Wet Look Making Waves : Suddenly in Vogue, Surfers Seek Their Fortunes in Fashion

Times Staff Writer

Almost any other day at Surfrider Beach, Huey Pritchard and Tony Zapata would have been in the water waiting to catch a Malibu wave. But on this particular afternoon, there was no ocean swell; the sea had become sheet metal--flat and shiny and gray.

So instead of surfing, the two boys lounged on the sand, involved in another favorite pastime: Discussing their futures as high-fashion models.

Huey wore his weathered sheepskin boots, his blue sweat pants with "Venice Surf Club" silk-screened along the sides and his faded yellow sweat shirt that had a hole in the front and a stain along one sleeve.

Tony sported a T-shirt advertising Billabong surfboards and a wildly patterned, turquoise-and-white pair of shorts.

Huey is 17. Tony is 15. Huey posed once, about five months ago, for Bruce Weber, a New York fashion photographer. Tony posed once, last fall, for Herb Ritter, a Los Angeles photographer. Each was paid nearly $100 and was given some clothes and a catered lunch.

The combination may seem odd at first glance, but surfing--especially competitive surfing--meshes well with the world of fashion these days.

Once the sport's heroes gloried in their status as objects of society's scorn. They slept on their friends' floors; they drove beat-up vans, and they took occasional work as "table technicians" (busboys) or "executive table technicians" (waiters).

Now, the top surfers manufacture beachwear, endorse boards and even turn pro, competing for prize money around the world.

And now, Shaun Tomson, the Brentwood-based professional surfer ranked No. 2 in the world, is the model with the unzipped fly in a provocative ad for Calvin Klein jeans. Jeff Wagner, who owns a Malibu surf shop, appears in ads for Ralph Lauren's Klondike collection.

In the gossip sections of the surf magazines, chitchat about swells and odysseys to foreign beaches is augmented with items like this: "Scott Farnsworth was the subject of a few barbs . . . when he showed up with an unusual new haircut. All jokes were shelved when it was learned that he got paid over two grand to get it cut and do some modeling up in Marin County."

The modeling trend apparently started about five years ago, when Bruce Weber got an assignment from Vogue magazine for a layout on American men.

Weber immediately decided to include a surfer. He had photographed a New Jersey surf competition for New York's SoHo Weekly News and "really enjoyed watching it. The surfers were very fresh looking and they had a very exhibitionistic quality," he said.

"I'd seen that movie, 'Endless Summer,' and I knew people always copied surfers, the clothes they wear, the way they cut their hair. I thought it would be nice to show people what a real surfer looked like."

Weber pored through surfing magazines until he spotted a picture of Hawaiian surfer Buzzy Kerbox--on land, after winning a contest. Said Weber: "We flew him from Hawaii sight unseen."

The photo session was a success. Kerbox introduced Weber to his friends. They introduced Weber to their friends.

Other photographers, including Ritter and New York-based Michael Reinhardt, started using surfer-models too.

The numbers are not huge. But enough surfers are modeling to make the industry take notice. Nina Blanchard, owner and president of Nina Blanchard Agency in Los Angeles, estimated that about six of her firm's 60 male models were originally spotted at the beach.

She warned that although many surfers can pick up occasional work as models, few can turn it into a full-time career. "We get tons of young men in here and they all have two photos in a magazine," she said. "But that doesn't mean they all have what it takes."

'Fantastic Money'

That's fine with most of the surf stars. They agree with Tomson's credo--"I'm a surfer first, an entrepreneur second and a model third"--although they also agree with another Tomson observation: "It's fantastic money."

It was inevitable that the masters' disciples would want to follow suit.

For the past year or so, Tomson has noticed that when his fans ask for advice on how to break into the business, they sometimes mean modeling.

To most of them, it seems to be a reasonable way to finance their surfing. In the words of Jeff Wagner: "There are very few ugly surfers."

Wagner's Zuma Jay surf shop on Pacific Coast Highway is a center for the modeling fervor. Photographers and casting directors ask Wagner to help them find "beach types." In exchange they often use Zuma Jay surfboards and T-shirts--with the logos prominently displayed--in the resulting layouts.

It was on Wagner's recommendation that Huey Pritchard's snub nose and his near-white, close-cropped curls will appear soon in the pages of Per Lui, an Italian men's clothing magazine.

And it was Wagner who got Huey and Tony their upcoming guest shots on a pilot for a television series featuring rock bands at the beach. "We're supposed to say things like 'gnarly,' " Huey said. "Surfer talk. The stereotype."

'Yeah, I'm Bad'

He jammed his hands inside the tops of his boots. "I never thought I was great looking," he said. "But now, after that first shoot, you know, you look in the mirror and say, 'Yeah, I'm bad. I'm serious. I could be a good-looking chap.' "

"I think it's my hair," he said.

He had been thinking about modeling, though, even before Wagner approached him. "My friend Shane does a lot of work. He's a surfer too," Huey said.

The work wasn't hard but it was nothing like his regular part-time job delivering pizza.

Huey and Shane, as well as Farnsworth and surfer Laird Hamilton, assembled at a Malibu beach house for the day.

"They had us out on the beach. Then they had me inside sitting on the balcony. One time they had me with Levis. They had us put on, like, three pairs of shorts at a time, different lengths, with all of them showing," Huey said.

"I had to wear this beanie cap. The whole time I felt like I was being set up. Me and my friend were going, 'What is this, a joke?' "

From midmorning to sundown, he obeyed when the photographer ordered, "Stay right there," "Don't smile," "Stick your chin out."

At one point, he fell asleep on a bed piled high with shorts. "All of a sudden, I hear, 'Hold it,' " Huey said. A flash bulb popped.

Such tales can inspire a backlash on the beach. "Most of the guys that model don't know how to surf," said Mike Delavega, a 17-year-old from Sherman Oaks. "I see them here a lot. I talk to some of them."

Added his friend, Mike Muirhead, 17, of Woodland Hills: "I think it's better to surf than to model."

Huey and Tony are growing accustomed to remarks like that. "Oh, yeah, my friends tease me," Tony said. "First they make fun of you," Huey chimed in, "and then they start going, 'Hey, man, next time you do it, why don't you take me?"

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