Bikini contests, broken trophies – and no prize money: when female surfing was a wipeout

In 1993, the 23-year-old Australian Pauline Menczer was the best in the world at her sport: the newly crowned world surfing champion. But that year there was no prize money for the women’s title (Menczer’s best guess as to the men’s No 1 bonus is $30,000). To add insult to injury, the trophy she was handed on the podium in Honolulu rattled; the metal cup wasn’t fixed properly to the wooden base. “For years I thought they’d just not screwed it on tightly,” says Menczer on a video call from her home in Byron Bay.

One day she took the trophy down from the shelf to fix. “I thought it just needed tightening.” But it was broken. “I couldn’t believe they gave me a trophy like that!” says Menczer. No cash. Broken trophy. This sums up surfing’s attitude to women for decades – as revealed in a new documentary, Girls Can’t Surf. It tells the story of female surfers battling to be taken seriously in their own sport in the 80s and 90s; of rampant institutional sexism, and misogynistic men on the professional circuit (“They just need to look like women. Look feminine, attractive and dress well.”)

The director is film-maker and surfer Christopher Nelius, who had made a couple of films about male stars of the era. “Male surfing is so written about, so mythologised,” he says. “Surfing mythologises its athletes in a way that no other sport does. But it’s been male 99% of the time.” When he started researching women’s surfing of the 80s and 90s, he hit a brick wall. “There wasn’t a book, there wasn’t a film. There was nothing.” So, he picked up the phone to a couple of the women surfers. “They were like” – he pulls a stunned face – “‘What? You want to tell our story?’”

And what stories. If anyone deserved to have been handed a jumbo winner’s cheque in 1993 it was Menczer, who overcame tragedy and chronic illness to become world No 1. Growing up, her family was poor. When she was five, her taxi driver father was murdered in his cab. Her mother raised four children. “I don’t feel we missed out. My mum made sure we had fun. We basically lived at the beach.” In the evenings Menczer and her brothers would comb the Bondi sands picking up towels and clothes left behind by sun-seekers; anything they could flog at garage sales.

She learned to surf on half a board. “My brother had a softboard that broke. So I started on a broken board.” Girls in the water were rare in the 80s, and some male surfers could be aggressive: they would pull Menczer’s leg rope so she couldn’t catch waves. Occasionally, she was hit and pushed off her board. “Looking back, it seems crazy, but it was the norm then. I had 10 really nice guys around me. A lot of the other ones were just arrogant pigs.”

Pam Burridge on the podium holding up her winner’s cheque.
Surfer Pam Burridge on the podium holding up her winner’s cheque.

Since the age of 14, Menczer has lived with rheumatoid arthritis. In 1993 she was in agony. “I was in a bad way,” she says matter-of-factly. In footage from the tour, you can see her walking gently down to the water’s edge; every step painful. “But as soon as the hooter went, I’d surf like there was nothing wrong with me. My desire to win was incredible.” A surfing journalist interviewed in the film is wide-eyed with awe, saying: “Pauline was a diehard fighter.” Off the beach, friends sometimes pushed her in a shopping trolley so she wouldn’t have to walk.

All the female athletes in the film tell stories of determination and bloody-mindedness. Four-time world surfing champion Lisa Anderson left home at 16. Just weeks after giving birth, she was back on her board, having missed only two events. The 1990 world champion Pam Burridge talks about the pressure of being young having cameras shoved in her face and being constantly told to lose weight; she developed anorexia. Jodie Cooper was dropped by her sponsor after being outed. Menczer is also gay, but she hid it during her career.

Did she keep her sexuality a secret in part because of the toxic culture in surfing? “Absolutely. It was a boys’ club. People would say to me about Jodie: ‘What a waste.’ I heard nasty comments the whole time.” A female surfer she knew was attacked by a man for walking down the street holding hands with her girlfriend. “She got kicked in the lung. She nearly died. I decided it was safer not to come out.” When her then girlfriend came on tour, they would pretend she was her coach.

Menczer had to penny-pinch throughout her career. She never had a major sponsor – even after winning the world title. “Looks were definitely part of it. They were going for that blond-haired look.” With her freckled face and brown bob, her face didn’t fit. So she relied on the hustling she learned as a kid to make cash – buying Levi’s jeans in the US at $25 a pair and selling them in France for $150. On tour, she would sleep in her tent in friends’ back gardens. “If Coke was sponsoring, I’d fill my bag with Coke and give it to whoever I was staying with to say thank you.”

Pauline Menczer, right, with Jodie Cooper.
Pauline Menczer, right, with Jodie Cooper.

The surfing establishment didn’t try to hide what it thought of women. It treated them like second-class athletes. The women’s accommodation was often so bad they would sleep zipped up in their surfboard bags at the competition HQ. In 1989, organisers of a top event in California decided to drop the women’s competition so there would be more prize money for the men. (Of course, they kept the bikini contest.) A campaign by the female surfers resulted in a hasty U-turn.

Another trick on the professional circuit was sending the women out whenever the surf was bad, keeping the best waves for the men. Menczer still boils at the injustice. “It was never-ending. Seriously. I can’t tell you how many times that happened,” she says exasperated. “If the guys were surfing in the conditions we were surfing in they wouldn’t be shining either.”

The female surfers finally snapped in 1999, at a competition in South Africa. Ordered to surf in flat ocean, they sat down on the beach and refused to paddle out. Menczer had been trying to drum up support for a strike for months, but, still, she was nervous of getting fined: “I was living dollar to dollar.”

Surfers Jodi Cooper, Toni Sawyer and Pam Burridge sitting on a classic car with the sunset behind them in the 80s.
(Clockwise from left) Jodi Cooper, Toni Sawyer and Pam Burridge in the 80s.

Nelius pinpoints this as the turning point. “Their refusal to participate, to be told what to do. Being the squeaky wheel, which is the terrible position women are so often put in, having to fight tooth and nail. The change that has happened in surfing that’s so incredible, it’s hard fought, over years.”

Still, there was no silver-bullet moment, says Nelius. Equal pay in surfing only came after a photo went viral in 2018 showing the male and female winners of a junior competition on a podium holding cheques. The girl’s was for exactly half as much as the boy’s, prompting a Twitter storm. “Did the girl surf a different ocean that was easier?” It took being shamed on social media for the World Surf League to close the gender gap.

Menczer was working as a school bus driver when she was interviewed for the film. Since its release in Australia last year, she has had people coming up, angry on her behalf: how can a world champion be working as a bus driver? They’re missing the point, she says. “What’s wrong with being a bus driver? I enjoyed being a bus driver, giving kids a positive role model. People think that jobs define people. They don’t. I’ve never been super money-driven. I’m more happy-driven.”

Surfer Layne Beachley.
Surfer Layne Beachley.

She had to give up driving the bus after being diagnosed with a rare and painful auto-immune disease that affects her skin. Now, she works part-time as a carer.

The documentary has given Menczer a happy ending to her career. Forgotten by the surfing world, she has been reclaimed as a pioneer. A massive mural of her has been painted on the boardwalk at Bondi beach. “I got treated like the Queen when I went to Bondi.” Fans started a GoFundMe campaign to raise the $25,000 she should have won back 1993 (it made more than $60,000; she donated everything above the target to charity).

Now, there’s a new campaign for a statue in Bondi, Pauline in Bronze. She has even had a surfboard named in her honour, The Equaliser. “It’s been life-changing,” she says, beaming. “Now I’m getting sponsorship. Now I’m getting recognition. It’s so awesome. I feel like I’ve won the world title again.”