When Rochelle Ballard takes off on a wave on Oahu's North Shore, everyone stops to watch - photographers, the media, sponsors, and even the men who have until recently monopolized the spotlight in this traditionally macho sport.
As the second-ranked female professional surfer in the world, she is part of a gung-ho group of "surfer girls" who are bringing glamour, prestige, and popularity to what has long been a male domain.
No longer content to sit on the beach and watch their boyfriends surf as their mothers did, young women are increasingly taking up their own boards. Fueling the boom is a wave of media attention and a new set of role models that have made surfing cool for both sexes.
These women wave-riders say they are helping to tone down aggressive attitudes among male surfers. "Women bring a good feel to surfing out in the lineup," says Ms. Ballard, a Kauai native. "We're out here to have fun. For the most part, guys are stoked we are out in the water."
But the women are a far cry from Gidget. "Surfing is a hard sport, and you have to be strong," Ballard says. "It's much different from the past, when a typical girl ... would starve herself and not have any muscles."
While endorsements and fees for women surfers still lag behind the men's, "they are catching up pretty quickly," says Jodi Young, international media manager of the Association of Surfing Professionals. According to the ASP, the average annual winnings for a surfer on the women's world championship tour was $30,000 in 1997, compared with about $31,000 for the tour's male surfers. A few top female surfers earn six figures.
Industry attitudes toward women dramatically improved in the early 1990s, when a lithe, blond surf queen, Lisa Andersen, arrived on the scene. Part poster girl and part high-performance surfer, Ms. Andersen won four world championships in a row. She entered a male professional contest and humbled several young pro surfers before being eliminated. Women around the globe began imitating Andersen's exciting wave riding.
Surfing has not always been a male-dominated sport. In ancient Hawaii, where the sport originated, kings often took to the waves accompanied by their queens. But in the 1960s, despite a crop of kitschy movies portraying surf queens like Gidget, few women left their beach chairs to paddle out to the waves. Those who did received little of the fame lavished on male champions.
"When I first started surfing [in the 1980s] there were big names and world-class women surfers," recalls Ballard. But except for the reigning champion, the women attracted few sponsorship dollars. Also, "if you were a surfer girl ... you were [considered] too tomboyish," she adds.
This perception started changing as professional sports leagues, media, and high schools did more to encourage women to participate in sports.
A few years ago, surf companies barely gave female customers a second thought. Now, several companies have set up separate entities to design women's gear. Industry figures are scarce, but insiders say the women's market has already eclipsed the men's.
Women wave-riders have found a mouthpiece: "Surfer Girl," a magazine launched in July out of Santa Cruz, Calif. It has attracted almost 50,000 subscription requests, while the online version receives 10,000 hits a day.
The surfing boom that began in California and Hawaii has swept through the East Coast and all the way to Australia. "When I was back home [in New York] last summer, I saw at least five or six girls in the water," says Jennifer Ramsay, editor of "Surfer Girl." "It encouraged me to see it had reached all the way to Long Island."