Not only is Billy O’Neill one of the best bladers of all time, he also might be one of the best things that ever happened to blading. He delivered some of the greatest video parts in history, inspired a whole generation of bladers all over the planet and became active behind the scenes with his events and company involvements. There are no words for how much blading owes Billy O’Neill and how grateful we are for everything he has done over the past 15 years.
A while ago Billy announced to step away from “professional blading” and he did it with a bang: his Haitian Magazine cover and online edit. We wanted to know more about his decision to quit, his career in general, and his future. And we received some pretty honest answers!
This is the first part of his story, followed by two more in the coming weeks.
2014, Photo: Ryan Loewy
Text: Johannes Jacobi
Hey Billy, thanks for doing this with us. Where are you right now and what did you do before you started answering this questions?
I am home, in Newark, New Jersey. Right before I started answering these questions, I was sleeping. I went downstairs, got an egg and cheese sandwich and a coffee and now here I am, answering questions 🙂
First of all, was there a specific moment or situation that made you decide to step back from being a professional blader?
It was a combination of contributing factors. Many, many different reasons, but ultimately, I was just feeling burnt out and frustrated with certain things. To be more specific, I felt like I was holding up my end of the deal as a rider, but I felt like my sponsors weren’t reciprocating, nor appreciating my efforts. At 30, you kinda get to this point where you realize you have gone as far as you can go as a pro (at least in my situation) and I didn’t wanna just linger around with a disappointed attitude, so I just cut the cord.
Did you think about it for long or did you take that decision intuitively?
It was a big decision that was very difficult for me to make. I took A LOT of time thinking about it and I spoke with good friends whose opinion’s I highly respected. I took about 3-4 months of considering before I made my final decision…although I am usually impulsive, this decision was not.
Are you mad at blading or did you step back with a good feeling?
Mad? No way. If there could be any negative feeling, it would be disappointment, but even that isn’t directed at anyone in particular. And I think that’s a natural feeling. But I also realize that my disappointment only exists because of the expectation I created for myself, which could perhaps be considered unrealistic…basically, NO, I’m not mad. Blading has been my greatest teacher, friends who I’ve met within it are the best people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and I’ve seen more of the world than my whole family combined….so yea, I stepped back with a great feeling….the tricky part is, how do I figure out a way to continue a new adventure?
When / with what company did you make the most money and were you ever in a position to safe money for later?
I made the most skating for USD for sure. Matthias is a great guy, just a little confused with what to do as far as promotion in the aggressive market. It was frustrating skating for them, because even though we got paid pretty well as pro skaters, I watched them waste so much money paying people with the profits from aggressive, who didn’t work hard or who didn’t know what they were doing. I was actively trying to contribute my ideas to the brand and they were always shot down, so I didn’t really feel like I was a part of their brand, even though I got paid….but save money? Haha hell no. We didn’t get paid that much. Just 300-350 a week, and we were always on tour and in Europe, so between that and rent and living, you can’t save at all. You actually struggle and need to work side jobs when you’re off tour to survive.
Did you make enough money for a living in your last year as a pro and would you have continued being a pro if you would have earned more money?
No, I did not make enough money for a living in my last year as a pro…the second part of the question is relative…If I was getting 5k a month to skate, yea, I would be skating as a pro, but that isn’t realistic in blading. Let’s just say, in regards to blading, I was looking at the big picture for the greater good. I wanted to stand behind brands that had the future of blading’s best interests in mind. Essentially, I followed my heart and stood behind what I thought was right. Sometimes when you follow your heart instead of your mind, you end up broke, but I have no regrets. C’est la vie.
Haitian Magazine, 2013, Photo: Brian Bina
You’re not in NY anymore. where exactly are you living right now and how does your everyday life looks like these days?
I don’t live in New York any longer, I live in New Jersey (something I swore I would never do, but, alas) , right across the Hudson in Newark. It’s as close to Manhattan as most neighbourhoods in Brooklyn. I live here with my band mates; we play as much as possible and try to do shows as much as we can around town. Other than that, I have no “career”, just little sources of income here and there, to keep my head afloat while I work toward new goals.
How often do you still blade?
About once a week, if I’m not hurt.
Not being on the road to film or skate competitions means that you’re faced with a different reality now. You are probably dealing with non-bladers that don’t know who you are and what you achieved in your sport. Is it difficult dealing with it, after being surrounded by people that constantly show you love and appreciation for the last 10+ years?
I’ve always had one foot in and one foot out of the blade world, so it’s nothing new. When I was filming my Mindgame part, I was working 50+ hours a week as a plumbers assistant. Prior to that, I was moving furniture as a job and remodelling bathrooms, construction, etc. I think it was important for me to have both, because it kept me grounded and kept the ego from growing. It’s kind of ridiculous to have an ego when you struggle with rent and bills constantly, so I’ve always taken people’s appreciation of my blading with a lot of respect, but also with a grain of salt.
ONE Magazine, 2010, Photo: Jeremy Stephenson
How old are you today and what are your goals in life from now? And how do you plan on achieving them?
I’m 30 now, but I feel like I’m 21 still! Being active helps with that, stay active! Life goals? I have so many and there are almost too many, it’s a bit unrealistic, but I want to do it all. I still want to travel the world, I want to be an actor, I want the band (Gypsy Ship) to make some moves, I want to be a teacher, learn Spanish fluently, etc. I just want to experience life as best as possible! We will see how it goes…
Do you think that all the years as a Pro gave you a healthy self-confidence that will help you to achieve new goals and reach new levels in life?
Absolutely. It has taught me how powerful it is to be determined and relentless. For the first 2 years of my skating I was the worst one out of my friends. They always teased me about how bad I was (some “friends”, huh?). Their heckling pushed me. I’ve always found motivation in being told that I can’t achieve something. Being determined and applying the “don’t give up” philosophy to skating, taught me that you can apply that formula to anything and it will lead to success. A very important lesson. Which also comes back to why I retired…I feel like I’ve learned all I needed to and done all I could in my time here, so now it’s time for the next chapter. The next adventure. It’s exciting.
Be-Mag, 2008, Photo: Jeremy Stephenson
You’ve seen the world but you still decided to stay in New York for long. What makes that city special for you and why could you not imagine living in Cali for example?
I did live in Cali. I love it there. I came home, because of circumstance. My mother is sick and she asked move closer to home for the times when she needs help. Still, New York is my soul, I love it here, but I want to live in so many places. Before my ride is up, I wanna live in Australia for a while, Spain, South America…we will see.
What influence had and still has New York to you? What would be different if you would have lived in Cali your whole life?
New York made who I am up to a point. Then through traveling and living other places, I was influenced by other people/things. From the day I was born until 25, I lived no other place than NYC. I’ve been running around those city streets since a child, being wild as hell. Now, I like to think of myself as a student to the world. I want experience more places and absorb more culture. Change, grow. Still, I couldn’t imagine growing up some place else…NYC made me. I’ll always be fish from NYC.
Seeing the big difference between rich and poor in New York, do you sometimes imagine a life being rich? What would be a job position you could see yourself in, making millions. How would you imagine that kinda life?
Everyone imagines being rich, I think. I would imagine it would be very fun, but I also imagine I would give a lot of my money away, because I don’t need much money. As a kid, I imagined being a lawyer, because I like having good debates, conversations, mental aerobics, but as of late, I’ve been considering trying to be a teacher, because although underpaid, teachers directly influence the future of the world, so if you are a positive and sound influence to the future, who knows what that person can become. Could change the world. Also, I’ve always wanted to act.
Daily Bread, 2004, Photo: Mike Graffigna
In your “The Dirty Show” episode you said that your main motivation in the past 5 years was to show how badass and cool blading is. Kind of making the extreme sport world realise that blading should be up there on the top. What do you think is needed to make that happen and why do you think do these dudes not appreciate the average kind of blading that’s going on today?
That’s a big question. I’m not sure who knows the answer to that. My philosophy, at one point, was to really try to differentiate the spots we skated from the skateboarders did. Really take advantage of the control we have by having them attached to our feet and showing the possibilities. The reason why I was approaching it like that is, because a lot of the criticism I would hear from skateboarders is that bladers copy skateboarding or that we stole their thing. That would really bother me, because I have never had any influence from skateboarding coming up. I first ended up on some blades from playing hockey, then someone showed me Hoax 2 and I was fully in. So to hear that mentality coming from those people really bothered me, because I never ever considered them or looked to them for influence/ideas. Although they were here first and did influence blading in the beginning, they never influenced me directly. By the time I became involved, blading was already it’s own thing. So yea, I want to fully illustrate though my skating that what I’m doing is different than what you guys do. We skate different spots and we have the ability to, because IT IS DIFFERENT. I don’t know how successful I was in doing that, but it was something I was trying to do. I just think we have to stand out as our own thing in order to thrive and be recognized as that…but that’s just a small part of it…The lack of creative marketing amongst top brands is sad as well. The companies that make the most money don’t know what to do to promote skating properly, because they do not know or do not care. Instead of reinvesting blade profits to help blading grow, they waste the money by hiring unqualified people for unnecessary jobs. Also, we need more leaders. People to be outspoken. What’s up with all these blading hating one another about how they skate, if it ain’t cool enough or not?? That’s some bitch ass shit for real. Work together. And if you are a pro/am/flow, being really good at skating is only part of your job. The other part is to have a personality. Be a good person. Talk to kids. Inspire. Be friendly. Don’t walk around trying to be too cool. Don’t make fun of other people and their skating, it doesn’t make you look cool, it makes you look weak and insecure. Support each other. Power in numbers, right? We can do more together…eh, just my opinion.
Daily Bread, 2004, Photo: Mike Graffigna
It’s obvious that most kids in blading today aren’t as passionate and committed as we have been when we started. They don’t buy magazines or DVD`s, or at least they aren’t as hyped on it as we were. What do you think is the reason? Overload of content online? People appreciate things differently because they are so easily accessible compared to the early years?
I think it’s a lot harder for young bladers to be juiced on blading today, then it was for us. I used to skate around NYC with like 30-40 kids, hitting a ton of spots. I saw similar scenes all over the country. Now, you don’t see any kids at the skatepark. I think skateboarding being as massive as it is now has a lot to do with it. It’s almost part of skateboard culture to hate on blading and skateboarding is the popular thing to do, so with it comes their ideals. But really, I do not know.
In the podcast you also said that the best skating already happened. What is it that you don’t like about todays blading and in what direction there is still space to evolve?
I never said I didn’t like today’s skating. I like all forms of skating. I didn’t mean to offend anyone by saying that. I haven’t seen enough new stuff recently to have a fully formed opinion anyway, but I guess I just want to see something inspiring by a younger skater. I wanna see the next teenage Dustin/Murda/Sagona/Broskow, ya know? Where is he/she? If you are out there, show yourself.
You are playing in a band, is that correct? Can you tell us a little more about it and is it just for the good times or would you like to take it to the next level?
Yea, I play in a band GYPSY SHIP, with my roommates Nico and Connor. For now, we’re just having fun and playing shows, but we believe in the music and we hare trying to improve it everyday. For me, it’s important to have a creative expressive outlet to keep sane and happy, so this project has been fun. We’ll see what happens.
Be-Mag, 2008, Photo: Jeremy Stephenson
Are you still involved in Create Originals or are you stepping back from that as well?
I’m sure it’s no secret that I haven’t been working as closely with Create as I was in the beginning, but I’m still involved and those guys are my bros for life. They respect my wishes to take a break. I been skating for almost 19 years, was pro for 8, company owner for 5, did 3 years of running my own competition. I was burnt out. They understand. But I’ll always have some part in CO, even if it’s a small one.
What about the NYC Street Invite?
As of now, I don’t think that will be going on any longer.
Thanks Billy, any last words?
Thank you. I’ve been blessed to be able to live my life the way I wanted to up until this point. It’s been a great ride. If I could offer any advice, it is to skate for pure reasons and to ignore other people’s judgements. Most people pass judgements on others, because they are not happy with themselves. Follow the heart and do what thou wilt. If we had beers, then cheers! I’ll see y’all around the bend!