Shortly before her 13th birthday Laura Crane fell in love. Her family had recently moved to the Devon coast and, already a competitive swimmer and runner, Crane wanted to ride the waves that broke just metres from her front door. She entered the sea a surfing novice. She emerged having ignited a passion that would shape her life.

“As soon as I started, that’s when I knew,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘OK, there’s nothing else. I want to do this.’”

Surfing quickly took precedence over other pursuits. Neither track or pool could compete – from then on, all that mattered was the sea.

“I used to surf before school, and I knew that if I could stay in past 8.15am then I’d miss the school bus. Then usually my mum wouldn’t make me go in till around midday!”

Crane was frequently still surfing at 8.16am.“I used to see the bus go round the hill and be like, ‘yes! nailed it!’”

Inevitably once she arrived at school “it would suck! And I’d started travelling – at 14 I was already travelling a lot – so I was already seeing different things. To go and sit in a classroom, with teachers telling you what to do? I thought to myself ‘yeah, this isn’t going to cut it. I’m not having fun here.’”

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Well, double maths or riding the sun-kissed crest of a wave just a postcode away from paradise? Which would you choose?

Within a year she was surfing competitively. Aged 14 she became British champion, a title she held until she left the UK surfing scene. Her passion has taken her around the world: formerly a resident of Bali, she now lives in Ericeira, a Portuguese coastal town renowned for its surfing – and today she has come to London for the square mile photoshoot, surfboard and all.

I’ll let the images from the shoot speak for themselves. And if you were the wit who offered us directions to the Thames – you and ten others, buddy.

Despite the wetsuit, and the surfboard, and the late winter clouds (just the 1,370 miles to Ericeira), Crane is an utter champ throughout; so, in fairness, are the public, whose bon mots lack malice as well as imagination. We attract a lot of puzzled looks (fair) but fewer than you might expect, considering it’s a surfer being photographed in the middle of the City. Which just goes to prove that British sense of curiosity tends to be overridden by British commitment to minding one’s own business.

After schlepping round the Square Mile (she wore boots in transit: we’re not monsters), we retire to M Bar on Threadneedle St for the potentially quixotic attempt to discover, via interview, whether there are any downsides to being a 22-year-old professional surfer based in Portugal. The answer (spoilers): not many in terms of the lifestyle itself, but being a 22-year-old professional surfer with nearly 80,000 Instagram followers can bring its own pressures, pressures it might be hard to understand if you don’t have nearly 80,000 followers on Instagram.

Surfing is totally unique, it’s not like any other sport. There are so many things going on

But first, the surfing. More than perhaps any other discipline, it is surely impossible for the non-surfer to know what it is to surf. Sure, we can imagine – as we imagine scoring the winner at Wembley, or playing Madison Square Garden, or flying – but despite the remarkable abilities of the human mind, sometimes reality is just better.

Even for the observer it’s a hell of a sight, the surfboards cutting like scalpels across the face of the ocean, sharp, precise, ludicrously fragile as their riders navigate several hundred tons of water thrust way up into the sky, human matchsticks harnessing the rolling power of an entire planet. Yet already we’re on the wrong track, because skilful surfing appears effortless, whereas in fact it’s all effort, a constant adjustment of weight and posture, a non-stop calculation of a million tiny elements that change before you can even register them. Or so I imagine.

Over to the expert. “[Surfing is] totally unique, it’s not like any other sport,” says the woman who’s devoted half her life to it. “There’s so many things going on – you’re thinking about lying on the board, being balanced, paddling, moving, waves coming towards you; there’s all these things going on, and then after all of that you’ve got to try to paddle for a wave, get on a wave, then stand up.”

How? How do you stand up? How can anyone possibly stand up? Well, you begin by falling over: no surfer – no anybody – can achieve excellence without starting from a point of explicit non-excellence. If you don’t accept this fact, you’ll never go anywhere; if you embrace it, you might go very far indeed.

“When you’re starting, the fun bit is messing up and making mistakes,” says Crane, demonstrating the mentality that takes a person to the top – of the wave or otherwise. Even now, she remains an enthusiastic failer: “For me personally, the trial-and-error bit is the fun part. When you’re trying to learn a new trick and you finally get it. It makes sense: ‘ah yeah, OK!’ All that work was worth it, you know?”

As well as supreme athleticism and technique, you need a certain amount of mental fortitude to excel on the surfboard. I suggest this to Laura, and she agrees, up to a point: “I think you have to be mentally strong with yourself not to give up, but it’s the kind of sport…” She pauses. “I don’t know, I’m obviously biased, but you can’t give up. Once you’ve done it, and once you fall for it a bit, then you’re like, ‘OK, I’m stuck now’.”

She cites this passion as the key factor behind her success. “Everytime I go surf, I know the feeling that I get – that’s why, you keep doing it and doing it for that feeling. Whether it’s the adrenaline or just being in the ocean. It’s the love that I have for the sport that I think makes you better at it.”

Of course, the vast majority of a surfer’s existence is spent not surfing. It’s as much a lifestyle as a sport. “It’s the travel, the places you get to see, the people you get to meet. It feels like it’s a lot of people have got such a broader look on things.”

So the stereotype of the chilled-out surfer dude/chick isn’t exaggerated?

“It’s true. It’s really true.” She describes the community as “a lot of people that have got such a broader look on things. They’re out in nature all the time.

“We’ve all travelled together since we were really young. Travelling the world – we all go to the same places at usually the same time of year because the waves will be good.”

Yet good waves are never guaranteed. Before you can conquer the tides you must first kill time. Quite a lot of time. “You wait around. You spend hours waiting for the waves to get going… You’re constantly waiting.”

At least all of this standing around provided a solid grounding for her stints spent in front of the camera. She began as a child model for Billabong and never really stopped, even though the clients may have evolved from clothing brands to glossy magazines. And as well as professional photoshoots, there is also Instagram.

Laura Crane
Laura Crane

Initially, Instagram for Crane was what Instagram is for most people: a photo-sharing platform. As her followers grew so did her fame – which brought plenty of opportunities, but also insecurity, a sudden brightening of the spotlight. “You put that pressure onto yourself. ‘I have to look like this, I have to look like this girl, I have to have perfect abs because I’m meant to be an athlete.’ And it’s maybe even more hyped up because you are in front of the camera. People are looking at you as a kind of inspiration, you know.”

She stresses that this pressure was internal rather than a product of the modelling industry. (Indeed she cheerfully recounts a recent shoot in which the photographer appeared terrified by her shortage of clothing, much to Crane’s amusement.) There can’t be many teenage girls – there can’t be many people – who could remain unaffected by the attention of thousands of strangers. You might be thrilled, you might be daunted, but you’re going to be something.

For a while, her digital self was airbrushed, an idealised version of Laura Crane, while the flesh-and-blood incarnation struggled to keep her head above water. “In the last six months my Instagram has become a lot more me. I used to be posing for selfies… Now I’m doing stupid stuff. You get more of my personality, whereas before it was very closed off.” 

“Within myself I had a change of how I wanted to be perceived by people. Before I wasn’t sure whether people would like me or if I put my personality out there they’d think, ‘oh, she’s weird’ or ‘that’s way too intense.’ I was really scared of it, and then all of a sudden I decided, you know what, if you don’t like me then just don’t follow me.”

It wasn’t always easy – “I worked really hard on my mental strength” – and the simple act of growing older probably helped. “I think it was that time in my life that had to happen. You become a big girl, and you can’t be living as a kid forever. Scared.”

Now she wants to help others overcome their insecurities. “I would like to start promoting, or at least raise awareness of, body confidence. How now in social media, people are so… not pressured, but it’s put out there so much: ‘you have to look this way, this is healthy, this is what looks healthy.’ That’s not true.”

I think people are searching for real life now. I think people want to see real

Is body confidence primarily a female issue? “I think that guys go through exactly the same thing. I really don’t think there’s a massive difference at all. Especially now a lot of guys come out about having eating disorders, and all these kind of things.”

She believes society has evolved in its attitude toward mental health. “It’s more acceptable now, it’s OK to speak out all of a sudden. People are using their voices way more than they used to. It was embarrassing – whereas now it’s powerful, and it’s strong. If you can overcome this thing, and if you can help other people through your experiences, it’s a powerful thing to do.”

It’s inspiring that somebody with so much in life is so determined to give back. Yet while it doesn’t remotely detract from the value of her message, or her personal struggles, most of her Instagram followers won’t be surfers with a sideline in modelling.

“That’s another thing I want to also do,” she says instantly. “To explain to people that I have bad days too, you know.

“Everybody puts the best of the best days on their Instagram. You put the best bits of everything, and everyone does it… The Kardashians or whoever, they’re always putting the best bits, cos nobody wants to show picking up their dog poo from the floor.

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“Always keep that in the back of your mind: it’s the best bits for them, too. It’s the best photo of them. People have to know that. There’s photoshop and all this other stuff that the day-to-day person doesn’t really have access to. They’re making you believe what they want you believe.”

Kim Kardashian reportedly lost 100,000 Instagram followers in April after unairbrushed paparazzi shots of her famous derriere led to accusations the official @kimkardashian feed was heavily photoshopped. This life-affirming episode aside, does Crane believe her desire for digital authenticity is spreading?

“I think people are searching for real life now. I think people want to see real. Because the fake thing is getting overdone. It’s boring.

“I think it’s important that it starts to be more real because otherwise the growing kids of today are just going to assume, ‘my life is so bad’. Because people will forget what reality really is, you know? Washing dishes – I wash dishes all the time because I don’t know how my dishwasher works.”

Dishwashers may be a no-go, but Crane is determined to test herself on land as well as water. “Surfing is my thing, but I want to do other things outside of it, whether it’s presenting TV, or inspiring girls or guys in other avenues. I always of course wanted to be known for surfing, but also other things, and not just that one channel.”

Whatever she ends up doing – and Laura Crane will surely find numerous outlets for her energy and charisma – the ultimate goal remains constant. “Helping people. I want to make changes, I don’t just wanna exist. I wanna do positive stuff as well.” 

Leave the world a better place than she found it?

“Yeah, for real,” she nods slowly. “For real.”

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