I think I was 11 years old when I spent Saturday morning watching SMTV: Live, as was usual during my Saturdays back then; a show hosted by Ant and Dec (and Cat), which also broadcasted some ongoing children’s programmes, including Pokemon. Ant and Dec were usually carrying out sketches and playing pranks on each other. One said prank had Dec doing some impressive stunts, followed by live crowd applause, followed by his disclaimer that he had done none of those things: it was his stunt double. He then proceeded to interview his impressive-looking stunt double (who I’m convinced did not do any of Dec’s stunts). Her name was Chyna and she worked for the WWF. Then she beat up Ant.
I wondered if anyone had recorded this clip for uploading to Youtube, but I couldn’t see it anywhere. The reason why this memory is so significant for me is…well…Chyna is the second ever Pro Wrestler in my life who I could identify and name. The first Pro Wrestler that I could identify was Hulk Hogan (naturally) thanks to the cartoon Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling, which despite the cast made up exclusively of wrestlers (and managers) none of the other names stuck in my mind. No, not even Rowdy Roddy Piper (sorry). So Chyna was number 2, meaning when I did start watching as much WWF (later WWE) as possible she was one of the wrestlers I was excited to see. I even had her at the back of my mind when I had been watching WCW, which was my first foray into Professional Wrestling.
20th April 2016, Joan Marie Laurer, better known to the world as Chyna, was found dead in her California home. There have been many celebrity deaths this year, but honestly…most of them I felt were just people who passed away after leading fulfilling lives and died of natural causes. Now, the cause of Chyna’s death has not been confirmed but speculation has already gone to drugs, as it always does when a person passes away far too young and with no known stories of them battling an illness. Considering that Chyna was one of the very few female role models I had as a child, I must admit, this one has hit me pretty hard. The big reason? She had so much left to finish.
There have been mountains of tributes, with people talking about their favourite on-screen Chyna moments, coupled with photos shared by people who had met and/or worked with her. I must admit, the reason I had her as my role model was for very aesthetic and dumb reasons: she was huge, muscular and could fight huge, muscular men. The fact that she spent some time as co-Intercontinental Champion with Chris Jericho only cemented how cool she was in my mind. I wanted to look like her when I grew up.
And then she inexplicably disappeared. I didn’t really give her much thought over the next decade. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned that she never fully left the ‘celebrity’ spotlight in the US, thanks to embarking on a career in the porn industry and struggling with drug addictions and the like. And why did she leave the WWF? Well either WWF refused to renew her contract or they fired her (depending on who you believe) due to her bad behaviour after her boyfriend Triple H (I never knew they dated) cheated on her with Stephanie McMahon. Or it was because of Stephanie she got fired (depends on who you believe). A porn tape she did with her rebound guy X-Pac then hit the shelves…
So out of all the childhood role models and icons and celebrities that I idolised, Chyna is the one who disappointed me the most. Admittedly, a lot of the sadness post-WWF was not her fault, since contractual agreements meant she had a no-compete clause for some time, then she couldn’t use the name Chyna to wrestle under as it was a WWF trademark (which expired in 2011 or so). She is not the first wrestler to fall out of favour with WWF/E and several were able to find other things to do and not seek comfort from a substance. So I did wonder why it was that being forced out of the WWF was such a huge blow to her…everything! It seemed that she was as desperate to cling to her brutal tough persona and image as the average fan was to see her live up to that image (I include myself). Before even becoming a Pro Wrestler she had had a tough life, with her parents’ divorce resulting in a transitional childhood with frequent moves between cities; not the best for building self-esteem in a child, let alone a girl with a very feminine name (Joan Marie? ‘Joanie’ even? I always figured her first name would be something like Sam or Jan) and finding herself taller and more boyish than all the other girls in her school grade. She did attend university and eventually joined the Peace Corps, a disappointment to her father who had wanted her to join the FBI.
Her early life demonstrates an unfortunate, recurring pattern of doing something wonderful, but disappointing someone else upon doing said action.
So further research suggested she might have already been substance-dependent when leaving the WWF. Only speculation obviously, but not something unfathomable since abuse of steroids, painkillers, SOMA and other kinds of pills has been heavily prevalent in Professional Wrestling for decades. It took the tragic deaths of Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit to force the industry to clean itself up (and change its policy on concussion-inducing chair shots to the head). She continued to abuse one substance or another for the next decade, spending half the time in denial about her addiction. Oh and she spent a year or two living with X-Pac or Sean Waltman. They weren’t in a very nice relationship and it pretty much ended when she beat him up. Also, he forced her to commit sexual acts and consume substances, if you believe her, Sean denies this (noticing a pattern?). She managed to clean herself up enough in order to appear as Kurt Angle’s tag team partner at a TNA pay-per-view in 2012 (can’t be bothered to check the name). I saw the match and frankly, she sucked. She was never the best wrestler but watching her old WWF matches has put a smile on my face, simply because she knew how to connect with the crowd and keep a wrestling match in flow. In TNA she did none of that. She finally found some reprieve when she went to Japan and taught English for 3 years, but even that’s debatable considering that Triple H – Paul Levesque – answered a question on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast about why she couldn’t go into the WWE Hall of Fame. A vlog of hers uploaded to Youtube in reaction saw her really cut up, truly upset and…drunk? Then she accused Paul of hitting her…which she later rescinded.
The only reason she went back to the US was to try and mend broken fences with the WWE and get the recognition she deserved. Make no mistake, she did and does deserve all the recognition and adulation for the role(s) she played: enforcer for DX, first ever female Royal Rumble entrant, first ever (and only) female intercontinental champion…twice! I also enjoyed the on-screen odd couple romance she had with Eddie Guerrero, helping him build his gimmick and build his run into the main event scene. Coincidentally, Eddie is now recognised as being among the best of the wrestlers. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is one that, of all people, Sean Waltman made, when he and Chyna had a confrontation on the Anthony and Opie show (a radio show, but their segment was recorded on camera and uploaded to Youtube). He told her how she had trouble moving on from that period in her life and was unable to face the future. Something that I agree with him on. You see, something I have been referring to throughout this…very personal obituary is the proven fact that she was a compulsive liar. Sean was calling her out on some of the inconsistencies in her story (stories?) and she sometimes had difficulty answering his questions. I think this made me most disappointed in her: it’s one thing to struggle with personal demons and self-esteem issues, but it’s another thing to evoke sympathy through lies. She even did this in the immediate aftermath of her firing, writing a tell-all book about her life and experiences and listing a whole host of lies about Killer Kowalski, who had trained her to wrestle at his famous wrestling school. Both he and his wife refuted the claims (not to mention some of the other former students). So even 15 years ago, she had disillusioned several fans and lost their respect, to the point that there were those who questioned whether the McMahon family were so petty they could fire her over a romantic relationship gone awry. But then they believed her when the same thing happened to Matt Hardy (the fact that the same thing had to happen to someone else to legitimise her claims should raise eyebrows, granted Matt blurted about it on the internet to meet the same fate).
A few weeks ago, I saw a video in which Chyna, looking healthy and happy, declared that she was making a documentary about her life. She was in the US to try and revisit old friends and to work her way back into the public’s good graces. Plus the documentary could help her take a good, focused third-person view of her life. I really did hope this would be the real deal, where she could face up to all the tragedy, all the lies and even her own self-doubt, that way she could have the desperately needed self-confidence and dignity she had always craved. But then she died. It feels as if everything is so unfinished. The documentary in question has been mostly or completely filmed, by all accounts, so hopefully it will still get distributed.
And it seems Joanie had managed to rebuild a few friendships. Many of the outpourings of condolences and tributes have been very…personal. A lot of old friends shared some surprising photos, showing Chyna posing with children of various wrestlers in the 90s. She seemed to be aware of the divisive nature of her presence among fans and commentators, because Mick Foley reported how, at the end of last year, she was uncertain if he would accept her after having not spoken for many years. This surprised him, because the Chyna he knew was a woman who was good to his children. “Such kindness a father never forgets.” And yes, many of the said children she had a kinship with are now adults, sharing their own personal memories of her. A photo collage shared by Lita (another of the few female role models I had) showed that, despite working in the men’s division, Chyna did respect and befriend the other ladies very easily, even if most of the women at the time were purely being used as eye candy.
So how to regard Chyna, Joanie, or whoever people called her when they knew her personally? This complex, troubled, amazing and well-travelled woman; it seems her joy in life was to give confidence to others, to care for others. She was a gentle soul at heart, who dearly loved children; that has come across in many tributes. However, it seems she had a problem that she had never fully addressed: she had never felt truly stable, never found a place to call her own, never had the self-confidence to truly stand on her own two feet. For 5 happy years as a famous Pro Wrestler, she was Chyna: she had a home and she was loved for who she was; during these years, she made an impact and left a legacy.
Rest In Peace, Chyna, you deserve it.