"Do not be fooled by that smile."
Last week Morgan Maassen emailed me and promised free coffee if I would run a story about his latest film project “Malia,” featuring Malia Manuel.
I can assure you that I am not so easily bought.
Sure, I said. I’ll run a link to the film if you connect me with Malia.
There I was expecting to get a few quotes. But you know how it goes. A couple of girls get on the phone, start talking about surfing, and time just flies by.
In an hour-long conversation, we talked about Malia’s upbringing on Kaua’i’s east side, the WSL’s dreaded cut, and the newly released film she made with Morgan.
The first thing you should know is that Malia is much funnier than you would expect from watching post-heat interviews with their tight restrictions on what surfers can say. She has that feisty edge that many good surfers have — and that she often keeps hidden behind a serene smile. Do not be fooled by that smile.
Do you want to know how great surfers are made? Bribery. That’s right, straight up bribery.
Passionate surfers, Malia’s parents Selso and Christy would plan their sessions meticulously from their home on Kaua’i’s east side. The night before, they packed their red Westphalia for the 45-minute drive to the north in the winter or to the southwest in the summer to search for waves.
“We would have the van all packed and they would bribe me with candy to get up at 4am,” she says. “Wake up, we gotta go!”
Malia describes her childhood as a simple life. She stumbles a bit. Then laughs. “Basically, I grew up poor,” she says.
Her mom Christy worked as a stay-at-home mom, while her dad Selso had a minimum wage job at a nearby hotel. “They’ve always had a really solid work ethic and no ego,” she says. She credits their hard-work for the start of her career.
“They went into debt for me, so that I could start competing as an amateur,” she says. “Which is amazing. I’m so thankful it all worked out, so I could pay them back.”
Her parents’ bet paid off quickly. At age 14, Malia won the 2008 U.S. Open after beating Coco Ho in the final. At the time, she was the youngest surfer ever to win it. Two years later, Malia qualified for the CT, and in 2012 she won Rookie of the Year.
At the time, a new generation had begun to transform women’s surfing. It included women like Carissa Moore, Coco Ho, Laura Enever and Lakey Peterson. They surfed faster and more radically than their predecessors. And Malia was right there in the middle of it.
Don’t believe me? Go back and watch Leave A Message, still one of the best women’s surf films yet made. Funded by Nike and masterminded by Jason Kenworthy and Aaron Lieber, the film snapshots a pivotal moment.
“It went from cutbacks to blowing the tail,” Jason told me. “It was pretty instant.”
Given her early success, it’s a surprise to me that Malia never won a CT event. One answer is that her years on Tour overlapped with surfing’s great smiling rivalry. Between them, Carissa and Steph Gilmore scooped up every world title between 2007 and 2022 except two.
Judged sports like surfing are a wild ride. In her ten years on Tour, Malia finished second in numerous finals. Too often, she seemed to end up on the wrong side of close decisions. Her consistency kept her on Tour for ten years.
Then came the cut.
In 2022, she opened the season in Hawaii by making the quarterfinals at Pipe. At Sunset, Malia finished a close second to Brisa Hennessy. Then came three-straight ninths. And that was that. Malia missed the cut by an achingly close margin.
“I think it was like 60-something points,” she says. “I think it’s the closest anyone has ever missed a spot by. It was too close for comfort.”
By now we’re all familiar with the way the WSL rules bend with the breeze and under the weight of sponsors’ cash. Normally, the top-ranked surfer below the cut would be named the first replacement for injuries. Malia wasn’t. She also did not receive a wildcard for 2023, which went to Sally Fitzgibbons.
Laughing, Malia refuses to comment on the wildcard situation or the small number of slots on the women’s CT. A girl doesn’t spend more than ten years in the game without learning a few things. Malia has a gift for deflecting with a laugh and a smile.
Still, the abrupt end to her CT career stung.
Malia competed in the CS at Snapper, because she loves surfing there. But already, she knew she needed to move on and to think about life after competition.
“Continuing to compete felt like I would be just forcing the situation,” she says.
She didn’t have to look far for a new direction. For the past several years, Malia has wanted to make a film project. “I wanted to open my life a little bit further,” she says. Her principal sponsor lululemon supported the idea. Now she had the opportunity.
“Having one foot in competition and one foot out, I couldn’t commit to anything new,” she says. “My competitive door is completely shut. I had to close that door for more doors to open.”
Entitled simply “Malia,” the new film is a dreamy depiction of her surfing at a few of her favorite places. She surfed crazy off-shore J-Bay, got barreled at Teahupo’o, and made her first trip back to the Ments since Leave A Message. There’s some fleeting moments at home in Hanalei, and a tantalizing variety of boards.
The starting point for the film was a wave Malia had never surfed: Teahupo’o. The mid-year cut meant she missed the opportunity to compete there.
“I was extremely nervous and intimidated and scared of Teahupo’o. But I still wanted to go,” she says. Her first trip was a classic surf film skunking, and she only rode one wave.
“I stood up on my first wave, and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m done! I’m good!’” she says. “Were my eyes open? Did I look okay?’”
Her interest in Teahupo’o led Malia to choose Morgan to make the film. She had watched Goddesses, his film about Vahine Fierro and loved his depiction of Tahiti’s raw beauty. Initially, she had intended to use different filmers at each location, but Morgan’s visual story telling appealed to her.
“I wanted people to be reminded how peaceful we could be, just with simplicity,” she says. “Whether that was watching certain shadows or swaying trees or the way the water ripples — I wanted to show how you can draw a sense of calm and fulfillment from something simple. We don’t need that much.”
By now, you probably know whether or not you like Morgan’s style. As it happens, I like it — and not just because he lives in my town and bribes me with coffee. Morgan has a perceptive eye for pattern and texture that gives his films an immersive quality. At times, he seems to have a magician’s ability to bend light to his will.
If he relies on a solitary figure standing on the beach to communicate simplicity and escape a little too often, I’m not going to argue too much. It’s beautiful to look at. The images also fit the story Malia sought to tell.
As an artist, I think it’s hard to reinvent the things that come easily for us. We all have our favorite building blocks that we use to tell our stories. But I also think there’s a joy in the process of taking those familiar pieces, holding them up to the light, and reshaping them into something new.
One of my favorite parts of the film has that feeling of something new.
It’s just one wave at Hanalei, beautifully framed through the trees. Malia can trace back four generations of family in Hanalei. “It’s a special place for me, and I feel so connected there.” She rides a bright red board shaped by Terry Chung. A 7’10”, the template is copied from one of Selso’s boards.
I mistake it for a single fin.
“It’s actually a quad,” she says. “I didn’t want to tell you! A single fin would be way cooler!” She laughing again now. I make her promise to ride a single fin in her next film.
Riding that red board at Hanalei and surfing a thruster in wind-blown, chattery J-Bay, Malia’s style is in full view. We joke about watching Trilogy a few too many times. In truth, she credits her dad for her graceful approach. “He has the most casual, beautiful, knock-kneed style,” she says. There’s nothing rushed about Selso’s surfing. The good waves just seem to come to him.
“The older I get, the more I appreciate watching him,” she says. “Being home more and surfing more with him brings tears to my eyes. He really is connected with the ocean.”
Malia is already planning her next films. Australia is on her map, and she hopes to pull friends into her future projects. She feels lucky to have lululemon behind her. There’s long been a lack of support from sponsors for women to make films.
If there’s one thing missing from this film, it’s the grit that kept Malia on Tour for a decade. It’s almost a little too smooth. The girl who grew up on the east side and won the U.S. Open at 14 — that kind of thing doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a relentless determination and the white-hot fire of ambition.
Looking back, she says it all happened so fast.
“I was always in such a hurry to do this contest or hit eighteen or grow up,” she says. “Now I’m like, I should have slowed down. I should have just enjoyed where I was at that stage life and enjoyed what I was doing even more.”
Now with competition behind her, Malia has the chance to slow down and take her time. There’s a whole world of waves out there waiting for her to ride them. There’s no need to hurry. She can take a moment to stand on the beach, watch the palm fronds sway in the wind, and absorb the sea’s ever-changing currents.
“I feel like my life is just beginning all over again.”