Beyond the End of the Road
Surfer Keala Kennelly steps off the pro tour to drop into the new HBO series, “John from Cincinnati.”
Thursday, July 5, 2007
The hollow, monstrous wave on the southeast end of Tahiti was Keala Kennelly’s favorite stop on the Association of Surfing Professionals Women’s World Tour, a thick, bone-breaking wave that drove onto a shallow reef, and on which she seemed invincible. Called Teahupo’o (cho-poo) by the locals, or sometimes just the End of the Road—because that’s where the road stopped—Kennelly was the first woman to get towed into deadly, 10-foot barrels there, and she won the Billabong Pro Tahiti contests there in 2000, 2002, and 2003. So when tour officials decided in 2006 the women wouldn’t surf there anymore, Kennelly’s frustration was rising. No big barrels meant no big challenge for her and less chances to excel. Then HBO came calling and the 28-year-old boldly did what she has always done: dropped in.
Kennelly is now living in downtown Los Angeles, far from her beloved Kauai where she grew up, and appears as a regular character in HBO’s new show, “John from Cincinnati.” In Hollywood terms, she’s scored another great wave, with potential for lots of the kinds of media attention that sponsored athletes learn to crave. “John from Cincinnati” creator David Milch cut the strings to his massively influential show, “Deadwood,” in order to work on this new series, which he described on Variety.com as being “about surfing and the tragic, incoherent world at the border of Mexico and the United States. It’s where the water’s polluted, and nobody has documents. Drugs are being brought in by the ton, and people are found dead in the estuaries—and that’s just the beginning.” Sounds like fans of “Deadwood” and HBO’s edgy fare will have a new show to obsess over, and Kennelly will have a new opportunity to either shine or get worked.
“David has only written the script up to where we are filming so nobody ever knows what is going to happen next,” Kennelly writes via e-mail from locations in LA and San Diego, where the series is being filmed on Imperial Beach. “In the beginning, you think it’s about this surfing family that is totally dysfunctional. Then…all this really weird stuff starts happening. It definitely has a supernatural element.” Kennelly’s character, Kai, is a surfer, board shaper, and artist struggling to pull her surf-king boyfriend out of a whirlpool of drug addiction. The dark side of the surf culture is familiar territory for series collaborator Kem Nunn, who is infamous for the desperate, criminal, and even comically satanic depictions in his surf novels like Tapping the Source. None of which is that much of a stretch for Kennelly. Growing up fully immersed in the culture on Kauai, she lived in a geodesic dome designed by her bohemian mother, who split from the family one day while Keala was at school and left a note on her pillow. Having always been a total tomboy, her refuge became the surf and she was pretty much treated as a sibling by soon-to-be three-time ASP world champion Andy Irons and his brother, Bruce.
“When I was growing up, surfing was everything to me,” she says. “It was my identity, it was my escape, and it was the only way I felt like I could truly express myself. It made me feel like I had value as a person.”
Surf culture companies spotted that value straight away, and Kennelly jumped into the pro tour at an early age. Though she never won a world championship, she placed as high as third in 2003 and has always been a standout when the surf gets heavy, dominating at places like Teahupo’o and Pipeline. You may recall seeing her grab some good waves at Pipe in the movie, Blue Crush, in which she played herself.
Not looking forward to getting nibbled to death by teenage girls who can rip in two-foot beach-breaks, she’s using the show as a much-needed hiatus and a transition to a new surfer profile: She’s now going to be the first woman in Billabong’s Adventure Series. The Adventure Series is the next evolution in the sport and how athletes get paid; in it, top surfers are sponsored to tour the globe searching for, as Kennelly says “the heaviest, hollowest, most perfect waves in the world” and get them on film. “It will be the perfect match for my surfing style,” she adds. “A lot better than a 25-minute heat situation.”
Kennelly says her sponsors are all thrilled by this HBO development, adding, “More people will see me in five minutes on the show than would see me in 10 years on tour. So, if you are looking at numbers and exposure, then I am ahead of the game. I feel really lucky to be in the middle of such an exciting project.”