Every redemption, now, comes too late: not for Joan Marie Laurer, but for the company that once resisted her appeal, later squandered her talent, and ultimately shunted aside the woman herself. When Laurer, better known as Chyna, died last Wednesday at the age of 45, any hope for a happy ending—and we did hope, though we knew better—died with her.
Former fitness competitor Chyna debuted in the WWE (then WWF) in 1997 as the stern, silent bodyguard of male wrestler Triple H; she left the company in 2001 under less-than-amicable circumstances. In those four years—which overlapped with the height of WWE’s popularity—she became the first woman to enter the 30-man Royal Rumble, the only woman to win the Intercontinental Championship (a second-tier men’s belt), and an undefeated women’s champion. Billed as “the ninth wonder of the world” (Andre the Giant was the eighth), she was an instant star and a figure unlike any other in modern wrestling.
Her death shouldn’t have shocked anyone. Death is as much a part of professional wrestling as the ring itself: as omnipresent, as central, as spotlit. Wrestlers might dive over the ropes or moonsault onto the floor, the fight might range onto the announcers’ table and into the audience, but action always returns to the squared circle: pins must be made and taken between the ropes. The ring is inescapable; the list of wrestlers dead too young is a long, awful, telling one.
So death has grown almost expected, for former wrestlers, and yet Chyna’s death did come as a shock. While long-lived male stars (Ric Flair, Bruno Sammartino) are rare birds, the most famous female wrestlers (The Fabulous Moolah, Mae Young) lived—and wrestled—well into old age. Women seemed to be exempted from wrestling’s tradition of premature death, just as they’ve been excluded from so many (more desirable) aspects of the sport: primary roles, bigger paydays, or the respect of audiences, colleagues, and the company itself.
There are exceptions to this rule. Sensational Sherri died at 49 of a drug overdose, Bertha Faye at 40 of a heart attack. Miss Elizabeth died at 42 after overdosing on pills and vodka in the home where she lived with Lex Luger. Death didn’t need any help from steroid abuse or CTE—the famously brutal lifestyle of a WWE star (the road, the pressure, and the attendant coping mechanisms) was enough to kill the First Lady of Wrestling.
It’s worth noting here that Chyna and Elizabeth, two women dead too young, are also the two most glaring absences in the WWE Hall of Fame. In an oft-cited interview last year, Steve Austin asked WWE Chief Operating Officer (and Chyna’s ex-boyfriend) Triple H if Chyna would ever be inducted. “Does she deserve to go into the Hall of Fame? Absolutely,” said Triple H. But he claimed the decision was complicated due to the fact that Chyna’s post-wrestling foray into amateur and then professional porn would appear when any eight-year-old might look her up on the internet.
A similar line of reasoning provides one possible explanation for Miss Elizabeth’s ongoing exclusion: overdosing isn’t kid-friendly. But that the Hall of Fame includes, in its celebrity wing alone, convicted rapist Mike Tyson and—inducted just this year—the titular director of the pornographic Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, does not seem to bother the Google-conscious COO.
The message sent from the company to its female employees is simple: you can bare your body, but only if it suits us. You can wreck your health, but only for our benefit. Steroids, CTE, injury, fatigue, degradation: fine, fine. But drugs and porn? No chance—not off the clock, anyway. Not when cameras are rolling—cameras that aren’t ours. The fact that Triple H—whose on-screen relationship with his eventual off-screen wife, Stephanie McMahon, began with forced marriage and allusions to rape—thinks a Vivid Video contract is reason enough to keep the woman he’s called “a paradigm-shifter” and “phenomenal talent” from the recognition she deserves is laughable.
Less funny and more infuriating is the sheer accumulative evidence of WWE’s obvious double standard. Chyna didn’t make those sex tapes alone, but her co-star Sean Waltman, better known as X-Pac, has remained integrated into WWE programming to this day. He participated in last year’s Wrestlemania, coming to the aid of Triple H alongside Shawn Michaels and the New Age Outlaws, all members of the iconic stable D-Generation X. Founding member Chyna, however, was not invited.
This knife-edge of a dictum—wrestlers’ bodies are not their own; wrestlers’ legacies are disposable—applies to male performers as well as female. But it can cut the lives of women into smaller pieces: less is acceptable, more is punished. Neither X-Pac nor Lex Luger—a wrestler charged with battery of Elizabeth not long before her death—are as vital to WWE mythology as their girlfriends; both are still employed by the company.
There’s more at play here than simple sexism—Chyna’s mental health and her relationship with the company were fraught and complicated affairs—but I write at a time when mainstream women’s wrestling is as good as it’s ever been. For fans looking forward to the future of women in this industry, Chyna’s death arrives as a rough reminder of how thoroughly WWE failed its female performers in the very recent past. We can hope, however, that as women push back against the in-ring limits so long imposed—poor storylines, little screen time—they’re also gaining more control outside of the ring, over their own, off-screen lives.
One of the greatest things about Chyna was the way she blew several of those limits—of acceptable body shape and size, of a woman’s role around men—out of the water. “I wanted to be more than a gimmick,” she once told the journalist Thomas Hackett. “I didn’t want to only be objectified.” If the posthumous tributes pouring forth—many of them from girls who grew up watching—are any indication, she was wildly successful in this respect. She so fully realized the archetype she played—Wonder Woman, Amazon—that she became synonymous with those mythic characters. It’s been said again and again that there will never be another like her, but I think a more honest and more honoring statement might be that anyone who comes close will have her legacy to live up to: her name has become a benchmark.
Whatever tribute WWE comes up with—or doesn’t—for Raw tonight might change my mind, but I think it’s likely, now, that Chyna will get the Hall of Fame nod she so clearly deserves and so desperately wanted. (Complicated characters become simpler in death.) Chyna’s contemporary Lita introduced the mercifully rebranded Women’s Championship at this year’s Wrestlemania; WWE’s female stars are having a hell of a moment, and the company is scrambling to take advantage of it. Paying tribute to the most memorable female talent ever hired makes a lot of sense in this newfound context.
If death is an intimate part of professional wrestling, then so is this: the aftermath, the reckoning, the adjusted expectations. One reason the death of any wrestler hits so hard is that few truly retire from the game. The chance of a comeback always exists, and the stuff of a comeback—the narrative, the shock, the pop—is the stuff of wrestling itself. Can’t you imagine Chyna striding to the ring, even now, challenging Charlotte for that beautiful new belt?
I would have loved the opportunity to see her play a role in this better-attitude era, to hear her painted—however admiringly—not as a sideshow attraction, a freak, a she-hulk, but simply as one more way that a woman can be. To understand her as part of a long and glorious tradition of female wrestlers, as an incredible spot on that talented spectrum, and not an exception to it. That chance is gone now, and we mourn it along with the woman.
Mairead Small Staid (@maireadsmst) is a poet and essayist living in Michigan.
Gif from WWE Raw