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Artist, femme fatale, muse—70s surf photographer Shirley Rogers stands alone in the annals of North Shore history.
Words by Beau Flemister [All captions by Shirley Rogers] | All photos by Shirley Rogers (unless otherwise credited)
Light / Dark
There is an iconic image from the 1970s of a dusky woman in a swimsuit taking photos from a beach on the North Shore. Actually, there’s not just one, there are many shots of this woman staring into a bulky long-lens, her camera usually mounted on an old, Hollywood-style cinematic tripod with wooden legs sinking into the sand. In these photos, she’s young and fit and exotic, often with a hand on her hip, sweat beading at her brow, her body language declaring, perform for me, boy.
The kind of legs that reach up to heaven and make the good Lord blush. The kind of woman you’d need to work up the courage to approach. The kind of woman that looked like she could pick you up in her palm, crush you in her fist, throw your essence into the sea. And perhaps you’d be reborn into something better because of it.
Shirley Rogers’ colleagues used to joke with her that there were more shots of her in the magazines than by her. Certainly, she was an unusual presence on the beach in the 1970s, the best, if not only, woman surf photographer within that pivotal era. But despite her work being published throughout the 70s and 80s, and her name being listed on the Surfing mast-head for years under contributing photographers, little is known of her today. She stopped shooting decades ago. She moved away from the North Shore. She doesn’t have an entry in Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing. Yet.
It is also not easy to get an interview with Shirley if you are a morning person, like myself. I live on the Eastside of Oahu, Shirley lives in Town, and although that’s but a 25-minute drive, it led to more than a few failed attempts for us to connect. I could only imagine how many men she’s made beg.
“Call me at the crack of noon, sweetie,” Shirley cackled into the phone. “I’m a night owl, baby. I don’t really turn on until 5-ish.”
It’s 7 p.m. now and even today she’s pushed the meeting back an hour or two, so I wait patiently at the bottom of her apartment building, listening to dog-barks echoing somewhere in the distance. Suddenly she blasts through the doors behind me and welcomes me in. I’ve crunched the numbers, I know she’s broken 60, but she’s still fit with those same stems I’ve seen in photos from the previous millennium. She’s feisty and charismatic and wearing dangly feather earrings (she’s part Cherokee Indian, she’ll later say). With an energy that’s a cross between Rihanna and that single mom in high school who flirted with you too hard, she talks in groovy idioms, attaching “baby,” “honey,” or “sweetie” to each exclamation, a contagious affect that makes me want to start adding “toots” to my own replies.
There is a wildness in her hazel eyes. Like things could either go as planned or escalate into chaos. But you’d follow her because you are curious to see how disasters take shape. Like earthquakes, floods, and civil unrest. Like a few drinks with Shirley Rogers.
She lets me into her pad and I discover those barking dogs belong to her. Two slightly (surely) obese miniature pinchers in matching, bedazzled, baby-blue-and-princess-pink tutu-leotards that look like they were originally made for two human toddlers, though she assures me they were not. Custom-made, baby. One’s name is Zina and the other is Zola. She leads me to her lanai, the two min-pins nipping at our heels, past a stack of CDs (Best of Sade, A Southern Rock Collection, etcetera) and onto a back patio with décor one could describe as Art Psycho. Christmas lights, raindrop neons, a couple of water features, some Balinese tapestries, and a few wind chimes jingle, blink, and drip all at the same time.
“Welcome to the disco, honey,” she says.
I sit down and both chubby canines in their matching tutus hop into my lap, awkwardly making it halfway, then requiring some help on the backend to finish the job. They look up at me simultaneously with adorable, matching, forlorn looks and I melt.
“Can I make you a drink?” she hollers from the kitchen, mid-pour.
Why yes… yes you can!
Growing up, Shirley Rogers never really fit in until she got to Hawaii. Specifically, the North Shore of Oahu. Daughter of an American Air Force dad and a Japanese mother, she was raised in Japan and then Texas before getting to Oahu, and was constantly caught in the classic, mixed-race conundrum. Too white for the kids in Japan, too ethnic for the white kids in Texas, and not brown enough for the Latinos there either.
“When we moved to Hawaii, I was like, ‘Ahhhh. This is more like it. Everyone looks like me here,’” she says
Sort of. Campbell High School in Oahu’s rough Westside town of Ewa Beach also required an adjustment period. Although Shirley did look like a local hapa girl, she also had a Texan drawl while everyone else spoke pidgin. It didn’t help her cause with the girls that she was also drop-dead gorgeous, tall, and wore miniskirts—because that’s what girls from Texas did in 1969. Thus every boy was drooling over the new babe from the Mainland and several stink-eyes and shoulder-checks later, the situation culminated when Shirley exploded. She called out the queen bee after class, picked up a desk, and threw it across the room at her. Nobody screwed with her again.
It was also at Campbell where she got into photography, took classes and even won a national award for her work. Shortly after high school, her parents decided to move back to Texas. Shirley wasn’t going with. She was best friends with surf-star Jeff Hakman’s girlfriend, so after high school they all moved in together on the North Shore.
“Another drink, honey?” she asks, halfway to the kitchen, which feels like more of a dare than a question.
The raindrop neon lights are dropping at a storm-like pace and the two min-pins are vying aggressively for my attention. But Shirley continues on with her origin story. She hands me a couple of bulky, three-ring binders, one with her accomplishments—published photos and newspaper clippings—the other with her modeling work. We’re supposed to continue this interview at the Chart House by Ala Moana Bowls, partially because it’s classy, but mostly because Joey Cabell—the Joey Cabell—hooks Shirley up on drinks. I’m supposed to drive, but I think one more couldn’t hurt. Two more probably would, though.
Around 1971, when Shirley moved to the North Shore with Jeff Hakman and his girlfriend, she started to shoot surfing. “I dunno, I lived on the North Shore, spent all my time on the beach, I already had a camera, so I figured, what the hell.”
Beyond beach-boredom, she credits Jack McCoy and Dick Hoole for jumpstarting her career. It was during a massive day at Waimea Bay, and the two were shooting from the water for their forthcoming film, Tubular Swells. They wanted another angle for the new Aussie surf magazine Backdoor. They handed her a 650 Century long-lens and Shirley was hooked. A 650mm Century is also no easy piece of equipment. Originally designed for Hollywood cinematography, it was paired with 25 ASA, which is some slow-ass, high-resolution slide film. This required tedious framing skills, not to mention the ability to pull focus while panning on a moving surfer, but Shirley learned through trial and error and began submitting her work.
“The thing I remember most was how quick to learn she was, and how soon after she started she was taking great photos that were being published, which was saying something,” says McCoy. “Sure, there were some standard rules you had to learn to get your exposure and shutter speeds right, however it was a real art learning to follow focus manually to get a sharp shot. There was such a small area of depth of field where your shot was either tack arp or slightly soft.”
“If it wasn’t crystal, absolute, frozen-water sharp…the mags wouldn’t use it,” Shirley says.
While she kept to the beach (she admits she wasn’t a strong swimmer) she’d take notes from photographers like Dan Merkel and Brian Bielmann, describing Colonel Albert Benson to be particularly helpful. She had an eye for off-moments. She produced stunning, candid portraits, or “people shots” as she refers to them. Being the most gorgeous woman on the beach during a time when there weren’t, well, any women on the beach, she got backstage access to the entire arena.
Besides shooting the rising stars of the time like Shaun Tomson, Gerry Lopez, and Rory Russell, she brought lesser-known, local heroes into the spotlight like Marvin Foster and Louis Ferreira. She also quickly realized what every successful surf photographer eventually discovers—that in this specific field of the craft, no matter what art school you graduated from, whether you’re a Fulbright Scholar or a Pulitzer Prize winner, your relationships with the talent trumps everything. The surfers have to like you, never the other way around.
But I can mostly give a shit about Century 650 lenses and 25 ASA—I want the fun stuff. I want her to dust off some memories from that “Wild West” era and snort the residue through a rolled up dollar bill, maybe off the back of Zola’s tutu in this psychotic lanai. “Tell me about the North Shore in the 70s,” I say, my lips hitting the rocks on my second vodka-I-don’t-know-what.
She tilts her head back, closes her eyes, and smiles deeply. “It was just a fun time in surfing, when it was still wild and crazy. When surfers really lived up to that rebel-image they’d created.”
She lights a cigarette.
“You know those boulders they have at the bottom of the hill at the Haleiwa-Waialua traffic circle?”
“They put those there because of me.”
Now, we’re talking.
Shirley was in a zippy BMW with Michael Tomson, who was sitting shotgun. They were coming home from Wahiawa when she decided to have a little fun. She hit the dirt embankment hugging the traffic circle at 50 miles an hour, yanked the steering wheel, and tail-slid the Beamer like Buttons at Off The Wall, essentially drifting sideways with Tomson screaming in terror.
The money and the contests had finally arrived with an actual pro surfing circuit and she details the scene at the Kuilima (now, Turtle Bay Resort). The picture she paints includes icons of the time getting naked and stoned, climbing from balcony to balcony to bypass locked doors. She recalls Jeff Hakman coming home one day with Quiksilver’s first prototype.
“‘They’re called boardshorts,’ he told me. They just looked like swim trunks to me, but that’s how they were marketing them in Australia. I’m still kicking myself for missing out on that deal,” she says, shaking her head and laughing. “Also, Da Hui started in my kitchen.”
I nearly spit-take my vodka. “Pardon me?” I manage.
“Yeah, I’m on the other side of the room with a glass pressed to the wall listening. It was one of their first meetings and they were talking about beating up Shaun [Tomson] and PT and Ian [Cairns] and, well, all my friends! So I’d go sneak off and warn them all and say, ‘Eddie and them are gonna come and kick your asses!’”
She explains how, initially, the boys just wanted to terrorize the comp guys in order get hired for the water patrol—which turned out to be a good idea since a lot of Da Hui were lifeguards anyways. Thus, Shirley was literally on the other side of the wall, with her ear pressed to the door, listening to the plot of Bustin’ Down the Door, as it was written.
By the late 70s, Shirley was getting published in all the major mags from Surfer to Tracks to advertorial work with burgeoning surf brands. She also didn’t just stick to the North Shore but began traveling the world to shoot.
“The first time I went to G-Land, we stayed in the tree houses,” she says. “You could hear tigers killing prey in the jungle and when we finally walked down to the pond to see where our drinking water came from, there were giant paw prints on the banks and a human skull in the water!”
She visited G-Land multiple times during those golden years of Indonesia, being dropped off for two weeks with Peter McCabe, Eddie Rothman, and Gerry Lopez, getting double-page spreads published in Surfing. She’d read an article in an inflight magazine en route to Indonesia about Italian soldiers evading dysentery during WWII by drinking red wine so she lugged in two five gallon jugs of vino…along with her 650 Century and tripod.
“Even though they boiled that pond water, everyone got sick but me,” she declares. “It was the wine, I swear it!”
She shows me some photos from one trip and, in a few, her arm is in a cast. According to Shirley, on the way back to Bali from G-Land, they were crossing the large bay with the transport vans in sight when a wave hit them from behind, capsizing the boat. Nearly drowning beneath the hull (the Javanese crew couldn’t swim), Shirley got out from under the wreck but another wave pushed the boat toward her. She attempted to block her face and broke her arm. They made a makeshift cast for her onshore until she got to an actual hospital.
We walk into the Chart House and get a few sideways looks, I assume because our coupling might appear odd, age-wise, but have a seat at the bar, regardless. Joey’s on vacation so we get the sarcastic career-bartender instead. Behind Shirley are some photos on the wall of Cabell, the most noticeable being that classic black and white that Leo Hetzel shot of Joey bullfighting in an aloha shirt in Peru. It’s the kind of image that requires reverence, a moment of silence, it’s so utterly unique and perfect. I can certainly see why you’d come back for a drink, served by the gentleman in the photo waving that cape.
We order a couple of cocktails and push on through the 70s. I get the feeling that a little bit of wreckage and chaos followed Shirley around everywhere she went, or perhaps that she welcomed it, as a lot of surfers did. “We didn’t have to be politically correct yet,” she recalls. “Surfers were wild. That’s what they were supposed to be.”
She tells me about a food fight in which she participated back in 1976 in Torquay after Jeff Hakman won the Bells comp—how one little lobster tail in the dinner turned a dozen surfers into savages, causing local diners and families to literally hide beneath their tables in fear. How she was coming home from Tahiti with the Hawaiian offshore soccer team when things got a bit rowdy on the plane. How a flight attendant said something rude to Shirley in the chaos and, coming to her defense, another photographer accidently hit the overhead too hard, causing the oxygen masks to drop in every row, subsequently triggering an emergency landing on Christmas Island, halfway back to Honolulu.
Yes, Shirley could even ground a jetliner.
Did she party hard?
Of course. Everyone did back then, until they didn’t.
“I saw Hendrix play at the Waikiki Shell, for Christ’s sake!” she exclaims, as if that explains everything.
During the opening credits for Magnum P.I., after the helicopter dips seaward, and Selleck peels out in his red Ferrari, after he locks and loads his trusty Colt .45 and a car explodes for some unknown reason, there’s a shot of Tom holding a woman in his arms in waist-deep water, ostensibly showing her how to snorkel. The woman’s bikini’d bottom is poking up through the water, nearly brushing Selleck’s legendary mustache and, for a split-second, he gives the camera a cheeky aside.
That bottom belongs to Shirley Rogers. She was an extra on Magnum P.I. for most of the 80s. Not surprisingly, Selleck had a thing for her—so much so that he encouraged Shirley to say something in a scene on the fly, just so she’d get some speaking-part residuals.
“We were shooting a scene where he was showing me how to freedive and he tells me to spit in the mask to clear it before putting it on. And I say, ‘[Beat] Spit?’ And voila: I’m an actress. I get checks from S.A.G. for that line to this day.”
Recently Selleck was a guest on The Late Show with Steve Colbert. Toward the end of the interview, Colbert admitted, “I gotta tell you, I was 14 when Magnum P.I. was at its peak and I couldn’t imagine a greater goal in my manhood than to be Tom Selleck in the opening credits, teaching that woman to swim in the pool…”
Selleck nodded his head and, with a twinkle in his eye, went on for the next 40 seconds about Shirley, practically gushing on national television.
Of course that wasn’t her only gig through the 80s. After transitioning out of surf photography, she modeled frequently, but also started the successful swimsuit brand, Osé.
“Back then, if you had big boobs and a small butt, you had to buy two different suits, so I came up with the idea of selling them separately,” she declares. “You could mix and match, tops and bottoms sold individually.”
It was a concept that became the fashion standard for bikinis today. A French name was also on-trend and, naturally, Shirley came up with Osé, French for: daring, bold, racy, risqué.
The brand blew up, Shirley also did nearly all the work, sketching and designing each piece in the collection, and handling distribution to boot. She was even the featured model in most ads, because, well…who else looked better in a bikini? Surf photographer Jim Russi shot the line and, for years, Shirley greeted you in her Osé bikinis on a vertical ad positioned next to the masthead in each Surfing (which was also, apparently, her idea).
“Sports Illustrated even wanted the suits in their swimsuit issue. I mean, I was just faking it,” says Shirley, laughing into her drink.
A little here, a little there. She’s largely retired now but sums up her work in the recent past as: “Jack of all trades, master of fun, baby!”
But artistically, after slipping into years of obscurity, Shirley’s undergone a kind of renaissance. Namely, for becoming one of the featured photographers in Doug Walker’s stunning Lost & Found Collection. Both a hardcover coffee table book and a website, Walker found three file boxes of lost slides at a flea market in 2007, unearthing a massive collection of legendary, forgotten surf photos from the 1970s. Beyond constant recognition, she gets a piece of any of her photos sold from the project.
And then of course a couple months ago, her friends started texting her that Selleck was dropping her name on national television, the ultimate “Still Got It” moment for any woman, I’d surmise.
We finish up, pay the tab, and do a pass through the dingy pub below the restaurant. “What’s up, hun,” and, “Long time, no see, Shirley” seem to be the friendly consensus greetings.
“No Mister Rogers?” I finally ask.
“I’ve never been married, never wanted to. I’ve been asked a lot but I never gave up the pink slip,” she giggles. “I thought that maybe when I turned 80, then ’til death do us part wouldn’t seem so long.”
I say keep that pink slip, toots. There are still hearts to break, still jetliners to detour, still more sighs from Selleck. There is still time to party, babe.