Jeannine Mjoseth had a short but memorable career in professional wrestling. She was mentored by the Fabulous Moolah, a legend who held a world title for 28 years. It’s not a happy tale.
Mjoseth prefers a different moniker for the late Moolah, real name Mary Lillian Ellison.
“Pimp,” said the 61-year-old University of South Florida graduate and former Tampa resident now living in Melbourne Beach. “Don’t call her a madame. It sounds too elegant. She was a pimp.”
Mjoseth, who in the 1980s wrestled under the names Mad Maxine and Lady Maxine, said she saw Moolah prostitute female proteges.
But Mjoseth, pronounced Meo-Set, said she did not succumb to the pressure to sell herself, walked away from the fame and glory that Moolah promised and established a successful, albeit short, wrestling career on her own.
Now, she has detailed her time with Moolah in a new self-published book, The Chronicles of Mad Maxine.
It is not a memoir, but rather a fictionalized account of her experiences.
Mjoseth compares it to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which was a fictionalized account of his travels with friend Neal Cassady.
Still, Mjoseth said, the pimping accusation against Moolah, who died in 2007, is accurate. And the allegation is not new.
Mjoseth went public over a decade ago, and others made the same claim in a 2019 episode of the wrestling docu-series Dark Side of the Ring. Facing social media backlash, the WWE dropped Moolah’s name from an all-female battle royal.
The WWE declined to comment for this story.
Moolah’s friend Nigel Sherrod said the accusation is not true. He knows at least 30 women Moolah trained, he said, many of whom worked with her for decades.
“They say nothing of the sort ever happened,” Sherrod, a resident of Athens, Ga., said. “I choose to believe those who knew her for decades over someone who worked with her for a few months.”
Mjoseth stands by her claim.
“It was a symptom of her need to make money at all costs,” she said. “She was raised very poor. She vowed to never be poor again.”
Mjoseth never intended to become a professional wrestler. She wanted to be a journalist like George Plimpton, who would play a professional sport and then write about it.
A self-proclaimed Army brat raised around the world, Mjoseth made her way to the University of South Florida to study journalism.
After graduating in 1981, she wrote for a community newspaper in Sun City Center.
“I was interviewing these remarkable people who had retired after doing amazing things and thought, ‘Dammit I need to do something,‘” she said.
She had not read a behind-the-scenes story about professional wrestling, so she quit her job at the newspaper to infiltrate the industry.
An acquaintance wrestled in Tampa but declined to train Mjoseth.
Instead, the woman suggested Mjoseth head to Columbia, S.C., where Moolah trained female wrestlers — for a $1,500 fee — on her 35-acre property.
Moolah was the first mainstream female wrestler. She broke into the industry in 1949, held the world title from 1956 through 1984, starred in a story line with musician Cyndi Lauper that played out on MTV, was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1995 and continued to take body slams through 2004.
“She had a stranglehold on women’s wrestling,” Mjoseth said. “She was its biggest star and, when I met her, promoter. For a percentage of your pay, she’d get you work.”
At 6 feet 2, Mjoseth, a former college basketball player, thought she’d quickly master the skill of professional wrestling. She was wrong.
“I didn’t know much about wrestling,” she said. “I had only watched it on television a couple of times. That is one of the beautiful things about being young. I was 24. You can make these impossibly crazy decisions and hope to survive it.”
Mjoseth said they trained four hours a day, six days a week, yet it took her nearly a month to learn the most basic maneuver of falling on her back without being injured.
“I had 9-inch bruises on my elbows filled with fluid,” she said.
The trainees and some female wrestlers working for Moolah lived on the property in old Army barracks. Rent was around $300 a month, Mjoseth said.
Some found work in town to pay the bills. Mjoseth, for instance, was employed at a print shop. But she said Moolah offered the women another way to earn an income.
“She pimped,” Mjoseth said. “She told me she had a friend out West who would pay girls $500 to quote, unquote, model for photos. I talked to the guy on the phone. He implied he would expect certain things from me. I said no.”
Other women, some of whom were underage, agreed to go, she said, “but to Moolah’s credit when I said no, that was the end of it.”
Still, in the Dark Side of the Ring episode, Vickie Otis, who wrestled as Princess Victoria, said she was kicked out of the compound for refusing to have sex with a man for pay while she was recovering from an injury.
“She was fire engine red pissed when I got back,” Otis said in the episode. “Moolah came to me and said, ‘Look, you can’t wrestle and I need my rent’ ... She dumped me and I never wrestled again.”
Mjoseth stuck with the training and after six months had the skill to perform for a crowd. More importantly, she developed the Mad Maxine wrestling persona that connected with fans.
Sporting a colorful Mohawk and biker gear, Mad Maxine was a cross between X-Men comic character Storm and someone from the apocalyptic world in which the Mad Max movies were set.
“Maxine had a very unique look for a female wrestler back then,” said Barry Rose, an archivist of Florida professional wrestling history. “There weren’t many, if any, 6-foot-plus women wrestling back then, let alone the Mohawk she was sporting. She was such an imposing figure.”
Typically, wrestlers hone their skills at small shows until they are ready for the big time. But Moolah took Mjoseth directly to the WWE, then named the World Wrestling Federation, and, as remains the case today, the largest promotion in the world.
“The money I received from the WWF did not come to me,” Mjoseth said. “It went to Moolah and she then gave it to me. She was supposed to take 25 percent but for a wrestling match on TV in the mid-1980s I was paid $50. There is no telling how much she really took.”
But why would she prostitute the wrestlers if she received a cut of their pay, her friend Sherrod said.
“What if they got pregnant?” he said. “Then they can’t wrestle. Why do people make these accusations? Maybe they are dissatisfied with how their career turned out.”
But Mjoseth said she is proud that she dictated her own path.
Mjoseth said she turned down a full-time contract with the WWE because she didn’t want Moolah controlling her career.
Instead, she returned to Tampa and worked for its now-defunct Championship Wrestling From Florida promotion where she portrayed Lady Maxine, a valet willing to mix it up with men.
Archivist Rose said she was among the more popular performers.
Still, after two years Mjoseth walked away from the industry.
“I wanted the full experience and had the full experience,” she said. “It was time to go.”
But she did not immediately pull back the curtain on professional wrestling as planned.
“Partly because I had a little PTSD with regard to wrestling,” she said. “It was easier to say manana. And partly because I had internalized the whole kayfabe thing.”
Kayfabe is a term professional wrestlers used when they still operated under the guise of legitimate competition. It means to pretend their performance is genuine.
Mjoseth did return to journalism, covering health care as a science writer for the National Institutes of Health.
“I promised I’d write my story before I croaked,” said Mjoseth, now retired. “The Chronicles of Mad Maxine is about an oppressive work environment. I want women to come away from my book saying they don’t have to be victims.”
As for Moolah, Mjoseth said she is one of the greatest female wrestlers of all time. Still, the dark side cannot be ignored.
“She was willing to do whatever it took to make money,” Mjoseth said, ”and damn everyone else.”
The Chronicles of Mad Maxine
By Jeannine Mjoseth
Self-published, 180 pages, $5.99 for the Kindle edition
The paperback, $14.95, releases Sept. 1.