It’s 10:00 a.m., and a fidgety and visibly excited Benji Weatherley eagerly awaits the first click of his “early morning” photo shoot in the TransWorld SURF studio. Benji’s decked out in a perfectly tailored gray suit, complete with skinny hipster tie, black-leather Kenneth Cole shoes, and light-blue dress shirt. The glamorous Hollywood-styled look–pulled directly from the pages of GQ–fit Benji well. As he prepared himself for action, his eyes lit up and his face broke into laughter the instant he performed his first pose–a vertical leap with a heel click and an animated facial expression that exuded confidence. After his feet hit the ground, he looked at the photographer like a kid who’d just jumped a pit of spiders on his bicycle. His look–which seemed to ask, “Was that okay?”–was received by a chorus of laughter from everyone present. Benji knew that this was his room.
In any room he walks in, Benji demands attention. Not attention like, “Look at me or I’ll kick your ass,” but the kind of attention you devote to someone when you think, “If I don’t look and listen to this person, I’m gonna miss something important, funny, and/or significant.” When Benji enters a room, people generally drop what they’re doing and pay attention. On the morning of this particular photo shoot, I walked in to where our staff of six people sat listening intently as Benji rifled through stories of his latest travels to Bali and spoke in rapid-fire sentences recalling the last weekend’s activities. His mannerisms are excitedly overexaggerated–very ADD, but brimming with self-assurance. Benji can’t stand in one place for more than a second. He resembles an orchestra conductor with his hands flying through the air–showing whoever’s listening exactly what’s going on through some kind of sped-up, larger-than-life sign language. He stops in between sentences to laugh and cover his face before dropping yet another outtake from his sordid and usually scandalous personal affairs.In the middle of a scene straight from Zoolander, Benji is hitting his stride while shooting “blue-steel” looks at the lens. The idea for these portraits came from a GQ cover, which featured actor Jude Law (A.I., Enemy At The Gates) doing dance moves like a modern-day Fred Astaire. Benji studies these photos between shots. His forehead wrinkles as he contemplates the body positioning. His serious approach to this photo shoot is odd–it’s rare to see Benji take these things seriously at all. Just watch him in a heat.
At the 2000 U.S. Open, Benji slowly paddled out into the lineup with a smile on his face. He stood up on a small left-hander and proceeded to dig his rail on the first bottom-turn. He burst into laughter. He slumped his shoulders and fell out the back of the wave, only to sit and grin embarrassedly for the rest of the heat. If Benji lacks anything in his surfing, it’s competitive drive. He has the talent to be a world-tour contender, but early-morning heats in shitty waves wouldn’t mesh well with late nights and an almost overly friendly attitude toward fellow competitors–most of whom would likely be old friends. He explains his avoidance of contests in a predictably comical tone, “Competition–it’s just not for some people, and that some people is me.”
Benji’s sweating in the hot studio after an hour of dancing, jumping, and voguing. He recreates the ballet and tap-dance moves with ease, while adding in his own flair. He’s got a lot in common with the actor he’s imitating. He has Hollywood good looks, well-cut blonde hair, a chiseled face, and a surfer’s body many of Hollywoods biggest stars would kill for. (Unless he’s in a heavy-partying phase, which can sometimes wear on his face. Then he’ll tell you with his self-deprecating sense of humor that he’s fat.) His mischievous smile, which makes you think he just smashed into your car in the parking lot or made out with your girlfriend last night, is backed up by the genuine kindness of a friend you can trust.
Benji has a quality not many people possess–a genuine I-don’t-give-a-f–k-what-you-think-about-me attitude that girls love and guys envy. For a surfer of Benji’s status to completely let go and have fun is unusual. We’ve had pro surfers in the past call up a few days after shooting a portrait and beg us not to run the photos–as if running something less-than-normal would ruin their image. Benji mocks his own image and even the notion of having an image, “Try to not be yourself and have a really good act. Never be yourself and–oh, no! Shit. I just spilled a red Powerade on my carpet. This is gonna look like I slaughtered my girlfriend. I should’ve gotten black carpet. F–king white carpet.”
On a midsummer weeknight, Benji returned to his house after a month of bronzing, relaxing, and the occasional surf session in Bali. Prior to his arrival, news of his supposedly small surprise birthday get-together had been spread from coast to coast and even across oceans. Every room in the house was filled with cheering friends the second Benji walked through the door. Shane Dorian flew in from Hawai‘i, Bruce Irons stopped by to scream his well wishes, longtime friend Jason Magallenes took time out to grab Benji in a bear hug, and Saxon Boucher escaped La Jolla to spend the night laughing at Benji and making him laugh. Usually, when a person steps off a twenty-hour flight, they would like nothing more than to hit the sack and sleep for a week–not Benji. Wherever there’s a party (let alone in his own home), he’s there, and he’s always the life of it.
After an hour and a half in the studio, Benji has filled six rolls of film. The ease in which the photo shoot’s accomplished is amazing. Benji puts himself on comedy autopilot and busts out some moves that would make *NSYNC’s choreographer proud. Benji’s confidence in front of the camera goes back to his early days on the North Shore of O‘ahu, where his family called the now-infamous Pipe House home. Infamous, because it’s become party central of Hawai‘i in its current Volcom House manifestation, but it used to be a family home.
Of course, not every family lives within spitting distance of Pipeline and Backdoor. Benji describes what it was like growing up in that environment, “That house and that crew of guys set up a whole new school of surfing–young kids surfing Pipe and trying to push each other to get barreled, smashed, and killed.”
This is where Benji began his ascension to surf stardom. His house was the place where the new-school movement of surfing began. Benji’s magnetic personality and amazing real estate drew future legends to his front yard, and a simple meeting of the superfriends turned into a worldwide phenomenon. Kelly Slater, Ross Williams, Shane Dorian, Rob Machado, Pat O’Connell, Keone Watson, Todd Chesser, Jun Jo, Conan Hayes, Chris Malloy–they all gathered at Benji’s house every winter and changed the way we looked at surfing forever. They made an impact on Benji as well: “I’m a few years younger than most all of those guys. The influence was just to keep up in the littlest ways. They were the new school, and I was kind of middle school. I was on my own little separate program. Those guys were doing cartwheels and upside-down flips at Backdoor, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I guess I should try it.’”
Luckily for the world of surfing, Taylor Steele was there to capture the madness that transpired from this epic crew. They fed off each other, and the proof lies in the modern-surf-film staple Momentum. Momentum exploded onto the surf scene, freaking out every surfer and fan alike. Benji’s part was amazing, and he’s had equally phenomenal parts in every Taylor Steele movie to date. Taylor has a lot to thank Benji for, but by the same token, Benji owes Taylor as well. Benji’s never won a contest, he’s never been towed in to Mavericks, and he’s really only had a handful of cover shots–but when a Poor Specimen movie premieres, you can be sure Benji will have some bangers in his part.
At 11:50 a.m. Benji has to leave TransWorld to run up to Billabong for yet another photo shoot that will no doubt wind up on the walls of many surf-stoked females. On his way out the door, Benji looks back with a devious smile–and possibly the slightest hint of worry, “Are those shots gonna be cool?” But he already knows the answer. Being cool isn’t something Benji tries for, it just happens.