Born in the mid-50s in Brentwood, California, Kathy Kohner began surfing at the age of 15. She spent most of her childhood on Malibu’s beaches, becoming a sort of mascot for the local scene there. Her proximity to Malibu allowed her to befriend and surf with seminal surfer like Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy, Johnny Fain, Miki Dora, and Dewey Weber.
You may know Kathy Kohner by a different name: Gidget. According to David Rensin’s All For a Few Perfect Waves, Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy gave her the nickname as a kid, calling her a “girl-midget.” The name stuck around. When Kohner explained her exploits in Malibu to her father (and journaled about her trips privately), Frederick Kohner, a screenwriter, wrote Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas. The novel was completed in a month and a half, full of young Kohner’s stories from the beach.
The book was eventually turned into a movie in 1959, spawning a surfing phenomenon. Malibu was taken by storm as armies of inland surfers moved to the coast in search of their chance to embody the surfer’s lifestyle. Most surfing historians consider this to be the true beginning of the surfer culture as we know it today. One year later, Surfer Magazine was founded. A year after that, the Beach Boys began their rise to fame.
In the following decade, Gidget’s father wrote and released several additional Gidget novels and films. She still surfs annually to benefit a cancer charity, and she was named Number 7 in Surfer Magazine‘s 25 Most Influential People in Surfing. In 2011, she was inducted in to the Surfing Walk of Fame in the Woman of the Year Category.