Most wrestling books are about the stars of the industry – this one isn't. Unladylike offers an honest and comedic insight in to the world of independent wrestling from the perspective of one angry, overweight woman following a dream she didn’t know she had. Unladylike is structured around the last five years of my wrestling journey, using it as a backdrop to explore both the hidden and overblown world of wrestling. It also talks about women's bodies; cabaret in Underground post-recession London; forming unlikely friendships; generational ennui; pushing boundaries and personal politics. It is written for both an existing and new wrestling audience in a way that hasn't been attempted before – sitting squarely within the narrative non-fiction genre with influences of both sport writing and feminist thought.
The key aims of the book:
What Unladylike is about:
Challenges stereotypes of women in wrestling using an unlikely protagonist
Over the last few years, wrestling for the first time is branching out in to a feminist, queer audience through challenging the male dominated industry by subverting its status quo. Since 2011 I have been on the front-line of this shift to putting women more centrally in a male-dominated industry during my own career in wrestling for a number of small, weird wrestling promotions in London. My story offers a unique insight in to how to train to be a wrestler; how to create a character; the highs and lows of life in the ring. This book is not written by a fan, or a super star, this book is written by someone who couldn't do a press up until they were 25 and has never encountered spray tan.
Offers an insight into the Underground world of indie wrestling
Wrestling has always been a popular culture phenomenon, but as an industry it is more diverse and complicated than most people realise. Though wrestling’s mass appeal is still silly storylines and overblown characters – what makes the sport so interesting is the huge commitment and creativity of the 'non-famous' wrestlers. The overwhelming majority of books about wrestling have been produced by one company, the WWE – and are rarely aimed outside of the fan base of the corporation. Seeing this as a gap in the market, Unladylike is written in a way that is accessible to those who know nothing of the independent wrestling scene. Rather than focus on the belts that are passed between TV stars, the book explores the internal struggles wrestlers face while living double lives; aiming to make those who wrestle look more human and more impressive for their resilience.
Celebrates the relationship between feminism, wrestling and personal growth
Wrestling as a whole has a complicated legacy of stereotyping and sexism that has not been explored at length. Rather than dwell entirely on the problematic elements of wrestling, Unladylike puts these alongside the triumphs, injuries, adventures and sisterhood that make women love performing. l explore the relationships women form with wrestling and the hard femme heroes that most writing leave behind. Whether it's in relation to their bodies, their mental health, their confidence – wrestling is linked with personal growth. Even if it is a sense of balance achieved by beating people up in a lycra outfit.
Unladylike is funny, personal, punk, and one of a kind. Much like the people that are talked about in its pages.
“You need to start a match like you start a book. If the first line of your book is boring, no one will read the first page. If you start your book with, 'Dad walked in and was sick on the baby', then the readers are immediately gripped.”
Greg Burridge, wrestling trainer, the London School of Lucha Libre
Before my first arena match, I almost vomited on a baby on the tube. I was still sewing sequins on to my leotard on the way to the match, trying to pin my anxiety through each foil pin prick. Whatever nerves boiled over filled the back of my throat with stomach acid. I was crammed on to a seat next to a pram, the baby inside about three jolts away from bawling. Trying to meditate on time-sensitive sewing on a swinging tube carriage was probably not the best way to mentally prepare for the biggest show of my career.
Unlike the wrestlers on the TV, I had a full-time job in an office. On that day I kept daydreaming about the show - gazing in to the space between Excel columns. My boss asked me a question twice, when it turned to her blinking, she asked if something was distracting me. I answered,
'In about six hours I'm going to be risking my safety for the entertainment of 2000 people.'
'What? On a Thursday?'
'Yes, on a Thursday'
'OK, well make sure you don't drink too much.'
I think my colleagues assumed wrestling was just some weird fetish I had that involved punching my boyfriend in the balls while others watched, all the while guzzling gin and drugs. I had stopped trying to change their minds, it was partly true. I liked gin and I had once punched my boyfriend in the balls in a match, but that's because he didn't move in time.
When I emerged from Bethnal Green tube I saw an unmistakable crowd of wrestlers – ten highly tanned men in tight t shirts and with wheelie suitcases. Three of them already had their masks on to protect their identity at all times. The show was to showcase the luchadores, who were celebrities in Mexico and wore their masks to stop them being swamped in the streets. Here in London, passers-by jostled them out the way passively aggressively, at most snapping them on the sly with their camera phones.
One of them recognised me so I shook hands with them all – obeying the international law of being polite to fellow wrestlers. I gallantly lead them to the venue - York Hall - world famous for holding Boxing and Wrestling matches. Three times a week I walked past this building on my way to practice but that night I walked up the front steps and got past security with my name alone.
My pelvic floor leapt at all the empty, white plastic chairs waiting for hundreds of wrestling fans. The year previously I'd got entry for free by selling T shirts alongside the families of luchadores, watching only part of the show from the back of the room (though my Spanish did improve). Up close the ring that huge – at least a metre wider and higher than any I'd wrestled in previously. But there was no time to practice, I was late and went quickly backstage to get ready.
My wrestling family – the stars of Lucha Britannia - were all in a room in the basement, deep in discussions on which moves to showcase and how to keep the match slick. They tied up their boots; made last-minute sewing repairs to their costumes; rubbed each other in fake tan. The ring girls – two burlesque stars in latex – admired my new costume. A tassled sparking leotard; a green chiffon cape and a new pair of Spanx. As the other girls did their foundation I blacked out my teeth with eyeliner and rubbed red lipstick all over my face; finishing the look with the mask of Rana la Venenosa. I stuck my tongue out in the mirror growling at the face that was no longer me, but a poisonous frog with big eyes and disgusting lips – the Queen of the Sewer.
In one corner of the dressing room there was a photographer for a men's fitness magazine. To get in to character I posed for him - showing my muscles, twisting my head like a possessed child. I dribbled water out of my mouth, coming so close to the camera the photographer stumbled back purring with words of encouragement. As usual, the photos never materialised after the show, Rana was too weird looking for most publications and I preferred it that way.
This was the debut for Maneca de Trapa, the Rag Doll. She paced, muttering her role under her breath, trying to keep warm with a puffa jacket over her red bikini. She's just under five foot, blonde, an acrobat trained by a Russian ex-Olympian and had fallen in to the world of wrestling with just as much surprise as I had. I try to calm myself down so attempted to stop her pacing.
'Look, what's the worst that can happen?'
'I forget everything we went through and then fall off the ring and break my neck'.
'First, the audience won't know if you've messed up, they don't know who wins. If you forget, just do a back flip and a drop kick – that's more than I can do, and it'll make them pop.'
'OK, but what if I die?'
'No one here is going to hit you so hard you can die, and we all catch each other? Remember?'
'Are you nervous?' She asked me, her blue eyes glancing up through the skull holes of her dio de la muertos mask.
'Of course I am and I can't even do a backflip – if I forget my moves I really am fucked!'
At seven the doors to the hall opened and there was a nerve wracking hour before the show as the hum of the crowd grew louder. We gathered in the wings. Ten of us would be competing in the same match – the winner would be the first to pin another for three counts. We muttered our parts to each other in a circle – 'duck one... take a bump... come in and cut me off... then we go in to the dives'. It was the same as all of our shows, excitedly crowded around in our masks and as usual I had a sudden urge to pee.
Beyond the curtain I could sense the audience filling the seats; getting their first beers and plates of Nachos. Then a sudden roar and we, the wrestlers, breathed in collectively. Someone got in the ring, the announcer, and the cheering made my heart pound in to my lungs.
The master of ceremonies introduced the show – 'The Spectacular of Lucha Libre' – the greatest luchadores all the way from Mexico. The audience would not believe their eyes! And the violence was just about to begin. The stars of Lucha Britannia who keep the Mexican tradition of lucha libre alive in humble, cold London, were about to marvel them with a 'lucha chaos' match.
'First to the ring, is a fighter bought to this country as an egg in the pocket of a murderer. She grew up to become the most poisonous woman alive, the Queen of the Sewer, the kiss of death to all who fight her it is... La Rana Venenosa....'
Then, the spitting guitars of my entrance music began, no time remained to go through the match in my head, it was happening.
I made my entrance to the cheers through Co2 cannons and strobe lights, careful not to trip down a flight of stage stairs as the spotlights blinded me. The cheers turned to boos when I spat water at the faceless crowd, the front rows screaming in delight as drops fell on their heads. I felt a rush from the eyes all on me, the energy ecstatic – I did my best aggressive catwalk as I circled the ring. The seconds flew by as I glared into the faces of children, as I roared back to those in the rafters. The thrill of getting the room to hate me, to understand that I should be feared and disliked. A powerful thing to the girl behind the mask, who spent the day on the phone with a smile forced on her lips to sound happier. Rana was the antithesis of this.
Climbing to the top rope, there was a moment where I had my arms open and felt the heat of the crowd hit me. 'La Rana Venenosa' was announced second time, and then the spotlight moved elsewhere. I was low on the roster, part of the ensemble, the first one out. But outside of York Hall on that summer night – joggers went by; people walked to the corner shop – for the audience that world ceased to exist. And I was their first sight to pull them in to another world – one where violence was dazzling, where good and evil were strikingly defined. The world of wrestling.
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