Jamie Brisick On “Becoming Westerly”

Peter Drouyn was the epitome of a competitive, Australian surf god in the 60s and 70s. The former pro surfer was filled with personality, charisma, masculinity and raw talent. He invented the man-on-man surf contest format and even introduced surfing to China. Peter has now since transformed into Westerly Windina, a woman in her 60s living in Queensland, Australia. Author and former pro surfer, Jamie Brisick has spent the last 5 years getting to know Westerly and documenting her life in a biography that just hit bookshelves today, and an upcoming documentary film. We recently sat down with Jamie in Malibu to hear more about the story of Westerly and what drew him to her in the first place.

Peter Drouyn was the epitome of a competitive, Australian surf god in the 60s and 70s. The former pro surfer was filled with personality, charisma, masculinity and raw talent. He invented the man-on-man surf contest format and even introduced surfing to China. Peter has now since transformed into Westerly Windina, a woman in her 60s living in Queensland, Australia. Author and former pro surfer, Jamie Brisick has spent the last 5 years getting to know Westerly and documenting her life in a biography that just hit bookshelves today, and an upcoming documentary film. We recently sat down with Jamie in Malibu to hear more about the story of Westerly and what drew him to her in the first place.

Congrats on the Westerly book release, I am looking forward to reading it. I know you have told the story many times, but for those who do not know the story of Peter Drouyn and his transformation into Westerly, can you give us a little back story?

Absolutely. So in 2009 I went to Australia for the Surfer’s Journal. I heard that Peter Drouyn had basically “gone funny” I think was the expression. But you know there was this story of Peter Drouyn the legendary surfer and he kind of – “he wasn’t quite right” was the sort of general perception. So I went to do the story and I met Westerly, and it was Peter, who was now a woman. We sat down and this fascinating lunch together. We talked for a couple of hours and she told me all about her transformation from Peter into Westerly.

Did you know that “he” was already going to be a “she” when you met?

Yes I did. I did absolutely, but there was a lot of skepticism around it. It was kind of like, “Maybe this is just a charade? Maybe this is just an act?” So I went in kind of wondering and not really quite sure what I was going to get. But Peter was very much Westerly and we had a fascinating conversation. Then I went home back to New York and I started to do my usual journalistic practice, which is you know: get quotes from peers and contemporaries of Peter Drouyn. Pretty much everyone was saying it is an act and you’re being taken for a ride basically. I was also fact checking stuff with Westerly. As I would Skype call Westerly we would have these long conversations and we just got closer. She opened up to me like few people have ever opened to me and just told me her story and I was completely seduced in the story. Then that lead to doing a documentary film. In the process of shooting the documentary film a lot of crazy stuff happened. I was taking notes with everything because that’s just sort of what I do, and then I thought there’s definitely a book here – and there’s a book here that has an angle different than the movie. The movie is more a portrait of Westerly, whereas a lot of the stuff that was happening with her was kind of paralleling my own experiences growing up as a professional surfer because Peter Drouyn was a professional surfer kind of before there was pro surfing, but he tracked into that period (the 70s). There were all these sort of parallels that I thought were just better for a book than they were for a documentary. So I wrote what I guess I would call like a biography / memoir. It’s a biography – it’s a portrait of Westerly: Peter & Westerly, but then I insert myself a lot and talk a lot about my own experiences also.

You started off your career as a pro surfer throughout your youth, then transitioned into becoming a professional writer. Obviously you and Westerly are two different people, but were the two of you able to find a connection because of being faced with the mutual transition from pro surfing icon into something else? Was that something that intrigued you about her in the first place or am I going way out on a limb with that one?

That’s a really great question. I didn’t really realize this, but I kind of back-doored my way into writing. I was a pro surfer, I was on the tour for 5 years and one of the things that happens when you’re a pro surfer is you have an inflated self importance. It’s in an athlete’s best interest to have a giant ego quite frankly, because you need that to compete. So, when I was going around the world as a pro surfer, the voice in my head was kind of like – we’ve seen the movie Rocky or Muhammed Ali documentaries or what have you, it’s kind of like telling yourself, “I’m the baddest.” And so you do that and then when your career ends and you’re thrown back to the world, it’s hard to shake that off. On the other side, pro surfing is so amazingly great – to take something that you come to at like age 10 or 12 or whatever and do it and turn it into a profession – you know, it’s such a pure form of expression.

So when I came out of pro surfing, I wanted to do something that was expressive or creative. I read a lot, I kept journals on the tour, so I started writing. I kind of back-doored my way into writing for surf magazines. I was published probably sooner than I should have – or sooner than another person would have been because I had first hand experience as a surfer. I had a long ways to go in terms of what it means to be a writer though. Just simply, there was a lot I needed to read. There were also tens of thousands of words I needed to write to get to a better place. So I wrote about surfing because it’s something I know. I didn’t really realize this as I was going along, but I realized that in many ways, my theme or the thing that I was trying to understand among all these profiles I would write or in the travels I was doing is, “What do you do if surfing is you’re first love in life? What does a surfer do later in life.” If you look at most surf magazines (or certainly the advertising in surfing) it’s all focused on youth, it’s all about high performance. It’s great, but after the age of 30 (with the exception of people like Kelly Slater, or people like that), real life comes in, or responsibility comes in and you have to do other things, so you’re not surfing as often. And how does surfing fit into that. For someone who came to surfing and loved it and it’s such big part of me, when I’d be writing profiles of older surfers I wasn’t asking this direct question, but this was my query which was like, “how do you live an interesting life if surfing is a the center of your life and you’re now 50 years old?”

So in many ways when I first came to Westerly and Peter Drouyn, that was the question that was there as something I wanted to know, but at the same time, in writing about surfing for so long, there were so many similar stories. There weren’t a lot of terribly interesting people. There was almost like a prescribed life recipe for surfers. Or another way to put that is that surfers are all praying to the same god. They’re all just stoked to have good waves. I also found that the surfing world that I came to in the late 70s, early 80s was very open and there were a lot of eccentric characters, and it seems to now have become more and more homogenized. When I came to Westerly and realized this person kind of pokes a hole in all of surfing’s taboos or expectations, I was so behind it and I was really happy to get behind someone who was going to challenge a lot of narrow minded people quite frankly. So that was one of the things that really got me interested is, “Hey I love it, you’re so eccentric you’re so wild, you have such an amazing mind and I’m sharing it with a community that’s not used to this at all and they want to cast you off as lunatic, but I actually believe in you. I think you’re fantastic and I think it’s good for people to see you in the depth of humanity that you represent.”

Does Westerly still surf?

A lot, and she surfs really good. Fantastic style and more feminine than Peter was. Peter was a very masculine surfer, very powerful and grunting, and kind of heaving the board up and down. Westerly is more dainty, flowing and graceful, more balletic, more feminine.

We kind of talked about our culture vs. Australian culture. For surfers, it’s all surf culture, but they are also living with a different set of social standards and norms over there. I guess elaborate on that in regards to Westerly’s struggles. You know, people saying things like “Peter went loony.”

Yeah, the other thing I was interested in was the fact that Westerly lived in a place that seemed about the last place you’d want to live if you were a transgender woman: narrow minded, red necked, parochial. You know, Westerly walking down the street in Labrador (where she lives), which is near Surfer’s Paradise in Queensland Australia. I would talk to her on the phone and she would talk about the wolf whistles and all the people just giving her a really hard time. And I really felt for her, that was another reason I really was happy to help get her story out; to help people to become more passionate or understanding. And also the generation – Peter Drouyn’s peak was in the like 60s or 70s – that was a really macho time in surf history, particularly in Australia. There was this kind of “mateship blokes”, bloke culture. The idea of gender bending was terrifying for a lot people that Peter grew up with.

I noticed you interviewed a lot of Peter’s old friends in the documentary, have they accepted Westerly now?

You know what’s the coolest thing probably. I had no idea when I started, how the story would end and it’s still going obviously, but I feel like I’ve watched it evolve. We (my team, the crew that I worked with on the documentary) we’ve looked for an out in the movie. And on some level what has been so great – that on some level I never expected it, is that suddenly there’s this awareness of all these transgender people in the world. Several of Peter’s peers that I interviewed five years ago have called me and said, “I feel bad about what I said to you back then.” In effect they said, “I take it back and feel very much for Westerly and I wish her well. And I was so insensitive and it was something I made fun of and didn’t take seriously before. But now I realize that she’s going through something really intense and I wish her well.” So that’s been nice.

There was this 50 year Galla in Australia for Surfing Australia and it’s a government funded organization that essentially promotes surfing in the country because surfing is a big part of Australian culture. They put on this 50 year Galla and it was pretty much all the Australian surfing greats of the last 50 years, and Westerly was fully supported. It was amazing. It was really cool.

You mentioned at one point that you went to Thailand for Westerly’s procedure. How was that experience?

That was one of the most fascinating trips of my life by a mile. I’ll be honest, just the very premise, the idea that I’m going to accompany the subject of the documentary film were making as well as… To be quite honest, by that time a good friend. There’s a kind of objectivity that you want in making a documentary, but there was so much going on that it was impossible not to be personally involved in this whole thing. So it was strange to think to myself and also to tell my friends and family that, “Oh I’m going with Westerly to Bangkok, Thailand for her gender reassignment surgery.” It was a unique trip. I’ve gone on surf trips where I go to chase a swell in Jeffrey’s Bay or something like that, but this was something totally different. It was also really fascinating. We went through a whole lot while we were there and I won’t spoil it because it’s in the book and the documentary and it’s a very important part of the story, but it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

Yeah I bet. Can you give us some examples of the biggest challenges she’s had to face over the years with family or friends or a mix of everything.

Yeah, I would say it’s a mix of everything. The biggest thing is that Peter was this incredibly creative guy. The really interesting thing I’d heard of Peter Drouyn when I was growing up surfing – he was older than me, but certainly he was in the magazines that I read when I was a kid. The first magazine I ever saw of Peter Drouyn was this thing called the “super challenge” where he called out Mark Richards, who was the four time world champion at the time to do the one on one surf-off it was like Rocky or it was like Muhammed Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman, it was one on one you and me. And it was so flamboyant I mean, it wasn’t a humble challenge. Peter Drouyn took out an ad in a magazine, it was the first time I saw Peter Drouyn he was in the magazine ad wearing only his underwear, otherwise naked and he’s got ketchup slathered all over like he’s bleeding and he’s holding his fists up like this and around it are all these taunts. It was basically like Muhammed Ali calling out whoever he’s going to box. You know “I’ll take you down” blah, blah, blah, and “I’ll kill or be killed.” So I knew there was the charismatic guy Peter Drouyn, but I didn’t know how many great ideas he had and how ambitious his ideas were. So as I got into the story, I realized (to answer your question) Peter Drouyn was a guy who just had huge ideas and probably thought that one of them was going to stick and he was going to be wildly successful and financially taken care of. And he dreamed so big, but none of them happened none of them stuck.

That sounds very “American.”

Well, Peter is like more American than he is Australian. I know Australian culture pretty well, and he was much more of a character that would have come from our culture than Australian Culture. And Australians are not always fond of someone who has giant ambitions and regards themselves as extraordinary and exceptional. So I think there was a kind of let down that clearly happened as Peter got older and realized that one of these things should have stuck. He invented a wave machine, he brought surfing to China, he was a coach for a while, he invented man on man surfing, but never felt like he got celebrated for that on some level – and probably compensated on some level too. None of it happened for him, so it was kind of this guy with so much talent and such a wild imagination that was stuck doing menial jobs and a lot of times unemployed. He was just kind of rotting away with all this talent. So I think that was one big problem that he had, so there was a bitterness that set in for sure. And then being such an eccentric, outlandish character in a place that’s much more celebrating mediocrity. People thought Peter Drouyn was just this freak and didn’t have a lot of respect or didn’t encourage Peter, so he got increasingly bitter and then of course when Westerly came out, it was an even further example of that.

Peter had a son with an ex-wife. How have they reacted over the years? I imagine it was probably difficult at first, but were they pretty supportive?

They are supportive now and it’s taken some time. I think in Westerly’s mind it was very, very clear – the transition, but I know she’s told me that she was very slow to reveal this to her son. She didn’t want to shock her son and just blow his mind. But I think now it’s pretty obvious that Westerly is here to stay and I think they have a good relationship from what I know. He’s accepting. As for the ex-wife, I don’t know if they’ve ever had a good relationship, but I still don’t think they do.

Do you think she’s more comfortable now?

Yeah, absolutely. I think Peter Drouyn’s life turned really bad. And I think from what I know, towards the tail end, before Westerly emerged, Peter Drouyn’s sort of repeated narrative was a negative one. “I’ve been done wrong by everyone and I should of gotten more than I did and I’m angry and I’m bitter.” There was a lot of looking back with anger and bitterness. With Westerly, it’s looking forward. To be perfectly honest with you, it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced, but it’s sort of like if you were to drive yourself into the ground with anger and bitterness and suddenly go, “I’ve almost got to like stop this and start a new self.” That’s in many ways how I see Westerly. There’s a very clear delineation; that was Peter’s life back then now this is Westerly’s new life and I’m looking ahead.

Was Peter gay growing up?

No, not according to Westerly. I don’t think it was about sexual preference. From what I know, Peter was very much a womanizer and had a lot of girlfriends and did really, really well (at least sexually). He had a lot of conquests, I don’t know about long term relationships though. I learned this along the way because that was one of my questions early on too, I thought it had to do with you know, like who you wanted to sleep with. I don’t think that the identifying female that Peter and then eventually Westerly felt was anything to do with sex drive. I think she just identified with being a woman, female things connected with her. It was more about female things that were a part of her intrinsically.

I don’t want to spoil the book or the documentary for anyone, but what was the catalyst for Peter’s metamorphosis into Westerly? Did she ever reveal something like a first time ever trying on women’s clothes or something like that?

Interestingly, there were some moments when Peter was much younger. I think he identified with female things, I think he liked to paint his nails and put on lipstick and do a lot of like dress up type stuff. But the real defining moment happened around 2002, 3 or 4 maybe. Peter was out surfing Burliegh Heads and he just got hammered by a wave and was rag-dolled around and whacked the bottom and came up with a concussion. As Westerly tells the story, this surfing accident just like released the Genie from the bottle. It was this amazing thing where suddenly, like Westerly says, it was like a super nova. Suddenly Peter was gone and Westerly was there. I don’t think that happened overnight, but there was this surfing accident and this concussion, so everything was not alright in the head and Peter regularly would go to what they call Op Shops in Australia, which are thrift stores and would buy the 50 cent shirts and dollar pants and what not and started going to the women’s racks and started buying women’s clothes and bringing them home and trying them on in the mirror at night, listening to music and dancing around in a really female way. And slowly that just emerged and never looked back.

Wow. That’s interesting, it sounds like how they say drugs and chemical reactions in the brain can cause personality shifts or like all sorts of unknown stuff. I wonder if she identifies that concussion as a biological trigger for her, or if it was just a pure culmination of a lot of things?

I think if Westerly were here right now, she would say that yes, this was definitely the defining moment where something shook loose in me. But there were also these periods early on where Peter was interested in girly things. So I don’t know if it’s even so easy to locate or pin point. You know?

Have you talked to Westerly since the Vanity Fair release with the Kaitlyn Jenner cover.

No. I’m curious to hear her response and I probably will talk to her about it for sure.

Has Westerly read the book yet?

It’s really interesting. I thought she’d be really excited to read the book, but she wasn’t that interested in it. I don’t know if she has to be honest. She’s seen some of the press that I did in Australia, some of the stuff she didn’t like and some of the stuff she wrote me and said she really did like. So it’s kind of gone back and forth, but we’ve always kind of had a roller coaster of a friendship. It’s the most unique friendship I’ve ever had and there have been moments where we were hanging the phone up on each other and there are moments where we’re buddies and in many ways she’s like no one I’ve ever met. She’s one of the most original people I’ve ever met. There are times when she’s impossible – she can be this diva. Then there are times when she is the most charming enchanting, wildly creative, energetic creative person I’ve ever met. There are times when I get multiple emails from her that are longer than probably the longest email I’ve ever written to someone and they’re just full of imagination. I mean, there is just an incredible mind at work there, and I respect that. Although there are times when her dark side sort of takes over and it becomes sort of conspiracy theory type stuff, and it’s not healthy. Then there are other times when it’s great and I’m blown away, I feel like I’m dealing with someone who’s just brilliant, you know, kind of a genius.

You mentioned that she didn’t like some of the press. What didn’t she like?

I don’t know specifically. I’m not evading the question. When I was in Australia, I did various interviews and I honestly don’t know specifically what it was she didn’t like. With my book I tried to write as honest of a portrait of her as I could and as true of a chronicle of everything we went through together – and some of it is unflattering and some of it for her does not look great and I can understand her not liking it, but it’s what happened. I remember reading an interview with the journalist / writer Gay Talese who did a lot of sports writing, he did stuff on Muhammed Ali and he’s older now, but he was reflecting on the interviews he’d done with people and he said, “There’s no one that I’ve written about that I couldn’t look straight in the eye.” And I’ve always thought that was a good standard to hold on to and I’ve said the same. There’s nothing that I wrote in that book that I would not back up 100%. I understand artifice, I understand story-telling, I understand how you could exaggerate things or play other things down and all the devices we have at our disposal as writers. I tried to write this book as honestly as I could, to the extent to whatever our own honesty or our own truth is. Your version of events will be different than mine and it will be the same thing, but If I were alone in the mirror I would say this is how it went. Some of that is unflattering for her, some of it is the stuff that’s in the press that I talked about and she probably didn’t like. I don’t even know what it was specifically because to me that’s how it all went.

I mean it’s obviously a huge thing for you to write it, but also a much bigger deal for her to come out to a global audience to have her story be told.

No Absolutely. The number one thing that I feel genuinely and that I also want to get across is that I have so much respect for Westerly. I sincerely mean it. She’s one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met – absolutely incredible. I feel privileged to have spent the time that I’ve had with her. And I wish her all the best from the bottom of my heart. I would really like to see a wonderful life for her and she deserves it.

Order your copy of “Becoming Westerly” by Jamie Brisick, hot off the presses here:

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/ Interview by Matt Titone, Photos courtesy of Jamie Brisick

Matt Titone

A goofy-footed graphic designer who hails from the first state, Delaware. After attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL then graduating from SCAD in Savannah, GA with a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration, Matt moved to NYC and found work as a freelance designer and art director. In 2006 he moved west to Venice, CA where he co-founded ITAL/C Studio, constantly seeks left hand point breaks, and tries very hard to avoid crowds & traffic.

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