Lacey Baker: The Rebel Queen of Skateboarding

Lacey Baker: The Rebel Queen of Skateboarding

"She's a ball of joy, so much fun to be around," says Vanessa Torres, Baker's teammate on Meow skateboards. "Her talent is undeniable." Griffin Lotz for Rolling Stone

From a breakout 'Thrasher' part to signing with Nike, how a queer California girl grew up to be one of the best skaters on the planet

From a breakout 'Thrasher' part to signing with Nike, how a queer California girl grew up to be one of the best skaters on the planet

Lacey Baker is a recent transplant to New York, but you wouldn't know by the way she skateboards on the Lower East Side, easily navigating potholes and cracked pavement in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. Dressed in black jeans and a loose black T-shirt, with short-cropped yellow hair as bright as a tennis ball, she comes to a stop in front of Colman skatepark. School is just getting out on one of the first nice days of spring, and high school boys begin streaming in. She's got a torn ligament in her ankle – she rolled it skateboarding in January, and hasn't been able to do much beyond pushing around since – so instead of joining them on the court, she stares through the gates, her eyes following the boys as they cut through the park. A kid rides by and she gives him a nod, the universal skater acknowledgment, but he stops. "Wait, I know you," he says. "You're famous!"

With a shaved head and androgynous look, Baker, 25, is known in skateboarding as much for her outspokenness against the misogyny of the corporate industry – which she has called "a bunch of dudes making decisions and judgments" – as her technical finesse on a board. And both as a queer woman and a person who doesn't necessarily identify with a traditional view of femininity, she's brought a rebellious approach to a sport that has largely become accepted by the mainstream, becoming one of skateboarding's youngest outsiders. Yet with a kind manner and an infectious sense of humor, Baker's got a focus and drive that make her a beloved figure within the scene. "She's a ball of joy, so much fun to be around," says Vanessa Torres, her teammate on Meow skateboards. "Her talent is undeniable."

And after a decade of minor sponsorships and major wins, Baker is starting to make her mark as part of a larger movement to incorporate more women into professional skateboarding. In 2008, the X-Games established equal pay for women's and men's divisions, finally equalizing the playing field in one of the industry's biggest competitions – which helped Baker, who has finished in the top three of six competitions since 2013. In 2015, Street League Skateboarding's Super Crown World Championship, the International Skateboarding Federation's biggest annual street skateboarding competition, introduced a women's division – and last fall, Baker took home first place. Around the same time, Transworld Skateboarding put out an all-girls issue, which featured an in-depth interview with her. Even Thrasher, the industry's Bible, has a renewed interest in women who skate, featuring vert champion Lizzie Armanto on their May cover (the first female cover since 1994) and declaring that Baker's January skate part for them "shatters every preconceived notion of girls vs. boy." Then, this month, Nike announced that she's officially part of their Nike SB team – the first openly queer woman to join – finally earning her a paycheck, a travel budget and the prestige of a major shoe sponsor. And now that skateboarding has officially been accepted into the 2020 Olympics, she has her eye on qualifying for the inaugural Team America.

Since skateboarding first became a trend a half-century ago, women have been participating, but few have achieved prominence. From Patti McGee balancing on the tiny boards of the 1960s, to Cara-Beth Burnside shredding bowls in the 1980s to Jamie Reyes and Elissa Steamer leading the charge through the 1990s, a few women have become pro, though not nearly at the rate of their male counterparts. Most companies have neglected the female skaters, showering endorsements and sponsorship cash on generations of teenage boys while sponsoring no more than a dozen women. But thanks to an increased awareness of women in the industry – due in a large part to social media – Lacey is part of the generation of women to who are going to break through together. "Where we're at versus like the men's side of things is actually kind of cool," she says. "It's one of the first generations, and now the generations to follow are gonna be a lot more saturated. And the more visibility there is for women skating, the more people are going to realize, 'Oh, this is actually like a thing.' It's something that should have never not been taken seriously."

Baker started skateboarding a few months after she started walking. She was two, briefly living in foster care in Southern California, and couldn't stop staring at the half-pipe set up in the backyard. "I was obsessed with watching my foster brothers skate," she says. "They asked me what I wanted for Easter and immediately my answer was skateboard." She got the board, and took it outside right away. "I remember it was early as fuck in the morning, they set my board down and I'm like, I'm doing it!" In reality, she wasn't doing much – she was standing on the skateboard in the center of the half-pipe, not moving at all – but it was a solid start. "That's where I fell in love with it," she says. "I've been skating ever since."

By three, she was back with her mom in Covina, 10 miles east of downtown L.A., and her mom let her skate whenever she wanted. At around eight, she found out from her father Marshall Rohner – a guitarist for bands including Dino's Revenge and T.S.O.L, who died in 2005 – that she had a brother, and they began to skate together, too. "Both of us already started skating at that point," she says. "We were like 'lil twins."

Around this time, she saw Baker 2G, a legendary video that featured little kids – not much older than Lacey herself – skating alongside grown men. Not unlike the CKY videos of the same era that eventually spawned Jackass, it glorified a debaucherous lifestyle, although it also featured a style of technical street skateboarding that helped set the tone for the next decade. She also loved the Yeah Right! video, a 2003 classic co-directed by Spike Jonze. "That whole video was inspiring, but I specifically loved Brian Anderson," she says of the skateboarder, known for his precision with flip tricks. "He's just super rad."

She skated incessantly, trying to land ollies and kickflips as she pushed around the cul-de-sac, building ramps out of any scraps to see what she could pull off when she had a little more air. One day, when she was about nine, she was out skating when she had an epiphany and ran inside to tell her mom. "I was just like, 'I want to be a pro skater,'" she remembers. "She was like, 'Sure, go for it.' And I'm like, 'Cool,' and went outside and kept skating."

For Christmas that year, her mom registered her for classes at a park in nearby Claremont. Before the first lesson, the instructor, a skateboarder named Ryan Miller, had the kids skate around on a basketball court to assess their level. He quickly realized Baker was in the wrong class. "She was already amazing," Miller, 37, remembers now. "From the moment I saw her, I was like, this girl is too advanced. These kids are learning how to roll around, push and maybe do some turns, and she's already out there doing kickflips."

When Baker was about 11, Miller filmed her over two days to create her first skate part. "We went behind some supermarket and she was ollieing over a shopping cart off this loading dock," he remembers. "She's so small in the video – the board's almost as big as she is." They took the tape to Utility Board Shop, in nearby La Verne, which sponsored her on the spot. Soon after, she entered a contest in Torrance, California, and won, earning a trip to Australia. There she ran into Lisa Whitaker, an avid skateboarder who had just made an all-women video, Getting Nowhere Faster. "With some kids there's something special. It may not be fully there yet – maybe all the tricks aren't formed, maybe they don’t have all the power – but you can tell," Whitaker says. "We were doing a road trip so we stole her for a couple days, put her in a van with us and took her skating with us out in Australia."

Throughout high school, Baker travelled to competitions around the world, earning medals at events from L.A. to Calgary to Prague. "She has the most level head on her shoulders," says Miller. "Even at a young age, she knew what she wanted. I've been with her in Europe, the Czech contest, Canada – she would just focus, razor sharp. Like, I'm gonna win."

She began to develop a unique style, one informed as much by her love of technical street skating as her own physicality – a small woman, she did not have the power to push as hard as the larger men, the body weight to sustain the speed, nor the ability to withstand the impact of wiping out after jumping down a serious set of stairs. "Men can take huge impacts and do fucking gnarly shit, and that combined with technical skating is obviously mind blowing," she says. "But for me, I know my limit. I skate in a way that's fun for me. I push myself, but in different ways."

Despite her success, Baker wasn't able to easily translate this into a professional career. While there have been women's competitions since the 1970s, they are less frequent than men's, and tend to offer much smaller purses. Companies were willing to sponsor female skaters – giving them free boards and clothes in exchange for promotion – but rarely signed them to contracts for actual currency, something that helped men live off skateboarding; given a salary and a travel budget, they could go on skate tours, film parts, focus on other projects instead of living competition to competition. "There's lots of professional male skateboarders who never touch contests," says Torres, 30, who has been competing in women's street contests since she was 14. "But they're making a paycheck every month. They're getting pro models, pro shoes, all those things."

For women, there wasn't that option. "Our main event was always the X Games, but it was only once a year," says Torres. "A lot of us struggled waiting once a year to skate – and not making very much money from my sponsors. Contests were super crucial, even if they were only paying two grand for first place."

And then there was her look. Baker had spent her life sporting long blond hair, but largely ignoring her fashion style – tight T-shirts and flare jeans weren't her thing, so she just opted for clothes that made skating easier. But after high school, she began to come into her own. "I started to do what I wanted to do," Baker says. "That meant cutting my hair off, and maybe wearing more masculine clothes, cause that's what I feel comfortable in. Looking back it's more defined, but during that time I wasn't trying to make a statement, I just wanted to wear whatever I want, so that's what I did." People made comments about her look – "little dumb things they don't even realize are offensive, but they are" – but she embraced a gender-nonconformist style. "It wasn't what the male gaze wanted to see, and I think that's part of why I had less opportunity," she says. "In comparison to other more feminine girls, they're the ones that got picked, not me."

Baker has always been pragmatic, so even though she was becoming one of the most prominent women in the sport, she worried that she might need an alternate career path and enrolled in college to pursue a four-year degree in graphic design. It was around then that her sponsorships began drying up. "When I was around 19, there was this kind of shift in the industry where a lot of the team managers that were backing me up were leaving companies – things were just changing," she says. "I was on Billabong for nine years or something – since I was 11 – and they cut skating completely." Around then she also parted ways with Element, her skateboard sponsor. She was left at a crossroads, and decided to shore up a successful future – even if it didn't mean being a pro skater.

"I was like, I guess I need to graduate now," she says. "I was going for a Bachelor’s but I needed a job ASAP, so I got an Associate’s instead." She ended up working at a lighting company, learning the ins and outs of graphic design. "There was no actual art director so we got to explore, and that was really fun for me because it actually made for a really cool portfolio. I had assignments but I could do whatever I want."

Around that time, Whitaker, Baker's old friend and mentor, was starting her own company, Meow Skateboards. Baker was still searching for a new board sponsor, but after some discussion the two decided Meow wasn't the right fit for her. "I told Lacey, 'I'd love to have you on this team, but you deserve to be on something that can do more for you,'" Whitaker remembers. "Something bigger that would be able to give you the opportunities you deserve."

But the big-league opportunities just weren't coming. "There was nothing,” Baker says. "And it just occurred to me that what Lisa was doing is actually really fucking huge, even though it's not big right now." Not only did Meow give Baker her own board, but Baker – now a respected graphic designer as well – got to design it. And instead of feeling like the token woman, she was leading the charge as part of a movement. "Lisa's given me so much over the years – picking me up, going filming, all this stuff," Baker says. "I would not have it any other way. Who knows what's to come in the future, but right now it's meant to be with Meow."

Last fall, Baker quit her graphic design job and moved from L.A. to New York. She was looking for a change of scenery, and a chance to advance into the next phase of her life.

"With things happening like Meow Skateboards, it's basically us doing it ourselves, and creating our own industry to make opportunities for women," she says. "The existing industry is gonna be like, oh it's not just like two girls in the world who skate." Younger girls have begun to send fan mail to Meow on a regular basis – and many are addressed directly to Baker. "All of our pros are rolemodels," says Whitaker. "But Lacey stands out. For a little while, she tried to fit the mold of what the industry thought was marketable for a girl, and she came to a point where she just wanted to be herself. And a lot of girls appreciate that." And for a queer woman trying to break into a historically male-dominated field, she's got her work cut out for her. "I feel like what she's doing right now is so pivotal," says Torres. "The fact that she has an image and she's using it in such a positive way is extremely important."

Baker looks forward to the Olympics, and credits skateboarding's inclusion in the international games as a driving force for women in the industry. ("In the Olympics it's equal – for every sport there's men's and women's [division] – so now that skateboarding is going in that direction, people are starting to see value in women's skateboarding," she says.) But recently, the biggest step for Baker has been her new deal with Nike. "For me, for my livelihood, it means I can actually just fucking skate," she says. "I've always been skating, or trying to find a way to skate. It's not like I ever stopped or gave up." But still, it's a new phase, in a new place, the beginning of an entirely new chapter. "I'm just like, finally, after all these fucking years, I've made it."