In 1965, Patti McGee was featured on the cover of Life Magazine doing a handstand on a skateboard. At the time, sidewalk surfing—like the hula-hoop or Frisbees—was still pretty much a unisex activity. After the Dogtowners brought a more aggressive vibe to it in the '70s, girls like Peggy Oki still got down, but skateboarding most definitely became a boys' club. Through the '80s boom, and into the '90s, from the Bones Brigade to Menace, barring a few exceptions like Dianne Desiderio, Cara-Beth Burnside, or Lori Rigsby—skateboarding's fans, pros, and marketing themes were near exclusively male. The few girls that did exist as public figures within the pastime were mostly novelties. For this installment of our Pioneer column, we'd like to argue that Elissa Steamer's rise to stardom following her introductory part in Welcome to Hell ('96) changed all of that.
This is the full interview text from Elissa’s Pioneer Column in our June 2012 Issue.
What got you into skating?
BMX was real big in the ’80s. I had a BMX bike and I remember getting a BMX magazine and the last page had a Santa Cruz skate ad. So I cut out the skateboard decks, glued them on cardboard then hung them on my wall. Along with like a picture of Billy Idol maybe (Laughs.) One was the Claus Grabke clock and the other was a Schmitt Stix ATV for sure. There was a bike shop by my house called Benjamin Cyclery and they would have all these BMX demos and I guess somebody had a skateboard and I thought that was cool too. I started doing it. The kids in the apartment building I lived in, a couple of the older ones, this one dude had a Billy Ruff. I remember I rode that and I could tic-tac right away. Everybody was like, "Oh my God!" (Laughs.) They were all amazed that I could just hop on it and knew how to tic-tac.
Had you seen any girl skating ever?
No. Not at all. Never.
Did you see like the girls in Public Domain ('88) later on?
Later. This is way before any of that. I'm talking like 1983-84 here. I rode that G&S Billy Ruff and then all the rich kids at my school had like brand new Mongoose scooters and Schmitt Stix ATVs. All these cool boards like the Vision Old Ghosts and all that. I didn't know anything about it but I was like, "I need a f—king skateboard." I knew Powell Peralta was just the shit, but my dad wouldn't buy me a Powell Peralta. So he bought me a Variflex board from the sporting goods store and bought a Powell Peralta sticker to put over it. That was my first board (Laughs.)
Elissa’s breakout part from Toy Machine’s landmark video, Welcome to Hell (’96).
Did anyone say ever anything early on? Like, “You're a girl skater” or anything?
No. Not really. I had always just done boyish things. I'm not saying skateboarding's boyish but… I had always ridden BMX bikes, played kickball. I was into being active. Nobody ever said anything. But as soon as I got a board of my own people started saying things like, "Oh. You must be the greatest girl skateboarder in the world!" I was like, "What? I've never even left Fort Myers".
What about by Propaganda ('90). Did you see Lori Rigsby in that?
I remember seeing the girls in Public Domain more. I remember seeing that and thinking like, "Wait, I can do all of that." I gotta get a video camera. In the same video they had that part that was somebody's home video and the dudes were absolutely ripping on their home video. Then they showed the girls and she did I think like a back D on a miniramp.
Could you already kickflip by then?
Probably. I was on par with the guys I skated with. I was as good as they were. I'm pretty sure I could kickflip by '88. Everybody I skated with after that. They would introduce to their moms or something and say like, "This is Elissa Steamer. She's the best girl skater in the world." (Laughs.)
Where you pretty much hooked by the time it died in the '90s? When it wasn't the popular thing to do anymore?
Yeah. By then I was totally all in.
When did you finally see other girl skaters?
I think around '90. Around that time they would have like the Florida Amateur Skate League, FLASL—they would have one in my town and I met this girl there that was in them. She lived up in Tampa and so we became friends. I went and stayed with her one time and we went to a FLASL contest in Daytona. We went skating downtown with her friends and Garry Crowley. He was pretty badass. I think I was more of a skate rat then she was. She was a little older.
Who were you looking at in the videos?
I was looking up to Ray Barbee, Guy Mariano, and Frankie Hill. Those were my favorites back then. It was basically Powell Peralta. That was all I knew.
Did anybody give you a hard time?
No. Never. Nobody ever gave me a hard time. I don't know if I've repressed the memory or something, but I honestly can't remember anybody giving me flack.
How did you end up getting sponsored?
Basically just by skating in Tampa. Skating and hanging out in Tampa, that's basically it. All the teams would come through for summer tours and stuff.
Welcome to Hell box art. Elissa’s part made immediate waves.
Did you want it at that point?
Oh yeah. I was hanging out with (Matt) Milligan. He was like my role model. It was just me and Milligan. We were the only people that didn't go to college. So it was just him and me. He rode for New Deal and was well on his way. So he would go out to California. One time he came back and was like, "Ray Barbee was stoked on your skating. You should call him" So I called Lance (Mountain) at the Firm. But I remember sitting and smoking a cigarette before this Foundation/Toy Machine tour and just feeling good like, "I'm gonna f—king rip today. These motherf—kers are giving me a board today (Laughs.) And I got on Toy Machine that day (Laughs.)
For the Pioneer column, I wanted to argue that there were definitely girl skaters before you, but that you were the first to have a part in a marquis video. You were kind of the first time a girl was presented as on par with the boys. How did that whole part happen?
I pretty much got on. I met Jamie (Thomas) and Ed (Templeton) at the Tampa contest and they were just like, "Hey, we're filming this video. Do you have any footage?" I had never even filmed skating at that point. So Jamie told me he would come to my house and stay for a week. So he did. We drove to Miami and skated in Tampa and my hometown. But I had no idea what this video was going to be or anything like that. I just remember Paul Zitzer hearing about it and being like, "You're going to ride for Toy Machine? You should definitely do that" I was still skeptical. I didn't even know how big a deal it was. I didn't know that (Chad) Muska for example was the dude at that point. I seriously thought Chad was just Jamie's bro the first time I saw them skating a demo. Jamie (Thomas) and Chad were basically the center of the universe at that point, but I had no idea.
(Donny) Barley alone was just huge after Eastern Exposure III ('96).
Oh yeah. For sure. I was just clueless I guess. All I really knew was that Mike Daher rode for Stereo and that was the shit.
Did you kind of just slide right in there with those guys? Was it comfortable just being around dudes?
Oh yeah. All my friends were just skate rats. So this was no different to me. All I wanted to do was drink beer, smoke reefer, and skateboard. It was perfect. Me and Muska were meant for each other (Laughs).
Did you ever have moments were you felt like a girl on tour?
I knew like, "Well, you gotta pull the van over, because I can't piss in a bottle. Other then that, none of it ever really crossed my mind. We were skaters. That was it. We're doing it. I'm living. I had never even been further than Gainesville my whole life. All of a sudden I flew to California, instantly got in a van and just drove across the country. I just discovered life right there through skateboarding.
Did girls start coming up to you at demos at any point? Did you start getting fan mail and stuff?
Yeah. Immediately I think Tum Yeto started getting fan mail. People started writing love letters (Laughs.) Girls started coming up at the demos like, "Oh my God, I want to be like you!" Or guys would come up like, "Oh my God, I want my girlfriend to be like you!" Whatever. It was instant. As soon as that video (Welcome to Hell) came out. I just remember being in Pacific Beach or somewhere and there was this undertone like, "Is that the girl? Is that her?" If I showed up anywhere I guess it was a big deal (Laughs.)
I don't want to be a dick but…
Be a dick.
I guess to me personally, a lot of the girls that had come before might have had some of the tricks, but they just didn't have the style. I guess I wanted to ask if you saw that from your perspective? Could you kind of tell there were some girls with bad style?
Could I tell that their style was bad? Sure. It didn't appeal to me. I'm not one to talk shit on people, but I always had people come up to me and tell me like, "You don't skate like a girl." Or they would say like, "You got a rad style." Guy Mariano came up to me at one point and was like, "Girl, you got a dope style. (Laughs.)" At the time it was like, "Okay, I guess I can die now." (Laughs.)
Elissa’s part from Jump Off a Building (’98) to Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”.
To me that was the difference when I saw that part. You did a switch heel and it just looked good. So to me that changed everything right there.
Did things change for Jump Off a Building (’98)?
The team had changed a lot.
Were you living that Janis Joplin song by then?
Oh yeah. I was mental by then. I remember Ed called me at one point and told me I had a week left to film. I seriously hadn't done anything yet. I remember kind of stressing at that point. Just getting angry and fidgety while I was skating. I wasn't pleased with that part when it came out at all. But it was a lot of fun at the same time. I was hanging out in Philly skating with (Mike) Maldonado, Bam (Margera), and Kerry (Getz). They came down to Fort Myers and stuff. I don't know what happened. I think in some ways I was already thinking I could rest on my laurels (Laughs.) I already thought like, "I don't have to do anything. I'm special (laughs.)" I always wanted to have the best video part; I could just never do it.
I was talking to Marisa Dal Santo yesterday and she claimed Jump Off a Building was the best girl video part of all time. So I guess somebody thought the part was good.
That's rad. I love her. She's amazing.
Elissa Steamer on the cover of Toy Machine video #4 Jump Off a Building (’98).
How does it feel to know you influenced all these other girls?
I'm into it. I would rather be helping motivate people than be bumming people out.
When did you turn pro?
It was March or April of '98. So it was pretty quick. Two years. But back then two years was a lifetime. You were Am for two years then would turn pro. Then you would retire at like 25.
Does "first female pro street skater" sound weird?
No. It sounds all right to me (Laughs.)
Best memory from the Baker Bootleg Huntington party days? The Barrio, Warner, all that…
Yeah. They lived in "The Barrio", the Aaron Pearcy and a couple of other friends lived on Warner. Back then that type of lifestyle was pretty rad for me. Now it would be like painful. But back then it was fun—wake up, go skate, then just party.
It seems like a ton of the stuff going on today came from that period in Huntington. (Ali) Boulala was there, Baker started; (Andrew) Reynolds was coming up, Ed (Templeton) and the Huntington Park. (Tom) Penny.
Yeah. For sure right? We all had the party in common (Laughs.) We partied and skated.
And lived in a boring ass beach town.
Yeah. There was nothing else to do. I remember Boulala got deported over J-walking.
Elissa’s part in the OG Baker Bootleg video. VHS copies came in painted porno boxes.
Did you catch the Penny hey day?
Penny was gone by the time I got out there. But I met Penny the same day I met Donny (Barley) in Tampa.
It looked like you were a bit of a Penny fan.
Oh man. Who wasn't? I still am. I'm so happy that he hasn't changed. Still doing it and still ripping.
What changed when all you guys moved up to LA for Baker2G?
At first nothing really changed. It was just a different town. The big city. But then people started going their separate ways a little.
I remember you guys coming up right before you all moved up here. It was (Chris) Nieratko's birthday or something and Shane Heyle got his teeth punched out.
Oh yeah. I had my brand new car. My Forerunner. I still have that car. That car is amazing. We drove up and by midnight, Shane was bleeding, he got his teeth knocked in. This girl puked all over the side of my brand new car. Everybody was a mess. Greco was a mess. That was like our LA dress rehearsal (Laughs.)
Elissa skates to the best version of the Modern Lover’s “Roadrunner” in Baker2G (’00).
What made you go to Bootleg with J. (Strickland) rather than stay with Baker or Toy Machine?
Well at first it was basically a Girl/Chocolate type situation. But it was through NHS and Baker was still had Blitz so eventually they were competing. I just kind of stayed out of the whole thing. All my friends were on those teams so it seemed natural.
How did it wind down?
It just kind of went out of business. They just canned it. I was sponsorless for like a year and half after that. I'm in the same predicament now. But I've given up. I guess I'm just retired now. I tried to get on a few companies. But I didn't really have the confidence to just ask people outright. I would feel things out but nobody would sponsor me. I had Etnies sponsoring me still but they cut my pay and told me if I got a board sponsor they would go back to my old pay.
But you were still skating all those contests right? You were winning X Games and stuff.
Yeah. I was still out there doing it. Finally Jamie put me on Zero because he was just like, "You're obviously still skating." That was like May of '05 maybe. I moved to SF in like '03.
Elissa shares a mini part with Pete Eldridge, Scott Kane, Trainwreck, Anthony Mosely and Brian Michaud in a Promo for Bootleg 3000 (’03).
What made you move to SF?
I remember Erik (Ellington) got married, so he moved out of the house. (Jeff) Lenoce was still living with us. (Mike) Maldonado was going to move back to Philadelphia. I just figured I'd move up here. Milligan lived in SF and my friend June Bug lived up here. Frank (Gerwer) was up here. Every time I came up Frank and I were the best of friends. And Brian (Anderson). Brian lived up here too.
What made you decide to get sober in there?
I was just done. That was it. It was no one thing or anything. I didn't murder anybody. I just woke up one day super miserable with a black eye from falling down drunk and decided, "Maybe I should try something different."
Are you still looking for a board sponsor?
No. I gave up (Laughs.) I hit up all the people I would have wanted to ride for and then just decided that was it. I don't want get on something I don't like to just stay in the game. So it seemed like that was it.
I know right? (Laughs.) That's what everybody says. They're like, "Oh, you could ride for anybody you want." I'm like, "Uh. No. I can't." I don't know. I'm not even really trying any more.
Elissa shares a part with Jamie Thomas and Donovan Piscopo in Zero Strange World (’09).
Do you think skateboarding is still a boys' club?
No. Not really. I see a lot of girls skating now.
What girls are you into coming up?
Marisa (Dal Santo) is one of my favorites. I mean not even just a girl skater—but one of my favorites period. If anybody comes up I hope it's her. There are lots of girls out there that I'm into. But I think Marisa really embodies the whole skate rat thing really well.
What is your life plan? Do you have one?
Not really (Laughs.) I'm just trying to feel it out right now. Obviously I don't want to get a job or anything (Laughs.) But I have some ideas of things I'd like to do.
Will women ever take over? Do you think there will ever be like girly girls that skate? Like glamour models carrying purses that can do switch tre flips?
(Laughs.) Like Sex and The City on skateboards? Yeah. I saw a YouTube video the other day of this Brazilian girl skating. She had her tank top and skinny jeans. But the whole thing had some sex appeal. She was cool. But if you're not back noseblunting, who gives a f—k about sex appeal (Laughs.)
Elissa’s portrait from her Last Words in our April ’08 issue. Photo: Shigeo.