When it comes to surfing greats, Keala Kennelly is at the top of our list, not only for her accomplishments on the waves, but for her advocacy of gender equality and the representation of women in the sport. In case you are not yet familiar with this badass babe, she is a big wave surfer who has ridden some of the biggest waves around the world, and in 2016 won the Pure Scot Barrel of the Year award at the Big Wave Awards, beating out an entire field of men.
Yep, that award was not separated by gender, it was literally based on merit, and Keala’s domination of a big wave in famed surfing spot Teahupoo, Tahiti on July 22, 2015, earned her the much-deserved title. It should also be noted that she has previously won three Big Wave Awards for women’s best performance. Yet her talent in her chosen sport has not necessarily earned her the big dollars or sponsors, the way it would a man in the same position. This is true of many female athletes in a number of sports.
During her acceptance speech at the Big Wave Awards, Keala was very open about how she had been told multiple times that she could not accomplish what she did, simply because she is a woman. She has proven many people wrong throughout her career, yet she has also become an ambassador for women in surfing due to the sexism that still exists.
In a recent op-ed for surfing news website The Inertia, Keala wrote candidly about the problems that exist not only within surfing competitions, but also among major surf clothing brands in the way they sponsor and market to and for women. She started by mentioning this article by Karen Knowlton, who slammed Billabong for their blatant sexist double standard in this latest marketing image on their website.
Keala said it was refreshing to read Karen’s piece, as well as the viral reaction it created, and went on to detail her own experience with the same brand who she was sponsored by for 15 years.
“I had my salary cut every year for the last five years of that sponsorship–no matter how many records I broke or accomplishments I achieved–to the point that I was practically riding for them for free. Meanwhile, they paid huge salaries to models and unaccomplished athletes who had that “marketable look.” Many companies really believe using this kind of marketing strategy is the only way to get people to buy their products. I think they’re wrong,” she wrote.
Pointing to Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign which literally started a tidal wave of change within the advertising industry and the way it markets to women.
“It helped the company increase revenue by $1.5 billion and was at one point dubbed the top ad of the 21st Century by AdWeek. That alone should prove that a much more valuable marketing strategy is actually speaking to female empowerment. Billabong cut me from their roster the year I won the Pure Scot Barrel of the Year Award at the XXL Big Wave Awards…Female empowerment couldn’t have been a more relevant discussion in surfing at the time–what a huge missed opportunity for them,” she wrote.
Because women are major brand consumers, she says, it is a losing strategy to continue degrading them and not putting them on an even playing field in advertising imagery.
“If you keep marketing to your consumers in a way that is completely degrading to half the population, many of them will stop buying your product. One consumer started the conversation, plenty more have chimed in, and here I am sharing my own experience because of it, too. We’ve spoken. Now it’s up to the brands to listen and evaluate their marketing strategies, evaluate how they speak back to us,” she said.
Now that female empowerment has overtaken the “sex sells” marketing ideal, Keala wants to align herself with brands that recognize this and set a good example for her female followers.
“As an athlete, I know I’m a role model for young women. I know my job and my responsibility is to keep them inspired. So to all the companies out there that are listening and reading (even you, Billabong), if you’re ready to create a positive message that uplifts women instead of oppressing them, then I’m stoked to collaborate with you,” she wrote.
This is certainly not the first time Keala has used her voice to call out sexism. In 2016, she shared her opinion on the controversy surrounding the exclusion of women from famed big wave surfing competition called Titans of Mavericks, in California. While some men claim there aren’t enough good female surfers for them to be invited into the competition, Keala’s talent alone should shut down any doubt.
“I think the message is that women are completely capable and there’s more than a handful now and they deserve a chance,” she told CBS news.
With Keala leading the way and not backing down when it comes to confronting sexism and double standards for women in surfing, we have no doubt change can happen. Being a barrier-breaker in the sport, she knows all too well what it means to face naysayers along the way to achieving greatness. Here’s to more athletes like Keala Kennelly who aren’t afraid to call out BS and carve out pathways for female empowerment.
You can read her full op-ed about Billabong on The Inertia website.