Talking Boards and Bruises with the Skaters of HBO’s “Betty”

By
Photography Daniel Arnold

Published May 5, 2020

When I ask the leads of Betty, HBO’s new series about an all-girl skateboarding crew, about their worst injuries, they laugh. It’s hard for them to remember; when you skate every day, you’re bound to get covered in nicks and bruises. A black and blue is par for the course. Sometimes, “we just have to do it,” as Rachelle Vinberg, one of the five girls, says with what I imagine to be a shrug.

Vinberg is part of The Skate Kitchen, the real-life all-girl skate crew that inspired director Crystal Moselle‘s beloved 2018 film. That film—with its loose, low-key, street-level view of downtown New York’s skate culture—has been distilled into half-hour episodes and alchemized into the somewhat sleeker Betty, named cheekily for the word skaters call girls who hang around skate parks but don’t actually skate. The girls—Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), Kirt (Nina Moran), Indigo (Ajani Russell), Honeybear (Moonbear), and Janay (Dede Lovelace)—most definitely do skate, as well as smoke weed, run in with locals, call out shitty boys, and just generally vibe. After all, they’ve been friends since before Moselle met them on the subway, boards in tow, and they’ve been showing up boys at New York City’s skate parks for much longer.

We decided to hop on a very chill conference call with four members of the Betty gang, in which they covered bruises, boarding with a mask, and what it’s like to skate on your period. (It sucks.)

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SARAH NECHAMKIN: How did you guys first meet?

RACHELLE VINBERG: We met through skateboarding. I met one of the girls, Nina [Moran], and then Nina knew Ajani and Dede from school, and I knew Moonbear from skating. Me and Nina met Crystal [Moselle], the director, on the train. She was like, “Hey, my name’s Crystal. I’m a director. Are there more girls like you who skate?” She was kind of confused at the fact that we had boards. Because she came to New York at 18 and the only skaters she really knew were boy skaters, and she didn’t even take us seriously at first, until she came and watched us skate and realized that actually, we do skate, not just carry around the boards like a lot of people think.

After that, we just clicked. It really wasn’t anything. We actually became friends, and then we did the short film, but then afterwards we continued on being friends. We had made an Instagram called the Skate Kitchen and we would hang out in the summer. That’s what initially inspired her to make the movie Skate Kitchen—because there was a real friendship there.

NECHAMKIN: What inspired you to call it State Kitchen? 

AJANI RUSSEL: The name Skate Kitchen came from Rachelle. Correct me if I’m wrong, Rachelle, but from what I’ve been told, she would skateboard and think, “If I were to ever have a skate shop or something, what would I call it?” She said it would be a Skate Kitchen.

VINBERG: That was when I was 12 years old, and then when we met all the girls, I was like, “Oh shit, this could be a crew.” Everyone agreed we should do something about it. 

NECHAMKIN: Did you feel like it was different filming the movie versus the show? 

DEDE LOVELACE: Yeah, it was totally different. It was way more intense in terms of production because the film was an indie film. The TV show was a little bit more rigorous because there was a hard schedule on it. We had a lot of preparation just so we could understand how to present ourselves through our characters on the screen, so we keep the attention and the energy up. But it was fun. 

VINBERG: Well, it felt the same, because we had the same AD, the same director, the same makeup artist, the same stylist. And then we had pretty much the same cast for the most part and a lot of the same locations. With Betty, there were way more locations, and just a lot more people, but at the root of it, it did feel the same. More pressure, for sure.

From left: Moonbear, Ajani Russell, and Dede Lovelace.

Another thing—Skate Kitchen was way more relaxed in what we could get away with. You can’t get away with anything with an HBO show. Like, we couldn’t shoot in the subway. There’s certain locations you can’t shoot in because you can’t just kind of steal it, like you can do in an indie film. There’d be times where the same AD would get mad at us for skating in the street when we’re not supposed to. And I’d be like, “Well, we did it in Skate Kitchen; it was fine.” He’s like, “There’s a difference. We can’t do that anymore.”

LOVELACE: While we were filming, we would always be really close to that show High Maintenance. Every time we were filming, they were filming nearby on their set, and they’re both HBO shows, so they were like to the Guy [Ben Sinclair], “Hey, come on over and ride your bike through this one scene.” So he has a cameo. 

MOONBEAR: He seems really nice.

RUSSELL: Oh yeah, he’s cool.

NECHAMKIN: Was it an adjustment to have to skate for TV and film versus skating in real life? 

VINBERG: Oh my god, it’s so different. I’ll explain it. Skating is something we do for fun. We didn’t start out like, “We’re going to be TV show skaters.” You do it because you want to do it in the moment, just like when you feel like going for a run or you feel like watching a movie—it’s based on feelings. And sometimes we don’t feel like skating when we’re told to do it. It’s like, damn, there’s so much energy you put into it. You can get hurt, you can fall, your muscles hurt one day. It’s like, well, today’s the day we have to shoot this taping, so you have to just go hard. But also not too hard so you don’t get hurt. There’s a lot of that. Do you guys agree?

RUSSELL: Yeah. It was really challenging for me to film and skate because I as an actor had to pretend I couldn’t skateboard because my character does not skate in the beginning of the show. So it was kind of like going backwards.

VINBERG: Do you remember—Ajani was popping the board up, and they’re like, “You can’t do that because she wouldn’t know how to do that yet.” And it was hard for you to remember to not do that, because it’s just such an easy, simple thing that skaters do. But you looked too comfortable.

RUSSELL: But I actually can’t do it in real life. 

VINBERG: What? Wow, that’s funny.

RUSSELL: To this day, I still can’t do it. I was skating the other day, and I was like, “Oh, I can’t do it.”

Rachelle Vinberg.

NECHAMKIN: What is the worst bruise or injury you guys have each gotten from stating? 

LOVELACE: I thankfully haven’t really broken anything because I know my limits and I don’t go past my boundaries, but I have fallen pretty hard before. That’s about it, though. I’ve fallen pretty hard. I think Rachelle has got it beat more than all of us.

VINBERG: I’ve gotten beat up a bunch, but I don’t like talking about it because it just brings it all back. It’s too emotional. It’s kind of personal. I got hospitalized twice for the same thing and I hate thinking about it because I still think about it when I skate. 

NECHAMKIN: Do you find that when you skate you have to just ignore the fact that you could potentially get hurt?

VINBERG: Yeah. We just have to do it. Like Dede said, it’s about knowing your limits. If you’re not having a good day, then sometimes it’s better not to go hard.

NECHAMKIN: Do you guys have any favorite stories from skating together? 

MOONBEAR: There was this one day that we went to go pick up something from this water bottle company. 

VINBERG: Oh my god.

MOONBEAR: So after that, we wanted to help Dede carry all her stuff, so we took a FedEx loading dolly, and we skated away really far. But the guy still found us and he was really upset because he needed that to do his job. But we didn’t really think about it like that. And then we ended up skating at Union Square and this lady was cursing at us. So that was a funny day. I filmed it, and it was my first vlog that I posted on YouTube. A lot of people watched it.

VINBERG: I just like getting around the city in the summer. Every year when we get to do it again, it’s pretty nostalgic, and I just think about how I’m going to miss this when I’m older.

NECHAMKIN: Where’s your favorite place in the city to skate?

VINBERG: I think just around the streets. Basically from Washington to Tompkins Square Park, and everything in between that.

MOON BEAR: I like Union Square sometimes. 

NECHAMKIN: Have you guys been skating in quarantine still, or are you taking a break?

MOONBEAR: I’ve been skating.

VINBERG: I’m in Brooklyn, but I’ve been skating as well. Okay, so I was skating, right? In the basketball courts—there’s some by my house. But they closed all the parks, so now I just have to skate in the street. I’ve found myself biking instead because I don’t really want to skate in the street. There’s still cars and stuff, but I was doing it, but then they really closed all the parks, man.

MOONBEAR: If you find an empty lot … I was on my boosted board and I saw this guy a few blocks away from me in a lot with his own rail. That was the rail that he brought there. It’s not a park, though. It’s a work-around.

NECHAMKIN: You’ve got to wear a mask now, right?

MOONBEAR: Yeah. I’ve been wearing a mask.

RUSSELL: I haven’t tried to skate with a mask on. I feel like that would cause a problem.

VINBERG: Yeah. And then it might get sweaty. And then you’re touching your board. That sounds dangerous.

NECHAMKIN: What’s it like when you have to take breaks from skating? 

MOONBEAR: I don’t find an issue with not skating for a while because I like to do a lot of other things. Especially in winter. 

VINBERG: It’s hard to skate when you’re on your period. It’s impossible for me. It has something to do with the energy levels. So there’s always one week that I don’t.

LOVELACE: It’s so hard. I can’t jump sneezing. Can’t jump, can’t sneeze.

VINBERG: The thing with me is I still try to skate, but then I get so mad because I can’t, because my body isn’t working, and then I just end up stopping because I get angry.

RUSSELL: Gravity pulls on you harder when you’re on your period.

VINBERG: I can’t imagine how female X-Games athletes and street league athletes do it if they have their period that week.

RUSSELL: Don’t you feel better when you take a pain reliever?

MOONBEAR: I do.

VINBERG: I get really bad periods, okay? There is no pain reliever that can make me feel better. The funny thing also is that we all pretty much get our periods at the same time. We’re all in a mood.

NECHAMKIN: What else have you been doing in the past couple of weeks or months to keep yourself busy?

LOVELACE: I’ve been in school. That had a lot of group projects that I don’t want to do. And I’ve been drawing as well. I’ve been listening to a lot of music and studying the history of music. I don’t really watch a lot of Instagram Live. 

RUSSELL: Me too. I’m trying to avoid it.

VINBERG: I’ve been in school as well. I’ve been doing film projects of my own for fun. And I’ve been skating.

RUSSELL: I’m also still in school. I have classes most days of the week. I’ve been teaching myself Japanese and cooking a lot and working on puzzles and reading. And I’m reading seven billion books right now.

NECHAMKIN: What made you want to learn Japanese?

RUSSELL: I watched a lot of anime.

VINBERG: People might not know that Anjani is actually a pretty big nerd. She’s very into things like anime. I feel like people are intimidated by you a little bit, but it turns out you’re just probably thinking about a dream you had or thinking about anime.

RUSSELL: True, true, true.

NECHAMKIN: Do any of you guys have questions that you’d like to ask one another, that you always wanted to know and haven’t really been able to ask?

VINBERG: Shit, we talk every single day. We pretty much know everything about each other.

LOVELACE: Moonbear is actually a business lady.

VINBERG: Yeah. People don’t know that.

LOVELACE: Moonbear reads Forbes and does stocks and all that. 

MOONBEAR: Yeah. It started off with me just selling things that I didn’t want or didn’t use, and then I got an LLC last year. I use different names under that LLC, so now my eBay store is known as Moonbear Wares. I started selling sneakers about a year ago and I was gonna expand to clothing at the time but with what’s going on, I’ll see how it goes. And I have different YouTube channels, which people usually don’t run as businesses, but they should be run as businesses. And one of them is about credit cards and finance. It’s called Moneybear Gang.

VINBERG: I think a lot of people don’t know how funny Dede is. Even Dede doesn’t know.