The Unbroken Spirit of Surfing Muse Mona Lisa Neuboeck
She arrives in the middle of a warm afternoon, driving an old Suzuki APV down a long asphalt road and straight into the parking space of an apartment in a quiet corner of Subic. She is on time: 2 p.m., as we agreed, with the sun still harsh and high enough in the sky to pierce through the surrounding forest canopy. As she alights, she removes her sunglasses and walks over to us, a sparse grid of shadows cast upon her, the leaves swaying in what little breeze passes. There’s a bounce to her tousled, golden-brown hair, and her perfectly sun-kissed skin gleams in the light. Whether or not she intended to—and she probably didn’t—Mona Lisa Neuboeck has made a pretty spectacular entrance.
But her arrival is just another reason to feel intimidated, I think, along with what I already know: She is a hardcore vegan, who was even a staunch advocate of the raw food diet at one point, and a certified vegan chef. She’s also a yogini and an occasional instructor, who can contort herself in ways that are both impressive and confusing. And she’s a surfer, with abs that were described as “scary” at one point during our staff meeting earlier that week, because they were so goddamn sculpted.
Before I had met her, she seemed a little “scary” too—like, how-does-one-even-get-that-ripped scary; and she-could-very-easily-kick-my-ass-if-I-so-much-as-looked-at-her-the-wrong-way scary; and (most poignantly) I’m-sorry-for-all-the-McDonald’s-I-ate-earlier-today scary. All unreasonable fears, to be sure, but easily dispelled within four syllables of actually meeting her. It was a warm “Hi, I’m Mona,” in a small, almost bashful voice that was exceedingly polite and modest and sweet. Not scary. Not in the least.
To answer your question: She is half-Austrian. If we’re being specific, Mona is half-Tyrolean, half-Ilonggo; and there’s a proper Austrian way to pronounce her last name, but she says “new-beck” will do just fine. And to answer your next question: Yes, like the painting. Her father, who was a painter, named his youngest child after the world’s most famous work of art, and in a way, it’s a fitting namesake. What is da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, after all, if not an enigmatic ideal—a beautiful woman whose perfections belie a shroud of complexity?
She lives in Subic now, where feels quite at home, because she finds that it negotiates Filipino warmth with the character of a Western locale, which she’s used to. Mona was born in the United States and traveled quite a bit with her family as a child, but spent most of her formative years in Austria before moving to the Philippines. She made a go of it in Metro Manila first, and then eventually settled down here, up north, where she found more hospitable conditions. But she wasn’t always as lucky.
“Just to be very blunt,” she says, when I ask about how she found herself in this side of the world, “my growing up was not easy. I come from a family that never had any financial problems whatsoever. But my father was not an easy person to get along with.”
Up until this point, our conversations had been all fun and pleasantries as we drove to and from a secret beach in Morong, Bataan. She told me about her botched butterfly tattoo, done by an artist who was too stoned to get the antennas right. We talked about vegan tortilla chips and zero-calorie soda and the nuances between different kinds of veganism and vegetarianism. We talked about her other secret surf spots around Subic, some of which she’s had to sneak into to avoid forest rangers. But when we get to talking about Mona’s origin story, things take a turn.
“[My father] was quite violent. Imagine, there were three of us kids, and we all ran away from home,” she says. “My sister when she was 15, my brother when he was 13, and then me when I was 16. We all left because we couldn’t stand home. Then I got into the wrong group of friends, and that’s when I got into recreational drugs.”
Wait—what? Weren’t we just talking about how perfect and utterly Instagrammable her life was? How her commitment to the whole health-and-wellness thing is, as they say, #goals?
“I got into drugs to such a great extent that I could not pull myself out of it anymore,” she continues, “and I [eventually] celebrated my 17th birthday in rehab, all drugged up on psychopharmacological medicines.” She punctuates this with a sarcastic “Yay” and a laugh.
"People are like, 'Oh, you're into yoga, you're into raw food and veganism and you're an artist; you're so perfect! And I'm like, no, I'm fucking not perfect!"
Then she shows me the scars on her forearms, and recounts attempts at her own life: once with a blade in the corner of a bathroom, and again by downing an entire container of prescription pills. But her tone never turns too rueful. Today, she’s just calm and objective in retrospect of this chapter of her life, acknowledging that it’s in the past, and that burying it there would serve no one.
“I’m not saying that my father was an evil man. He was just a product of his generation,” she says. “My dad passed away at the age of 90, so he was born in 1926, which means he was in the Hitler Youth.”
Well, that was thoroughly unexpected.
“You didn’t have a choice back then. It’s either you joined the Hitler Youth or you’d have the Gestapo on your back. He never really told us the details of what he’d been through, but you can imagine all the violence that he encountered as a young person. And that just shaped him into who he was, and also as a father.”
There’s compassion, I tell her, in being able to see it that way. People tend to keep it inside, to hold grudges. But not Mona. “After his passing, all of us, we got together, and we remembered him as the positive, uplifting, happy person who he was in times of normality.”
This was one of the reasons why she moved to the Philippines. “Because a lot of darkness happened [in Austria],” she says. Battered, broken, but hopeful, Mona picked herself up and escaped to her mother’s home country, where she still had fond memories. “Whenever we would come to the Philippines on vacation, that was when my family was the happiest,” she says. “And I think I finally found myself. Those pieces of myself that were missing, I found them back here.”
Soul-searching, as it were, meant that Mona would open herself up to a lot of different things. It was modeling for the first few years, until she was coaxed into recording a studio album by someone who imagined her to be some sort of local Fergie (the album never saw the light of day, because she quit midway through, saying “I couldn’t sing to save my life!”). Then she worked in the government for a while, promoting the wakeboarding scene in Camarines Sur, and even starred in a reality show with Daiana Menezes not too long ago
But what stuck to her the most was veganism, which she discovered through her partner, Corey. “It became my new job,” she says, telling me of how she became occupied by championing veganism and cooking raw vegan food. Mona would do workshops, teach the personal chefs of wealthy people to cook the raw vegan way, and become a poster girl for that way of life. “Then all of a sudden I had a raw food girl stigma,” she bemoans. “[It was] an identity that was attached to me. But it didn’t quite feel 100 percent me, because there’s so much more to me than just eating vegetable sticks.” These days, Mona is continuing her work as a vegan chef. She’s taken to painting, too, and still teaches yoga. But more importantly, she seems to have found her place.
“A lot of my time everyday goes into keeping it together, you know what I mean? A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you’re into yoga, you’re into raw food and veganism and you’re an artist; you’re so perfect!’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m fucking not perfect!’” She catches herself there—the one thing she’s said throughout our conversation that wasn’t perfectly polite—and laughs. “I’m so not fuckin’ perfect, because all these things, even when I sit down at night to meditate, it’s not because I’m oh-so-spiritual. It’s because I have to keep it together. That’s how I function as a normal person. Otherwise, I would have these weird obsessions and neurotic tendencies. I have to channel my neuroses into all these modalities that other people call ‘perfect.’ They’re all crutches to keep me standing upright.”
Mona Lisa Neuboeck has this disarming self-awareness about her—a rare wisdom of herself and of the world that not only adds to her allure, but defines it. Because she’s learned to take life in stride, and emancipated herself from her own demons, she has survived; and stands today, stronger and more beautiful. To others, Mona is a #fitspiration, but only because they don’t see how much more it is than just fitness. The surfing, the yoga, the veganism, her entire lifestyle—these are all reasons to be truly inspired by her, beyond how well they register on social media. Mona knows that, and in living them, hopes that others can draw the same from a healthy lifestyle too. “It’s a coping mechanism,” she says. “It just looks so good!”
Make-up by Joan Teotico using NARS Cosmetics; hairstyling by Jayjay Gallego of Creations by Lourd Ramos Salon.
This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by Esquiremag.ph editors.