LOS ANGELES — Most retirees enjoy a glass of wine while watching an ocean sunset, but not big-wave surfer Keala Kennelly.
Since quitting the women’s pro tour, the sun-bleached blonde has been riding the Southern California waves for HBO’s new surf drama, “John From Cincinnati,” where she must face such unexpected obstacles as dead goats floating offshore.
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“It was the opposite of what I was expecting,” Kennelly says of playing her first major Hollywood role, fictitious surfboard-shaper Kai. “It was a new adventure.”
Lending sass and sweetness to a dysfunctional family of surfing legends, Kai is a younger, harder version of Kennelly. “She’s still really tomboyish and lives in a rough environment,” Kennelly, 28, says. Still, Kai is intuitive and compassionate when dealing with the show’s namesake, a character who may not hail from this planet. “Her heart is like gold,” Kennelly says, sitting in a park near her downtown Los Angeles loft.
Named after the Hawaiian word meaning “sweet” or “the way,” Kennelly grew up surfing with two brothers in Kauai, Hawaii, home to the North Shore’s towering waves. She counts Laird Hamilton, the king of big-wave surfing, as her godfather, and renowned shredders Andy and Bruce Irons as childhood mentors. Adding to the pressure of being surrounded by macho men, however, was being a “haoli,” or Caucasian, in Hawaii. “I got called every name in the book and it was hard,” Kennelly recalls.
To escape, she played make-believe, acting out diverse characters such as a ninja, a polar bear in the tropics or Robin Hood. Just before her 17th birthday, she turned pro and spent 10 months of the year chasing waves in Brazil, Spain, Australia, Hawaii, Fiji and Tahiti. She also experienced the obligatory “wild child” phase, scrawling the phrase “Be Yourself” on her panties and flashing the audience at one surf industry gala.
Kennelly’s energetic personality helped snare sponsorships with brands including Billabong clothing, Vestal watches and Spy Optic sunglasses. Under the KK Comp Series label, she also designs swimsuits and boardshorts for Billabong and moonlights as a DJ, spinning house music at parties and nightclubs. A recent design is a boardshort covered with paint splotches and images of headphones and unraveling cassette tapes, which Billabong aims to market in 2008.
“She’s definitely a style icon in the surf industry,” says Isabelle Tihanyi, a friend and co-founder of an all-women’s surf camp called Surf Diva in La Jolla, Calif. Tihanyi recalls the time Kennelly rallied sulking surfers on a rainy day by sporting black leather pants, matching platform leather boots covered in buckles, a ripped tank and a full face of makeup. “She looked like she was going to an underground club in L.A.,” Tihanyi remembers. “It was two in the afternoon on the North Shore.”
Surfers are rooting for Kennelly to succeed in her new venture. “Whether it was on tour or off tour, her reckless abandon [and] her bravado hopefully inspired women to go out and not be afraid,” says Jake Howard, senior editor at Surfer magazine.
But Kennelly isn’t done with surfing. She plans to compete in July’s X Games in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. She also became the first woman in Billabong’s elite Adventure Division, which pays her to be photographed and filmed surfing the best waves around the world. “Being in front of a camera is not completely foreign to me,” Kennelly admits.