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Kelly Slater is drawing a map in the sand with his toe to explain the poor wave conditions. It shows the prevailing direction of the winter swells, the topography of the coastline, and the light southern winds of this late afternoon. A black-and-white mutt trots by and Slater snaps his fingers and whistles, much more engaged by the dogwho comes wagging overthan by the attentions of a photographer and his three assistants, who are busily prepping him for a portrait shoot.
We're at Malibu's Paradise Cove, a beautiful sweep of deserted beach. Slater keeps shading his eyes and squinting to the north to see how the waves are breaking at Zuma, a popular surf spot. His fidgeting is eager and boyish; the ratty blue and white beach towel he's holding looks like a security blanket. As one of the assistants changes a lens, Slater grins over at him: "You're a lot cooler than people say you are."
Then he suddenly says, "Hey," and strikes a mock brooding pose, stroking his chin like Joey on Friends in an acting class. The photographer laughs and moves in to snap a few shots.
"That's the one they'll use," Slater says.
"Nah," says the photographer. "If you look bad, I look bad."
"If I look bad," Slater says, warily, "you look...not so bad. Artsy."
KELLY SLATER IS, OF COURSE, THE WORLD'S best surfer. In December he won his fifth consecutive Association of Surfing Professionals world title, and his sixth overall, both records. He has almost single-handedly taken the sport to a new level of marketing cool. Old-school surfers carved elegant lines on long boards and prided themselves on shunning the marketplace to do manly battle with the sea. Slater is the millionaire poster boy of the new school, which cuts skate-rat maneuvers on the lip of the wave with potato-chip boards and busts air out of a sea of froth in magazine ads to demonstrate the superiority of a particular line of apparel. For a rock video, Slater once surfed on a door.
"Kelly's The Natural," says Slater's surfing and martial-arts buddy Peter Maguire. "He can do anything. He grew up in Florida, with tiny waves, but some of my real crusty big-wave Waimea pals are now finally acknowledging him as someone who can handle the 20-footers."