Meet the 15-year-old who shook the male-dominated San Diego skateboarding scene upside down in the 70’s and became its Godmother.
Watching Ellen O’Neal skate is like watching a dancer perform a routine. Swaying on a plank of wood attached to roller-skate wheels across the San Diego hot concrete roads and dried up water pipes, O’Neal borrowed from her ballet and gymnastics background to upgrade a style that still defines the SoCal 70’s skateboarding scene. The late Warren Bolster, photographer that captured the rebirth of skateboarding during this era, gave her credit for bringing ”new variations, grace and composure” to the sport. However, the rest of the scene, including big players such as Skateboarder and Complex Magazines, will strip her down off her achievements for the sole reason that she wore ”long blonde hair and hot pants”, placing her in their Sexiest Female Skateboarders list, meant for men to heal their ”overzealous nuts”. Yep.
It took just one year of skateboarding for Ellen O’Neal to get a sponsorship with Gordon and Smith, after winning second place during a contest she was the only girl taking part in. Partnerships with Vans, Rector, ACS Trucks and Hang Ten followed, brands attracted by O’Neal unique style. Boards then were smaller, stiffer, slower, but nothing stopped her from doing handstands while speeding down a hill, spinning on two boards at once or riding with the board completely pushed down to one of its extremities. Explaining her success to the National Skateboard Review in 1976 after winning the G&S sponsorship, O’Neal compared her carefree attitude to the boys’, who were only here for ”blood, money and prizes”. ”Skateboarding must remain fun, or no one will want to do it”, insists a 16-year-old Ellen, a firm believer that nothing matters as much as enjoying yourself on the board.
Her talents were used as far as the film industry, where she starred as Jenny Bradshaw in 1978’s Skateboard (see below), an episode of Wonder Woman, The Skateboard Whiz, and 1978 Dogtown documentary Skateboard Kings. Seeing a female skateboarder on screen inspired countless girls to pick up a board, launching a wave of interest regained for the sport in the late 70’s, built on the foundations laid by Patti McGee among others during the previous decade.
In 2014, O’Neal was inducted into the Skateboarding Hall Of Fame for ”putting a chip into skateboarding’s male dominated facade and fighting gender stereotypes”. She credited fellow female skateboarders such as Laura Thornill or Desiree Von Essen for giving her the inspiration to start skating at 15, before encouraging other girls to ”never let anyone tell you what to do”.
There is not much research and sources detailing O’Neal’s influence on the scene, apart from Jim Goodrich’s photographs, an impressive representation of what O’Neal achieved throughout her semi-pro career that eventually made her part ways with her roller-skate-wheeled board in favour of her beloved Bahne, Cadillac-wheeled and Chicago-trucked. But from Goodrich to Gage’s shots, one thing is sure: skating like a girl has never been more rad.
Cover illustration by Alice Bishop