For World Wrestling Entertainment fans, the end of March/beginning of April is perhaps the most exciting time of the year.
WrestleMania is around the corner (this year’s event at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas is set to be one of the biggest ever, with an estimated 100,000 in attendance), and with it comes the annual Hall of Fame Ceremony honoring those who’ve made outstanding contributions to the world of professional wrestling.
Some past inductees include Hulk Hogan (whose name has been removed since last year’s racism scandal), Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka (whose name has also been removed since he was charged last year with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter for the death of his girlfriend Nancy Argentino in 1983) and, in the celebrity wing, Donald Trump (whose name should certainly be removed for a litany of reasons beyond count).
One name you won’t see in the Hall of Fame any time soon is that of Joanie Laurer, better known as late ’90s/early ’00s women’s wrestling pioneer Chyna.
Laurer, with her androgynous look, debuted in World Wrestling Entertainment in 1997 as a bodyguard for her then-partner, Triple H. Using her imposing stature, she proved she could go head to head with any male wrestler and did, winning the Intercontinental Championship in 1999 (the first woman ever to do so). Laurer’s other milestones include being the first-ever female entrant into the Royal Rumble and the King of the Ring tournament.
Laurer’s rise to fame coincided with the hyper-sexualized, purposely family unfriendly period of professional wrestling, the Attitude Era. Women such as Sable paraded ringside in hand print pasties, a character named The Godfather (a Hall of Fame inductee this year) made his way to the ring in a pimp suit and followed by his “ho train”. Women assaulted by male wrestlers—some chokeslammed, others put through tables to an orgiastic cheer from the audience—was commonplace, the sort of oppressive crassness now lionized by nostalgia as "innovative" and "experimental".
WWE’s partnership with Playboy magazine began with Sable posing for the magazine in April and September, 1999. Two covers from Laurer proceeded in 2000 and 2001, resulting in one of the highest-selling Playboys of all time. Laurer departed WWE soon after amidst contract disputes and personal issues. A WWE Diva (the company’s outdated term for a female wrestler) didn’t grace the pages of Playboy again until Torrie Wilson in 2003, followed by no less than six Divas getting their kit off for the publication up until 2008.
Though she never posed for Playboy during her time in WWE (but has done nude modelling elsewhere), Sunny was perhaps one of the most beloved Divas (and the one who arguably spawned the term), and was acknowledged as such when she was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
Sunny made headlines recently when she auctioned off her Hall of Fame ring on eBay. The successful buyer, Vivid Entertainment boss Steve Hirsch, offered Sunny $100,000 and a starring role in one of Vivid’s videos for the ring. Sunny made her adult film debut in Sunny Side Up: In Through the Backdoor in January this year.
Now perhaps better known to non-wrestling fans as an adult performer like Sunny, in 2004 Laurer and her then-partner, fellow wrestler X-Pac (real name Sean Waltman), made an explicit home video that was sold through Red Light District Video entitled One Night in China, which Laurer then parlayed into a 2009 sequel, Another Night in China, as well as several other adult films.
Triple H, who is poised to one day run WWE with his now-wife Stephanie McMahon, the daughter of WWE’s owner Vince McMahon, discussed the incompatibilities between Laurer’s past and a possible Hall of Fame induction on "Stone Cold" Steve Austin’s podcast early last year:
“I’ve got an eight-year-old kid and my eight-year-old kid sees the Hall of Fame, and my eight-year-old kid goes on the internet to look at, you know, ‘there’s Chyna, I’ve never heard of her. I’m eight years old, I’ve never heard of her'.
So I go put that in, and I punch it up, and what comes up? And I’m not criticizing anybody, I’m not criticizing lifestyle choices. Everybody has their reasons and I don’t know what they were and I don’t care to know. It’s not a morality thing or anything else. It’s just the fact of what it is. And that’s a difficult choice. The Hall of Fame is a funny thing in that it is not as simple as, this guy had a really good career, a legendary career, he should go in the Hall of Fame. Yeah…but we can’t because of this reason. We can’t because of this legal instance.”
So, in a largely performative ceremony with arbitrary guidelines for induction (see Trump and, inexplicably, Drew Carey in the celebrity wing), Laurer’s name will not grace the Hall of Fame any time soon despite doing more for women’s wrestling than arguably anyone.
The groundswell surrounding Laurer’s omission has been brewing for a few years now which coincides with a renaissance of sorts for women’s wrestling (co opted by WWE with its #DivasRevolution marketing campaign). With women like Asuka (formerly Kana) bringing moves from Japan to a mainstream American audience in WWE’s NXT brand and Sasha Banks and Bayley putting on matches of the year, women’s wrestling has seldom been more talked about.
Now that WWE has entered the “PG-Era” in which it’s beholden to corporate sponsors and advertisers, having a porn star in its Hall of Fame just won’t do. This is a far cry from the "bra and panties matches" and bikini contests heyday of the Attitude Era.
Total Divas, the current E! reality show focussing on the lives of eight WWE employees, could also be seen to be using its stars’ femininity to sell a product, albeit in a more PG fashion. It's many non-wrestling fans' first introduction to WWE and pro wrestling as a whole.
Laurer and Sunny may be some of the more notable wrestlers who’ve crossed over into adult entertainment; they’re not the only ones. Beulah McGillicutty, Candice Michelle and Ashley Massaro (who was allegedly implicated in the Bella Models escort ring in 2008) have all experienced varying degrees of success in sex work.
Male wrestler and Attitude Era staple Gangrel enjoyed a stint as a porn director, World Championship Wrestling’s Buff Bagwell is working as a gigolo, and Joey Ryan is being sponsored by YouPorn for his sexual in-ring antics, which include bodyslamming people with his penis and having candy showed up his ass.
Despite all having appeared in WWE at one time or another, these wrestlers no longer have direct associations with the company at the time of writing.
WWE may think it’s above its majority female former stars who’ve made their own way in sex work—it wasn’t too long ago that WWE traded on the very sexuality it’s now trying to suppress.
This is a company that had a gay wedding where the grooms admitted they pretended to be gay for ratings and a sideshow of women awkwardly flirting with each other called "Hot Lesbian Action".
Laurer’s high-profile blackballing from WWE shows the punishment and shame brought on women in the wrestling business who are seen profiting from their sexuality.
Laurer made reference to this in a series of tweets that have since been deleted in which she allegedly said, “me doing porn only affects me. It was my choice to do it. Other wrestlers have done far worse and Vince welcomes them back with open arms and a friendly smile.”
(I attempted to reach out to Laurer to elaborate but she didn’t return my request for comment.)
Laurer could perhaps be referring to incidences such as the 2007 double murder-suicide committed by Chris Benoit against his wife and son, Jimmy Snuka, or the myriad men who’ve behaved far worse than Laurer but are still deemed HOF-worthy.
In addition to several "legends" who've been accused or arrested for domestic assault, it's likely to be attended by men like JBL (a renowned locker room bully said to grope other wrestlers in the shower), AJ Styles (another bully known for homophobia towards gay wrestlers), and possibly Jerry "The King" Lawler, once charged with raping a minor and maintains a steady reputation as predatorial to younger women.
Interestingly, WWE is yet to comment on Sunny’s selling of her ring and subsequent foray into porn and as of this writing; she still remains in the Hall of Fame and on the WWE site. Sunny once had sex with an ersatz Tickle Me Elmo during WWE's brief venture into "edgier" late Saturday night television.Sexuality has always been a part of her persona—has WWE not disowned her in part because they feel they still have an indelible imprint on her and her brand?
Considering Hogan’s erasure from WWE history was likely more to do with his racist comments than the fact that they were said during an illegally filmed and obtained sex tape, if Sunny was to be taken out of the Hall of Fame, it'd more likely to be aligned with a recent Twitter tirade in which she used the n word and hashtagged #AllLivesMatter.
Then again: Confederate-flag waving group The Freebirds will be included in the HoF, themselves inducted by the all-black trio The New Day. Trump’s name remains despite reprehensible things he’s said about communities of color and wanting to build a wall along the border with Mexico, despite the tremendous stake in the professional wrestling business held by Mexico and Mexican communities.
When Chyna was first debuted, the other staff, including the commentary teams, played up how manly and ugly she was. Her entrance theme led with the words "Don't treat me like a woman/don't treat me like a man".
Her femininity and sexuality, then, are seen as something she achieved through her own means, separate from the identity WWE imposed on her. It's something they don't own.
To be clear, I don’t think Sunny nor any other woman with a sex work past should be removed from or prevented from being inducted into the Hall of Fame but I do wonder where the accountability and consistency from WWE is.
Laurer has become more infamous for what she’s done outside of WWE than her achievements during her short time inside it and that isn’t acceptable. WWE made her, therefore it will be responsible for breaking her.
Throw sex into the mix, and you’ve got one of the most threatening things a woman can be: in charge of a sexuality that doesn’t necessarily jibe with one WWE deems acceptable.