THE WHITE ALBUM
NOT ONLY HAS SHAUN WHITE TAKEN SNOWBOARDING AND SKATEBOARDING TO NEW LEVELS OF COMMERCIAL VIABILITY, HE’S HAD A GREAT TIME DOING IT. LUCKY BASTARD.
IT IS SOMETIME DURING THE AFTERNOON of the second consecutive day I’ve spent at Shaun White’s house—which is more of a mansion really, though he’d hate me to use that word—as I’m standing on the edge of his lawn looking out over a canyon in Rancho Santa Fe, 40 minutes north of San Diego, listening to Ozzy Osbourne playing on the stereo, that it dawns on me: He really could not care less that I’m here. And not just that I’m here, but that the photographer and stylists and assistants and publicist and representatives from various companies he works with and horse handlers are here, either.
It’s not that he’s discourteous, quite the opposite, but he’s just so used to it all. As he ambles around his sprawling Spanish-style home, he barely seems to notice that surrounding his ping-pong table in the living room are racks of painstakingly arranged clothes, and on the floor are pair after pair of shoes, lined up neatly in rows, for him to choose from for the photo shoot. Yesterday, he seemed amused that there was a huge white horse (a photo prop) in his garden next to his infinity pool (totally screwing up his croquet lawn), and decided it would be fun to ride it into his living room, and through into his velvet-wallpapered music room, where White has a drum-kit set up in one corner, various expensive guitars on stands, and some amps. Once there, the horse proceeded to crap on the cream-colored carpet. “Dude! That shit is gnarly!” exclaimed one of his friends, exploding into snorts of laughter. Indeed, it was. But who cares? It’s just a carpet. And there are plenty more where that came from.
At some point between last night and now a phalanx of White’s friends have come over and there are shoeless guys milling around the place, rummaging around in the kitchen for munchies, sleepily rubbing their eyes and, out by the pool, lots of not-unattractive girls, sunning themselves and gossiping on the terracotta colored loungers. “Dude, we had a crazy party last night,” White says, pushing his torrent of curly red hair out of his eyes, as he does about every three minutes, and grabbing a Red Bull from the special Red Bull fridge in a corner (the company is one of his many sponsors). “We were playing guitar until, like, four! So rad.”
THERE ARE CERTAIN rules that usually dictate the celebrity interview. One of those most stringently enforced is that the writer not be allowed on the photo shoot; another is that he or she should not be in the interviewee’s personal space. When these things happen, it is assumed, a subject will be undone by an overheard comment or maybe an untidy bathroom. But White doesn’t have any façade to maintain: The comments come thick and fast and there’s piss on his toilet seat. The only thing he has to promote right now—a clothing line he’s done for Target—doesn’t even come up during the conversation that best constitutes our interview.
All of this—the ridiculous pad (he has another one in Park City, Utah), the $350,000 Lamborghini Murciélago (he totaled his last one trying to race his friends to the pizzeria—“I mean if you’ve got a car like this you gotta do that kinda shit”), and other cars in the garage, the signed Zeppelin guitars, gold discs, and photos, the Jacuzzi, the pool, the view, the custom-built sound system, flying first class to places many people haven’t even heard of, is as much the result of a prodigious, once-in-a-generation talent as it is the marketing of it, and White’s impeccable apple-pie image, which is currently being used to help sell everything from Jeeps to credit cards to mobile phones. But there’s no secret here, no string which could unravel him. So why should he have a problem with me, or anyone else, in his bathroom? Shaun White is just a genuinely nice guy, one who can crack a joke about anal lube as unselfconsciously as the next dude. If he’s going to buy a car, it’s going to be one of the fastest models on the planet; if he decides to take up guitar, it’s going to be a Gibson Les Paul; if he has to travel the world, then, damn it, it’s going to be with his friends in tow.
“That’s kind of my secret to my whole thing—it stays fun,” he says, when finally I manage to pry him away from the throng. “If you just sit around and train in the summer because you’re going to be ‘the best snowboarder in the winter’ and that’s all you’re thinking about, it’s not good. That’s why I got better than the kids that stayed in the mountains—I’d come home to the beach and skateboard, and have fun. Then, I’d go up to the mountain and I’m like ‘This is amazing!’” He pushes his gold, mirrored sunglasses a little further up his nose. “You just gotta remember the reason you started doing it in the first place.”
From where we’re sitting, on the edge of his hot tub, we can see the ocean, a pastel-blue blur, about five miles away. The arid rocky valley below us, all burnt ochres and the pale green of parched grass, falls steeply from the houses that line the ridge, all of which are in the same gated community as White’s. Other pools sparkle gently in the sun to our left and right and, close enough that we could hit it with a hurled croquet ball, a tennis court sits vacant. Cacti, dotted all over the canyon, stand silent, tired sentinel. White picks at the sandstone we’re sitting on, prying off a flake, and looks around, as if suddenly realizing that what he’s saying is maybe a bit too serious. Not really Shaun White-like. He spots a long-haired friend sidling out of the French doors, headed in our direction, and waves.
“Dude!” he cries, triumphantly.
“Dude,” yells his friend as he makes his way towards us.
“It’s so nice out!” White says, happily. “I just fired up the Jacuzzi and I’m heating up the pool.”
“Pool party!” shouts the dude, throwing himself onto a sunlounger a few feet away.
“Cannon Ball!” shouts White.
“Can-on-ball!” repeats the dude, singing the word, and straightening his sunglasses. “On horseback!”
“Horseback! Yeah, right,” says White, smiling.
“Dude, the horse called me last night all ‘What the fuck? I love you guys,’” says the friend.
When White is in beer-pong mode, as he is now, he’s in his element. It’s the other side of his appeal: not only is he one of the most exciting athletes to emerge in recent memory, he’s also just one of the guys, who just happens to be a multimillionaire, a video-game character, and, hang on, wasn’t that him in Vogue a few months ago, standing next to Daria, holding a skateboard?
Take this recent blog post, written on his official website after White won the Winter X Games gold in Aspen: “What do you do after winning the gold? Do you go and immediately pawn it for a VCR and a PS2? NO! When you are in Aspen and Target has the biggest house on the mountain, you get together for a little dancing with all of your buddies! Deep in the heart of the basement was a secret room where amps, guitars and a drum kit were set up and ready to kick out the jams! Shaun was found ripping the frets on some classic songs, jamming along with the rest of the crew. It is fun to win gold, but it is even better hanging with all your friends and jamming.” Shaun White, then: just like us!
Only not really: he does, after all, have an Olympic medal. White became a celebrity (and American hero) when he won the snowboarding gold in the 2006 Winter Olympics, in Turin. “I think that the Olympics needed snowboarding more than snowboarding needed the Olympics,” he says. “If you think about it, who do you know that can relate to that guy that skies like eight miles then shoots targets? Nobody can relate to that. Nobody goes out and toboggans. The highest rated things in the Winter Olympics are ice-skating and snowboarding. It’s because you can relate and understand. You can watch us do airs in the halfpipe and go ‘OK, I understand that. They’re flipping and they’re spinning.’ It’s a spectacle.”
But, as famous as he’s become as a snowboarder (he’s one of only two athletes with seven golds at the Winter X Games, and achieved his third consecutive halfpipe championship at the U.S. Open earlier this year), he has, all the while, been skating, too, often under the watchful eye of one Tony Hawk, who lives close by. White is currently the only skater to land the body varial frontside 540 and is known, as he is in snowboarding, for huge airs and smooth landings.
“Snowboarding was my thing, and skateboarding was just this fun thing I did in the off-season,” he says. “Tony Hawk would invite me to do demos and we became friends. When I was 16, I sat with him one day at the ramp and I was like ‘What do you think if I start competing in skateboarding? Would that be weird?’
And he was like ‘No, I think you’re good enough to go for it.’ And I entered some events that year and I’m on the ramp just shaking like ‘Oh my God!’” He laughs and tousles his hair. “Looking around at all the other dudes I was just like ‘This is crazy, I can’t believe I’m here.’ It was like starting as an amateur all over again. Then the thing got into me that I have in snowboarding where I was like ‘That was really fun, but I think I could do well in this. I think I could really dig deep and get better.’” He did, and, this year, won the X Games gold.
White’s motivation to succeed, specifically by winning competitions, comes across in every sentence he speaks about snowboarding and skateboarding. It’s a tenacity that has brought him a long way and looks set to take him much further.
As a kid, White would travel the three hours with his parents and brother to Big Bear mountain, where the family would spend the weekend snowboarding. “I would cram a weeks worth of riding into two days,” he says. “On every run I was working on a new trick. My mom started to ride and she was really slow, so in order to let her progress enough to where she could catch up to me she made me ride switch [essentially, backwards]. Then I got really good at it.” Soon enough, he was signed by Burton. “It wasn’t because I was like the raddest dude on the mountain—Burton just came out with a kid’s line, so I was there at the start with them,” he says. “They were like ‘We’re going to give you this snowboard and if you keep doing well and keep competing then we’ll give you another one.’ That’s all the motivation I needed. Done: I rip, I get more boards. Sick!” As he gained confidence, White began to attract attention. “I was super young and had this funny look,” he says. “I was just a giant helmet at that point, but I’d hit these huge jumps and just go for it.”
Eventually, White became the person to beat at the mountain. “It turned into this thing where everyone was against me, and I didn’t really like it,” he says. “I’d be at the start and the other parents would be all ‘OK Johnny, you’re gonna beat him today.’”
“I remember it got to the point in snowboarding when I was winning all the events but I wasn’t getting any better,” he says. “So I was like ‘Dude, this is lame, I want to do my own thing.’” That was when he was 13. He went pro. “I was tiny and all the dudes around me were in their twenties so I started to become my own person,” he says. When he was still 15, White won two pro competitions, one in Norway and one in Japan. “And at that point my parents still traveled with me, and I liked that because I didn’t have to deal with certain things,” he says. “It’s like having home on the road with you. That’s why I travel with friends now. You’re gone so long you gotta have some kind of companions or something to keep you on a level plane. Otherwise you just get absorbed into the dumb side of things.” He notices Rambo, his French Bulldog, spread out on an ottoman nearby. “Yo!” he calls to his friend. “You see my dog? Just lounging! He digs it.”
When White was 16, he won two gold medals at the X Games and shot to international fame. The following year, he was on track to do it all again when, during qualifying, he tore the meniscus of his knee, and underwent surgery and then physical therapy. “I mean, I had never stepped foot in a gym: I was a kid!” He laughs, and splashes his hand in the water of the hot tub. “I guess I still am.”
He recovered, but failed to make the podium of the X Games the following year, when he was 18 (“I just got served”), and hunkered down to get back to the top of his game. “It was that whole thing like when I was 15. I was like ‘I’m gonna do it.’” A year later, he had an Olympic gold medal.
It’s a memorable image: that of White, dressed all in white, with the American flag draped on his shoulders, hair all over the place, and a medal the size of a dinner plate around his neck, beaming that toothy smile. He won the gold in his first of two runs—posting a 46.5 out of a possible 50 score that no other competitor matched in either round. All of a sudden White had gone from being famous in the extreme sports world to being a household name—everyone wanted to interview him, sponsor him, and take his picture. “It’s hard to even talk about now,” he says. “I woke up the next day and saw the medal on the shelf next to me on the dresser and I’m like ‘Holy crap!’ It was just crazy, especially coming home. I walked into LAX and the whole airport started clapping. I was like ‘What do I do?’” He looks at his friend, who nods and smiles, raises his arms aloft and mock-bows; they both laugh. “It was a trip. I was in New York and went to this little bar and the whole place is just chanting ‘U.S.A. U.S.A’—I didn’t really think that was a New Yorker thing to do. It was awesome.” His medal, perhaps predictably, is stuffed under his bed. “It’s funny because you meet other Olympians and they’re all ‘I had my medals insured. I keep a webcam on them.’ But mine’s just under my bed... I think.”
HE WAS ALREADY well on his way to changing both skateboarding and snowboarding but, in winning that gold medal, White, under the watchful eyes of his parents, and Burton, catapulted the sports into the mainstream. By furthering what Tony Hawk had started—doing commercials, video games, etc.—White has propelled extreme sports where many thought they could never go (and where some purists think they still shouldn’t): into the public consciousness. In the process, he has become a superstar, made a fortune and paved the way for others to follow suit.
“A kid that wants to be a pro snowboarder can now make a living at snowboarding. I have friends who, obviously, are not in the same situation as me, but they’re making more than most high-class businessmen because of their talent in snowboarding,” he says. “It’s funny to see my scruffy friends in a really nice car. It’s cool for me to be able to watch where snowboarding has come from to where it is now.” He tells me a story about how, back in the day, his entire family would stay in one room at a Motel 6 in Canada to save money (“And we would just cook in the room—my mom brought those little hot plates—and the fire alarm would go off and we’d have to hide in the bathroom”).
I ask him how he thinks he’s maximized the increased commercial potential of snow- and skateboarding. “I guess I just feel like some people relate more to me than most people,” he says. “I always feel like I’m just the same guy, in this weird situation. I’ve never really changed. What kid my age wouldn’t buy the fast car? Who wouldn’t do the fun stuff? That’s my whole thing right now—having fun and doing my thing.”
He’s been out here talking for over an hour now and the amassed are starting to get impatient. The fulcrum of their entire day is absent, and they don’t know what to do without him. The girls are venturing ever closer, feigning ignorance that there’s an interview going on; his friends are restless and I’m half expecting one of them to accidentally-on-purpose throw a frisbee between us. But, for the first time, White seems oblivious of the distractions: He has a point to finish. “I think you can get sucked up into your own world, where it’s like the VIP table and stuff, and it starts to work into people’s brains. If you have bad people around you they start building you up like ‘Dude, you’re awesome’ and that gets crazy. But dude, that’s my mom,” he points to his mom, who’s laying out mini carrots in the kitchen. “That’s my dad over there gardening. That’s my dog, chillin’. I’m a normal person.” He stops and looks back at his house, and sweeps his hand in a motion that encompasses the property and manages to get his hair out of his eyes at the same time. “The reason I have this house and all the stuff is that I try to stay grounded in the fact that when I come home I’m just me. I come home, go to the skatepark, and just forget everything.”