The American Dream (part 1 of 6): Mike Manzoori

Illustration by James Jarvis

Much like the first European seafaring explorers crossing the Atlantic centuries before them, skateboarders have been venturing west for quite some time now. For the past few decades the ‘American Dream’ was to get to California, skate as hard as you can, get in the US mags, get in the major videos, meet the industry gatekeepers, turn pro and maybe – if the stars aligned – get a signature shoe. This was the formula for success and it stayed like that up until quite recently. To get famous in skateboarding internationally you had to head west, it’s just what you did. But those days are behind us, with the proliferation of successful international brands (think Palace, Polar, Pass~Port, Isle, Sour, etc.) combined with the internet and social media irreversibly changing the way we consume skateboarding content, you can realistically stay put in your own country, city or town (wherever that might be) and still become a household name.

For this article we thought it would be interesting to hear from some of the Euro legends (yeah ‘legend’ is often overused these days, but after reading these guys’ stories we think you’ll agree it’s a deserved title) and what they went through in their times out in Cali climbing the skate career ladder. Some stayed, some left, but the stories of Mike Manzoori, Jesus Fernandez, Benny Fairfax, Geoff Rowley and Chany Jeanguenin really blew us away… Each of their experiences were vastly different, but combined for this article you begin to see what lengths skaters from the old continent would take (and what they put up with) to try and make it.  -Will Harmon

Mike Manzoori, 1994. Ph. Wig Worland

Interview by Ben Powell

What were the circumstances around your first trip to the USA?
Mike Manzoori: My first trip to California specifically to skate and hit up my sponsors was in 1993. At that time I was riding for Santa Cruz and being a Euro rider it was the done thing to go out to the States and visit your sponsors, skate what seemed to be the better spots at the time and just to get into the mix.

Was that an expectation from Santa Cruz’s point of view?
No, I don’t think so. In that instance I think the expectation came more from the team manager in the UK, which was Shane O’Brien at the time. He was pushing really hard for me to move up the ranks back then. He’d set up this kind of trial program whereby this Dutch guy Dirk Winkleman and myself would get paid a little bit of money from Santa Cruz as amateurs. As I remember it the deal was ‘whoever does the best this year will get a pro board’. It wasn’t something that Dirk or I had asked for or instigated but Shane was just trying to push us to get more recognition I guess. I went out to California for the first time at the end of that year with Shane’s words ringing in my ears, ‘when you get out there, you need to speak to Jeff Kendall and Bob Denike and find out what’s going on with your pro deal’ etc. I was so shy that I left it until the last day of the trip to bring it up and when I did they just looked at me like I was crazy, ha ha. I think they said something along the lines of, ‘we tried that with Claus Grabke and Søren Aaby, nobody from Europe is getting a pro board.’ I felt like such a dumb arse…

Was that trip self-funded?
Yeah I’d saved up for that one myself – it was more of a holiday really as I went out with my girlfriend of the time and we did a bunch of non-skate related things too. Previously I’d been riding for Powell Peralta and I’d left because I felt weird about going on tours with Tony Hawk and Lance Mountain, because I felt as though I didn’t deserve to be there, so I joined Santa Cruz because it had been presented more as a mellow, ‘you’ll just get a few boards with no pressure’ situation. Then the next thing I know I’ve got Shane pushing me to try and chase a pro board, (laughing) – embarrassed myself with that one.
Having said that, because I’d toured with Tony before, I had his number so I called him up during that trip and he said, ‘I have a Honda Civic you can drive, come stay at my house in Fallbrook, skate the ramp, etc.’ Pretty crazy really… I’m out there in the middle of nowhere on my own skating Tony Hawk’s massive vert ramp thinking to myself, ‘whatever you do, don’t slam.’ If I’d hurt myself out there I’d have been dead. It was miles from the nearest hospital and this is long before cell phones. It was terrifying. That was so nice of Tony though, Lance Mountain too – he took me all over the place.

Indy air, Missile Park, San Diego, 1994. Ph. Wig Worland.

By default you ended up chasing the American Dream on that trip then…
I suppose, I was always really hesitant about chasing the pro skater thing because of my personality, but I seemed to always just fall back into it by doing contests and being in the mags. It was great but I honestly never felt like I was super-hungry for the American Dream…

You rode for Powell Peralta during the ‘Euro Brigade’ era with Curtis McCann, Mark Fowlie, etc. – that seemed like an early attempt to make it possible to ‘make it’ without having to go to the States – was that how it seemed to you?
That’s really interesting given the focus of this article I guess. Back then, 1991/92, Powell were really the only brand who were big enough to reach out to European skaters. They were the only brand trying to set something up in Europe: they had a warehouse, they had distribution, they had smart guys like Frank Messman, (OG vert/freestyle ripper) in charge – they had this whole infrastructure set up in Europe years before anyone else had even thought about it. I got on, I quickly suggested that they put Curtis (McCann) who was better than all of us on, and then within a year they had a full pan-European team going around doing tours, filming sections for the US Powell videos, etc. Really forward-thinking looking at it now…

Were you being paid at that point?
No, we were only amateurs – Nicky Guerrero was the headline pro of Powell’s Euro division, he had a pro board and a wage. Aside from him and Claus Grabke/Søren Aaby on Santa Cruz – the notion of European-based pro skaters wasn’t really a thing back then.

It was definitely more of a case of you riding for a distributor in your respective country but being told you were on such and such brand, right?
Yeah, it was deliberately vague. But then you had some people like Lucien Hendricks, who was based in the UK in the ‘80s but had a pro board on Dogtown – at the time I thought Lucien was on properly, who knows? Having worked out in the States for so long now though, I’m fully aware that a lot of brands view their international riders in a different way, not all of them, but some of them are viewed a little bit more like, ‘they’re the distributor’s problem, not ours’.

This is why what Powell were trying to do with the Euro Brigade was so progressive for the era…
Absolutely. They clearly were trying to bridge the gap between the USA and everywhere else. At this point in skate culture there was literally a gap: a media gap where we didn’t get to see what the top pros were doing ‘til months later and a time gap in terms of seeing new tricks (mainly in photos at that point) months after everyone in the USA had learned them. This is why the rest of the world looked to America for inspiration and perhaps appeared to be copying it because there was this lag in the newest stuff reaching the rest of the world.
Right now you can turn on the tap and be bombarded by a flood of skate content whereas back then it was just a drip from the American tap, which would let out little morsels of information every so often. In order for us to catch up, we had to go to the other end of the tap, to the source where the flow was coming from and that meant going to the States.

Had the older generation of London skaters (Bod Boyle, Steve Douglas, etc.) laid out the importance of going to the States to your generation?
Yeah, the message was clear. There was a visible difference between those British skaters who had been out to the States and those who hadn’t. Not just in their treatment by their sponsors but physically in their skating too.
For example when Sean Goff came back from the States after skating Upland, it was obvious to everyone how much his skating had improved – to the point where he was the only UK guy tossing McTwists. It just seemed as though the guys who had been out there were better at skating than those who hadn’t because to be honest, they were. Bod and Steve Douglas were just ahead of me in terms of generations and their experience had laid it out like, ‘if you go out to California, connect with a good sponsor and go for it then things will happen.’ And it did for both of them. That just wasn’t happening for skaters still living in Europe at that point.

I suppose even things like the cost of air travel back then made it almost impossible for brands to include European riders.
Absolutely, the costs involved in global tours back then were ridiculous. I remember dudes would come from America to Europe on tour with duffel bags full of product and that was how they’d pay for their time over here. Stickers were like currency – I remember US pros paying for food, accommodation and travel just by selling stickers, ha ha.

Did that first trip alter your perception of the possibilities for you as a sponsored skater?
Definitely, it made me realise that the opportunities were there but that you needed to be in California to take advantage of them: in the early ‘90s at least. Weirdly, for me personally, I moved out here just as things were beginning to change to a point where Europe was starting to be the place where things were happening. The majority of the industry was still based in California but Europe was where the best skating was happening – whether that was from American skaters travelling there, or from the domestic skate scenes. Everything that I’d come to America for was now available in Europe ten years down the line.

You also moved out around the same time as the Flip team too, right?
Yes, they were doing the same thing as I was at the same point. We all got swept up in the wave of moving out to California to skate, Carl Shipman, Curtis McCann – lots of people. That was an interesting phenomenon of that period in that skaters would go to California and then a few months later when you saw them again they would have progressed so much – like a year or two ahead of the people who hadn’t left. We just didn’t have access to what was going on over there like we have now, so the only way to tap into it was to go and be surrounded by the people who were literally inventing the future of skateboarding.
The main difference with the Flip guys was that they moved out to California and showed the Americans what was up. That had never happened previously. Before the Flip exodus, Californian skating had never been influenced by outside factors; the Flip guys absolutely changed the game in that respect. Two years before, all the US pros would come to Radlands and be somewhat curious about this weird skinny kid in huge clothes landing every flip trick. At that point they were kind of dissing Tom (Penny) really. Then a year later they’re back in Northampton praising Tom, then another year later he’s out in California showing them how to skate their spots, ha ha. From ‘we don’t understand this kid’ to ‘this is the future’ – that had never happened before that point.
All of the Flip guys had that impact, which was amazing for all British skaters back then, like ‘Fuck yeah! These are our mates!’

Boardslide, Orange County, 1999. Ph. Wig Worland

You lived between the US and the UK for quite a few years right?
I started going out to California more frequently from ‘93 onwards. Each time I’d end up staying for longer until ultimately it became clear that I needed to be there full-time. I was in a slightly different situation to a lot of people insofar as when I was riding for ATM (after Santa Cruz), I ended up working on the brand as well as just being a rider. I got on just after Mark Gonzales, Ron Chatman and the entire original team had quit and there was basically nobody doing anything. ATM wanted me out in the States to meet this entirely new team that I’d just joined (Kip Sumpter, Mario Rubalcaba and Jeff King). I got out there and their sister brand New School was working on a video but they had nobody who knew what they were doing. I mentioned that I knew how to switch a Mac on (laughs) and before I knew it, my role at ATM had gone from new rider to brand manager. Straight away I was laying the ads out, making the videos etc., etc. So there was another layer to moving to the USA for me personally, beyond just going out to try and forge a pro career. That has been a recurring theme throughout my life really; I’ve always ended up in a similar position at all of the brands I’ve been involved with.

And there’s no way these kinds of opportunities would have fallen into your lap if you were still living in the UK, right?
None of it would’ve happened if I hadn’t made the effort to get out to California and meet people.

You filmed at least one full-length part in the UK during that time (Hating Life) and had a load of UK mag coverage before you moved to the States for good.
The Hating Life part was filmed whilst I was back in the UK between visas. By that point I’d been out in America for a good few years but still on temporary visas so I’d still be back and forth. I got involved in the Hating Life video because A4 (the UK distributor for Sole Tech) were working on it and I just so happened to be back living in London with Sharon at that point. I was lucky enough to get a lot of magazine coverage throughout that period too, mainly because I was friends with everyone at Sidewalk and Document. I’d regularly send packages of British magazines and video coverage out to my sponsors in the States back then.

Was it considered to have value?
Yeah, increasingly it was. A decade or so earlier maybe not but by the late ‘90s, US brands had really begun to see value in the idea of regional riders and domestic coverage for their brands through those skaters. Previously, although brands might’ve liked to see their Euro riders get coverage in European mags, they still expected people to go out to the US and do it all again for Thrasher or TWS if those people were going to progress as pros.

When did you ultimately move out to the USA on a permanent basis?
Around 1998, that was when I started getting longer-term visas and when I’d got the job at Sole Tech. That was always part of my experience – being a sponsored skater and working for the brands I rode for – so I guess that was my version of the American Dream. My visa applications always included both aspects of what I did but they definitely changed in emphasis from ‘pro athlete’ to ‘filmmaker/artist’ over that time. It was always an O1 visa though, that’s a visa where there are no academic requirements for acceptance and it’s based around you having excelled in a specific field of your own – be that skateboarding, music, art or whatever. Because of that, my visas were always really reliant on the coverage that I’d built up over the years in UK mags and on the letters that people such as yourself and Percy (Dean) wrote for me. So in that respect, the domestic coverage was absolutely central to me making the move out to live in the States permanently.

From what I recall you had a pretty horrific experience sorting out your US residency – am I remembering that correctly?
Yeah, that’s right. I only just got my full citizenship last year. I almost fucking broke down crying when it came through: it felt like this huge twenty-year weight had finally been lifted off me. Being born in Iran definitely made that whole process so much more difficult than it could’ve been for me, especially because everything geopolitically got so much worse between the USA and Iran post-9/11. It’s been a weird slow motion trauma. I’ve felt as though my life has been in somebody else’s hands for so long, it’s been really punishing at times – just the constant uncertainty that you end up living under. I’m definitely thankful that it’s over, finally.

Frontside air over the hip, Blockhead ramp, Bonsall, Californa. 1994. Ph. Pete Thompson

Do you think the opportunities you’ve had would’ve come about had you stayed in Europe?
Possibly, but I would’ve had much less structure and support and the onus would have been on me to do everything myself: being in America definitely expedited the process. Since I moved it’s become much more possible to stay in Europe and start amazing brands and have global success without needing to be in California. I guess I was born slightly too early, ha ha.

Looking back on it now – would you change anything?
No, what’s the point of that? I can’t believe the opportunities that the journey has given me. I was looking at my Check Out in R.a.D recently, from when I was 15 or so and the last question asked what I wanted to do in the future. My answer was, ‘I want to skate every ramp there is!’: I feel as though I’ve had a pretty good crack at that to be honest, ha ha. If we’re judging success on fulfilling teenage dreams then I haven’t done too badly.