Michael Maiello's picture

    Another Celebrity Death Worth Noting

    So, the day we found out Prince died, we also lost Joanie Laurer, who wrestled in the WWE during the "attitude era" as Chyna, where she used the nickname "The Ninth Wonder of the World."  If you're not a wrestling fan, you know that there are seven wonders of the world.  If you are a wrestling fan, you know that Andre the Giant is the world's eighth wonder and that Chyna was the 9th.

    If you're not a wrestling fan but still know who I am talking about, then you probably know Laurer from the reality show and sex tape years that followed her departure from the WWE in 2001. Laurer died at 45 and suffered from substance abuse issues that particularly took hold after her in-ring career ended.  Professional wrestlers put themselves through immense physical trials when they practice their craft.  The matches are stories and are to varying degrees scripted (many of the greats improvise within the limits of a plan) but a scripted stunt can still kill or hurt you.  Also, these men and women work hard.  The schedule is grueling.  Not only do they tape material to fill 4-5 cable shows a week, plus for their website, but they tour the world performing house shows and they do one major event a month.  Unlike most professional sports, wrestling has no on and off seasons.  The performers work year-round.  This is also unlike professional entertainment businesses.  Musicians go on tour and then they take a break.  They don't tour perpetually.  You might watch an entire season of House of Cards in a week on Netflix, but you'll have to wait a year for another one because the cast and crew are not even working on that particular project right now.

    We know wrestlers tend to be in peak physical condition because they basically work naked (imagine the pressure of working a 300 day a year, hard physical labor job, and also being told that your uniform is what most people consider underwear, and it's sometimes skimpy even for that). Why do so many of them die in their 40s? I'll say that they're overworked and that the show is killing them.  That might seems simplistic, but I think it's the root and everything else one might bring up (steroids, pain killer abuse, wild lifestyles in general) just grow from that root.  These people are overworked.

    So, some thoughts about Chyna's career...

    She was an amazing bodybuilder who so looked the part that she was able to credibly serve as bodyguard to the villainous HHH, a heavily muscled, 6'5", 255 pound guy.  Her look was so credible that WWE was able to book her to have physical altercations with men, which led to some inter-gender matches where the woman didn't have to run or cower or win by some fluke. Chyna could credibly work matches against men and while the male performers did worry that losing to a woman would hurt their own allure with the crowd, they weren't so worried about it that they wouldn't do it.

    Great story -- Jeff Jarrett, the intercontinental champion at the time, was scripted to lose his belt to Chyna in the first ever man vs. woman title defense.  Jarrett played the misogynist heel in the feud and the match was a no rules "Good Housekeeping Match" where the wrestlers could use mops, brooms and dust bins as weapons.  But, somebody didn't read Jarrett's contract, which expired the day before the event.  Free from his contract and free to just not show up to drop the title to a woman for the first time ever, a story the WWE had spent months building, Jarrett demanded a quarter million dollars to perform and he got it.  Probably money well spent.  Chyna won the match, won the title, and held it for a month before dropping it to Chris Jericho at the next big event.

    Chyna's star had been made, though.

    But a few things happened that might seem familiar to women working in any industry.  One is that HHH started dating Stephanie McMahon, daughter of the company's chairman, in real life.  The two are now married with children and both are executives in the company as well as performers.  Problem is, Chyna also had a romantic history, in real life, with HHH.  So Chyna's personal life wound up hurting her career.  With Stephanie and HHH ascendant in the company and also uncomfortable around her, Chyna was pushed to the side.

    Another problem, and an ironic one -- It was essential to Chyna's character and to her mystique, that she could believably wrestle men. But WWE had taken a lot of heat for having men wrestle women at all.  The connotations of domestic violence in a "Good Housekeeping Match" are obvious, whether or not the woman wins the belt in the end.  It's funny because now, in independent wrestling like Lucha Underground, inter-gender matches are common and the women don't even have to be impossibly muscled like Chyna, they just have to be fast, lithe and able to make the moves look good. But as Chyna was being pushed aside for other reasons, she was also basically told that, given the blowback from critics, putting women in the ring with men wasn't worth it in the first place and so they took that away from her.

    To be fair, WWE's women's division was really kicking into overdrive at the time without Chyna.  Trish Stratus and Lita were both hard at work and both are now WWE Hall of Famers. Beth Phoenix (who also credibly wrestled men) was on the way.  The current roster of female superstars, including Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and Natalya Neidhart, are doing amazing work.

    But Chyna really did get screwed in ways that women tend to get screwed in the workplace.  She was kept from exploiting her full potential even though, far as I can tell, she worked insanely hard to accomplish her goals.

    It's another young wrestler death and I will call it another death from over-work.  She may be better known for the public fiasco of a life she had after leaving the ring, but I think people should consider that all of that was just the aftermath of a career that fell apart when it shouldn't have and that it could happen to any woman and does, in its way, daily.



    Now, I loved me some Stone Cold. And I loved me some Foley. And some Rock. Oh, and that Batista...mmm, mmm, mmm. But, Chyna was the only 'rassler that I would have ever considered going to the bar with and having a beer.

    RIP my darling.

    Thanks, flowerchild.

    By the way... my birthday is 3/16.

    I love me some Stone Cold, too.

    But Chyna has better stories.

    (And my wife likes The Rock and Batista and doesn't even pretend she thinks "big muscles are gross.")

    The average life expectancy of a professional wrestler is shorter than the life expectancy of an alcoholic. There's a tremendous amount of physical and mental stress placed on these entertainers. It's sad to see someone go so young. She had a rough go after wrestling. She was a stripper for a while before she got into porn. She had the best and the worst this life has to offer. Rest in Paradise!

    Another one to put me in a bad mood...

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