“NO ONE expected me. EVERYTHING awaited me.”—Patti Smith
Twenty-one-year-old Jaleesa Vincent stands tall in her lifeguard tower and peeks her head out from inside the cabin toward the languid seascape. Tufts of sand-grass quiver in the afternoon side-shore as a messy windswell clutters the Pacific. On this stretch of Sunshine Coast beach there are no humans and no signs of humanity.
I climb up into the tower with her. We sit back and look out the window, watching black cockatoos flock overhead. Omens all around. She gestures toward the empty sand—not a single soul needed saving today.
“God, I’m a genius,” she jokes.
It’s a phrase her mother would say whenever she sewed clothes or Halloween costumes for her children. Vincent and her brother, Jake, now say it for any banal accomplishment, such as when they remember to pack themselves a lunch.
Vincent’s demeanor is perfect Australiana. She’s easygoing and unassuming, but has a ready wit that’s incisive to both herself and others. Physically, she has a swimmer’s body, long and elegant and powerful, the kind made for things like tap dancing, playing drums, and surfing.
It’s her last shift working here. In a few days, she will be moving to Byron Bay to start her life as, well, a professional surfer. I watch as she finishes her duties by patrolling up and down the sand in a 4Runner, closing up the tower, and packing the gear into the work shed nestled in the bush for the final time.
Then we go surfing. The waves are average, and the sky is a heavy but peaceful shade of gray. But there’s electricity in the air. As I kick on my surf mat through the river mouth, the first thing I notice about Vincent’s surfing is an incredible mix of smoothness and unpredictability. Long and elastic, Vincent does things in the water that are unfamiliar. She lifts her weight into turns lightly and balletically, and then applies her force in squiggly lines. She’s fluent in both grace and power.
For Vincent, dancing came long before surfing. It shows in the lines she draws.
“I started dancing when I was 5,” she says. “I mainly focused on that until I was 16. We had a performance coming up at Disneyland, and had to rehearse nearly every day after school and on the weekends. I quit so I could surf.”
It’s a sort of reverse American dream, but one that still draws on modern yearning. If Disney is a monument to the belief that happiness is created, Vincent is a monument to something that, even if not quite coalesced, plants a firm flag in the ground for natural joy. And by letting herself just be who she is, she’s creating something new and different in surfing. Only time will tell what exactly that is.
In the water, her pink hair flips, her movements flow, and there are sudden moments of explosion. My mat squeaks awkwardly as I kick and hop over the windswell on the inside, stalling to get a good look as Vincent swoops and finishes a wave near me. She flashes a smile and we both giggle.
“THERE WAS A STAR RIDING through clouds one night, and I said to the star, ‘Consume me.’”—Virginia Woolf
Outside a café near her house in Coolum, Vincent sits down without ordering anything. It’s the kind of place run by mediocre poets—dimly lit, a piano in the corner, a small stage in front, and mismatched wooden and plastic chairs. She’s wearing knee-high, lace-up pink sneakers covered in a collage of princesses that she got at the op shop.
“I love these shoes,” she says. “I don’t care what people think.”
Vincent is young, but already there’s a hard line. She’s certain of herself with zero pandering charm. She’s also aware of her agency, and she’s elated to be a part of building a new path for what it means to be a female professional freesurfer.
While Keala Kennelly, Kassia Meador, Leah Dawson, Alana Blanchard, and many other women have been paid to ride waves and be themselves, Vincent represents a new movement of female surfers who exist outside of the usual categories of contests, longboarding, or modeling. Vincent is proving that it can be done by being punk and thrash.
“We have the opportunity to be diverse and experimental,” she says. “There’s no criteria. The world’s our oyster. We are constantly learning and adapting and working out who we are our entire life. And I have a lot more to do.”
She then mentions that she has a wart that was cut out of her toe in a jar in her bedroom, and we walk back to the small concrete house where she lives. It’s covered in plants and startlingly open to the elements. There’s barely a front door.
Inside, her artwork is everywhere. On the side wall around a corner from the entrance is a portrait of a woman with a green face, bloodshot eyes, and oil-black hair in which naked bodies drown and scream for help. A drawing of two synchronized swimmers bending their bodies together in the shape of a heart hangs beside the fridge. Other paintings feature figures spread out across a sparse landscape, playing out a symbolic game.
On the screened-in porch, splayed on her work table, are gold-painted mixed-media creatures with roving eyes dangling from delicate chains—jewelry meant to be sold at the market tomorrow. We discuss the pricing of art as commerce and how it can be misrepresentative of the time used to make it. She also makes video illustrations, mostly line drawings of spiders and insects that are moving and morphing and playing.
As a whole, there’s a surrealism to her art, like a dream trying to interpret itself. Vincent’s creativity isn’t fussy. It’s boundless. Though she speaks quietly and gently about it, she produces it with abandon. But here, today, she shrugs at her work as she shows me what’s done and what’s in progress. She’s leaving all of it behind when she moves.
“They’re all going to my parents’ house,” she says.
It’s like she’s starting to detach and slightly hover above what’s here, keeping everything for the future.
“INSTEAD OF PAYING ATTENTION to the faces of people passing by, I watched their feet, and all these busy types were reduced to hurrying steps—toward what? And it was clear to me that our mission was to graze the dust in search of a mystery stripped of anything serious.”
Byron Bay is a four-hour drive down the coast from Vincent’s home on the Sunshine Coast. Like many small-town stars, she has to leave to make it big. In Australian surfing, this means moving to the Byron area, the wave-rich industry hub.
Her collected belongings obscure the back window. The view outside the car is filled with tan and green eucalyptus. There are tracts of wallum, the wildflower heathlands common on the east coast of Australia that are leftover from when the land was filled with Aboriginal communities. Visually, little has changed.
“Australia might be one of the last places where it doesn’t feel like the world is ending,” Vincent says.
I nod, looking at the beauty of the countryside. A few weeks later, fires will rip through this area, making Australia a poster child of the apocalypse. Then the rain will come and floods will wash everything away.
Vincent speaks about how she got started down this path.
“I worked for a year, saving up so I could pay to do the WQS for one season,” she says. “I did a few contests and then I was already out of money. I couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t enjoy it. Then I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to try [to be a pro surfer] my way.’”
If Vincent is any indication, brands are now more than ever recognizing female surfers as a source of innovation, and are increasingly moving to work with them. Rage sponsored her first, then came Misfit. Finally, Billabong signed Vincent after catching wind of her through Laura Enever.
Dion Agius, godfather of the Internet-native freesurfer, met her a few years ago. Immediately, he wondered why someone like her hadn’t come along before in surfing. Or, if she had, why hadn’t she been supported?
“It just seems crazy that there aren’t more young women surfers like Jaleesa right now who are supported for just being themselves and surfing,” says Agius. “Not for doing contests or being a model.”
In her position, Vincent is tracing her lines and story through systemic sexism and uncertainty, breaking through the barriers of being a female professional freesurfer. Surfing has historically been a symbol of rebellion and anti-establishment, but in practice has often been very conservative at both the community level and as an industry, preferring to support middle-class white males. This is slowly changing. Vincent is accelerating it, and hopefully others will follow. As soon as she got signed, one of Vincent’s first impulses was to open up opportunities for other women. She makes a point of putting together all-girl trips.
“We just get so hyped on each other and want to try bigger things,” she says.
She plans on going with the flow, taking opportunities that come her way and seeing where they lead. She’s doing what she wants to do, whatever that comes to entail, surf or otherwise.
“I’m still finding my voice,” she says. “When I’m at home, I’m just painting or making jewelry or taxidermy. Cooking, walking the fields, climbing trees. Making music. Some days I don’t feel creative, some days everything pours out. A song will randomly come to me. The last song I wrote was just there when I woke up one morning.”
“I’ve been collecting roadkill and cleaning it up and putting the bones back together and creating a skeleton. I don’t keep the meat. It’s called skeletal articulation.”
I’ve been listening to her talk story, but this is different. I ask her more about the bones. She stumbles, like she’s not used to talking about it.
“I’ll only find things that are already dead,” she says. “It’s cool to see what a living body looks like inside. I think nature is so beautiful and that is taking another step down, seeing all the little bones and everything. I don’t know where I get it. I’ve always had that. My dad told me that when I was 5, I said things I never could have known. I’ve always had this dark little spot in me, it’s a secret little side. Everyone sees me as happy ‘Jellybean,’ my nickname. But everything is dualistic. I am light and sunshine, but light creates a shadow. I’ve never thought of why.”
She pauses. She’s never shared that before. There is a silence, but you can almost hear her in the process of becoming more herself as she drives down the coast where fires, then floods, then pandemic will soon articulate an alternate future.
“WITH THEIR SOULS of patent leather, they come down the road. Hunched and nocturnal, where they breathe they impose, silence of dark rubber, and fear of fine sand.”
—Federico García Lorca
The moon rises a little higher and shines a little brighter over Byron Bay. The town sits on the easternmost point of the Australian coast. To that could be attributed its strangeness, allure, and feeling of being slow-cooked—doomed to unconventionality. Tonight, Vincent is tap dancing in a band at The Northern Hotel, Byron’s storied pub and music venue.
She’s currently in two groups: Cupid and the Stupids, and SKREECH. Featuring seven members, the former is a garage rock ensemble where Vincent’s role is to tap dance into a vibration mic attached to an amplified board, and whose main function is to please its members and to play love songs at shows “the oldies can come to.” The two-person SKREECH is a more refined, fast-paced wall of noise that blends hardcore and death metal, in which Vincent plays the drums with startling speed and aggression.
Australia has a rich history of producing countercultural music, most notably its 1970s anti-establishment pub rock scene that was fueled by strong unions and powered by acid-tinged surf rock. Its sound is similar to how a punk riff is played the same way over and over to raw perfection. From Lobby Loyde and the Coloured Balls to Skyhooks to AC/DC, the tradition is carried on today by bands like Amyl and the Sniffers, Goons of Doom, and Vincent’s acts.
“When a lot of people have to work six days a week,” says Amy Taylor, frontwoman for Amyl and the Sniffers, “music is the best way to feel alive. I reckon it’s a way of saying ‘Stuff you.’”
A few years ago in Brisbane, SKREECH opened for Amyl and the Sniffers at an Australian pub called Eltham.
“They are unreal,” says Taylor. “I listen to their EP a lot, and it’s tough as. It’s just sick seeing an unapologetic good person having fun and out there representing.”
In Vincent, it’s obvious that Australia’s countercultural movements of surf and music remain intertwined even today.
But here at The Northern, Cupid and the Stupids are much lighter fare. The venue is small, with the stage at the back, a pit in front, and lighting scaffolding crisscrossing the roof. I sway lightly at the bar. They’re not good, but it works somehow. The song “Love and Liquor” sounds like a 50s doo-wop track, but trashy. One might suggest their musical shortcomings are intentional, part of their appeal.
Vincent’s wearing a red latex dress that glints in the spotlight. She’s positioned in the middle of the stage, smiling hugely and bouncing as her feet flitter around each other, tapping a sound like an irresistible knock on the door. The light seems to be coming out of her. It suddenly all becomes clear—this is what raw star power looks like. I feel like I’m looking at a rising sun glowing with a churning, world-eating black at its molten core—a miraculous newness even in its inevitability.