Hot Wheels

Or: How Tony Hawk turned skateboarding into a multimillion-dollar international obsession

I have never read The Odyssey, A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, or, for that matter, the Bible. But I have read, from cover to cover, Occupation: Skateboarder, the just-published autobiography from Tony Hawk. I have never seen most of the films of Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, or Carl-Theodor Dreyer, but I have seen Gleaming the Cube and Thrashin', two movies in which Tony Hawk has small roles -- as, of course, a skateboarder. I do not watch Crossfire or Meet the Press or the evening news, but last night I did catch an episode, and there are several, of Tony Hawk's Skatepark Tour on ESPN2 -- all 60 minutes of it, from first stunt to final fall.

And, once or twice in my life, I have even been Tony Hawk, or at least a reasonable, digital facsimile. All it takes is a PlayStation or an N64, a television, a copy of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, and the lack of anything better to do than play a video game in which your object is to "skate" till you can no longer feel your fingertips. In real life, I can barely walk; as Tony Hawk, I am the master of the Stalefish 540 and the Gay Twist 360 Varial. And, still, I do not even know what those things are.

The 31-year-old Southern Californian long ago stopped being a name and became a name brand; in 1983, when he was just a gangly, scabbed-over child, he pocketed 85 cents for each Tony Hawk pro-model board sold. Then there were the stickers, the shirts, the posters -- even then, when he was an icon only among the fanatics and fetishists. Today, he's both corporation and cultural hero, subject matter for both Sports Illustrated and The New Yorker. When he walked into the newspaper office to conduct an interview, twentysomething men vibrated in his presence, making up excuses just to bump into him in the hallway so they could tell him they owned his first board or saw one of his old skateboard fetishist movies. It's as though Daniela Pestova, Anna Kournikova, and Brad Pitt merged into one person; Hawk is supermodel, super athlete, and superstar -- the heterosexual male's man-crush.

Tony Hawk, a one-man corporation responsible for skateboards, video games, and, now, a book about his 31-year-old life.
Mark Graham
Tony Hawk, a one-man corporation responsible for skateboards, video games, and, now, a book about his 31-year-old life.
Tony Hawk, the Silver Skateboarder, in action
Tony Hawk, the Silver Skateboarder, in action

"My fame is a little...odd," Hawk says, taking a brief respite between a morning appearance at a local skatepark and an afternoon book-signing in a mall. Two days earlier, he was in New York, being interviewed by The New York Times and MTV, getting prepped by The Late Show with David Letterman producers for an August 30 appearance, and signing his name for the adoring teenagers. Today he's in Dallas; tomorrow...well, he has no idea.

"Actors generally set out to be famous, and then once they get there, they're like, 'Oh, yeah, of course -- I can totally treat people like shit now,'" he says, barely smiling. "But when you're an athlete, your drive is just to better yourself and not necessarily be famous. I am sure a lot of people are gunning to become professional athletes, but at the same time, it's more about doing what you love to do and getting paid for it. I never expected this. It's amazing, but it's crazy. I'm thankful for all of the success. Generally, whenever I meet people and they recognize me, it's always positive. It's not like I'm some controversial figure or I play for the wrong team or whatever. That's always nice. It's not, 'You suck!'"

Hawk is the first superstar of Generation X Games, owing his fame to an alliance with ESPN, which rescued skateboarding as it lay in a coma during the summer of 1994, and MTV, where Hawk turns up now and then as Tom Green's skateboard-terrorist pal. He has become famous and, finally, rich riding waves of concrete like a surfer at high tide. He's the very definition of man-child.

In 1994, Hawk started his own skateboard-manufacturing company with $40,000, money made when he refinanced his house; now, Birdhouse is worth millions, selling boards and wheels and accessories to boys and men all over the world. They, like Hawk and his comrades in broken arms, speak in their own dialect, one rife with references to "ollies" and "reverts" and "fakies" -- all skateboarding stunts, aerial ballet performed without benefit of net or cushion. Tony Hawk is their idol, their poster boy, a god in kneepads and helmet. Then, how could a man named Tony Hawk not become a star hanging in the rare air? His is a name better suited to a superhero -- the Silver Skateboarder.

Not so long ago, Hawk was just another skateboarder who rode fame's tiny wave as long as it lasted and crashed, ass-first, into financial ruin. He has been around skateboarding long enough to have been a teenage star and an early-20s failure. He went pro in the early 1980s, then went broke in the early 1990s, after he had spent so much of his life's savings on a $30,000 Lexus LS400 and discovered how thin was the line separating fad from fade. By 1991, skateboarding was about as fashionable as the Flock of Seagulls haircut Hawk wore eight years earlier. At one point, wife Cindy put him on a Taco Bell allowance: five bucks a day, no more. Not long after that, Tony and Cindy were divorced.

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