Photos by Andrew Schoener
Three years ago, Jaleesa Vincent was a lifeguard on the Sunshine Coast pulling bloated, blue-lipped westies out of rips all summer while saving up for her next overseas holiday.
Today she is one of the most sought-after female talents in surfing, on contract with Billabong and free to roam the globe as she pretty much pleases. Women’s surfing has never seen the likes of a Jaleesa before, or at least the industry has never supported the idea of the professional women’s freesurfer. It sucks to think how many of her ilk have slipped through the cracks over the years, alternative thinkers who could’ve shaken shit up in the same way Christian Fletcher or Matt Archbold or Ozzie Wright did for the bloke’s side of things. But, thankfully, Jaleesa has arrived, and with her radical smooth style in the water combined with an undeniable (and proudly fruity) flair for the creative, be that her art shows, a kick-ass fluro red bob or a new band in which she tap dances drum beats, she’s quickly gaining reco’ as the counter culture icon most likely to take women’s surfing into the brave and brilliant unknown. We talked to her about life because that’s what we do.
So, when you were a little girl you wanted to be a tap dancer?
Yes, and now I’m a pro surfer. How did it all go so wrong? Nah, tap dancing actually was my dream, but I think it would be pretty scorched to do it as a full-time career. Like, what do you even do if you’re a full-time tap dancer?
Good point, where do you think you’d be right now if your tap dancing dreams had come true?
Maybe I’d be on Broadway or in Paris and I’d be staring into those mirrors with all the light bulbs around them, putting on my fake eyelashes and stuff. Sounds better than just putting zinc on (laughs). I did a lot of dancing when I was little: jazz ballet, tap, hip-hop, contemporary, performance… but tap was the coolest ‘cause I could make noise, make my own music. I think that’s why I got into drumming after because you can learn paradiddles tap dancing and that makes it easier to learn drumming. You know what’s funny? I went on a boat trip last week and I caught a wave and fell off and got tail-boned on the reef and really hurt my back and my first thought wasn’t, ‘Oh no, how am I going to surf tomorrow,’ it was actually, ‘Oh no, will I ever tap again?!’
Haha! Well, we’re talking about tap dancing because I know you have a new band starting where you’ll tap dance in place of playing drums.
Yep. I think we’re calling it possibly Cupid & the Stupids. I love that name but it’s not agreed on by everyone in the band just yet.
It’s a bit of a supergroup with members from other bands?
Yeah, it has guys from the Israeli Chicks, Cloacas and then I’m in a band called Screech. The sound we’re going for will be heartbroken love songs. Something the parents can listen to for a change.
Well, let’s talk surf because now that it’s ruined your dreams of being a dancer it turns out you’re actually very good at it. Tell us about your journey with surf over the past three years.
I guess the early part of my surfing life was pretty standard. Do a bunch of junior contests and make your way through that whole deal, but my ultimate dream was to just be a freesurfer. But back then there wasn’t a choice for women to do that. You either went straight on tour or you kinda just let it go. So, I did a few Qualifying Series events and it was clear I just didn’t have the drive in that kind of environment. I went and got a couple of jobs but somehow, and I don’t really know why; somehow I knew that I was going to be able to do what I wanted to do at some point. Even though I gave up the QS I didn’t give up surfing. I just took that time to grow up. I became more myself, and then things began to happen very naturally. I met amazing people who gave me opportunities and now here we are.
You’re at the apex of what women’s surfing has been lacking for a very long time, an option to choose your own path as a surfer, and, as a result, you’ve now got Billabong as a major sponsor paying you to basically be yourself, flying you around to see the world, to surf and play music and do art shows and live a surfing experience on your own terms. And then you’re also on team Rage (with Noa Deane, Creed McTaggart, Toby Cregan) with the biggest bunch of creatives who also happen to be the best freesurfers on the planet. All this and you’re only 20!
Well, the Rage boys are the most inspiring surfers on the planet. I just got back from a boat trip with them and everything they do is amazing. They’ve got their own styles and approaches and they go so big, but then they also have a lot of fun, just going out on matts and surfing any board. When we weren’t surfing we were having lots of beers and shredding guitars and they put me onto new bands and all around they just seem to have a great handle on how to live life.
Who else inspires you?
Patti Smith. She just did whatever she wanted and was so uncompromising when it came to having a voice and her art and I’m reading her books and listening to her albums and she’s just full power. I love her. And then my old art teacher from school, Patricia Robson. She passed away from breast cancer around the time I graduated. She was absolutely crazy. All the students would pay her out and say she was mad and she fully owned it and played up to it. She’d fuck with everyone, talk to crows, she once went on a trip and saw a dead cow and she got a machete and cut its head off and took it home to dry out so she could have the bones. I dunno, she was just fearless about being different, she thought in her own way. Sometimes I’d do something in her class and feel insecure about it and ask if I should change it and she’d say, ‘No way. Do it as crazy as you can. It’s your creation you have to own it!’
You have to push it and take risks and chance not being liked to find out who you are and what you want to stand for?
I’m definitely feeling that. I feel like I’m beginning to find ways of being creative that are pleasing to myself instead of doing it so that other people will like it. If they happen to like it then that’s cool, but that goes for everything with music and art and surfing. I mean, I may not ever be the best surfer in the world, but I’ll definitely surf the way I want to and hopefully I’ll be happy with that.
That’s exactly how I think guys like Christian Fletcher and Ozzie Wright and even now Noa Deane and Creed McTaggart feel. I mean, they all had times being the odd man out because they didn’t fit in with what people considered normal, but eventually they went on to change everything both performance wise and culturally in surf. Do you feel like you’re showing young women that they too have that option?
It’s definitely something I feel grateful and excited about. I love that it exists now and that more and more young girls will hopefully see that there are ways you can have a surfing life or career that isn’t limited to just being competitive. In saying that I feel like some people would still trip out that I’m sponsored by Billabong (laughs). I kinda feel like I’m the first girl on that team who’s not doing contests and who’s not a model and some people are kinda like ‘Well what are you then?’ And I don’t know yet, but I definitely love surfing and I love going surfing every day and right now that seems to be enough. And I think it should be enough. Surfing is so much more than just surfing heats or being a beach babe.
Tell us about your year?
Well, it’s crazy, before I used to work to go on a trip and now I go on a trip for work! Eeeek! To me, it all feels like the best life ever. This year I went to New York for a road trip, then I went to New Zealand for another surf trip, then went to the Mentawai for a Rage boat trip, right now I’m in Bali and tomorrow I go back to the Ments for another two weeks.
That’s a long way from spending all day in the lifeguard tower.
Yeah, but you know what’s funny? I’ve always got one eye on the ocean in case someone gets in trouble. I can’t help it (laughs).
We showcased the Patti People clip at our spot in LA the other night. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Patti People is a new platform my friends Ellie Norman and her man Scotty have organised and they’re basically scouting chicks who have potential in surfing, skating, art and music and putting them out there for everyone to see. It’s really exciting and I’m so happy to be a part of it because I think it’s a big step forward for girls. Guys do this kind of thing all the time, but this is next level in my view. I went on a trip with Nora [Vasconcellos] who’s the best woman skater in the world, the best style, and she came away with me and Laura Enever and we’d never met but we were all so excited by the idea and energy of the project and of course ended up best friends for life. It was fun and stupid, nothing serious and no pressure. We had shitty waves but the best time and the edit is really fun. It’s good to have fun.