By Heather Bandenburg
Unladylike is the first book written about feminism and wrestling - it follows one unlikely woman's journey to becoming an infamous masked wrestler, and honestly retells the life lessons grappling teaches her on the way.
“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.
The other competitors entered the ring. There was La Diablesa Rosa, the pink demon, with the body of wonder woman and who had gifted me a pair of gold shorts for my birthday the month previously. Then comes the Rag Doll, I watched her pull out not one but about twelve backflips before she even gets in the ring, the audience screaming in appreciation. El Nordico Fuego, the fire viking, a stunt man who had come straight from filming a period drama in Leeds. My teacher, Metallico King of the Scrapheap, a veteran in British wrestling terms – who said each time he entered a ring it was like his first match all over again. Rana eyed them all with fury as they took their places within the ropes, inside bursting with pride at how they each commanded their own. To the audience, we were the stars in the match, who we were behind our costumes did not matter, it did not exist.
The bell rang, all ten of us standing off against one another – muscles twitching, fists clenching, death stares - then a huge brawl began. I took out la Rosa with a swift kick and then strangled her on the ropes. She tried to move out the way and I muttered to myself, 'right foot first' and jumped in the air, landing both feet on her chest. Rosa shook herself, dodged one of my punches and ran across the ring. She bounced off the ropes, throwing her whole bodyweight on me, knocking the wind from my guts and causing me to roll out the ring. I crawled around the perimeter as two wrestlers leapt over each others shoulders and the crowd called at us like a fire work show.
Whenever I found another wrestler outside the stage, I threw a punch their way. I chucked the Viking straight in to the front row knocking over chairs – people got up cheering as beer was spilt on their clothes. Seizing a moment just after a person had been pinned by the rag doll, I climbed back in to the ring, I leaped and swung my legs around her neck. She crumpled under my weight, her tiny body writhing in agony as I tried to force her shoulders on to the floor for three counts. I failed and turned to the crowd, to snarl at them for more encouragement, from behind I turned straight in to a kick to the head and fell out the ring over the top rope.
It was painful, it was hot, I was aware that even as I lay prone net to the ring that there was never a break in the action. As I struggled to my feet to attack three wrestlers that had materialised at my side, we were knocked down again by the doll somersaulting off the top corner post. The ring was empty except for Metallico, so I climbed to the top rope, standing fifteen feet above the floor. As he turned I jumped as high as I could, coming down with the 'cunt drop', my prized move, on his chest, the canvas made a huge crash as his body hit the springs, the crowd roared. The referee got to two before he pushed me off.
I turned around to be faced with Rosa, she gave me a kick to the belly and pulled me over her back. With a shout she threw me to the floor, I tucked my chin to stop my head hitting the floor. Rosa was on me, her legs pushing her off the floor as she held my legs and shoulders as the referee counted to three. I knew I had lost the match from the screams of applause for Rosa, her arm raised above her head, her championship belt returned to her as the crowd thundered for her.
After the ten seconds of shaking myself, I knew that only fifteen minutes had passed. Fifteen minutes I had been training for, for five years. Those of us who were evil limped backstage, holding our sides, angrily cursing the audience all the way to the locker room. I breathed deeply, the sweat running down my neck as I took off my mask and was handed a beer. The doll had thrown off her mask and was whizzing around, her pupils wide with adrenaline.
'That was so amazing! I want to do that every day for the rest of my life!'
Metallico was the last to return to the dressing room, his arm around one of the younger wrestler who had hit the floor face first when he dived out. His mask was off, we made room. A paramedic (definitely York Hall's, not ours) ran in with purpose. Someone explained to her,
'Just a bit of concussion, if he's not right in half an hour we'll drive him to hospital.'
She insisted on being there with him, doing the tests, the veterans just shrugged and left her to it. Even I knew that we all recovered from concussions – even my head buzzed slightly with blood and a few knocks. The rest of the wrestlers were all rubbing themselves down with towels, talking happily about the things they missed, apologising to each other when a kick landed harder than it meant to. We all ached in those familiar places from old moves, putting cold beer bottles on the joints to ease the swelling. We got fifty quid each, paid in rolls of tenners, and Coronas from an ice bucket.
During the interval I went out in my Rana costume thinking I could surprise my friends and maybe get another drink. The queue for the bar snaked across the arena and I put that thought out of my mind. In the middle of the stalls, two English guys begged me for a photo, Rana Venenosa answered in her rasping frog voice, 'OK, but one of you has to become my fourteenth husband.'
I pulled one of them in to a sweaty, soft headlock. Seconds later there were already people queuing behind them to get a picture. Half were drunk British men, who would be sheepish as soon as they actually had to talk to me. There were also families handing me their babies and children so that I could hold them and do peace signs. All was forgotten about my frog's misdemeanours, they clearly didn't mind that my signature move involves knocking people out with my vagina. It was bizarre, exhausting, lovely – to be suddenly Rana made flesh, not the girl with IBS and crooked teeth behind the mask. I never made it to see my friends but rushed backstage as soon as I could.
For the rest of the show, I stood at the back drawing as little attention to myself as possible. The Mexican fighters were like watching a master class in submission holds and disregard for their bodies, I was humbled to have shared the same booking as them. Luchadores who wore masks that were passed down through generations. Men who had trained from age fourteen, who learned to fall on concrete floors in order to prove their ability. Forty year olds with fake knees leapt over the top ropes. They left red handprints on each others chests. The fights brawled out of the ring and in to the crowd. Wrestlers that were so awed for their craft that they flew across the world to wrestle, not one of them had a second job doing barwork. To us, they were the pinnacle of success but a product of a completely different kind of dedication.
By the final match – a half an hour bout between two father and son teams – everyone was out of their seats; plastic beer glasses littered the floor; children stood on chairs. The good guys got the final pin, the crowd rose with the heat in a arena-wide standing ovation.
As the stars gathered in the ring and the fans swamped them for selfies, No longer dressed as Rana, I snooped over to the merchandise table to greet the families I had met last time. Pushing my way through a crowd four people deep, I saw the Lucha Brittania t shirts, stickers and mugs that we tried to push every show. There were also a new addition of bootleg action figures, modded pound shop toys painted to look like minature versions of us. My eyes shot to a spindly, dripping frog woman, her boobs different sizes and stuck on with fimo. I turned to a guy who had taken my place on the stand,
'How much for this action figure?'
'Twenty five quid'.
I left it. We say that you've made it in the wrestling world if you get an action figure, I supposed it still mattered if there was only one and the guy who made it couldn't even recognise you out of your costume. Replacing my DIY action figure on a stall and walking away was one of the most bizarre and affirming moments of my life.
The arena finally emptied at eleven, one wrestler was concussed and another had had his shoulder dislocated. The luchadores had been promised a party which we all found out about as we were packing our bags. It was as were all the lucha parties, at the Resistance Gallery, our training school and a nightclub behind York Hall. Despite the peeling paint on the walls and sticker toilet seats, it was our spiritual home where we had our shows every month. As we entered went through the glittery curtain, I wondered if the luchadores saw the fliers for fetish nights and drag shows that were glued on the walls like a staccato of punk, queer London.
Vanderhorne, who owned the venue and who had refereed our match, had forgotten that the 'party' had clashed with a medical fetish night. The jet lagged, bruised luchadores sat on the stage looking with confusion as people wearing latex took it in turns to have electric shocks and lie in various bondage contraptions. The music was a soundscape of medical sounds; screaming and terrifying child voices - so loud they couldn't talk to each other. To top it all off there was a naked 70 year old man in high heels asking them questions about Big Daddy. We all ended up happily crammed in the smoking area in the muggy June air, sharing stories about life as wrestlers.
Because that's why so many of us are wrestlers – not for the action figures, or the fame that a tiny fraction of us will attain - but for the stories. We are after all just humans that decided at one point to become a flying super hero; to risk injury and live a double-life. Rarely are wrestlers able to talk about their lives outside the ring in the same sentence as their life within it. But together, we understand the rush of a crowd; the supportive resistance of muscle on muscle. To some we are left-overs of a by-gone sideshow; to others the most versatile athletes in the world.
This is a book about the wonderful feeling of rebellion and escape we feel to be doing something so fake, so bizarre and so difficult. And the stories that come out of mixing in this world are what I want to share with you. I am here to tell you truthfully about how we live with these double-lives, how we earn them and how they are sacred. How this love made me an unlikely and unladylike wrestler.