Lacey Baker on the X Games, Miley Cyrus and Representation
by Anna Grace Lee
01 August 2019
Around the 1:30 mark of Miley Cyrus's "Mother's Daughter" music video, the explosive pro-choice, fuckboys-beware anthem, there stands a person who doesn't meet the camera's gaze, and yet, seems perfectly confident and resolute in their stare. They're holding a skateboard and wearing a plain white t-shirt, unremarkable except for two small words in the center of their chest: the pronouns "they/them." This is professional skateboarder Lacey Baker, and if you don't know them already, soon they're all anyone's going to be talking about.
Baker first stepped on a board when they were just 2 or 3 years old. Since then, skateboarding has given them "a sense of being an individual." It was something they could go out and do on their own in their hometown of Covina, California, a way of gaining the freedom to become who they are. Though most people might shy away from a career that involves a seemingly endless set of obstacles, serious injuries, and its own unique form of deep-seated homophobia and sexism (remember when Nyjah Huston said that "skateboarding is not for girls at all"?), the 'pick yourself back up again' ethos of the sport is exactly what keeps Baker coming back for more. "There's always this sense of progress, because it's never-ending, what you can do on a skateboard," Baker said. "It's a forever process."
Throughout that forever process, the 27-year-old has made history. At 13, they became one of the youngest skaters ever to medal at the X Games, winning bronze at the 2006 competition in the Street category. They skated in that competition alongside legends like Vanessa Torres and Elissa Steamer, the first female skateboarder to go professional. Baker's next big win was gold at the 2014 X Games in Austin. They were signed to Nike SB's skating roster in 2017, becoming the first openly queer female skater to join the Nike roster and the face of Nike's Equality campaign. Baker designed the first Nike skate shoe for women; they double as a graphic designer, having worked in that field for over two years while struggling to get support from skate sponsors. In March, they were named to the United States' first ever National Skateboarding Team, putting them in a promising position to qualify for the Olympics in Tokyo next summer.
Their success is well-deserved and certainly earned. Despite being one of the most talented skateboarders out there, for years Baker could not get the corporate sponsorship necessary to make skateboarding a full-time job. They faced pressure to wear tight clothes, have long blonde hair, wear makeup, and to otherwise 'look like a girl.' "Growing up in the industry was an interesting experience for me, because companies back then... there was a sense of: you have to conform, or you're not going to get support. You have to be this token feminine girl, or we don't know what to do with you," Baker said. "So as I got older and started to present the way that I wanted to, opportunities seemed to slip away. I couldn't get any support. It was just a really weird experience. I was skating in competitions and working a full-time job as a 'pro skater.' Like what does that even mean at that point?"
Things changed in 2017 when Nike signed Baker, recognizing their talent, their commitment to being who they are, and their refusal to compromise their integrity for sponsorship. With this major support, Baker has become a vocal supporter for LGBTQ representation and gender equality in skateboarding, using their platform to encourage women and gender-nonconforming folks to learn how to skateboard through their event series, the NYC Skate Project. This week, they compete at this summer's X Games in Minneapolis.
Below, PAPER talked with Baker about their experience shooting Cyrus's "Mother's Daughter" music video, their go-to skate music, experiences with gender identity in skateboarding and in the media, and the importance of queer representation in skateboarding.
Tony Hawk said that you're not "good for a girl," you're just really fucking good. So I'm curious, what do you think of when people say, "Lacey Baker: best female skater?"
I think that overall, it's multifaceted. Because number one, I really don't identify with being female, or feminine, or being a woman. But as of this point, the binary is one or the other. That's the overall, gay-straight situation that we're all trying to fit into. So with that being said, I guess it sort of makes me feel kind of weird, but I do think it's important not to create any sense of erasure of people's identities. If someone's identifying in a certain way, I think it's important to keep the label there. For different reasons: one, because you don't want to just create erasure over women and how hard they fucking work, and how extra hard they work in the face of the patriarchy. I think that's really important. But yeah, when they're like, just a "skateboarder" and nothing else, there's a part of that that can be cool because at the end of the day, the thing that I relate most to is being a skateboarder.
How did Miley Cyrus' new video come together and what was that experience like?
I was absolutely honored. When they asked me, I didn't know what the whole deal was. I was curious what the messaging was behind the video, and so when we got clarity on that, I agreed. I definitely wanted to be a part of it, especially after learning what the messaging was behind it.
What would you say is the message of the video?
It's definitely women's empowerment, queer empowerment, body positivity. It's overall a very inclusive vibe. There was a moment when I was on set, Miley came over to me and I said "thank you," like obviously "thank you so much for having me." And she was saying that she was happy that I was there. Just to watch all these people stand in their true selves and be able to foster that through that video was really powerful for her. I just felt really empowered and seen.
A huge part of the video, too, was that they wanted to bring light to people who are creating space within their communities for marginalized groups, or people experiencing any kind of oppression. So to be seen in that light by Miley Cyrus was pretty mind-blowing. I was like, "Holy fucking shit." When we were on the shoot, they asked if I wanted to put anything on my shirt. At first I was going to keep my shirt just plain white, but as I was waiting to go on, I thought it could be cool to just write my pronouns on there, just to give it a little bit more depth. And since that, people are like, "Why do you prefer those pronouns? Does that mean you're not a girl?" The conversation is slowly going to keep happening, and I'm totally okay with that. I just think it's important to acknowledge the spectrum of gender identity, the intersectionality of the way that you identify.
That's really cool to know. So writing "they/them" on the shirt was sort of a last minute idea of yours?
Yeah. I was like, "Is there a Sharpie around? I want to just write 'they/them' on my shirt." And they were like, "Yeah, here's a Sharpie." That's how it went down.
That's awesome. I was going to ask you what pronouns you use because all of the press coverage uses 'she/her.' I saw the video and I was like, I don't know if that's right.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, it's crazy because when I'm in skate industry spaces, people just assume she/her. And I don't think a lot of people are even aware of asking what someone's pronouns are. Because skateboarding is so mainstream, and it's so male-dominated, that I don't think those ideas even come out in those spaces unless a queer person brings them to the table there. I definitely prefer they/them over she/her. It just feels weird when people call and they use [she/her], it just feels so wrong. It's so weird, but I guess they don't know what else to say. But yeah, I prefer they/them.
That must have been so cool to watch the music video and see everyone all together and to see yourself there. Speaking of music, what are you listening to nowadays? Do you have go-to skate music?
I have a very, I would say, eclectic taste in music. I jump all over the place all the time, and then I get really obsessed with one thing. I have a playlist that I made over the last year with a bunch of emo stuff on it which is super fun to listen to when I'm skating or when I'm at the gym.
Like slow emo or like hardcore emo?
Like Hawthorne Heights and Taking Back Sunday.
Oh wow, okay, like emo, emo.
Super emo, yeah. Which is kinda new for me, so that's been super fun to explore that. But before that... I'm looking at my Spotify right now. I love old fun stuff, like The Replacements are really cool. I like Italo disco. Like '80s dancey shit. Siouxsie and the Banshees is awesome. And then I love lo-fi punk stuff, like my friend Cher Strauberry's band, she has an old music project called Pookie & the Poodlez, which is fun. Also she was in a band called Nobunny, which I absolutely love. So that's like fun queer punk sort of vibe. All of that stuff gets me super pumped to skate. Also, I'm like Lady Gaga's biggest fan ever. Arguably. I love her so much. So if I ever can't think of something to listen to I'll always just put on The Fame and The Fame Monster, because those albums are the best. I just love her stuff. And I just love her so much, oh my God.
And a lot of pop vibes, like I love Carly Rae Jepsen also. I fucking love Carly Rae Jepsen. Emotion was really awesome, and I know Dev Hynes produced some songs on there, and he's amazing. I love Blood Orange. The fact that they worked together is awesome. I skated to "Blind" by Hercules & Love Affair. I was really stoked to skate to that song in my video part on the Nike SB Gizmo video. It's a rad song, a super queer anthem. That's one of my favorite songs of all time.
Shifting gears, let's talk about the X Games! What are you most excited about for this year's Games?
I'm actually really looking forward to X Games this year. First of all, I always look forward to it because everyone comes from all over the place. I'm going to be staying with Alexis Sablone, who's one of my super close friends. We're going to get an Airbnb together and skate together. And then it'll be fun to see everyone at the contest, as usual. I always look forward to that. This year, I'm especially looking forward to it because all of the other competitions that I'm participating in are to gain points for the Olympics. So it feels kind of like a lot of pressure.
Why would you say that representation and visibility for gender nonconforming people, for queer people, and for women is particularly important in skateboarding?
I think it's really important to have represenation and visibility for queer and gender nonconforming folks in skating because skateboarding is such a positive thing and such an individualistic thing that you can do. So, to see queer people doing it is only going to broaden the horizons for more queer folks to step on skateboards, which is awesome. Just to show that you can be any person that you want to be and make something of yourself. Even though, obviously, being marginalized creates a lot more hurdles and struggles to make it far. But it's important to show that it is possible. And the more of us there are fighting for this, the more possibilities in the future there will be for folks like me, and people in the LGBTQ community and just queer people all over the world. I think that it's absolutely crucial to create that space.
Is there anything else that's coming up that you're excited about?
As far as creating space for queer folks, I'm trying to get momentum behind the event that I'm creating. Just getting more queer eyes on the NYC Skate Project, my event I've created for queer folks to skate and to learn how to skate. Keep a look out for that. The next event is coming up August 24, so after X Games I'll be finalizing some of the stuff on the backend of that to create a fun event for everyone.
Are you working on it with Nike or anyone else, or is just yours?
It's mine. I started planning it in September, and the first event was January. So it was in the wintertime, and it was a really awesome day because I had people partnering with me to create the infrastructure of how the event will go scheduling-wise, and people who have experience teaching people how to skate. So that was cool, I worked with Skate Like a Girl. It's an organization in Seattle and they have chapters in Portland and San Francisco. Shoutout to S.L.A.G.! They helped me to create this event, and so we were able to teach people how to skate. Also, I had an art show and bands played. It was a really awesome event, and it was super grassroots because people that are in the skate community in New York and people from the skate community in Seattle all came out to help make this happen. So the first event felt super magical. Nike saw that, and so they're helping to create the second event. They're going to fly out people from Skate Like a Girl to help teach people how to skate, and then we're just going to keep the ball rolling. It's cool to have that support, and, and to see a company that big supporting something so grassroots and DIY. It's also fun for me because I do all the graphic design and branding for it, so I'm having so much fun making the flyers.
Yeah! You were working as a graphic designer for a while, right? And now you get to do that with Nike, that's awesome.
Yeah. So I'm super looking forward to the next one and I'm just excited to see how it evolves because I'm really open to it looking any way. Having different people from the community come in and give ideas and make it what it is, is going to be amazing. Because I want it to go way beyond me. It's not about me. It's about the whole community creating a space that's tangible.
Photos courtesy of Kyle S Dunn