Photo by David Black, Words by Jason Crombie
This story was published in Issue #47 of Monster children. Buy a copy here.
Austyn Gillette sips iced tea and surveys the scene. We’re poolside at a Los Angeles hotel on a bright, balmy Saturday in spring. A long row of sunbathing girls roll and adjust their towels; two sculpted dude-creatures saunter past and regard us through their ridiculous sunglasses; a fat, bald man spins slowly in a pink inflatable tube. Drinks are served and house music thumps. It’s like a fucking vodka commercial. ‘It’s like a fucking vodka commercial,’ I say. Austyn smiles. ‘It is.’ I feel terrible about bringing him here; he came out of surgery three days ago—his third meniscus operation in six months—and he is literally lame. He can walk (gingerly), but he can’t skate, and he certainly can’t drink the five to six margaritas n eeded to make this setting even remotely tolerable. But he seems content to sit feet-up in the shade and spitball themes for his Monster Children cover story. ‘“Rags to riches”?’ he screws up his nose. ‘“The life and times of Austyn Gillette”?’ Hmmm… ‘What about “Phoenix rising from the ashes”?’ He turns to look at me a moment, then returns his gaze to the pool. ‘That sounds about right.’ And it is right, but it’s the story of a phoenix that has risen more than once before.
Austyn Wills Gillette was born on June 21, 1991. His first home was twelve miles south-east of Los Angeles in a city called Whittier, and his mother—then divorced from his father—bought him his first skateboard when he was seven. At the time, both he and his brother Chad played ice hockey, and the cost was adding up. The boys were gently urged towards skating. ‘That was the beginning. Mom got me a Blind James Craig board, a reaper, and my brother got a Wet Willy. Classic little starter packs.’ The brothers’ enthusiasm for skating was instantaneous, and it wasn’t long before they were pretending to do the tricks they saw in videos and magazines, taking photos of one another with disposable cameras. ‘We’d be out there in our baggy jeans and little Muska beanies with the bill, taking photos—like, place the board on the curb, stand on it, get the photo. I wish I still had those pictures.’
While his brother shared his time between ice hockey and skating, Austyn focused his energy entirely on his new passion, and by age ten he was looking to get sponsored. ‘There was a skate shop called the Last Stop Boardshop, owned by Eric Bouvet; he was the one that saw me at the skate park and started filming me.’ Eric sent sponsor-me tapes out to companies, but the response was limited (‘I think I got a pair of Emericas or something’). It wasn’t until he placed first in a competition in San Diego that Austyn nailed his first benefactor: Hawk. ‘Tony was at the contest because his son Riley was competing too. Riley got third, I got first. That was probably the last time I got first at a contest.’ Hawk approached Austyn and his father, and offered to give Austyn free product. He was stoked. As was his father. ‘My dad was fuckin’ nudging me, like, “Well, this is pretty good, son. I won’t have to buy you clothes and you’ll get free skateboards. Maybe we should do this, right?”’ More sponsors came in over the next couple of years—Termite, Flip, Element—and the young Gillette realised that a career in skating might be a possibility. If he worked hard, he could turn pro.
‘Wait, wait, wait.’ I have to stop him here. ‘You knew you could go pro when you were ten?’ He frowns at me over his sunglasses and chews his straw for a second. ‘I was older than ten. But I wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going pro.” It was in the back of my mind, though.’ He turns back to the pool and I order another margarita from our swimsuit-model waitress. ‘Okay— Termite, Flip, Hawk. You were getting free stuff. Continue.’ Besides a steady stream of free product, sponsorship also introduced Austyn to a concept that would serve him well in the coming years: self-reliance. He began travelling without his parents, flying countrywide for demos and getting his first taste of autonomy. ‘That’s one thing skateboarding supplies: independence. You have to be independent.’
Photo: Brian Kelley
‘You’re travelling alone, your family’s not there, and you learn streetsmarts and stuff you can’t learn in your little suburban town.’ While on the demo circuit, Austyn caught the attention of Habitat Skateboards, who brought the grom on, and then things got a little more serious. ‘Once I got on Habitat they changed my whole sponsor list and gave me a more adult sponsor makeover.’ He began regularly flying to San Francisco to skate with the Habitat team: guys like Joe Castrucci, Brennan Conroy, Stefan Janoski, Raymond Molinar, Danny Garcia and Tim O’Connor, who mentored the young Gillette, and helped him on his way. ‘Those guys kind of raised me, in a way. I didn’t really have a family growing up. There was always this tug-of-war thing going on with my folks.’
The tug-of-war ended in 2005 when the thirteen-year-old Gillette boymoved to Orange County to live with his father, a chiropractor andimpassioned supporter of his son’s skate career. William Gillette had once been a hugely successful spine-cracker, but after his divorce he was left with very little. ‘We didn’t really have shit. At one time my dad had one of the largest chiropractic facilities in LA County, but after the divorce his whole empire crashed.’ Fortunately, Austyn began getting paid to skate around this time—and he was able to ease the burden on his father by taking care of his own expenses, even as far as covering his own health insurance. ‘You were paying your own health insurance when you were fourteen?’ Austyn nods, and I throw my mind back to when I was fourteen, and the only memory I can conjure is of me jerking off and eating candy, sometimes simultaneously. ‘So, this brings us up to about 2006. What happened next?’
Austyn began regularly travelling with Habitat, and filming for his first video, Inhabitants. His career was rocketing off, but the heavy skateschedule had begun to interfere with his education, and so, to avoid becoming a moron, he decided to undertake Independent Studies, a teaching system based solely on homework and self-discipline. ‘It was kinda DIY, raise-yourself schooling. I was able to keep up and do my homework on the road, and I did that for the ninth and tenth grades.’ On breaks from his skate commitments, he’d power through months of schoolwork and charge ahead of the regular students. Austyn finished the eleventh grade and moved on to his senior year twelve months early, and Habitat insisted he spend that final year on campus. ‘They wanted me to experience school and my senior year. They felt bad that I’d been missing that part of my life.’ So he attended his final year of high school, and even went to the prom. ‘I had a date. Her name was Tori. We didn’t make out, though—she wasn’t feeling it.’ Did he finger her? ‘No. Like I said, she wasn’t feeling it.’
Photo: Andrew Peters
After graduation Austyn moved to San Francisco. ‘That was a pretty rad experience. It was just me and my buddy John Morse, and all we had to do was film for my part in Origin. When I wasn’t filming I’d just ride my bike around the city and read and explore; for nine months, that’s all I did.’ The SF sabbatical was well deserved, but it wasn’t long before Austyn got itchy feet and began travelling again. ‘I went everywhere, but I spent a lot of time in Australia and New York.’ And it was during a visit to New York that he received the news that would change everything. ‘I was skating at Tompkins and I got a call from my neighbour. She was Greek, and she just kept saying my dad’s name over and over. I’m like, “What the fuck’s going on?” Eventually she told me my dad went to hospital. I got the number and called them up, but by the time I got through my dad had died. He had a heart attack.’
Brian Anderson was at Tompkins that day, along with Jason Dill and most of the other New York crew Austyn had made friends with. ‘They were just fuckin’ hugging me. And it wasn’t like that was when we bonded or whatever, but I was like, “Shit. These guys are my friends,” you know? But this all happened in, like, ten minutes.’ He flew home that day to take care of affairs and arrange the funeral. With his father’s sudden and unexpected passing, Austyn drifted into a period of recklessness. ‘Well, it wasn’t exactly “recklessness”, but that was when I first started going to bars. I don’t even know what I was doing then, to be honest. I guess I was grieving. There were a few times where I went crazy, certain days where I thought, I can’t take this—but I was lucky.’ He was. He had good people around him—his brother and friends—and they were able to support him as he reached his next milestone: going pro. Austyn turned pro a little over a month after his father passed away. ‘That was one of the biggest parts I’ve filmed, and I worked my fucking ass off. We had the premiere for my going-pro party in Origin.
Photo: David Black
It was like a “surprise, you’re going pro” party.’ But, with the loss of his father, who had championed his skate career more than anyone, the accolade was bittersweet. ‘That was really heavy. My dad had been there with me all the way up until that point… He knew I was about to turn pro, you know, that I was get ting it, and then he passed and I wasn’t able to share that with him. That affected me a lot.’ Austyn’s mother was able to at tend the premiere, however, and she couldn’t have been prouder. ‘We hadn’t spoken in a while, and I’d changed so much since living with her, you know? But she was psyched. It was a great night.’ A year later Austyn bought a home in Highland Park and established some much-needed stability. He joined the HUF team, left Habitat for 3D, and got a fresh start in both skateboarding and life. Then his right knee began giving him trouble. ‘I guess two years ago I star ted feeling it. We did a European tour with HUF in 2013, and started filming for this part; I got about a year in to filming and decided to go get an MRI.’ The doctor told him he had torn the cartilage in both knees and that he’d have to have surgery. ‘I had a mirrored tear. Both of my knees were torn in the exact same spot.’
In July 2014 he had both his meniscus repaired and began the long road to recovery. He was wheelchair-bound for a month, then on crutches, and finally, six months later, he was able to step back on a board. But it wasn’t good. ‘I started skating and my knee began feeling weird again, like my leg was going to snap off, so I got another MRI.’ This time he’d damaged a different part of his right meniscus. A minor tear, but a second operation was needed, set ting him back another two months. With a shoe dropping and a video part he hasn’t been able to work on for eight months, you’d expect him to be frustrated as fuck, but Austyn knows there are some things you can’t struggle against. ‘I can’t do any thing about it. I’d rather take the right steps and get better so I can skate for another ten years.’ Austyn takes a final slurp on his iced tea and readies himself for home and a Netflix documentary while his CPM machine works its magic on his knee (‘I sleep with that mother fucker’) . As he carefully rises to leave, I ask him if he misses skating. ‘Fuck, yeah. I mean, I don’t even remember what it feels like to get a trick or learn a trick. I’m just marking of f the days till I can get back on the board.’ By the time you read this, he’ll be skating again. He was born to skate. He’ll tell you it was a coincidence, that his mother bought him a skateboard because it was cheaper than ice hockey, but when you watch him push down the street, it’s hard to imagine him doing any thing else. We shake hands and I watch him walk towards the hotel exit, noticing that his limp seems a little better than it was when he arrived.