Layne Beachley’s Traumatic Childhood Fuelled Her Career Success

9 min read

Layne Beachley: how a traumatic childhood fuelled her career success

Cheating death and charging down the face of a 50-foot wave was all in a day’s work for Australian surfing legend, Layne Beachley AO.

One of the greatest surfers of all time, this 5-foot 5, energetic, bronzed goddess is every bit the typical Aussie larrikin. In between running her own Foundation, speaking appointments and elevating other women, she still finds time to hit the waves every day and, occasionally, give her INXS rock-star hubby Kirk Pengilly a good ribbing about his surfing prowess.

Growing up on Sydney’s northern beaches, Layne had a natural affinity with the ocean. “I remember being plonked on Manly Beach at six-months-old, having sand on my bare butt, then being dunked in the ocean and squealing with delight. When I’m in the ocean I feel grounded and connected,” she says.

But life wasn’t always so peachy.

The skinny little girl they called ‘Gidget’

At six years of age, Layne’s mother passed away. When she was eight, her father told her she had been adopted as an infant. Later, her biological mother divulged to her that she had been conceived via date rape.

“When my father told me I was adopted, I felt worthless, unloved, rejected and abandoned,” she recalls. “On the very same day, I resolved to become the best in the world at something, in order to be worthy of love.”

“I resolved to become the best in the world at something, in order to be worthy of love.”

Girls don’t surf

As a teen, Layne became a fixture of the competitive Manly surfing scene. She was the only woman amongst a sea of men vying for the waves. By 15 she was competing (successfully) in men’s surfing heats, and at 17 her professional surfing career took off.

“I identified as being fierce and competitive. I was surrounded by men who I believed demanded that of me. I was a product of my environment: I was in a male-dominated household, a male-dominated sport, and a male-dominated industry. I would tell myself ‘I can handle it. I’m one of the boys.’ And I would tell people, ‘don’t treat me like a girl, because I’m not one of the girls, I’m one of the boys,’ she explained.”

Riding the wave of success

Her survival strategy paid off: Layne went on to be the first woman in history to claim seven World Championships, six of them consecutive: a feat unmatched by any surfer (male or female).

Eat your heart out, Kelly Slater.

“I was fierce, controlling, stubborn, and righteous. These traits helped me to achieve what I wanted to achieve, but I now know there is a different way to achieve them,” she says.

“To my 20-year-old self I’d say ‘lighten the f*** up.'”

Layne partly credits her success to avoiding negative influencers, whom she calls ‘dream thieves’. She says that, “When I was pursuing a World Title, people would tell me, ‘that’s never going to happen and you can’t afford to do that. You’re not smart enough, and you’re not talented enough, and you’re not valuable enough.’ These words fueled me and I would think to myself, ‘I can and I will, and I am.’”

“Take the time to define who you are, what you want, what kind of life you want to live, and then the kind of people you want to be surrounded by,” she says.

Two Worlds Collided

From the outside Layne had it made: a World Champion with a rock-star husband, travelling the world. But, in reality, she was battling a debilitating mental illness.

“It’s choice, not chance, that determines your destiny.”

“What caused a lot of my mental health issues during my surfing career was lack of self-worth and unrealistic expectations of my body. Parading around in a bikini was part of my job. In my 20s I had liposuction on my inner thighs because I wanted the keyhole look. Now, I’m paying the price for it because the fat has to deposit somewhere!” she explained.

Although abandonment had motivated her to become a World Champion, it was not until she won her sixth World Championship that she decided to let it all go. “I had an opportunity to reflect, once I had achieved the success I desired,” she says.

Succeed, your way

Recognising how far she has come, Layne says, “sometimes I think back to those days when I was competing as a World Champion and, at times, I can barely relate to the person that I was. I believed I had to be righteous, stubborn and fierce to win and succeed. I realise now, that’s not true. Pro surfer Stephanie Gilmore is all grace, effortlessness and ease: If she can succeed that way, so can I. If I ever find myself in any one of those negative states, I know I’ve reverted back to survival mode.”

Aim For The Stars

Ever the advocate for gender parity in the water, Layne continues her work as a Chairperson of Surfing Australia and implores female surfers to ‘speak up’ when they are forced to compete in less-than-ideal conditions. And through The Layne Beachley, Aim For The Stars, Foundation, she mentors young women with promising futures to ensure they avoid the struggles she faced.

“My mental health issues during my surfing career were due to lack of self-worth and unrealistic expectations of my body.”

Living in the afterglow

Layne and I chatted one breezy, Autumn afternoon in Sydney, watching the waves crash along Manly Beach. Spotting her Dad wandering down the promenade, her brilliant blue eyes lit up. She proudly announced, “He’s on his way to the pub. He gets up at 4:30am every morning, runs the length of the beach and opens up the surf club. That’s my Papa Bear, he taught me to surf. He’s gorgeous, he’s my rock.”

It was only then, having witnessed this affection, that I began to comprehend the painstaking metamorphosis from tough, prickly, misunderstood surfer girl, battling to keep the world out, to the woman sitting next to me, beaming.

Layne Beachley's traumatic childhood fueled her success
Layne Beachley: eat your heart out, Kelly Slater.
What was a decision that changed the course of your life?

The decision to become a World Champion, as opposed to becoming a victim of my circumstances. The decision to master my destiny. You can’t point a finger and blame the world. You’ve got a choice to make. That is why I live by the saying, ‘It’s choice, not chance, that determines your destiny.’

There would have been doubters and haters? How did you react to this negativity? 

Yes. But, I am very stubborn. I love proving people wrong, and if that’s what fires you up to do something fantastic and life-changing, great. Be grateful for it. Just keep it real.

“I love proving people wrong.”

In 1999 after 15 years of searching, your birth mother found you and called you on your home phone. What is one word you would use to describe how you felt when you received the call?

Shock. I wasn’t expecting the call, let alone hearing her voice on the other end of the line.

What advice would you give your 13-year-old self?

To my 20-year-old self I’d say ‘lighten the f*** up.’ To my 13-year-old self I would say ‘learn to say thank you’ and ‘not everyone’s out to get you.’

When you were struggling with depression, you kept it from your friends and family. What advice would you give to anyone facing the same situation?

Be willing to share your pain with people you trust. Don’t’ suffer in silence as it only prolongs the struggle. You know when people say, ‘Oh, my dad died and then I was diagnosed with cancer,’ and then they complete the sentence with ‘It’s all good!’’? Bull**** it’s all good. How is that all good?

“I always had a reluctance to be nurtured, until I met my husband.”

Every time you say ‘it’s all good’, you’re denying yourself the necessary feeling of the pain and suffering. You have to feel it, to heal it. Acknowledge that you’re in a state of discomfort: being safe in your suffering is a really empowering place to get to.

Second, find someone in your world who you feel secure in sharing your pain with and who deserves to hear it.

And to all the men out there, you don’t need to fix it. Women just want to be heard.

How important have mentors been in your career?

I am where I am today through the influence and impact that mentors have had on my life including my Dad Neil, my husband Kirk, Guy Leach, Pam Burridge, Wendy Botha, and Pauline Menczer and Ken Bradshaw, to name a few!

Layne Beachley's traumatic childhood fueled her success
Layne Beachley says, ‘It’s choice, not chance, that determines your destiny.’

All my mentors have been nurturing because that’s one thing I didn’t experience as a child. I was never held because I was adopted at birth and spent six weeks in a humidicrib. I was never breastfed. I always had a reluctance to be nurtured, until I met my husband.

Have you ever doubted your ability to succeed or suffered from Imposter Syndrome?

Oh, yeah!

So, how do you get over it?

I love how Brene Brown calls imposter syndrome her ‘shame gremlins’. She took it from the movie Gremlins because shame can’t stand having words wrapped around it and by wrapping words around aspects of yourself that you’re not willing to draw attention to, you draw the light to it, and Gremlins die in the light.

That’s how you get around it: acknowledge it. You’ve got all these thoughts on repeat in your mind, holding you back. But they’re self-imposed. If they were real, you would never have had the opportunity in the first place.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

Riding a fifty-foot (15.5m) wave in Hawaii.

Layne Beachley's traumatic childhood fueled her success
Layne Beachley rides killer waves by day, and sleeps with a stuffed dog called ‘Osh’ by night.
What was your most memorable kiss?

It was the first time I kissed my husband. Our first date was going horrendously and I went to find a bathroom window to climb out of, to escape. Then the waiter offered us some Limoncello, we both got really drunk and he came back to my house. We stood on the balcony and he was talk, talk talk, and I said, ‘just shut up and kiss me.’

“We stood on the balcony and he was talk, talk talk, and I said, ‘just shut up and kiss me.’”

Layne Beachley's traumatic childhood fueled her success
Layne Beachley and her hubby, Kirk Pengilly, on their wedding day
What songs do you and your hubby rock out to at home?

We listen to a lot of chill out music like Amos Lee, Faithless, Lior, Sunscreem and Way Out West. I rock out to a lot of INXS when Kirk’s not at home, because he gets embarrassed listening to it.

Have you taught Kirk how to surf?

Ha, yes I tried. The first time he got out there he reckons he almost drowned. He didn’t, he just panicked in a rip and then I made fun of him. So, he utilizes that memory as ammunition not to surf. Occasionally, he rides a stand up paddle board and catches waves all the time. So, he can surf. He just chooses not to.

What’s something that most people don’t know about you?

I sleep with a stuffed rescue dog called Osh.

When INXS toured with J.D. Fortune in Oshawa, Canada people threw stuff onto the stage and Kirk rescued him. He’s a little flat dog so he sleeps on my chest. He keeps me warm. He’s adorable.

What does success look like to you?

Living a life by design, not by default. Getting up everyday and being excited by the opportunities. It doesn’t have to be a job, but do something that you love everyday. For me, it’s surfing, of course.

What is a song you are embarrassed to love?

S Club 7’s Bring it all back. ‘Don’t stop never give up, hold your head high and reach the top!’

Layne Beachley's traumatic childhood fueled her success
Layne Beachley rocks out to solid vintage tracks by S Club 7 (you know you love it)
Do you have a favourite childhood photo?

Yup, standing on my foamy in Manly Harbour. I learned to surf, waiting for the ferries to come in.

Layne Beachley's traumatic childhood fueled her success
Layne Beachley’s favourite childhood photo: standing on her foamy in Manly Harbour where she learned how to surf
What do you like best about being the age you are now?


Who’s your favourite female movie character?

Drew Barrymore in Charlie’s Angels. Because she’s cheeky and funny and witty and smart.

What’s the best part of your job?

Inspiring people. Instigating change. Learning from others.

If you hadn’t been a surfer, what would you be?

A professional tennis player.

If you could change anything about Australia, what would it be?

The recognition of the indigenous people in Australia’s constitution.

What is your favorite thing about Australia?

Our sense of humor.

How would you describe your personal style?

Casual and relaxed.

Do you ever surf in a one-piece?

No. Always a bikini. Although, I’m inspired by Stephanie Gilmore who has been cruising around in one pieces, lately.

What are your favourite Australian fashion brands?

Carla Zampatti, Sass & Bide and Lisa Barron

Are you competing in a male-dominated industry? Share with us your challenges and wins in the comments below, and continue the conversation with me over at The Iris Lillian Squad.
As a parting gift, Layne agreed to take the Iris Lillian Quick-Fire Challenge. Check out how she fared!

Layne Beachley: how a traumatic childhood fuelled her career success

  1. Debra says

    What a great interview Elissa. Love Layne’s view on success is living life by design, not by default. Love that a lot. I just clicked on the Lisa Barron link and realised that she was my friend in Primary School!

    1. Iris Lillian says

      Hey Deb, wow! What a coincidence! Layne is such an inspiration, isn’t she.

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