard has no problem being marketed as a sex symbol, so long as it doesn’t take away from her surfing.
“I don’t mind it. I always look up to girls like Beyonce, or Anna Kournikova,” she says. “Girls who do something well but also look good. I think every girl loves to feel sexy and, sure, there’s some creeps out there, but I’m putting myself out there. I guess I’m just working with what I have. I never knew that people would be so focused on that, but if they are, then that’s their choice. I just want my surfing to show, too.”
As I listen to her say this, I suddenly realize that I’ve never seen Alana Blanchard surf. But just as soon the bill comes and I realize that I’ve never seen her Instagram account or her modeling photos, either. And as I hold the door for her, and as she walks through, and as I don’t look at her ass, and as I watch her walk out the door, I think about her response to my last question: “If you were going to write a profile about yourself, what would
“I don’t know,” she said. “That’s a tricky one. It must be hard for you to write these things because everyone has a different opinion about everyone. I’m sure everyone perceives me in a different way. People are funny in that way, but I’m happy and that’s all that matters. So, you just can’t listen to those…funny people.”
And there she goes: A young woman who’s happy, who’s aware that she’s talented and attractive, and who’s not afraid to capitalize on either of those things, and who knows that those “funny people” don’t matter.
This article originally appeared in our November Issue.
Read two-time World Champion Carissa Moore’s take on the future of women’s surfing.