Three women are channelling their passion for surfing into a creative project which aims to bring wāhine together in the water – and on land. Fiona Ralph reports.
You know you’re driving into Muriwai, a small coastal community in Auckland’s northwest, when you spot old surfboards on the side of the road, transformed into letterboxes and a sign prompting you to slow down for “free range kids”.
Simple surf shacks and modern houses are nestled among the native trees that envelop the road, which winds down to the beach, then on to a headland overlooking two of Auckland’s most popular surf breaks: Muriwai Beach and Maukatia/Māori Bay.
It’s here, in this wilder, more windswept Surfers Paradise, that Steph Brookes, 33, Rachel Lewis, 32, and Zofia Seymour, 30, have made their home and the base for their business, Betty Zine. The self-published quarterly magazine celebrates women’s surf culture in Aotearoa and was born out of the frustration of New Zealand’s Level 4 lockdown, when surfing was banned and some of the women had lost work.
Zofia, Betty’s designer and curator, had created zines (small self-published magazines) in college, and thought a surf zine would be an ideal creative outlet. She put a call-out for submissions on Ultimate Surf Bettys, a Facebook group for women surfers. Other surfers seemed to be feeling the frustration, too, and photos, essays, poems and illustrations started rolling in.
“It’s weird when people say, ‘Why did you set out to start a women’s surf magazine?’” Zofia says from her living room, fire roaring, ocean glimmering through the window. “It’s like, we didn’t. I know that sounds cheesy, but the community did it.”
Two other members of the Facebook group offered to help. Rachel, who had just finished a creative writing degree, took on the editor’s role, and Steph, an admin of the group who’s been posting surf reports there for years, manages the social media and advertising. The three women lived around the corner from each other in Muriwai. Steph knew the others, but Rachel and Zofia hadn’t met before. They started collating the zine, communicating online, and when Covid restrictions relaxed to Level 3, Zofia and Rachel – who had each been living alone – joined Steph’s bubble with her fiancé, Vini Leite, and son, Kaio Spencer Leite, allowing them to put the finishing touches on the publication.
“Betty” is a slang term for female surfers and skaters, and the zine’s vision is to create a community – but the spark came from an existing online community. The Ultimate Surf Bettys Facebook group was started by the team at Auckland shop Ultimate Surf & Skate as a supportive place for women surfers of all levels – from beginners to experienced shredders – to come together.
“Everybody wants to be part of something,” says Rachel. “Ultimate Surf Bettys is the nicest Facebook group. I think we had a really good community feel with that, but it only kind of existed within this Facebook group and we didn’t really get the chance to come together at physical get-togethers.” Enter Betty Zine. “I think so many surfers are creatives or freelancers so it’s really cool for us to have a space to share that with each other.”
Having produced their first zine, the women realised they had enough submissions for another issue, and with sales five times what they expected, they started on a second issue, then a third and fourth. Now, over a year in, they’ve just released their fifth issue, with no sign of stopping. In fact, as well as expanding to cover more of New Zealand, they plan to take the magazine across the Tasman, and around the world.
They’ve also moved into events, hosting casual surf meetups, art exhibitions, movie nights and more. “It’s not just a zine,” says Zofia. It’s more of a movement, with the aim of empowering women to get out in the surf – a space often dominated by men. One of their recent events was a screening of Girl’s Can’t Surf, in conjunction with Deep Creek Brewing Company. The movie tells the story of a group of professional female surfers in the 1980s and ’90s who fought for the right to compete, receive equal pay and fair representation, and less objectification and discrimination. (After years of receiving a fraction of the prize and sponsorship money of their male counterparts, the World Surf League announced that female surfers would finally be awarded equal prize money at its events from 2019.)
For decades, women have been told by men that they shouldn’t be out in the water. Steph recently posted a link on Ultimate Surf Bettys about record-breaking big-wave surfer Maya Gabeira being told a number of years ago by top male surfers, Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton, that she shouldn’t be riding such dangerous waves.
Steph, who has been surfing the longest of the Betty team, has been on the receiving end of this type of discrimination herself. She grew up in the eastern Auckland suburb of Howick and started surfing at 15, and would often be the only woman in the water. She remembers an older man once telling her she shouldn’t be out in large surf in Sydney. Maybe she was out of her depth sometimes, she admits, but that’s how she learnt.
She’s stoked to see more women out in the surf these days. “Here in Māori Bay, we are often only a sprinkle of females in the lineup. Often I would be the only female out, however things are changing, and now we have lashings of ladies in the shore break and a few more out in the lineup,” says Steph. “At times you do have to step up and prove your worthiness when you first paddle out, otherwise you’ll get hustled out of position, pushed too deep or straight up not get any waves. Locals can get crazy when the waves are pumping; the rush of adrenaline mixed with testosterone makes for an unnerving lineup.”
But she says there are also supportive guys who make sure everyone gets their turn on a wave – and some of them are even fans of the mag. “Often you notice surfers relax a little more when females are in the water, balancing the bubbling testosterone with a calming female presence.”
Rachel agrees that male surfers can be intimidating, and she is often surprised to discover that she is better than some of them – just without the bravado. She picked up a board when she was 26, after moving to New Zealand from the US (growing up in landlocked Minnesota, there weren’t many opportunities to surf), and after one lesson, she was hooked.
Zofia was the same, sold on surfing after taking a lesson in Fiji when she was 25. She’s originally from Wairarapa, but has lived in a number of places around the world.
The Betty Zine team is striving to change the narrative around women’s surf media and culture. Traditionally, surf magazines have focused on competition and professional athletes, and women were often sexualised or sidelined. Betty is different. It’s not about who catches the biggest wave, but how that wave makes the surfer feel, and how they spend the day before and after their surf – perhaps with a smoothie and yoga session or a good book. Getting the community to submit their stories and artwork is key to getting this vibe right.
“It’s not us top-down,” explains Zofia. “It’s not us telling people what they should be. I think that’s why women’s surf magazines in the past often fall down, it’s always about telling women what they should be. But this is the opposite… where the zine came from, that’s its origins. It’s by the community, it’s for the community. If we tried to change that, it would just be bad vibes. Our values of being inclusive and actually living by those values has really paid off. We don’t say no to any content. We have a place for everything, for everyone. People send us their most amazing art and we also get a lot of amateur art, and it’s never not good enough for us. We’ve got a space for it in the zine.”
All three women fit their work on the zine around their day jobs. Zofia is a freelance designer, Rachel is a teacher and writer and Steph – as well as being mum to two-year-old Kaio – is a scientist who works in contaminated land, surveying asbestos and investigating meth labs.
Because of these commitments, they have to grab any moments they can to work on the zine. Their fourth issue was pulled together late at night in a Gisborne laundromat. The team was there for the Makorori First Light Longboard Surfing Classic, and the zine deadline was sandwiched on top of other work deadlines for Zofia.
“It was 11pm, we’d just driven down to Gizzy,” laughs Rachel. “I talked Zof into it, she didn’t want to come. We got to the Gizzy city limits and Zof was like, ‘Drop me at a hotel, put me on a plane, I’m going home’.”
They managed to pull it together though, and the issue, with surf photographer Amber Jones’ shot of naked surfer Anna Major running towards the water on the cover – more gleeful than gratuitous – was a hit.
Flying the Betty Zine flag at events and festivals helps to get the word out about the zine, and seeing an all-female surf lineup at an event makes it all worth it.
“I want women to have the fitness, the knowledge and the confidence to paddle out the back with us, hence my drive to get bettys out in the water though avenues like Betty Zine and the Ultimate Surf Bettys,” says Steph. “I just love how we can egg each other on in a good way. We provide support, especially when you’re out surfing with girls. It makes me happy seeing girls out there trying their best or just having fun.”