“Sorry bro, Dumpster Spice is still not gonna make you a sandwich.” Words :: Feet Banks.
Jess Kimura—the Internet biography site tells me—makes between one and five million dollars a year. She was born January 1, 1985 and stands 5 feet 5 inches tall. She’s a professional skateboarder and filmmaker who “enjoys snowboarding as well.”
Considering it puts the entire history of human knowledge into the palm of your hand, the Internet has always kinda been full of shit.
“One to five million dollars? A year?!” I reach Jess in Mexico to break the good news. “Someone tell my sponsors,” she replies. Turns out everything on that biography site is wrong: Jess is barely five feet tall, she was born in 1984 in Vernon, B.C. (the only thing the site got correct) and while she certainly shreds on a skateboard, Jess Kimura is most definitely a snowboarder—one of the most influential and respected in the sport.
She’s also had a big year, dropping both The Uninvited 3—her third full-length, all-women’s shred flick—and Learning to Drown, a deeply personal film chronicling Jess’ iconic snowboard career and her battle through the quagmire of grief and despair following the tragic loss of her partner Mark Dickson. What was supposed to be a ten-minute video about honouring Mark by overcoming her fear of water and learning to surf ended up a 40-minute emotional blitzkrieg of passion, perseverance, strength, and pure, stripped-down honesty.
I caught up with Jess (aka: Dumpster Spice, aka: Danger Pony) in Mexico on an autumn surf stopover on the way home from chasing winter down to South America. She video-called it in after a dawn patrol surf session. We talked for 55 minutes about everything from why working at Wendy’s as a teen ruled (“I feel comfortable eating there. There are protocols in place. We wash the lettuce.”) to why cats with short legs will always be slightly funnier than chinchillas, to what it’s like to be misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and classified an invalid by her doctors at age 20.
Let the record show, it’s highly recommended to watch Learning to Drown (above) before reading any further.
Mountain Life: I wanna start near the beginning. You’re young but not that young. You’re snowboarding. You’re realizing there’s no lane for women in the industry—no video part and, minimal (if any) magazine coverage. No comps, or if there are there’s no prize money. You’re broke, living in Whistler with no ski pass, just riding street and working as hard as you can and saying “F*#k it, if I don’t fit in any categories I’m gonna make my own category.” Did that come from a place of anger?
Jess Kimura: Yeah, part of it came from anger. Probably like anyone who gets shoved down a bunch in their life or told they can’t do something that they dream of, there’s anger there. I think for me there was passion too. Like the desire to do something that people couldn’t imagine yet. But yeah, it really fired me up when someone would tell me I couldn’t do something. So that made it easier for me since there was plenty of motivation to pull from.
I remember the old days back when the Internet was newer and people could leave anonymous comments. And every single time—every single time—if it was a post or a photo of a girl snowboarder, the comments would be: “Who unchained her from the stove? Go make me a sandwich”. Or “That doesn’t look like a sandwich.” Always about the sandwich. And even if the girl was doing something really good it would be like, “My five-year-old brother can do better than that.” Or talking about how she looked, “I’d bend her over” or, “That chick looks like a dog, good thing she’s wearing goggles.” Or whatever. So I was like, you guys are gonna say something dumb anyways, so I’m just gonna go off the deep end and be total dirtbag disgusting and obnoxious and scare the shit out of people because I don’t give a shit what you think—and don’t even bother coming up to me and telling me to go back to the kitchen.
“…anyone who gets shoved down a bunch in their life or told they can’t do something that they dream of, there’s anger there. I think for me there was passion too.”
ML: Like, offense is the best defense, right? Pre-emptive dirt-baggery, Dumpster Spice… Was that sort of a persona or a character that you invented, but then when the lights are off and no one’s around, you’re a different person?
Jess: I mean, I’ve always just had a really f@#ked up sense of humour and I’ve encountered many people who have all these stupid expectations for how girls are supposed to act. So, I have had a lot of fun making those guys feel uncomfortable or not being what they want me to be. But then add anger to it, add all those feelings of being ignored and rejected so many times and everyone telling you to make a sandwich. Then yeah, it all jacks up for sure. But when the lights are out, I’m just a dirtbag with good intentions.
ML: Fifteen years later, the industry is finally embracing women, in part because of your riding and your work to shine a light on others. Has your relationship with what fuels you changed?
Jess: There’s been a social shift, especially the past couple years—brands are realizing they have no girls on their team and need to catch up quickly if they want to save face. I don’t take it as personally anymore, I think in part because I don’t feel so desperate to prove anything anymore. The girls are progressing so quickly now, the proof is right in front of us.
ML: Does it ever feel like a trend, like there is a danger things could revert?
Jess: I think it is gonna stick, for sure. The dam has broken. The big thing was just that opening, for a flood of girls who already had potential, but didn’t think there was anywhere to go with it. Or they weren’t sure if it was something they should even be pursuing. They just needed someone to give them a chance. Look at skateboarding right now. Look at the Olympics and the Japanese girls that are all like 12 years old. Within a couple years, these little kids have completely taken over. Women’s snowboard big air is the most exciting event to watch right now because the athletes are progressing so fast.
At the same time, you learn that some people might never change. Like even now, my friend, a girl I’ve been mentoring for years, is finally starting to have some success. She was pushed aside for 15 years and now some of her friends are complaining—dudes. They want to be pro snowboarders too and they’re saying it is not fair, “You don’t know what it’s like to be a white guy in this. Like, your success is because girls are trending right now.” Dude, I can’t believe that. It’s just…you guys are so dumb. But you know what? Someone who’s never heard no in their life reacts really badly when they start to hear it. And we’ve been hearing “no” our entire lives, so we ain’t shook.
ML: When we talk about building your own space in the sport, carving a path, that path has always been there for dudes.
Jess: It has. The same way snowboarding was seen as a joke by the ski industry at first and riders had to push through that because they had a vision. But since the beginning of snowboarding, that path has been there. It’s definitely hard for guys these days since there are so many other talented people after the same thing. But cry about it, you know? We have to make sandwiches AND be good at snowboarding.
ML: You have been pretty upfront about helping others your entire career. Through The Uninvited videos but also through bringing girls on trips, sharing hotels, letting them shoot with your filmer. You’re one of the icons of the sport and still out there Robin Hood-ing it, putting others first.
Jess: I don’t think that the allocation of resources in women’s snowboarding in particular, is fair. And so I will try to ask for more money so I’m able to use more of it helping other people. I want to help the girls that were me ten years ago. The ones who don’t have a lifeline.
ML: That’s one of your superpowers, and is also quite likely the secret to a good life—the desire to help others. I think another superpower of yours is your mix of strength and vulnerability. In action sports, or when I was a kid they were called “extreme sports,” there’s a tendency for people to put up walls or masks, to play a part of the wild and cool dude. And then here comes Dumpster Spice, the toughest one of all, in Learning to Drown, and it’s 100 per cent honesty.
Jess: Why not? I am not down with the whole “too cool” mentality. I hate that shit. The worst thing you can do with success or popularity is to use it to make other people feel shitty. The quickest way to break down someone’s walls is to just be totally…I feel like it’s a buzzword these days, but…just be totally vulnerable.
ML: I think people from all walks of life can relate to that movie because you don’t see that kind of honesty very often anywhere. What was it like to make the movie?
“The worst thing you can do with success or popularity is to use it to make other people feel shitty.”
Jess: It wasn’t supposed to be that big. It was just supposed to be a short film, less than ten minutes. And Ben Knight, the director, is this creative genius who doesn’t show stuff to people until it is done. He disappeared for a couple months. He’d call and just request things like, “Hey, do you have any crash videos?”
ML: Like, hey Jess do you have any shots of you hitting the same tree a bunch of times?
Jess: Yeah. I have that! What else do you need? The first time I saw the film, it was what it is now. And I, like, fell over and died. I could not…It kind of destroyed me to see it, and to hear Mark’s voice with those images, and to see all the physical trauma I had sustained, all the crashes and stuff. I had been so driven to keep going, keep going, don’t complain…forget what just happened and keep going. It sounds dumb, but I had no idea I had gone through so much. So, it was kind of traumatizing to watch.
ML: And did watching it help you realize the pressures you put on yourself, to be strong, to deal, to not deal or to power through or whatever?
Jess: Yeah. I mean, I was worried about so many things when it came to releasing it. But eventually I just said, “F@#k it, I’m gonna be exactly what I am.” If I’m living through a mental breakdown, fine. If I’m ugly crying onstage at every film festival, fine. The interview was shot in one take. I went into some zone. And it must have been meant to be, for me to tell this story—because at that time, I was not in a state to even put a sentence together. I was frazzled, and I had never worked with big-time filmmakers before. I met those guys for the first time the day before we shot. And I just talked for two hours, one take, and it ended up carrying the whole movie.
ML: What’s it like to watch it now?
Jess: I don’t know. Sometimes I watch it and get a little inspired, like, “Yeah! I can do it.” Because with my mental health, I’m still trying to get a hold on that. I still have a lot of ups and downs—a lot of downs. And it’s brutal feeling like there’s something wrong with you. I’m stoked that I did something and showed that side of me because maybe that can help someone else understand they‘re not alone in feeling that way. And sometimes, I just don’t want to see certain parts of the film again or it becomes too much, and I just sneak out the back door to post some memes and wait for the Q&A to start.
ML: It feels like discussions about mental health have come a long way since the old days. I read that you were misdiagnosed and told you were basically an invalid who would be lucky to even hold down a job, let alone live your snowboard dreams.
Jess: Yeah, we didn’t talk about this in the film, but I was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia when I was 20, overmedicated and tranquilized to the point I didn’t even feel like a human anymore, just a shell who slept a lot. They put me in all these programs and groups for young people who are severely mentally ill, which I thought was so wrong even though they would just keep telling me I needed to be there, and if I wasn’t hearing voices then it’s because the medication was working. So I had definitely let go of my dream to be a pro snowboarder. Actually, I found this paper the other day in my old boxes of stuff from this job program I was in. It had a script I had written out, “Hi my name is Jessica Kimura and I am in a program for people with disabilities. I’m wondering if I can ask you some questions.” I thought maybe I could work for a snowboard or skateboard magazine. I had this list of mags and media outlets written out below and the first one was [Vancouver magazine] Concrete Powder. But their name was scratched out and beside it I had written, “DICKS.” So I guess I called them.
ML: I’m curious, was it always dude doctors or were there women doctors involved in those days and that whole fiasco?
Jess: What a crazy question that you just asked, because it was always male doctors. But recently I got connected with a female psychiatrist in Squamish. And not only that, she’s cool and she’s a badass and she listens. And for the first time in like 20 years, I feel like I have someone who has my back and hears me and is actually helping me. It’s been life-changing. That’s interesting though, I never thought about that.
ML: She probably relates to your journey too. I’m not sure it’s always been smooth sailing for women to succeed in the medical industry either.
Jess: There was a female heart surgeon who came to one of the Uninvited premieres in Salt Lake. She was in tears and told me, “I understand. I’m a surgeon and understand exactly what you’re saying. Like you don’t even have to explain it. I’ve been laughed at and pushed aside my whole career.” She was a snowboarder too.
ML: It must feel awesome when that happens. To realize all the work and passion you’ve put in makes a difference in someone’s life.
Jess: Yeah. I guess I don’t take that as so much of a personal compliment, but more as this beautiful moment of connecting with a total stranger who has walked the same path. It’s just so cool to have someone look at you and say, “I get it.”
ML: Speaking of connection, what’s your DMs looking like these days since this movie came out—have more and more people fallen in love with you?
Jess: Well…I got a DM from Jason Momoa.
ML: That feels like it might be the pinnacle of DMs.
Jess: Yeah. I felt like maybe I should just shut my account down after, you know? Especially since I’m apparently worth between one and five million dollars. The Five-Million Dollar Dirtbag.
ML: That should be the title of this story. Okay, so now we have a new winter on the way and with three Uninvited movies under your belt, do you think you will snowboard this year at all with no cameras? Just fun riding days?
Jess: I don’t know. Probably not. Everyone has a phone in their pocket so there’s always a camera nearby. I do have a new project I want to use to hype up some other people, shine a light on them. I want to focus on making stuff that’s inspiring and has a bit more depth and meaning than, “Hey, look at me doing this trick.” Also, I’m working on an event—The Uninvited Invitational. I want to get a shitload of prize money to give to the girls. And it’s not gonna be just first, second, and third, it’s gonna trickle all the way down.
ML: So, it sounds like you will continue along this path of doing everything you can to lift others up. But after all these years of work and pain—and a lot of great times too I imagine—and after three movies showcasing women and all the podcasts and interviews like this. Does it feel like you are winning the battle? Or even halfway there? Do you ever get tired?
Jess: Nah, I’ll keep going. I don’t ever wanna be put in that box of some activist feminist. I was never saying, “We need to coddle these girls!” or “Girl power!” or “We deserve it just ‘cause we’re girls!” I was just saying, “Give them a chance.” It’s not that hard. And when you do, just wait and see what happens. People should be given equal opportunities, no matter what kind of sandwiches they make.
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