At 31, White certainly has it all. But fame and a net worth of USD40 million isn’t the driving force behind the red-head’s dream to achieve more.
“I am not retiring from the sport,” clarifies White of his snowboarding career.
“I want to snowboard next winter, but if I want to pursue skateboarding it will have to take a backseat. I’ve busted my ass to get to this point. To come to a decision like this is tough, hence why I am not going to make it hastily. Do I continue to be the best in snowboarding and take that easy road, or do I try to go back into skateboarding? It’s a lot to gamble. There is a big opportunity cost to pursue that dream.”
White is about as down to earth as it gets for a guy who has been sponsored since the age of seven, never had a reason to shop at a department store as a teenager because he was gifted clothing by the brands who sponsored him, and lived a life on the road chasing winter with his mother [Cathy] and two siblings [sister Kari and brother Jesse] while his father [Roger] stayed home to bring in a steady income. A supportive mother who believed in his dream and a family willing to sacrifice normal day-to-day schedules made White the star he is today. “Mum is the ultimate powerhouse,” he says.
“She’s the one who was always willing to lay anything down for her children. If we wanted to play sport she made sure we had what we needed to join the team. We didn’t have a lot of money so we’d be on the side of the street selling candy bars to raise money or to get a scholarship. When I said I wanted to snowboard she made sure I had all I needed and we set off,” he recalls.
Born in San Diego, California, White is one of three children. Jesse is eight years older and born to his mother’s first marriage in Hawaii. Kari is 18 months younger. White was born with a congenital heart defect and required three open-heart surgeries by the age of five, while his sister needed brain surgery as a small child. To say his mother had more than her unfair share of stress on her hands only made her more determined to see her children succeed. And they have.
“My mum has always been a hustler. She didn’t really have a great home life. She moved out at 16 and went to Hawaii to live a hippy lifestyle,” he says.
“She would come home and find half the house boarded off for rent. She was like: ‘what happened to my bedroom’? Her home life was always changing. Friction with the parents led to her leaving. She fell in love with a guy, got married and had my brother,” he says.
“I think that sort of life made her the strong and determined woman she is today. When I blew up in snowboarding she became my business manager, my travel agent and on-road support and doing that not just for me, but for the family of five and working banquets at the Sheraton too.”
White, who lives in Malibu, has been dating musician Sarah Barthel, 35, from electro rock band Phantogram for the past five years. He hasn’t known what it’s like to be in a relationship based in one city, having to juggle being on the road and managing long-distance expectations for most of his adult life.
He met Barthel backstage at SNL Live where she was performing and he was a guest. “My brother recognised her band and someone in her band knew who I was. Sarah gave me her number and said: ‘if you need someone to show you around New York, call me’.”
White, who was apartment hunting in New York, called Sarah to take up the offer and their relationship started to grow. “It was gradual but we’ve made a commitment. What I have learned from Sarah is that friendship and connection is important,” says White.
“I have spent my whole life thinking about myself and achieving for myself. It’s nice to ask someone else about their day. She’s given me perspective but it’s still hard as both of our careers require a lot of travel,” he adds.
While marriage and kids aren’t quite on the radar yet, White is certainly in love and in a good place.
“Relationships aren’t about finding the right person, it’s about being the right person,” he offers.
“When Sarah and I first met I didn’t think much about what it could become. I was at a point in my life just before meeting her where I was obsessed with rock ’n’ roll, dating model girlfriends and owning nice cars. I’m older now and realise all that is a mirage and not reality. Sarah is such an inspiring strong woman, she is the real deal,” he says.
White has always had a fondness for skateboarding. He was mentored by Tony Hawke at the age of 17 and now has his eye on the Olympic Summer Games. It would be his ultimate goal to juggle careers across both professions of snowboarding and skating. For now he’s entering a few summer competitions including Vancouver this month and China in September to see how he fares.
As far as winning gold medals, White says it’s been more than a ‘pinch myself’ moment.
“You get this amazing feeling of having accomplished something very few people in the world have done and you lap in the recognition from that, but then there’s this fear of what if you can’t beat that,” he reflects.
“You go from being your own private person to becoming someone that people feel they own because they have experienced your wins with you. Sometimes that means people will interrupt me at a dinner or sit next to me at a bar or talk to me like they know me. I guess you have to take that with the fame and recognition.”
“I don’t put myself above other people.”
Dressed in Etro at this year’s Met Gala, White recalls Katy Perry leaning over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of Madonna singing ‘Like a Prayer’. To his other side is actress Emma Stone. “We were all like little kids again,” says White. “Seeing all these super stars become childlike when Madonna came out was something else.”
At last year’s Met Gala, White says he went to an after-party at Gwyneth Paltrow’s hotel room filled with balloons. “Everywhere you looked was somebody famous. Beyonce, Jay-Z and then someone said: ‘let’s raid Gwyneth’s mini bar as a joke’,” he says.
So does White feel comfortable around the Hollywood It crowd?
“I’m okay with it. I mean they are people just like you and me. I guess we share a commonality that when you walk in a room, you know that people know who you are. The great thing about mixing with those people is you have that in common. You can ask them what their life is like, how do they spend their money and how do they invest it. I mean it’s awesome to make money, but it’s a whole other thing knowing how to keep it and what to do with it. People spend their whole life to cross the hurdle of owning their own home. I got to do it very young and I can thank my parents for keeping me grounded. I never let things get to my head and I know this career won’t last forever,” he says.
For the past 15 years, White has been putting his name to a clothing and accessories line via Target. He teamed up with his brother for the venture. More recently he did a collaboration called White Space with Macy’s. He’s a huge fan of luxury brands, citing Saint Laurent and Gucci as his favourites.
On a recent promotional tour in Sydney ahead of his curated festival Air + Style show in August, White chose his skateboard to get around the city. He also shares a story about finding a toothpick on the ground, picking it up and using it—it was still sealed in the plastic he assures.
What’s obvious is that White is a heart-on-sleeve guy who came from humble beginnings despite the lap of luxury he rotates in now. He’s still kid-like with his skateboard wonderment and doesn’t big-note himself.
“I don’t put myself above other people,” says White.
“If I want to skateboard I don’t have the park cleared. I can’t tell you the countless times I have been at the airport in NYC and couldn’t find my car and a stranger will shout out: ‘hey you’re Shaun White? Hop in. I’ll give you a ride in the city’. They then tell me about their new restaurant I need to check out. I guess I’m just your average guy underneath all those career wins.”
This article was originally published in the August issue of Esquire Singapore.