City Lights: Slater handles himself like a pro

I got to be a celebrity once, kind of. It wasn't at Barnes & Noble or the Academy Awards or anything like that, but at Girls Inc. of Orange County. I had covered a few stories there as the Daily Pilot's education reporter, and when I arrived to write another, a pair of girls shrieked, "You're here!", then raced over and gave me a bear hug.

Journalists may win Pulitzers, but they rarely get the paparazzi treatment. On the other hand, it's second nature for a man like Kelly Slater, who visited Huntington Beach on Tuesday evening to receive the key to Surf City.

Ernest Hemingway once defined courage as "grace under pressure." I don't know if facing a constant barrage of camera flashes, autograph requests and reporters' questions counts as pressure, but regardless, I'm always impressed by the grace that people like Slater show in the spotlight. Evidently, they're used to it. If 200 more girls had run up to me shrieking that day in Costa Mesa, I might have begged for sanctuary.

Slater, a 10-time world champion, got a hero's welcome in Huntington Beach. The ceremony took place during the Surf City Nights street market, and a makeshift stage at Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway drew a crowd of hundreds behind the blocks of food booths, street entertainers and vendors.

Surfer Peter "PT" Townend, playing emcee, got the crowd going by declaring downtown Surf City "the Times Square of surfing," and after an introduction by Mayor Joe Carchio, Slater took the stage. The honoree admitted that he didn't usually speak before huge crowds, but he turned in an admirably thorough speech about his early days in Huntington, at one point noting that he got into a fight in a downtown back alley when he was 15.

Then the ceremony officially ended, and it was interview time. Or interviews, rather. As I squeezed my way on stage, I decided that if I got to ask Slater only one question, I would ask if he ever got used to being the center of rapturous attention.

When I finally got to ask, he replied that no, he never did.

"A part of me just turns off," he said. "It's kind of overwhelming."

Still, Slater didn't look like he was overwhelmed — considering that while I jotted down notes, at least two more people were waiting with microphones and cameras, while another held a surfboard to be autographed.

As it turned out, I got a few questions in with Slater before his minder waved me away. He told me Huntington Beach tied with San Clemente for his favorite city in Orange County and that he planned to make copies of his key to give to friends. He even peered in at my notepad and asked how I could read my shorthand.

And then we were both off to more interviews — he had the TV crew waiting, while I had the week's paper to finish. So that evening, I had something in common with Slater. I'm sure that would wow them over at Girls Inc.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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