FLIP: A Column About Skateboarding
Joel Rice is still coping with the sobering reality that he never became a professional skateboarder. He now writes this column about skateboarding and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. In addition, his work has appeared in the Believer, ESPN The Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Skateboard Mag.
An Interview with
Circe Wallace, Agent.
BY JOEL RICE
Start by stating the obvious. For some members of the skateboard community, “agent” is a synonym for outside intrusion. Many industry lifers view themselves as stewards of a sport that has historically provided amnesty for all manner of misfits and outcasts. Seeing that unique quality slipping away, they look for persons to blame. “Agents,” fairly or unfairly, have a way of fitting the bill. There is a certain epithetic vagueness to the term “agent”—as well as an amorphous understanding of their role in skateboarding—that can invite derision.
But should all agents be regarded warily? Do professional skateboarders not need liaisons to the corporate behemoths with whom they now frequently traffic.
Why not ask an actual agent?
Circe Wallace, a Senior Vice President of the Wasserman Media Group, represents some of today’s most high-profile professional skateboarders such as the driven and recently de-dreaded Nyjah Huston and the fleet-footed, ubiquitous Paul Rodriguez.
Herself a former professional snowboarder who has risen to the top of the industry with little more than pluck and a high school diploma—Ms. Wallace is fluent in corporate idioms such as “deliverables,” “self-propelled sports,” and “Latin markets,” but is also at genuine ease speaking in the lingua franca of the skateboarding milieu. (Like many affiliated with the sport, she employs the term “sick” to signal approbation.) One of her favorite films is Idiocracy. Her eight-year-old daughter can “drop in” on the ramp at her local Y, but also enjoys soccer.
Why not mention that as an interviewee, the Oregon-born Ms. Wallace was thoroughly likable yet never unctuous? In point of fact, she was decidedly quirky and laughed at her own jokes with endearing earthiness. You hear Eugene in her voice. You hear the beach. You hear California. You also hear the boardroom. You smell rarified air.
But wait! Shouldn’t at least one of these introductory paragraphs comment on the richly evocative name “Circe”? Do you ever wonder how much more intriguing and totally cool your life would be if you had a name like that? For example, as depicted in Homer’s The Odyssey, Circe is a cunning goddess who can turn men into animals, such as pigs, as well as cast a variety of spells and is known to mix food with various drugs and elixirs. According to an authority on the subject, Circe’s or (Kirke’s) name was derived from the Greek verb kirkoô meaning “to secure with rings” or “hoop around”—a reference to her magical powers. Isn’t that somehow fitting? In the popular imagination, are agents not seen as capable of enchantment? Why ask so many rhetorical questions? Why not proceed directly to the interview?
Yes, why don’t we?
Q: You’ve said that—of the board sports you represent—skating is ‘the sexiest.’ How so?
Circe Wallace: The characters are attractive! They have chiseled features and they dress flamboyantly! And, like, they’re sexy and they’re good looking kids! I mean Dylan Rieder… It doesn’t get much sexier than that! It’s like a boy band but better because they are actually doing something manly and it’s really aggressive, super-expressive and athletically intense!
Q: With greater exposure for the sport, do skateboarders have increasingly unrealistic expectations about the remuneration they are likely to receive?
CW: I think some of the younger ones do. Though, if they have real talent then you help them understand, look, the world is your oyster. But it’s really fucking competitive. And you need to train, like, every day. And you need to be ripping by the time you’re 12. And it’s serious business and if you do that…then yes. You can make a lot of money. It’s like any other sport. You have to dedicate your life to be being the best you can be, athletically and otherwise, if you want to make the seven-figure deals. It’s really sad in a way. It’s definitely changed the landscape.
Then again, plenty of people can still make a living and live their dream. Get an industry job, or start a brand. I know plenty of people who do that. They trust the culture to take care of them. It’s beautiful.
It’s just like you. You loved it. And you still love it and so you found a way to stay involved.
Q: Who was your first skateboarding client? What were key mistakes or valuable lessons you learned early on?
CW: The one that sticks out in my mind most in terms of my earliest days as a manager is Eric Koston. It was a total joy working with him and it was an amazing experience. That is how I got Paul.
It was really hard for me when I lost Eric as a client. I think he was catching a lot of heat because we were doing some more corporate-like deals. I over-managed him, thinking I was protecting him. But in reality, maybe it was a mistake. It’s a hard thing to do—to be an agent in skateboarding—especially when you’re a girl from a snowboarding background.
But I love skateboarding. I believe in it and I come from it. My first love was a Sims Kamikaze.
But it’s like a fraternity. You get hazed. You don’t get in the club unless you get hurt and that is just how it is. Skateboarding is really insular. They don’t like their own, much less outsiders coming in. Especially when, in their minds, something is being exploited. Skateboarding is all brand-contingent and what camp are you in? It’s so inter-competitive. I feel like it’s arrested development sometimes.
That is the hardest part of skateboarding culture for me. We’ve all seen each other every weekend, all summer long, for the past 15 years. Why do we not like each other? It’s almost a high school mentality. It’s real cliquey. Sometimes I am just like, ‘This is ridiculous. I am going to be 55 and I am going to be thinking of, like, Rick Howard?’ Who I have seen how many times? And he totally hates my guts, because why?… I don’t want to live my entire life like that.
Why can’t we all just get along? [laughs]
Q: It’s hard too, when these are often your childhood heroes with whom you may come into occasional conflict.
CW: Oh, it’s devastating. Lance Armstrong was once a total dick to me and was so mean and cutting and I was just like, ‘Oh my God. Did that just happen?’
Q: At the same time, it seems easier in the current climate to balance mainstream and skate-specific relationships.
CW: I think we changed the game with P-Rod. That was a collaborative effort to find authentic partnerships that weren’t just core brands. Who are his contemporaries? Tony Hawk had retired by the time he even came on the scene. But Tony did a great job of expanding his brand and creating sustainable income from licensing his name, right? But it is price-point product that doesn’t have a lot of continuous authenticity. And you have Sheckler, who is at the high end. Then you’ve got, let’s say, Shaun White. There are only four or five in the self-propelled sports at any given time who are market leaders. And I just think Paul has done a better job at it. When it comes from within, and it feels right, then it’s the right thing to do. He’s said no to a lot of things. He has a good sense of self and what works for him and what just feels dangerous.
Paul is not bourgeois either. He’s not popping bubs in the club.
Q: Do you frequently have to advise clients to be more prudent financially? Is that something you have to have in your repertoire as an agent?
CW: It’s by no means a requirement to be a licensed agent in the state of California that you tell your talent that they’re overspending. To be honest, I keep some distance from that. But I certainly do make recommendations and if I think someone is being irresponsible I try to reel it in. But who I am to tell someone that they can’t enjoy the accoutrements of their success with their own money?
Q: You’ve achieved all this with only a high school education. Are there ways not having an advanced degree has been a liability, and ways it has been an asset?
CW: The only disadvantage I have had in not having a traditional business background or education is other people’s perception of me. I try not to operate in a space where I worry about what other people think, because if I did I would have given up a long time ago. I am sure that I would be treated very differently if I had a Harvard law degree instead of being the snowboarder done good. But that’s ok.
I’ve told the story about how I became an agent before. You can put your own spin on it.
I got injured as a snowboarder. I sued my company. The lawyer who I hired on a contingency basis made me do a lot of the basic contract law. I realized that there was no one advocating for these riders. I thought, ‘Why not me?’ I’d seen Jerry Maguire.
But skateboarding is an accepted aspect of youth culture and marketing across the board now. As a consequence it’s a much easier sell. You have people in the boardroom whose kids skate, or they watch the X-Games. (I’ve been to every X-Games ever, by the way. It’s not something I am particularly proud of. I competed in the first one as a snowboarder.) It’s not just an outcast thing. It really is an interesting space. That will continue because it’s not that expensive an investment and you hit your target demo quite specifically.
Q: Do you have pangs for the era when skateboarding was much more of a subculture?
CW: Yeah sure. I was a part of that and I loved that exclusiveness.
I was born in Eugene. And I was… I wouldn’t say I was neglected… My parents loved me dearly. But they were hippies and they had other kids and they had split and I just sort of roamed the streets of Eugene freely. And I just skated my brains out and that was all I wanted to do. I had very few limitations of what I could and couldn’t do. And for whatever reason my parents trusted me. There were plenty of times when they shouldn’t have. We partied and stuff. But I learned early on that I wanted to do good shit, not that bad shit, not get in trouble all the time and fry my brain on drugs.
And I just kind of followed my heart and they really let me.
My first board was a Sims Kamikaze and I had a friend, Anita, and she was a gymnast. She could do, like, ho-hos and shit. And so we were like the little skate babes and we would learn tricks, hitting curbs, staying up all night and getting weird.
Q: Were your parents supportive of skating?
CW: They’re both working artists and are very non-judgmental. They thought it was fucking cool.
My parents let me go on a trip to San Francisco when I was 14 with my boyfriend and Anita, which just blows my mind. We skated everywhere. We skated Embarcadero. China Banks. Ft. Miley. I will never forget it, hopping the fence, seeing other pros there. Bombing hills. It was just, like, the magical world of San Francisco. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life. The freedom. We were just partying and being crazy. We partied at Tommy Guerrero’s. The map in his apartment of San Francisco was so amazing. It had all these little thumbtacks on all the skate spots. I just wanted to steal it but there just would have been no way. That would be so sacrilegious. But it is forever imprinted in my mind. And we didn’t have cell phones then, or I would have been able to take a picture of it. It was just another time. I was just so enamored with that whole scene. It was so cool. It had so much amazing energy.
Q: That detail about the map is spectacular. As a child you have this fantasy of what it would be like to be a pro-skater and that is just the kind of detail that would appear in it.
CW: I doubt any of them would remember me from then, but that experience changed my life. Really early, I knew there was something to this.
They would do those wall rides where they put the little ramp against the wall. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God. That is the sickest thing I have ever seen.’ Like, ‘How do you ride the wall!?’
Another time, during the Wake Up and Smell the Pavement contest we were in the Holiday Inn in Seattle and everyone was drinking Lucky Stripes. I think it was either Jake Phelps or Julien Stranger’s room. I couldn’t have been a day over 14. And we’re all just sitting there partying. And Phelps starts throwing full Lucky Stripes right at Julien’s head. It was literally like dodge ball with Lucky Stripes in the hotel room. It was one of the more profound memories of being like, ‘This is so fucking raw. I am living the skateboarder’s dream right now. I am in a hotel room with Jake Phelps and Julien Stranger and they are smashing Lucky Stripes against the wall. These are the Gods of Skateboarding and I’m in the room with them.’
But it wasn’t like a sexual thing.
Q: Thank you for clarifying.
CW: I was totally an ugly little tomboy. I should send you a photo of me. You’re going to die.
It was such a different time. I was a skate-rat. I wasn’t even attractive. They just thought of me as one of the boys. Those early skate days for me are really what shaped me. It was so cool to be a part of that.
But I never talk or think about that chapter in my life. From an industry standpoint no one would even know. They just think I am some snowboard girl, gone agent. They don’t know how much skateboarding has shaped my entire life. I never talk about that.
Q: Do you think you’ve been able to retain that original energy in your professional life?
CW: You know, I’m playing with the big boys now.
We can all maintain that in our hearts and relive our past you know? And we all urge the corporations who are getting involved to hire from within. We try to help them navigate the landscape and understand those cultural nuances and pay homage to those fundamentals that keep us creative and unique and not just another thing that is homogenized. I look all around me and we live in such a homogenized culture. California Pizza Kitchen and Starbucks everywhere.
But we have to evolve. It’s… just…You evolve or die.
Q: That’s a chilling thought.
CW: I didn’t mean to be so dramatic. [laughs]
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