Humans love to label things, and it’s so lame. We label things we eat, we label things we read, we label things we use. Worst of all, we label each other. We label humans. Ironically, we do this to gain a more simple and easy understanding of what “kind” of human someone may be. But a human is not a jar of peanut butter, nor a particular “type” of vehicle. A human being is a complex unit made of many different thoughts and influences, capable of being perceived in infinite ways.
Labels are sticky things, and once applied, can be damned near impossible to get off. Jay Phillips has worn many labels in his life, literally and otherwise. In the 25 years since his birth, he’s been tagged “prodigy,” “freak,” “ripper,” “stoner,” and “has-been.” These tags, placed in chronological order, tell a story, but it’s a horribly distorted one. Jay deserves better. After all, the last time anyone checked, he was still human.
Now And Then
“It was really hard losing everything. I remember thinking, ‘F–k, I had the best life … what happened?’”–Jay Phillips
At one point, around 1995, Jay Phillips was the highest-profile grom in Australia. His trademark one-two bottom-top fin-waft combo filled volumes of the country’s top three surf mags. He had mind-blowing sections in all the vids. He was getting plenty of promo through his major sponsor Billabong. And unlike other groms at the time, his competitive record backed up the hype. A second to Nathan Webster in the Australian Junior Series final ratings further lifted already high expectations. Although he went into it halfheartedly, his first year on the WQS landed him in the top 50. If all had gone according to plan, have been be pulling on his first WCT singlet within twelve months.
The following year turned out to be anything but a quick walk down the road to surfing glory. After a quiet Hawai‘ian season, rumors began to surface that Jay was in trouble with Billabong, that he couldn’t cut it in solid waves, that he was hitting the party circuit too hard, and that a bong had become permanently grafted to his handsome young face. But if things were falling apart, the cracks were yet to show. Jay had a strong Aussie ’QS leg and after South Africa was still on target to qualify. Then he arrived in Europe to the news that his girlfriend Simone was pregnant. At 21, Jay was about to become a father.
Leaving his entire quiver behind, Jay jumped on the first plane home. He abandoned the world of professional surfing, and soon after, it abandoned him. Within a month Billabong had sacked him, and so had his board sponsor, DHD. “They were pretty low times for me, especially because I started getting really paranoid that people had been talking about me behind my back,” reflects Jay. “Yeah, I used to smoke the odd joint here and there, but it wasn’t like I was doing any of the hard drugs that were around at the time. And as for the partying, well, Billy’s kept giving me all these sick going-out clothes … what else was I supposed to do with ’em?”
While there’re truths to every rumor, the proof that Jay had lost it just didn’t seem to be there in the years that followed. His surfing continued to progress. The speed he managed to harness as a grom combined with the muscle he put on entering manhood translated into a calculated full-rail power-surfing machine. His style became more refined than ever, and if anything, he looked to be on the cutting edge of surfing rather than viewing it from a dark seedy corner. It was hardly the approach of a mull-soaked could-a-been. By the time his son Shandor (named after a Transylvanian warrior) was born, Jay had hooked up a new deal worth 40,000 dollars with UK-based HDDX. “I thought things were picking up for me, but then HDX went bankrupt. Before I had time to really get into it again, I was back on my arse.”
The setback proved to be only temporary. Jay’s surfing had done the talking, and Mike Vardy–Ezekiel’s team manager–had heard every word. Pretty soon Jay was once again getting the backing he never should have lost, and he repaid Ezekiel with a quarterfinal appearance at the 2000 WQS six-star Quiksilver Pro held at Snapper Rocks, which at that time was his home break. “That was amazing for me, because in that heat I had Taj, Joel, and Mick,” Jay recalls, “It just felt so good to be surfing a quarterfinal with those guys. It proved to me that my level of surfing had managed to progress even in my time away from the tour.”
These days Jay travels back and forth between Australia and America doing promotional work for his sponsor. Ambition-wise, he’s pretty much over competition. “That was a big thing for me when I was a grom, but I’m really looking forward to just doing trips and surfing as many good waves as I can,” he says. “I feel like the best surfing of my life is just about to go down, so I’m just totally stoked I have the freedom to live it.” One thing Jay Phillips never lost touch of throughout his up-and-down career was a good sense of humor and an honest feeling of goodwill toward others. The man had enough faith in himself and in his surfing to manage a comeback on his own terms, and that’s inspirational to us all. So if you still feel the need to label, then you can call him “legendary.”