Tony Hawk: Superfly guy

Tony Hawk has gone from teen skateboarding world champion to one-man multi-million-pound brand. Rebecca Armstrong climbs aboard his Learjet
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The seats are made of soft caramel leather, the seat-belt fasteners look like they've been crafted in solid gold, and the carpets are so thick you could lose your shoes in them. If there's one thing that Tony Hawk, 37, professional skateboarder, is good at, it's flying through the air, but today he's not doing it while performing gravity-defying tricks, but, instead, on a Learjet.

The seats are made of soft caramel leather, the seat-belt fasteners look like they've been crafted in solid gold, and the carpets are so thick you could lose your shoes in them. If there's one thing that Tony Hawk, 37, professional skateboarder, is good at, it's flying through the air, but today he's not doing it while performing gravity-defying tricks, but, instead, on a Learjet.

Hawk and his girlfriend Lhotse have been on the road for weeks. Today, we're flying from Berlin to London so that he can spread the word about his computer-game incarnation in person. Running his hand through his longish blond hair, Hawk checks his e-mails on a Bluetooth phone while preparing for take-off. He's tall, thin, and looks - today at least - very tired.

Before this tour of France, Germany and the UK, they spent time in India, where Hawk attended the Laureus Academy Forum, an association of 41 sportsmen and -women whose mission is to expand the positive influence that sport can have on society. While she was there, Lhotse decided to get a henna version of the tattoo that adorns Hawk's left calf painted on to her own leg. Work began, but Lhotse couldn't believe how much having a henna tattoo hurt. Then she realised: hers was no henna tattoo. On the jet, she lifts her trouser leg and explains, a little ruefully, how the wavy line now snaking its way across her calf is permanent. Tattoos, Learjets and whistle-stop tours are all in a day's work for Hawk.

The first global superstar of the extreme-sports world, and the most successful and influential skateboarder of all time, Hawk was born in San Diego on 12 May 1968. He got his first board aged nine - a cast-off from his older brother Steve - turned pro at 14, and was world champion at 16. He was the first skateboarder to earn $1m a year. He has invented more than 50 tricks, and was the first skater ever to perform a "900" (two-and-a-half aerial turns), a trick that took him 10 years to master. He retired from competing in 2000, but continues to travel the world and perform at exhibitions, when he's not at home in California looking after his three sons.

Hawk's achievements helped to make skateboarding mainstream, and he has built a multimillion-dollar business empire on the back of his reputation. He makes an estimated $6m a year from his endorsement of the hugely successful Tony Hawk's Pro Skater computer games. Now in its fifth series - Tony Hawk's Underground 2 launched last month - the game has made over $500m since its launch in 1999.

But, in spite of his astonishing wealth, the man who welcomes me on board is dressed in a faded T-shirt, jeans and - from what can be seen of them through the embrace of the shag pile - a pair of battered trainers. As the smoked-salmon sandwiches are passed around the jet ("Aw, salmon? That sucks. Is there any egg?"), Hawk talks about how the game franchise has sealed his fate as the world's best-known skater. "I hope that people still know that I'm a pro skater, not just a video-game character, but in the past, kids, and even their parents, will say, 'Oh, yeah, that's that video-game character'. Nope - I'm real, and I've got the scabs to prove it!"

Do Hawk's sons, Riley, 13, Spencer, 5, and Keegan, 3, ever play the games? Do they like to challenge their dad, or make him crash-land? "Riley likes playing, but it's not like he wants to compete with me. My little ones just like me to dress up my character in ridiculous clothes, like my face with a diaper, and a cowboy hat, and clown shoes, and skate around." What kind of father is Hawk? Apparently, surprisingly sensible. "It makes me proud that I can switch from being a skater to a parent," he says. "But," he's quick to add, "I don't feel as old as other parents". He can seem like a big kid at times, but spends much of the flight proudly showing me digital pictures of his sons goofing around, and talking about their antics.

More than any other sportsman in the extreme arena, Hawk has taken advantage of the financial opportunities that his fame has opened up to him. In addition to the games, the European branch of his company Hawk Clothing - started six years ago and taken over by Quicksilver - is bigger than in the US now; he heads up Hawk shoes and Birdhouse skateboards; and is working on a States-wide arena tour for summer next year. As the first "million- dollar skater", Hawk has often been accused of selling out. Indeed, one chapter in his autobiography, Hawk - Occupation: Skateboarder, is called just that. "The irony about selling out is that they only call you a sell-out when your stuff finally sells - I've had products bearing my name since I was 14, but nobody was buying them then."

His approach to sponsorship is pragmatic, and based on his own likes and dislikes. "If McDonald's had approached me when I was 14 and said, 'We want to sponsor you', I would have signed up right there because I grew up eating McDonald's. I get grief for it because there's a faction of people who hate McDonald's, or hate dairy farmers. I drink milk. I eat meat. That's who I am. To me it's using their dollars to promote skateboarding, because I have final approval on this stuff. If McDonald's can do a worldwide marketing campaign featuring not me but me skating, I have control over it, so I can show some of the best skating possible. The same goes for almost any sponsor I have - if it's something I enjoy or would use, I don't have any problem with it."

Hawk's process for choosing sponsors is alarmingly straightforward - he looks back to himself as a youth and acts accordingly. It seems simplistic for a millionaire to decide on his sponsors by judging them against his views as a kid, but since his professional career started at 14, Hawk has been the poster-boy for teenage skaters, and remains the eternal teenager himself in many ways, including his insistence that, despite the pay, he lives to skate. "I started out skating as a dirty, ratty little kid, and I'm still rolling around. I never expected to make a career out of it."

Despite his business empire and family responsibilities, Hawk somehow remains the embodiment of skater culture, appealing to the kids, appearing in Jackass stunts dressed as a chicken, and showing off his scars to anyone who asks. Skating defined who he was as a teenager, and continues to do so now he's an adult, keeping him firmly in touch with his fan base.

While many might think that making your first million would be proof that you'd made it, Hawk claims that he realised that he'd made it when he was asked to appear on a TV show. "The biggest validation was being on The Simpsons - it's such a measure of being a pop-culture icon. They rarely put people on The Simpsons that they want to make fun of - unless they're pretending it's that person. If the famous person is being imitated by a voice, you know that they're going to destroy them, but if it's the actual voice of the person then that means you've come of age."

Appearing on The Simpsons certainly shows that Hawk is famous, but it seems a little naive that he counts it as a defining moment. It's clear from his autobiography that Hawk is, in many ways, a child at heart. "When I die and my life flashes before my eyes, I know one of the most entertaining highlights will be of me and a group of skaters in a hotel room in Santa Barbara." Hawk proceeds to write about a skater friend, Charles, who was a virtuoso of flatulence. "He entertained us with trumpet solos, machine-gun blasts and long squeaky wails, before we went overboard and decided to explore the possibilities of his unique skill." Once a skate jock, always a skate jock.

Hawk is successful, famous and easy on the eye. Why hasn't there been a film version of his life? This is, after all, the man who taught Christian Slater to skateboard for the ill-fated early 1990s skating movie, Gleaming the Cube. "Disney bought the rights to my book a few years ago and - it sounds ridiculous - they ran into all these issues with merchandising and licensing products with my name on because I was already established as a skateboarder and had licenses, and they couldn't get past that. I'm not making Disney skateboards, and [the film] fell apart." Who would Hawk have liked to see playing himself? Brad Pitt? Jake Gyllenhaal? "Someone like Anthony Michael Hall [the geek in The Breakfast Club] in his dorky days."

Hawk almost shares his name with the British comedian and grumpy-old-man Tony Hawks. Cue Hawks receiving e-mail from wannabe skate kids looking to improve their technique. Tony from Sussex replies to them all, and puts the correspondence on his website. For example, Chris, a 15-year-old skater, writes: "I want to learn how to do a back flip. Can you give me any pointers?" To which Hawks responds: "What a bugger! I just gave my last pointer away. Sweet little pup, nicest one in the litter..." Does Hawk get e-mails about forthcoming stand-up shows? "I've never got an e-mail for him! I was on The Big Breakfast one time, and they brought him out and said, 'This is Tony Hawks' - he started reading e-mails he'd got for me and explaining how frustrating it was. I think he said, 'I want to throttle you!'."

On landing, three cars, complete with blacked-out windows, are waiting, ready to whisk us to London. For Tony, the tour continues. In the car, he's briefed on tomorrow's interviews and guest appearances. His PRs are frantically ordering chilled champagne for his suite in the Sanderson hotel. For everyone else, it's back to reality, where the seat belts are not made of gold and the traffic is murder.

Tony Hawk's 'Underground 2' is out now, price £39.99