This story is part of Image issue 13, “Image Makers,” a celebration of the L.A. luminaries redefining the narrative possibilities of fashion. Read the whole issue here.
Over a morning glory bowl, dandy latte and grapefruit juice, skateboarder and model Briana King tells me she’s “been thinking a lot less.” “An ollie requires you to think less,” she says. “You know, there’s a moment when you ollie and you’re just floating in the air and there’s nothing happening — that moment, if you’re thinking about something, that’s when you f— everything up.
“Now that I chill, I know how to ollie.”
A self-described former “band geek” from Whittier High School and practitioner of kundalini yoga, King has perfected the art of selling an image. Originally from Boyle Heights, she escaped a turbulent home life by taking off to Australia at just 18. While abroad she built up her modeling portfolio, going on to pose for the likes of Calvin Klein, Dior and Prada. When she returned to the United States in 2017, she found a new way to manage the anxiety that had been buzzing inside her since childhood: skateboarding. The new hobby gave her an edge, and something she never realized she needed before — a community. That pushed her to create Display Only, a traveling skate meetup encouraging women and LGBTQIA+ people, who have historically been pushed to the margins of the skating world, to hop on a board.
Between bites and sips on a busy street in Highland Park, King sat with me to tell me how she’s been able to find beauty in inner peace.
Cerise Castle: Finding peace, finding ease, is an art. How long did it take you to learn that?
Briana King: Probably like three months, three months of trying really hard. Every day. All day. Growing up here, I had a really rough time. L.A. is a painful place for me. I moved out of L.A. in 2010. But I broke my leg on a shoot, and I had no other choice but to come back to Los Angeles. I was living in New York. Life was already hard, but life with a broken leg in New York is so hard. So, I was like, Dang, I’m just going to find a cool spot in L.A. with a bunch of windows. So I found this house that I’m in now, surrounded by a bunch of trees, a billion f—ing windows. And then I ended up just falling in love with L.A.
CC: So finding your own interpretation, your own relationship with Los Angeles that was different from when you grew up, helped make you feel at home here?
BK: Yeah. I’d be scared of driving by places I grew up. I was like, Oh, I had such a horrible experience in this spot. I don’t want to pass by there. Now I can go visit responsibly, find the Happy Places. I was in pain, in general, throughout my life. I like to blame L.A. but the pain was just…
CC: The pain was within. … I relate to that a lot. A lot of people look for validation or completion from external sources. And it takes a long time for people to learn that you have to be good. It’s interesting to me that you went into modeling when you had all this internal turmoil. Because it’s such an outward-facing industry. What drew you to that world?
BK: Oh, my God. How negative it was. I’m used to my family being so negative to me. So modeling, I show up like, I’m strong. I’m stronger than everyone. This is a hard industry. That’s honestly what attracted me to this — I’m able to do this and a lot of you guys aren’t able to do it, so it’s more of a competition type thing. It wasn’t like, Ooh, I want to be looked at. Ooh, I want this. I want to feel beautiful. I already felt beautiful. I already felt stylish. I didn’t need modeling to show me what was cool. I wanted to model because it was difficult.
CC: I read an interview where you talked a lot about the challenges growing up — growing up with a mom who was controlling, facing a lot of anti-Blackness in the home. How did that shape your idea of beauty?
BK: Honestly, I always grew up feeling beautiful. I always felt like I was fire. I always thought everyone’s beautiful. Everyone around the world saying, “This is ugly, this is nasty,” makes me think otherwise.
CC: What is beautiful to you?
BK: I want to say, beautiful to me is people loving themselves inside or being confident in who they are. But I wasn’t that for a long time. So that would be f—ed up for me to say this is what beautiful is to me. I think being beautiful is just existing.
CC: So everyone … Is there a flip side to that?
BK: No. It’d be horrible to be like, Oh, you did this to somebody. You’re ugly forever. You know, there’s always space for everyone to become beautiful once again after they’ve done ugly things. I’m very anti-cancel culture. Because a lot of my family members have done crazy things and are now sort of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
CC: So there can be beauty in redemption.
BK: Yeah, I guess. Sometimes I want to be a hater. But then I’m going to hate a lot of people. Or hate myself because I was mean too. I loved doing mean things when I was younger.
CC: Did you always know that you were beautiful?
BK: Yeah, I have my grandpa that’s not associated with the rest of my family. He’s been in my life since I was little. The second that I was able to comprehend anything, he was like, “Know that you’re not trapped in this family and one day you’re gonna be somewhere better and you’re gonna be so much bigger because you are a very special person. You’re not like anyone else around here.” I always made sure to remember those words.
CC: It sounds like those words were really fundamental to creating the person you are. What’s the dynamic with your family like today?
BK: Now the family is having so much more fun together.
CC: What changed?
BK: Now I know that I can’t let the world take over how I feel. I can go around the people that have hurt me previously and keep the same energy that I have in my everyday life. And now we just be having fun, because that’s what I’d be doing anyways, when I’m not around them. I’d be having fun.
CC: As a model, does creating the perfect image always mean presenting your authentic self?
BK: No, because being a model, you still have to market yourself to the world or a company. My perfect self would be like right now — no makeup, rocking whatever. But when I present myself as a model, it’s a different kind of perfect. It’s my model perfect. I’m gonna do my makeup. I’m gonna do my hair. That’s not what I like to do in my everyday life. I just want to be natural. I just want to be myself. I love being natural. But when I’m on camera, I’m still myself, emotionally. I’m still talking how I want to talk. Still posing how I want to pose.
That all happened through skateboarding. Once I started skateboarding, I just stopped caring about how I looked. Or how I posed in between things. Because I was already posting so many bails, so many fails, so many everything. So it was like a new personality that came through skateboarding. I was like, All right. I don’t really have to be that perfect. Now I could have my own personality.
CC: What would you say are the differences between what you find beautiful and what you think beauty is, and what the industry has defined it as?
BK: I guess what the industry finds beautiful these days I actually like. “Natural,” “health,” “mental health” — all those things that they f— with I actually f— with. So I think the industry right now is kind of poppin’. They really don’t pull through what they’re preaching. But hopefully soon they actually care about mental health. Or they actually let people be natural and not just Photoshopped afterwards.
I feel like I’ve gotten into a whole new world through skateboarding. Now that I am Briana King, I’m no longer just a model. So I don’t really know what the actual modeling world is like now because I haven’t really been in it for, like, the past five years. Now I only get booked as Briana or I will only take jobs if I’m skateboarding. Like if my skateboard is not involved, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I don’t want to know what’s happening over there. So I kind of just avoided that entire scene entirely.
CC: For the shoots that you’re going on now — are they active shoots for you, skateboarding around the city?
BK: Every single job that I do, I am allowed to pick everything. These days I’m usually going to be around trees. I don’t want to be downtown anymore. I’ll choose like a skate spot. That skate park is so nice in Whittier — like we just went there, took off our shoes, sat on the ground, ate watermelon. At this point of my life, I need a spot to feel grounded. I just need trees.
CC: Any kind of tree?
BK: Anything. Any tree except for palm trees. Palm trees don’t do anything for me. Where is the shade at? What are you doing?
CC: They are also not native to Los Angeles. What would you say the city has?
BK: Resources. Resources to be happy. Resources to make money. There are so many things to do here. And it’s my home. This is what made me fire. [If] I grew up somewhere else, I wouldn’t be fire. L.A. is just fire. Diversity. We were at Venice Beach yesterday and there’s so many different kinds of people. I traveled the whole entire world. You could go to places for tourists and still never get this amount of diversity that you get here.
My life is good even though the world is crazy. I think if we just find ourselves within and, like, f—ing love ourselves, I think it’s really easy to live an easier life. I never thought that it would be possible to get this happy. Literally like four or five months ago, I was in the f—ing psych ward. I had everything that I wanted. But I’m still upset. And now I’m at the point [where] I could lose all my s— and not have absolutely anything and still be at f—ing peace right now.
CC: I’m glad you’re doing better. What advice would you give to people who may be struggling through something similar?
BK: Be sober. Eat better. Meditate. And yoga. Through yoga, I was able to figure out myself mentally through physical pain. I feel like it’s just hard, in general, to figure something out without guidance. I had people [who] have been doing it for years just so happen to run into me or I run into them right when I needed them. I skipped so many things, and I never learned the basics. [I was] making everything so much more complicated because I want[ed] to do the hardest thing first — like hard tricks and battle, battle, battle. All the time, you know.
Right now I’m just like, this is fun, I’m floating.
Cerise Castle is a Los Angeles-based multimedia journalist specializing in arts and culture, civil rights, crime and human-interest stories. In 2021, she reported the first definitive history of gangs inside the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for Knock L.A. She is the recipient of the 2022 International Women in Media Foundation’s Courage Award. In her free time, she is an avid hiker and stargazer.
Lettering design by Vivi Naranjo/For The Times; typeface: Goliagolia
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This story originally appeared on LATimes