Resurfacing ‘Life’s Swell,’ the Story That Produced ‘Blue Crush’
How Susan Orlean reported the classic Outside story about the surf girls of Maui
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In 1998, Susan Casey, then the editor of Women Outside, a monthly Outside magazine offshoot, sent Susan Orlean to Maui, Hawaii, with the vague direction to track down a list of young women thought to be serious surfers. Orlean, who has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992, did just that—only to find that none of the women actually surfed.
Luckily, a tip led Orlean to the small, remote town of Hana, way over on Maui’s east side. There she met Theresa, Angie, and Lilia, the surfers who would star in Orlean’s story of young women on the cusp of adulthood.
The Original Story Behind ‘Blue Crush’To be a surfer girl in Maui is to be the luckiest of creatures. It means you’re beautiful and tan and ready to rip. It means you’ve caught the perfect dappled wave and are on a ride that can’t possibly end.
That piece, which ran under the headline “Life’s Swell,” eventually grew into the 2002 film Blue Crush, starring Kate Bosworth, Sanoe Lake, and Michelle Rodriguez. The film performed all right at the box office, and yeah, some of the scenes of Pipeline are a little cringey (that’s what you get when you superimpose Bosworth’s face on surfer Rochelle Ballard’s body, or when you put North Shore big-wave surfer Noah Johnson in a blond wig for some of the action shots), but the movie eventually became a cult classic, inspiring all sorts of young women to head to the waves.
Here, surf writer Daniel Duane chats with Orlean about how “Life’s Swell” came to be.
OUTSIDE: I just reread the Maui-girls story, which is so fun, and it kicks off with a totally sparkling lead. I understand how somebody just started reading it and thought, This is a movie right now.
ORLEAN: Oh, thanks. Doing the story was really fun, and it just kind of fell together. The writing fell together easily, which was nice.
Tell me how the story came to be. How did the assignment happen?
Well, it was kind of funny. I had been doing stuff for Outside, and Susan Casey, who was then running Women Outside, said to me, “How would you like to do a story about these girls who are big surfers in Hawaii?” Generally, I come up with my own story ideas. It’s rare that I respond well to someone’s suggestion. But I thought it sounded great. And as I recall, I basically got a flight and went, and when I arrived in Maui, I started calling the different girls whose names Susan had given me. And one after another, they said, “Oh, I don’t surf anymore” or “Yeah, I’m not that interested in surfing.” It was every reporter’s nightmare. It was like, “What? You don’t surf anymore? Here I am in Maui, and I spent all this time and the magazine’s money to come here, and none of you guys surf?” I was very discouraged.
I talked to Susan and sorta said, “Look, the story’s a bust, so sorry, but, you know, I don’t think it’s going to happen.” And she said, “Stick around another day or two, you know, see what you can find.” There was one girl on the list that I had been given who was a bodysurfer. And I had originally not called her, because that was not quite what I was looking for, but I thought, Well, she’s the last person on my list. Why don’t I call her? And she answered the phone, and we spoke a bit, and I confided in her and said, “I’m going crazy because this list of names that I was given, none of these girls surf anymore.” And she said, “Oh, those aren’t the real surfers. I don’t know who gave you that list. But those girls aren’t the real surfers. The real surfers are out in Hana, and I can introduce you to all of them.” And it was like, “Oh my God, are you serious?” She basically took me in hand and introduced me to this whole group of girls who were really serious about surfing. I think the other girls had surfed a little and it was kind of a short-term hobby, but these were the girls who were really serious about it and devoted to it. So it was sort of pay dirt. And it was of course the better story than the one that I had set off to do—or certainly the better subjects. I mean, they were exactly what I had hoped the other girls were all about, and they were just the wrong people.
Do you remember that first drive out to Hana?
Oh my God, yeah. Anybody who has done that drive doesn’t forget it, because it is a very challenging road. It’s not very far, and I’m a totally fearless driver—I have no fear of driving anywhere—but it’s the most harrowing drive, and [you’re] doing it in a rental car where you have no idea the quality of the car’s tires or traction. It was actually very interesting because Maui—certainly where I was staying—is very developed, very civilized, you know? You come to believe that all of Maui is very developed, so driving to Hana, it’s a real surprise to go through parts of Maui that are so wild and undeveloped and rugged. I mean, it was very cool.
How about when you came down into that town? You described going to that general store, and I know that general store, so when you come down into the town and you go to that general store, how did Hana itself strike you?
You know: classic small town, where everybody knows where everybody is. And clearly everybody knows everybody. I mean, all I had to do was stand there for a few minutes and I could find out where all the girls were. Part of what was really interesting was how you’re in a town where people truly keep an eye on each other and know each other literally on a first-name basis. It’s also very Hawaiian. I remember being in that store and seeing all those kinds of rice-ball snacks and Spam snacks, which when you’re in the main part of Maui that’s much more developed, more touristy, you don’t get quite as much a feel for—the real Hawaii, the Hawaii that is not for tourists but for the people who live there full time and really are part of the culture. And I really felt it there, like I was seeing Hawaii in a very different way.
I remember once being down at the beach there, watching kids after school surfing on small waves. I can’t remember the name of the beach, but it struck me as one of those rare glimpses of paradise there, the lives of those kids in the water. I guess I can imagine being there, and meeting those girls, and seeing them in the water and thinking, Wow, this is really a special scene out here.
Oh yeah. It seemed very authentic. That’s one thing about Hawaii—as a tourist, you can be frustrated sometimes, feeling like you’re never really seeing the place, that you’re always seeing some kind of tourist version of it, and this felt authentic. It also seemed idyllic—although that’s partly an illusion as well. A lot of these girls didn’t have intact families, and it wasn’t purely a kind of Mayberry experience. Some of them had fairly tough lives. So the setting is idyllic, and the idea that you come after school and go surf, all of that, of course, seems like paradise. But there’s a lot of complexity as well.
There’s a really nice description at the end of your piece. You described your plane sort of rising up over the island and looking back down and wanting to think of those girls as always there. And that story had such a life after your departure. I mean, of course, the writing of the article and then the movie that was loosely based on it. How does that memory sit with you now, when you think of that moment in the plane looking back down?
A lot of what interested me in doing this story was, when I’ve written about young people, the sense that the age at which you view them is an eternal age at which they will remain forever. You know, when you’re writing about adults, you aren’t thinking about the transitions their life will take. They’re an adult. They’re fully formed. You just see them as a person who you’re catching at a moment. I think when you’re writing about young people, for me, I’m always acutely aware of how transitory the moment is, and that the moment at which I am seeing them is just one very specific moment, and it will change. So there’s a lot of poignancy for me in those stories, because you know the minute you put it down on paper, they’ll have changed, and it will immediately become a sort of reference to another point of their lives.
In the case of the girls, too, I was catching them while they were inflamed with this enthusiasm, and they all fantasized that they would become professional surfers. As an adult who knew a little bit more about maybe how the world works, I knew that that dream was unlikely to come to fruition for most of them, if not all of them. So I was catching them also at a moment where they still believed in this possibility, and they hadn’t yet had the more rude awakening of reality that, no, they probably weren’t gonna make a living as professional surfers. So it’s capturing a dream in its most buoyant moment before the very kind of drab reality of possibility lands and punctures it.
I’ve been a surfer for 30-plus years, and I saw Blue Crush when it came out, and I’ve written and thought a lot about surf culture over the years, so I have a real sense of what a cultural milestone it was. I’m really curious to hear your sense of the relationship between the girls you met and their lives, and the story told in Blue Crush, and why it had the effect in the culture that it did at the time.
You know, it’s so interesting. I mean, I haven’t seen Blue Crush in ages, so I can’t speak really authoritatively about it, but the girls were a little older in the movie, they had relationships with boys that were more developed. The girls that I wrote about, many of them were still kids. The girls in the movie, as I recall, some of them were working and they were just like, they kicked up their age a little bit, perhaps to give them a bit more independence and agency. But I felt that the intention of the movie was very close to the spirit of the story.
Why has this movie caught on? I feel like it’s an evergreen. I barely meet anyone who hasn’t seen it, particularly women who say, “Oh, yeah, we used to watch it in my dorm room in college all the time.” It’s one of those movies that, when it came out, I think the box office was unimpressive. It was fine. It wasn’t a blockbuster by any means. But it seems to have had a stickiness that many movies don’t have. Was it because it was an early movie about women’s surfing? For all I know, it was the first movie ever about women’s surfing. Although I guarantee you that the number of women who have watched the movie who are surfers is probably low. Is it some sense of freedom and physical strength? I’m not sure. I mean, I think if you could identify what quality about it has made it something of a cult movie… I mean, the cinematography is great. The cast seems to truly embody the characters. Are they great actors? Who knows. But they certainly cast that movie perfectly. It seems to have captured the quality of independence and self-determination without being didactic that kind of caught people’s imagination.
How do you think the culture has evolved since then? The very fact that there was a Women’s Outside magazine in which the article first appeared seems an artifact of the time. And I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how our culture around women in sports and women being depicted as strong athletes with agency has changed. There’s that sort of curious quality in the movie, where the lead girl is both trying to surf Pipeline, which is this extremely dangerous technical wave, and dating an NFL guy who happens to be vacationing on the island. So she’s kind of in the braver position, there’s a sort of an interesting inversion. How do you think the culture has moved since then around those kinds of stories?
Well, I think it’s easy to forget how fresh the idea was at that time. I don’t remember the year that movie came out, but now when we see women in just about every sport, and women referees in the NFL, there’s been a considerable sort of speeding up of acceptance of women as athletes. And in fact, I would argue that many of the real standout athletes of the past ten years have been women. Serena Williams, Simone Biles. You’ve got the women’s soccer team and so forth. So I think that it’s been normalized in a kind of accumulative way. We’ve forgotten that, at the time that Blue Crush came out, at the time my story came out, it was kind of surprising.
Even for people who felt quite comfortable with the tenets of feminism, I don’t know that women doing certain sports like surfing had become familiar and common. It just wasn’t a sport that women had penetrated in a very public way. I think the ability of women athletes has been so amply demonstrated over the past ten or fifteen years that we’ve become fairly used to it. But back then it was still a bit of a surprise. And for these girls, there were not a lot of women professional surfers [who were] role models. That just wasn’t yet a familiar sight, and coverage of women’s sports, which I think is a huge part of it, was still given short shrift.
As a journalist and a writer, what was the experience of writing that article and having it turn out the way it did, and its transformation into the movie, and its long life to this day? Were there any lessons about the relationship between life and writing? And what makes a compelling story for you? Did you have any takeaway over the years, mulling that experience?
I think I’ve always been permitted the luxury of following my curiosities and my intuition about what makes a good story. And I’ve always shied away from the story that is about a woman performing something that is not normally associated with women, because that had become a kind of tired trope in magazines—you know, the first woman arc welder, or whatever. So I think that I’ve avoided those stories. There was something about going, “Oh my God, oh my God, there’s a woman doing a man’s job” that really offended me, because you think, Well, wait a minute, this shouldn’t be treated as a crazy freak show; we should accept it as that’s the way things should be, so let’s not turn it into a big deal. But the bottom line is, I didn’t write the story with that as the point. I just thought, This is an interesting thing to observe, and I don’t have to feel burdened by this idea that, oh, the big point of the story is girls doing a man’s sport, but instead let’s go past that and write about the experience that these girls have doing this sport. I think this goes to the more general sort of philosophy about writing and about looking for the story that really resonates. The thing that moves you as a writer is the thing you should go toward, rather than feeling like you’re kind of checking a box.
It seems to me that there really is a lesson for the young writer in there—that you just went after the emotional quality of these girls’ lives that resonated with you.
I think that’s what I’m trying in a fumbling way to say: that once you establish in your mind, “Oh, this is a story that has some special interest to me because it’s a bit unusual to see girls surfing,” then that’s not the story. That may be a justification for the story, but that’s not the actual story. The actual story lives in the emotion of it, and the characters, and the people, and the actual story—not the policy position.