( By pinguino k from North Hollywood, USA [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
We had advance warning on this one, and yet, what do you write. By advance warning, I mean fifteen years. That's how long it takes a once fully fit athlete to public self-destruct entirely. There wasn't a moment in those fifteen years where you thought that it might be averted, that a better story written instead would come along. Yet here we are, like clockwork.
It would be very easy to tell the story of Joanie Laurer, or, as she was known to millions of fans, Chyna. Far too easy to tell it as a story of personal demons overcoming a brilliant but fragile talent. It would be true too, but the truth is an unfair magnifying glass on the recently deceased. Do we remember Randy Savage for all his human frailties, or the legend that was Macho Man?
For Chyna was no mere mortal wrestler. She was a woman who became an icon, and in becoming an icon in a male dominated industry, actually became a hero to millions of young girls.
The two stories - icon and demons - seem to go side by side. They are indivisible. Essentially Joanie Laurer was a tormented soul who became this TV great for a brief flickering of time. But when it comes down to it, and time passes on, her great moments will be remembered longer.
We start with Curtis Hughes.
(By Flickr user "swiftwj" (Originally posted to Flickr as Mr. Hughes) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Well, actually, we'll get to him, but first some background. Laurer, born 1970, was the youngest child of three, born to somewhat dysfunctional parents (her mother verging on the insane, her father a potentially well meaning but violently unhinged alcoholic). By the age of twenty she had survived an eating disorder, witnessing her dad stab her mother, a sexually abusive teacher, a college gang rape and Stage III ovarian cancer.
One of those alone is enough to screw someone up! That she even managed to have something of a life afterwards I feel is a testament to her earlier survival instinct.
She survived by focusing on working out at the gym, and would enter fitness competitions, only to see the more stereotypical attractive women win out. She decided to become an air flight attendant, but that ended after she was nearly killed in a major car crash on route to her first plane.
In 1995, she was twenty-five, and had somehow survived all of the above. She got on with her dad, despite him being an alcoholic violent wreck, and not so much with her mum, who once threw her out of her own house, as a young teen, denouncing her own daughter as a drug taker. She never spoke to or saw her own mother for over thirty years from the time she was sixteen. Apparently they were on speaking terms once more by the time of her death. As for Joe, her dad, not only he was violent, he committed fraud and used his own daughter's name! And even then, not only is he referred to in her book as one of the few people she can trust, but it's alleged she never fully got over his death in 2014.
Familes eh? They screw you up!
So, 1995, and Laurer decided to apply for wrestling school. She was accepted by Walter "Killer" Kowalski, once the most notorious villain in American wrestling, but by this time, an old man with a big reputation.
After a few months on the independent circuit, Laurer had a chance meeting with the man who would change her life, and define her every action and reaction from that moment on. His name was Paul Levesque, but he's far better known as pro-wrestler Triple H. At that point in time, he had just signed for the WWF, and was a wrestler with big things clearly in his future, but the gimmick he had, of an upper class snob, didn't work.
Pro-wrestling is like acting, as The Rock puts it. The best gimmicks are the person themselves, with the sound turned WAY UP. Levesque wasn't the Pedigree chap, he was the working class guy with the chip on his shoulder about his place in society. He had the Intercontinental title, the second most prestigious in all of wrestling, but he needed something else.
He needed a gimmick overhaul.
He needed a bodyguard.
Luckily, Vince McMahon had just the idea.
"Big Cat" Curtis Hughes!
(By Flickr user "swiftwj" (Originally posted to Flickr as Mr. Hughes) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Curtis Hughes is an extraordinary footnote in pro-wrestling, a mediocre big man wrestler who once squashed DDP in his hometown, and who got brought into be the big heavy outside muscle for Triple H. Hughes did have the scowl, but he lacked the timing and the finesse, and he made a single solitary appearance before being pensioned off. He later returned to be used as a bodyguard for Chris Jericho in 1999, only to fall asleep backstage - he had narcolepsy! Jericho was forced to go on his own and the executives swiftly realised he was far better without any accessory's. Story of Curtis Hughes's life, there.
So, that wasn't the big idea to enhance Triple H's character.
He suggested his new friend, Joanie Laurer. Wouldn't it be great, he thought, if you've got this smug villain, and his bodyguard is this female bodybuilder who could kill most of the men in a shoot fight? He thought it was great. Laurer was up for it.
Vince was unconvinced it would work but we were in 1997 and he was desperate.
The other problem was other wrestlers.
"Ain't gonna let no bitch hit me."
You'd like to think this was an uncommon view around the locker room, but it was a male dominated world. The vestiges of female wrestling in the US had been largely destroyed by a seedy mob-like control by a woman named The Fabulous Moolah, and as her reign diminished, few younger talents had been given the opportunity to break through. Hell, even on the Indy Circuit, in 1995, Laurer's bookings had to go through Moolah, a woman alleged to have pimped out the young girls in her care, like a sort of Jimmy Savile figure. Only without the public rebuke, alas.
Some did help. Joanie Laurer debuted as Chyna in February 1997, violently choking Terri Runnels after Triple H's match with Goldust (Dustin Rhodes). The pair - Triple H and Chyna - soon became inseparable.
They called her the Ninth Wonder of the World, because you see, Andre the Giant had been the 8th wonder. Continuity, eh.
She also found a great ally early on in Mick Foley. Foley was a legend of the ring, a man who had bled on five continents for his art, but who had an ear and eye for the theatre of pro-wrestling (ie, the talking, the camera work, the story telling) second to none. He had a long running storyline with Triple H in the summer of 1997 (think Phil Mitchell v Steve Owen in Eastenders, or a Corrie alternative, or Doctor Who vs the War Lord, etc) which worked to position Triple H much further up the card.
And in the midst of it, Foley was more than happy to be manhandled by Chyna. That's a bad way of putting it, I admit. But the very simple things that other stars had felt would hurt their egos or stardom, Foley was open to trying. So he'd get lowblowed by Chyna, allowing her man to hit his finishing move. Or he'd distract the referee, allowing Chyna to sneak a DDT in on Foley.
In the big blow off to the feud, which took place inside a steel cage (because wrestling), Foley even suggested that Chyna smashed the steel cage door in his face, eliciting a gasp of horror from the watching crowd. But the point was sufficiently made: "If I'm one of the most respected guys on the roster, and I have no issues working with Chyna, what's your excuse?"
After that, people were more willing to work with her. Chyna and Mick Foley remained good friends, and Chyna was a role model to his young daughter in her WWF days.
"I will always be grateful for the friendship I shared with her, but particularly so for the kindness she showed my children, especially Noelle when she was younger. I will never forget those moments where Joanie would take Noelle by the hand at WWE events in the late 90's - off to have her makeup done, her fingernails painted; bonding time between big, strong Joanie, and her tiny sidekick. A father doesn't forget that type of kindness...I called home on my way back from the convention – only about 40 minutes from my house. "I'm bringing a friend over to watch the pay-per-view" I said to my wife.
"Who's that?", my wife asked.
And that was pretty much that. A mother, you see, doesn't forget the kindness shown to her child, either."
Mick Foley, Facebook 21 April 2016
Triple H and Chyna, Paul and Joanie, were spending much of their time together. 24/7, working, traveling, discussing wrestling. That they fell into bed, and into love, with each other is somewhat unsurprising.
By 1998, Chyna and Triple H were two-fifths of DX, the hottest faction in pro-wrestling. The Monday Night Wars (an overblown title for the ratings war between WWF and WCW) was rapidly going in McMahon's favour, and the group DX, alongside the big new stars Austin and The Rock, were responsible.
Chyna was the bodyguard of the group. She was part of an interesting feud with Owen Hart where, no matter what restraints were put on her, she'd manage to interfere in his matches with her beau. Handcuffed to the WWF Commissioner? She'd throw some carefully hidden talcum powder in his eyes, wallop him and hit a low blow on the Black Hart. Banned from ringside? Run in when the ref's distracted. Hung from a cage suspended above the ring, an old pro-wrestling trope? Escape and cost Owen the match once again, of course.
It became clear that Chyna was the imperious get out of jail card for Triple H, and while he was starting to show villainous traits, she remained loved.
In 1999, the decision was made to add Chyna to the Royal Rumble match. Never before had a woman been added to the match, and WWF had never even done an intergender match. Their few mixed tag matches remained segregated. When Chyna walked to the ring, and threw an Olympian 400 pounder out of the match like he was a piece of string, she made history.
For, you see, it is my long held view that gender boundaries in pro-wrestling is largely bollocks. Sure, in an actual sport, you might have issues about putting a woman up against a 320 pound guy, but pro-wrestling isn't an actual sport! We all know that! It's combative theatre, a sort of jousting ballet reliant on timing and co-operation. We all suspend our disbelief in the same way we do when Phil Mitchell has it off with another blonde.
So, in that way, why shouldn't women be more prominent? Why shouldn't a woman win the World title, or main event, or do anything? It's drama!
Still, Chyna was the first women to compete in the men's match.
They began to test the boundaries. She competed in tag matches, alongside the men, and the audience took to her. They put her in the King of the Ring tournament, and gave her 15 minutes in the ring with Road Dogg Jesse James. Now, Chyna was, I fully admit, a creature who relied more on the spectacle and timing rather than the ability to actually wrestle, but here she had quarter of an hour on live PPV, and with the help of her friend (Dogg), she wasn't exposed. Far from exposed, the audience took her as an actual threat to the title, the two wound up having match of the night, and when she lost, the audience reacted like Dorothy had defeated the Wicked Witch.
Further experimentation. The WWF announced a number one contenders match for their World title, and put Chyna in it. Loud reaction.
The stunner? They had her win it.
They had no intention to actually sell their second biggest PPV of the year on Stone Cold Steve Austin vs Chyna - which, given Austin's later arrest for domestic, is probably just as well - they were just testing the response.
Which was clearly receptive enough for them to make her the actual Intercontinental Champion a few weeks later. In October 1999, Laurer became the first - and to date last - woman to win a major men's wrestling title.
She held it for two months, before dropping the belt to the aforementioned Chris Jericho. But it was in the history books. A female IC Champ.
How about a two-time female IC Champ? She won the belt back at Summerslam 2000, pinning Trish Stratus in a mixed tag match to win the belt off Val Venis. As she hugged her then on screen partner, Eddie Guerrero, she seemed on top of the world. She'd been the first woman in all the major WWF matches, won the male only second major title, appeared in Playboy, and had hordes of fans who saw her as the wrestling equivalent of a Pankhurst smashing all glass ceilings before them...
That moment, in the ring, at Summerslam 2000, was the last great moment. Even then, for both Eddie and Joanie, their personal demons were threatening to consume them, and now, of course, they are both dead.
There was an issue with the Triple H/Chyna relationship in real life. He had fallen for another woman. Not just any other woman, the daughter of the boss. Stephanie McMahon.
There are a lot of "she said, he said" about what happened and when, and when which relationship ended and the other started, and accusations, but the finite point is: Triple H and Chyna ended, and Triple H and Stephanie started.
And now Chyna found herself with her ex now engaged to the boss's daughter, which was never a fine route to job security.
Her contract was up in 2001. They moved her to the women's division. Having worked with the men for so long, Laurer had an ego about the other women in wrestling and it showed, as her few matches with them...weren't pretty. At contract talks in 2001, she asked for as much as Stone Cold and The Rock were getting.
She left the company soon after.
This is where I fit 15 years of hell into one sentence including but not limited to: hooking up with her ex's best friend, falling head first into the drug addictions her mum always accused her of, becoming a porn star, burning every singe bridge in existence, Celebrity Rehab, and personal demons. Each time it looked like she might get better, she fell back into the pit, and after a while, it seemed even those she was once close to were frozen out. She died in April, but her spirit appeared to have been killed off many years ago.
But...let's not dwell on the horror. Let's focus on the good. Joanie Laurer was a survivor after all, perhaps we shouldn't say she died so young, but that she survived so long, when others would have given up? I remember my sister being enthralled by Chyna, if a woman could dominate in such an obviously male dominated industry as pro-wrestling, then why not other arenas of the art? Or sport? Or life? Millions of other young girls were similarly inspired to suitably kick ass.
And to think, if not for narcolepsy, we could have had Big Cat Curtis Hughes instead.
That's a world a little less colourful, a little less trailblazing. Big guys who screw up the simplest of cues are ten a penny in wrestling. There was only one Chyna.
Hell, in 2016, the WWE, as it's now known after being sued by pandas, had their first women's main event. Took them long enough, but we're not in a world where why can't women main event a wrestling show? They can be Chancellor of Germany and British Prime Minister after all.
And, when women prosper in wrestling, as I sincerely hope they will, that family tree will stretch back to one person. One trailblazer, who got all the shit and just a little bit of the glory.
Her name was Joanie Laurer, but just as much, her name was Chyna, and she was the Ninth Wonder of the World.