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Selling a surfer girl

As her sport and its style surge in popularity, a Florida teen tries to balance being an athlete and building a lucrative career.

By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003


From New York fashion shows to MTV, corporate America has become infatuated with the free-spirited image of surfing.

It's an unprecedented opportunity for a girl who can rip a wave, as rising surf star Karina Petroni well knows. The Atlantic Beach girl has the look and the credentials: white blond hair, the sleek lines of a runway model and a national amateur title.

As she fields offers for movie roles and clothing endorsements, her big brother keeps a watchful eye. She is, after all, only 14 years old.

"If anything is degrading or immoral or lewd, she's out," said Erik Petroni, 32, who doubles as her agent and coach.

Once considered a fringe market, surf apparelmakers during the past few years have been racking up record numbers selling T-shirts and flip-flops to kids who don't live anywhere near a wave, particularly girls.

Companies are using surfing images to sell cars, even health insurance. Last fall, a model strutted down a Paris runway carrying, of all things, a gold surfboard emblazoned with the Chanel logo.

It is a time of unprecedented financial opportunity for this famously low-revenue sport. Big-money endorsements are relatively new, so those who take the contracts risk being labeled sellouts, death to the credibility of a hard-core surfer. And the industry is trying to overcome a history of portraying female surfers as sex objects, not athletes.

"I think a girl like Karina can do very well," said Frieda Zamba of Flagler Beach, who won four women's world pro titles in the 1980s. "I think the opportunities are endless for her. It's just a matter of picking the right ones."

Erik knows this and is cautiously constructing what he dreams will be a lucrative endorsement career for Karina.

Fresh from winning the most prestigious of amateur titles, the National Scholastic Surfing Association championship, Karina is building her athletic resume. This month, she'll go to Australia to work with a professional coach as she sets her sights on the professional tour.

She is considering different commercial opportunities, including talking to Target stores about a television ad. While Karina and her brother are keenly attuned to the delicate nature of image, they know there are few bright lines and lots of questions in this world based on perception.

When does a smart sponsorship deal turn into selling out? When does an attractive swimsuit layout become the trashy promotion that has such a storied history in the surf industry?

"Surfing is not supposed to be like that," Karina said.

From bums to big business

Michael Bransky was there when the first American surfing craze got started in the late 1950s.

As a teenager, he was among the guys who surfed at Malibu and knew little Kathy Kohner, whose beach stories led to the Gidget movies.

On a recent January day, the 59-year-old, wearing a halo of white hair and pink Chuck Taylor high tops, worked the floor at Surf Expo. Edgy music pumped from a dozen different sources. Companies had put up elaborate neon-trimmed booths with private sales rooms and juice bars.

"Surfers used to be considered bums," said Bransky, who is president of the Gidget surf apparel company. "Now we're idolized."

While he welcomes the business that has come from that, he is decidedly unenthusiastic about the people who never go to the ocean and sell what he calls the "trash look."

"What is that?" he barked, pointing at a poster that featured a mostly bare woman's chest.

Indeed, consider the recent Surf Expo, a surf apparel trade show in Orlando. Expo marketing director Dan Darby says, "A lot of this is going to be toned down as it becomes less of a guy's market."

He paused.

"Of course," said Darby, "the Reef girls are here."

The Reef girls are notorious for being shapely and wearing little to hide that fact. They promote Reef sandals while dressed in bathing suits and platform sandals, signing autographs for fans.

While surf style ranges from conservative to decidely not, there is no question the rising popularity has been good news for surf apparel companies and suppliers, many of which are clustered in what is called Velcro Valley, a stretch of California just south of Los Angeles.

It hasn't been unusual in recent years for them to report double-digit percentage increases in sales, particularly in women's wear.

Pacific Sunwear of California, an Anaheim company that sells mostly surf brands, reported net sales of $228-million for the third quarter, ended Nov. 30, an increase of 24.5 percent over the same period a year earlier. While nearly half of that came from newly-opened PacSun stores, the rest was from sales increases in existing outlets.

Surfwear behemoth Quiksilver Inc. of Huntington Beach, Calif., saw its net sales more than triple in the past five years, reaching $705-million last year. Quiksilver's women's line, Roxy, began in 1991, and by last year it accounted for 31 percent of the company's revenues.

The folks at Ron Jon Surf Shop, headquartered in Cocoa Beach, are hip to the trend, which they think has not yet peaked.

In December, company president Ed Moriarty announced a 25-store expansion in the next decade, including stores in Nevada and Arizona, where there is no surf, and Texas. Also on its list are locations such as Tampa and the South Carolina towns of Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island.

"There's somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5-million surfers in the country," Moriarty said. "That's not a lot. But there are literally millions more who embrace the surfer lifestyle."

Many of them are girls and young women, and Ron Jon has adapted, picking up lines that cater to how they see themselves.

"I think the surfer girl now is not the ornament on the beach," he said. "She's a participant and an athlete."

A girl and a dream

Karina Petroni is a tomboy with an affinity for nice shoes. She has a French manicure, albeit chipped, but can wield a machete or a .22-caliber rifle with equal aplomb.

She chalks up this apparent dissonance to the life of adventure she led growing up with her family in the jungles of the Panama Canal Zone. Until 2000, Karina lived in a house on stilts as her father, a sea captain, piloted boats through the canal.

She learned responsibility and independence, and it is those traits that have shaped her approach to her career.

Karina would like nothing better than to win the lottery and start her own company.

"I guess everybody wishes that," she said, sitting at a picnic table after having surfed a heat at a Sebastian Inlet competition in January.

Two years ago, when she was 12 years old, she came up with a company name and trademarked it around the world for clothing, shoes, makeup and accessories.

The company name is Sea Princess, and she has its logo emblazoned on her boards, giving the name exposure before she has the first T-shirt to sell.

Her brother, Erik, sees huge marketing potential in a girl who looks like a supermodel but can ride waves like the best guys.

"That girl does not exist in surfing," Erik said. "Lisa Anderson came closest."

Anderson, a four-time world champion surfer, was named by Sports Illustrated Women as being among the century's 100 greatest sportswomen, but she is far from a household name.

To have the marketing potential of, say, a Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, one needs not only to be the best, but to participate in a heavily televised sport, said Steven Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations/TvQ.

"You may have a pretty young lady who is doing great things with a surfboard, and she may break into modeling and acting," said Levitt, whose company compiles Q ratings -- popularity rankings -- for entertainment and sports figures.

"But it's going to take an awful lot to break through the clutter of all of those other sports personalities," he said.

The corporate interest in Karina has upped a notch since she won the National Scholastic Surfing Association championships held in June at Lower Trestles near Huntington Beach, Calif. It was Karina's first appearance at what is considered the most competitive of national amateur competitions.

Since then, Karina has had a few serious inquiries from major surfwear manufacturers, and she and her brother are checking out the companies' images and how they use athletes. She wonders what those in the industry will conclude if she doesn't nail down one big sponsorship deal by the time nationals roll around again this summer.

"I was thinking that if I don't, people might be wondering if I'm hard to deal with," she said.

She is no stranger to commercial exposure. She has been on MTV. She is featured, along with some of the top female surfers in the world, in an extreme women's surfing video by the makers of Blue Crush. She is comfortable in front of a camera, having modeled swimwear and surf clothes for catalogs for years.

But Karina has a list of things she won't do, including overly suggestive modeling and signing on with a company that won't let her continue relationships with some of the smaller companies that have been with her for years.

"Some people might say she's too picky," her brother said. "But I think most people have admired her.

"Wouldn't you want to brand yourself with a company that you could keep as your image for the rest of your life?"

-- Alicia Caldwell can be reached at Alicia@sptimes.com or (727)893-8145

Among surfer Karina Petroni's sponsors:

Point Conception swimwear

Vans shoes

Electric eyewear

Sticky Bumps surf wax and deck pads

Surfco Hawaii online surf shop

The Betty Series surf camp and contest promoters

Aqua East surf shop

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