How 'Freestyle Walking' Went from a Teenaged 90s Prank to a Multimillion-Dollar Business
A new documentary claims that the idea for Soap shoes came from a few kids who placed a fake news story on MTV.
While most people might think sliding around on sneakers fitted with special grind plates is silly, there are some people who take soaping so seriously that they've built their entire lives around the fad. Take for example Ryan Jaunzemis, a 35-year-old man who eschewed college in the 90s to pursue a career based on the fledgling footwear and still makes time to use them despite his responsibilities as the head of a pick-up artist lair in Vegas.
But according to a completed but not-yet-released documentary, skateboarding without a skateboard started off as a prank perpetrated by teenagers in Illinois who wanted to get on TV. The world took these kids seriously, a company turned their idea into sportswear, and people spent millions of dollars on clunky sneakers.
Lords of Soaptown, a project that took comedian and filmmaker Jason Klamm about 14 years to put together, deigns to tell the crazy story of four founders of soaping who, variously, want to get an apology from Soap, move on from the ordeal entirely, or see the fad come back in full force.
"It's also about these kids whose childhoods were—oddly enough—shaped by Soap shoes," Klamm told me after I watched the trailer and called him up.
VICE: So, were you a soaper back in the day? What's your connection to this?
Jason Klamm: Well, first I saw the freestyle walking piece that was on MTV on a show called News Unfiltered. It was a show where you could submit your own stuff, and these kids said they started a sport called freestyle walking. And it was skateboarding without a skateboard. It was the dumbest thing I had ever seen. Later, I saw Soap shoes, I knew they were associated with freestyle walking, and I thought they were the dumbest thing I had ever seen, too. And it took until college, like seven years later, until I kind of turned around on them like a full 360.
What caused you to change your mind?
I met one guy who told me that he had essentially invented Soap shoes. He was one of the kids I saw in the video on MTV. He and his friends pitched Soap shoes via MTV to the company they claimed was Soap shoes. They were a shoe with a grind plate in the middle that you could do tricks in while doing freestyle walking. I found that out and did a little more research and found out the timelines line up.
What did you find in your research?
These four kids that were on [the MTV show], they pitched it. But the only thing is, you can't draw any definitive links, because they don't have any of the original documents presented to them from the company. But I did speak to people who worked at MTV on Unfiltered and they do recall shortly after that piece aired, getting sample shoes in the mail. So, they definitely knew the company that was making Soap shoes. The connection seems pretty obvious.
So wait, they weren't using special shoes in the video, so how was the idea stolen?
Someone came to them from MTV and said they had a company interested in making sports equipment for freestyle walking—and I'm going off of what these guys tell me, of course. They did corroborate each other's stories, though... Anyway, they called them up and asked if they had any ideas for a shoe. Brandon, who's kind of the lead kid in the video, said he could come up with something. They made in their garage this shoe where they cut out the middle and put a piece of PVC in the center and glued it in. They said that's what they thought would work, because you could grind the same way you would on a skateboard. They didn't hear anything back, and then a few months later, they see Soaps on the shelves.
So how did you go from being a Soaps hater to committing to a huge project about them?
[The idea to make a film] was the first thing that occurred to me when he said, "We invented these shoes and they were stolen from us and turned into a multimillion-dollar idea." I had the idea in my head for seven years before I was even able to get a hold of this kid again. I actually found one of his friends through his aunt on YouTube and got a hold of him and interviewed them here in Los Angeles when one of them was visiting. I had that idea back in 2001, but didn't know what I was doing in terms of documentary, so in 2008, when I needed a new project, this was it.
What's the goal? Why hasn't there been a lawsuit if this is true?
There has never been a lawsuit. They were 15, they didn't sign anything. They signed the rights of their appearance to MTV, but they never got anything down on paper other than "thank you for your pitch" from this one company. It's more just they want credit for having created the shoes at this point. The first year [Soap] made $1 or $2 million, and by the fourth year they bumped up somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million.
I've read you describe this as a "comedy documentary." Why? This story sounds fucked up.
That's the other twist in the movie. This freestyle walking thing they said they made up when they were ten was just completely made up so that they could be on TV. They said, "Oh, our school won't let us do it, our town won't let us do it." But the school and the town were in on it, so they all pulled a prank on MTV. And that's kind of what that movie is about, the argument that you should be proud of this amazing prank that you pulled as a 14-year-old instead of being bitter about losing millions of dollars. Even though I can understand the bitterness.
I wanted to ask about the title, Lords of Soaptown, obviously an homage. Is Soaping a sport you feel is equivalent to skateboarding, or are you being cheeky?
I called it that because it sounded accessibly grandiose, because Soaps and freestyle walking are definitely silly. That doesn't mean they can't be taken seriously and there's no skill—because I've met a lot of really skilled Soapers. But I'm one of those people who doesn't take much seriously at all.
I think having fun with the idea that this is equivalent to the history of skateboarding is interesting. But at the same time, it does have just as interesting of a history, it's just not as serious or long-lasting, obviously. But I think it's a piece of history that's interesting, and I think people would be much more interested in it when they see the movie. I actually think that once they see it, they'll want the company that made Soaps to start making Soaps again.
How many times in the past decade have you had to explain to people what Soaps are?
That happens all the time. It's such a niche, but to a certain group of people. To me, I thought everyone knew about Soap shoes and also thought they were stupid. Most skateboarders have a lot of disdain for them. But I interviewed Tony Alva, one of the original Z-boys and his team, and they were all Soapers before they were skateboarders. So there is part of the culture that's aware of it. Some of them crap on it, but these kids are like, they were fun but I just upgraded to a skateboard. But if you're talking to an executive, you have to explain what Soaps are. They all assume it's parkour ahead of time, because that's what it sounds like.
Right. You're currently pitching this movie to distributors. How do you sell it to suits who have no nostalgic connection to the shoes?
Really, the thing that i tell them is four 14-year-old kids from the Chicago suburbs pulled the wool over MTV's eyes and launched a multi-million dollar company and didn't see a dime. They legitimately did a fuck-authority thing over the ultimate fuck-authority figure. MTV was trying to say, "screw authority," and these kids were trying to say, "screw MTV."
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