Saturday, June 23, 2018
Sports

Wrestling — and the rest of us — discarded Chyna

In her apartment near a California beach last week, she lay dead. Alone. For days, we were told. How many, no one knew for certain.

But within hours of the world learning of her death last Thursday, Joanie Laurer was forgotten yet again, swallowed up by the next avalanche of news in our hyper-sensitive world: The pop-music icon Prince was found dead, too, halfway across the country in an elevator at his studio.

And just like that, the real death of Laurer imitated the same cruel demise of her nom de theatre, Chyna. Abandoned. Forgotten. Laurer was just 46.

Prince was celebrated, cremated and memorialized in the past week. Chyna trended on Twitter until news about Prince broke, got a video memorial Monday on Monday Night Raw, but has yet to be ceremoniously returned to the dust. The Los Angeles County coroner on Monday deferred ruling on her cause of death pending further investigation.

Laurer deserved so much better. I don't say that as a fan of wrestling but as a foe of sexism. Had she been a he, Laurer — Chyna — would have realized more.

Indeed, Laurer's character, Chyna, was as crucial as anyone to the commercial renaissance a generation ago of that choreographed, testosterone-infused athletic circus called professional wrestling, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock included.

What Laurer created, it should be remembered Thursday, as #NationalSuperheroDay began trending on social media, was the first female superhero come to life. She didn't just step off a comic-book page. She was the embodiment of a Wonder Woman.

"The WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) was on the cusp in the mid '90s of a bankruptcy, and we had to ... find some successes in developing some new stars," explained Jim Ross, who during a decades-long executive role with WWE and its previous iterations found Laurer and cultivated Chyna.

"We heard about her from Walter (Kowalski)," Ross told me Monday on the phone.

Kowalski, who stood 6 feet 7 inches and was nicknamed Killer, was the giant of wrestling, literally and figuratively, for three decades, starting in the '50s. In retirement, he founded a professional wrestling school in Malden, Mass., where his protégés in the '90s included Paul "Triple H" Levesque and a chiseled female bodybuilder, Joanie Laurer.

Ross heard about Laurer from Kowalski and got a scouting report on her from Levesque.

"We never had a female of her physical stature," Ross said. "If you had pitched that idea to (WWE CEO) Vince McMahon or myself or anybody else, without seeing her, it would've been a hard sell. But when you saw her, she was 6 feet tall, 200 pounds. She had a great look. The guys felt she could help them. So we said, 'Let's go with it.' "

She was sold to the public first in 1997 as an oddity, a real-life freak in the freak show that is wrestling. As Dawn Heinecken, a professor of women's and gender studies at Louisville, observed in a 2004 paper ("No Cage Can Hold Her Rage? Gender, Transgression, and the World Wrestling Federation's Chyna"): "When she first emerged, she was a reviled, contested figure because of her muscular body and the way she transgressed gender norms. She was described as a monster and not a 'real' woman."

But that quickly changed when WWE and Chyna colluded to feminize her appearance and turn her into the fetishized archetype man-slaying woman, the Amazon. She fought and toppled men even after undergoing plastic surgery to smooth out her jaw line. She dolled up for a cover shot on the wrestling magazine Raw, swaddled in a red robe knotted low to expose her breasts, newly enlarged with implants.

The next thing anyone knew, she was invited to the Playboy mansion and posing for the magazine's spreads.

Chyna transcended her sport.

"We hit a gold mine, a home run," Ross said. "No female ever ... had as much impact on our creative presentation as Joanie Laurer."

And none became, as Heinecken observed, as marginalized because of it.

"She was demonized as a feminist who challenged male dominance," Heinecken wrote. "Her latest, and most popular incarnation was that of a sex symbol."

It was an extreme personification that came to represent an era of extremes in the sport when it cashed in on gratuitous violence, racialized and racist caricatures, and outrageous story lines, such as Chyna's man, Levesque, falling for the WWE CEO's daughter, Stephanie McMahon.

But the latter became a reality, Chyna and WWE parted ways in 2001, and a downward spiral for Chyna began from which she never rescued herself or, more importantly, was rescued. There was booze. There were drugs. There were her acting roles in several pornographic films, beginning with a sex tape made in 2003 with her boyfriend at the time, Sean "X-Pac" Waltman, another wrestler, which highlighted it all.

On Steve Austin's WWE podcast early last year, Austin and Levesque discussed Chyna's credentials for their sport's hall of fame. Levesque wondered: "I've got an 8-year-old kid, and my 8-year-old kid sees Hall of Fame, and my 8-year-old kid goes on the Internet to look at Chyna. What comes up? And I'm not criticizing anybody. I'm not criticizing lifestyle choices. Everybody has their reasons. I don't know what they were. I don't care to know. It's not a morality thing or anything else. It is just the fact of what it is. That's a difficult choice."

That's the disingenuousness with which Laurer was treated — being questioned by a male former wrestler who festooned his pads with iron crosses popular with Nazis, skinheads and other white supremacists, and judged by a sport that at one time during Chyna's reign had another wrestler step into the ring donning the persona for which Chyna was shunned, an actor in porn.

It could be said that none of this matters because pro wrestling is theater of the most absurd. But the people in it, like Laurer, live and die real lives because of the sport's consequences. Some of the sport's athletes are re-embraced no matter what, like X-Pac after his adventures in porn, or Lex Luger, who was sentenced to five years' probation after a bizarre period with illicit drugs that followed a fatal drug-and-alcohol overdose of a former girlfriend whom he was charged with battering. Others, especially women such as Laurer, or track star Marion Jones, who suffered the biggest penalty in the BALCO supplement-cheating era dominated by male athletes, are ostracized.

"While Chyna ostensibly projects an image of rebellion, a figure that threatens to melt down the male-dominated world of professional wrestling, her popularity, may, in fact, be due more to a process of normalization than to her transgressive qualities," Heinecken wrote. "Thus, her case is useful for what it has to tell us about the ways in which female unruliness is framed by popular media."

And, sadly, discarded by so many of us.

Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for Washington Post.

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