Photo above: 50-50. San Francisco, California.
Alexis is everything I love about skateboarding. A misfit. A genius. A skate rat. After entering our hearts to the tune of Rosemary Clooney's "Mambo Italiano" in PJ Ladd's Wonderful Horrible Life (Coliseum,'02), Alexis quit her paychecks from éS and Element and attended a four-year undergraduate degree at Columbia University in NYC with a major in architecture. Serendipitously graduating in conjunction with the '08 economic crash, she then went another four-year educational run, this time of the "real life" variety—working first at a restaurant (before it burned down and she went on unemployment), then signing up for alternate slots at the Maloof and X Games contest circuits to make ends meet. Four years into the school of Maloof, she again switched gears in '12. After receiving scholarship offers from Harvard, Yale, MIT, and UCLA, she began a four-year master's degree in architecture at MIT. Having completed her master's thesis this past January, and currently working on a graphic novel set 10,000 years in the future, Alexis returned my calls from NYC this morning just in time to tell us about it all. Hey Mambo.
Photos By Richard Hart
"I NEVER THOUGHT SOMEBODY 15 YEARS LATER WOULD BE ASKING ME ABOUT IT IN AN INTERVIEW."
What's been going on lately? You just moved back to NYC after a few years in SF?
Yeah. I was out there for four years. I'm originally from Connecticut. Everybody always thinks I'm from Boston because of the Coliseum video. But I'm from Connecticut. Kind of like in the absolute middle—two hours from Boston and two hours from NY.
How did you get started?
I just saw it. I saw some kids skating and had never seen it before. It was just two kids in a parking lot. There wasn't all that much to do in my town. Then I just wouldn't give it up. I was starting at this new school at the time, going into fifth grade. I got to school my first day and I had DC Clockers on—like skate shoes, but I still didn't know how to skate. Then I had also fallen off a jetty and broken my foot right before school started, so I had crutches and skate shoes on, and at the new school there were guys that skated, so they were all asking me like, "Do you skate?" and I was like, "Oh yeah." Then I was like, "Oh man, I got to learn how to skate now."
You had already claimed it. Did it ever matter at all up front being a boy or a girl?
No. It was really irrelevant to me. I guess I had always been a tomboy or whatever but also just a strange young individual [laughs].
Yeah. Just like most skaters basically.
Exactly, yeah. I never thought of it as a thing.
Jumping to PJ Ladd's Wonderful Horrible Life ['02], were you already getting sponsors by then or was that kind of your big break?
It's funny, I always get asked about it, but I was getting stuff from éS and Element before that or around the same time. It was funny at the time though, because that Coliseum video didn't seem like a big deal. I mean, it was a big deal to us filming for it, but I never thought somebody 15 years later would be asking me about it in an interview.
When did you first decide to go back to school? Did you just do undergrad at Columbia first?
I guess in the Coliseum video I was like 15 or 16. I think in high school skating was really important for me to have that community of friends. And I was always really into the certain parts of school that I really liked. So between that and skating, it sort of filled up my life. Towards the end of high school though, it felt like it was definitely going to go one way or the other—like I would only be skating or only be going to school. For me, I just never really wanted to just only skate. I go through highs and lows with skating, and school wasn't just something to fall back on but also something that gave my life structure. I wanted to move to New York anyways, so I went to school at Columbia [University].
You must have been a good student throughout too, I guess to get accepted.
I was a relatively good student. Like I said, I had some classes that I just never cared about, so I wouldn't try. But then there are things I'm obsessive about and I do really well in those.
So you went to Columbia for four years of undergrad. Were you still skating throughout? When did the contests sort of become a thing?
I was skating throughout, but the contest thing didn't happen until after. When I first went I had quit all my sponsors. éS was just starting to pay me, but I felt like I didn't deserve the money. I felt like I would be held accountable at some point. So I quit all my sponsors. I remember that feeling being really liberating at the time. I grew up mostly skating alone, so I would just try to find my own spots up there and skate alone. Then I came out of college kind of at the peak of the economic crisis ['08 Great Recession] also with no intention of getting a normal job.
What kind of degree did you have at that point?
Bachelor's in Arts and Science, with a major in architecture.
Did you look for work in that field?
No. I knew at the time, I still know now that I don't want to be an architect just in the regular sense. So I figured, "Okay, I'm just going to work at restaurants and make things on my own." Art stuff or creative stuff. Then it was another timing thing. The restaurant that I worked at had a kitchen fire, so we were all collecting unemployment. This was right when Manny Mania came to New York. I ran into a bunch of old skate friends that I hadn't seen in a while. I think it was Andrew Cannon who is one of my really good friends who was like, "You should skate in Maloof. It's 25 grand for first place. You should do it."
That was a big deal when they came in with those huge purses.
Yeah. I was like, "25 grand?" I had only skated like two contests before and maybe won like a thousand bucks. Here I am collecting unemployment, I was like, "Fuck, I hate contests, but 25 grand…" I think I called Mark Waters after that. I called all the people I knew and eventually got in as an alternate.
You did pretty well in a couple of them, right?
Yeah. Well, I think my first Maloof I hit my head twice, my wheel fell off, and it was just a huge disaster. I won some award for like best slam or something—the "Destroyer Award" [laughs]. They gave me like a sawzall. I was like, "Is this a good thing?" And then I think I skated X Games right after that, got in as an alternate, and actually did well in that.
How long was that stretch. Did you build up some funds and then decide to go back to school for the master's?
It was four years.
Damn, so you did four years of undergrad at Columbia, then four years of the school of skateboarding at Maloof and X Games, then four years at MIT?
Yeah. Exactly [laughs]. On again off again. I had some money saved up and was also just kind of bored [laughs]. Some people do really well without structure. For me it's hard. Like you have skating and then you have all these creative projects you want to do. It's hard to ever finish anything when nobody is holding you accountable or without some structure. Also, with a master's in architecture you could get really good scholarships, and I've just always really liked school. Not every little bit of it, but the higher up you get in school the more you can just do the exact things you want to do.
Did you really get scholarships at Harvard, Yale, MIT, et cetera?
Yeah. I don't want to sound like a douche bag, but yeah, it was Harvard, Yale, MIT, UCLA, and U of Michigan. I did get into Columbia again for the master's but with no scholarship. I wanted to stay in New York though, so MIT seemed like the best choice. So I did the master's in architecture there, which is like three and half years, and then you have one more semester for your thesis.
Were you still skating the contests when you went back to grad school at MIT?
They kept happening. I would just pull like three all-nighters on some architecture project and then get on a plane to Brazil and huck myself down 15 stairs [laughs].
When did you graduate?
From your point of view, how far has women's skateboarding come over the past decade?
I don't think one person can ever give a complete answer to that, but I see what I see when I skate and when I skate with other girls. I see them at contests. Some of them are my friends. It definitely feels like there are more girl skaters now. I think that's always been the key to—I don't know if you want to call it progress or just change—but there has to be more girls and women skateboarding in order for it to have the support that it needs.
After all the interviews I did for this issue, at least as far as skating for a living, the main thing that came up was the inability to survive financially. That was the main reason given for girls not being able to stay in it for the long haul. Do you see it evolving on that front?
I hope so [laughs]. I would hope that that might follow. Obviously the guys that skate in contests make a lot more money than the guys who choose not to. But that's a choice that guys can make—who you want to be as a skater and how you choose to represent yourself. But up until now, for women, that choice hasn't existed at all. Because if you don't skate the contests, nobody is going to pay you anything, period. All the free shoes in the world are still not going to pay your rent, so at some point it would be nice for that side to actually become viable.