Shocked wrestling fans around the globe are mourning the loss of former WWE superstar Joanie “Chyna” Laurer, who passed away yesterday at the age of 46. And though I no longer know my WWE from my TNA, and couldn’t tell you when Raw stopped being War, you can count me among them.
Back in early 2001, I was a fledgling wrestling fan — mostly because I was hopelessly in love with a major wrestling aficionado (who would become my husband years later) and if I had to spend a couple of hours on a Monday night watching sweaty dudes in Spandex to make him happy, so be it. Soon enough, a few of the athletes caught my attention, and Laurer topped the list. She was a force — a real wrestler who took on her males counterparts, rather than prowl the ring as they did the work. So when I got a chance to sit down with Chyna at a local Raw taping, I jumped at it. I took the major wrestling fan with me. We were equally mesmerized.
Life — and her considerable inner demons — dealt Chyna plenty of blows, before and after her heyday as WWE’s “Ninth Wonder of the World.” But I got to hang out with her when she was on top of the world — a gorgeous, intelligent, well-spoken woman making it big in a manly-man’s world. And that’s how I’ll remember her.
From our March 2001 issue, here is the Channel Guide Magazine feature from our interview:
You Can Call Her Joanie: Wrestling’s Fine Chyna
Even if you’ve not yet fallen under the spell of the sports entertainment juggernaut known as the World Wrestling Federation®, odds are still good that you’ve encountered its raven-haired female superstar Chyna. In the past few years, the sinewy seductress has surfaced on talk shows and sitcoms, at award ceremonies and at the newsstand. She even hosts her own Chyna Fitness video, if you’re optimistic enough to think that anything but a miracle could help the rest of us look like that.
But this is undeniably Joanie Laurer, the intelligent, introspective, 30-year-old alter ego of the smack-talking, manhandling wrestler, taking a seat beside me in the empty auditorium of Milwaukee’s Bradley Center a few hours before a packed house will witness a live performance of TNN’s Raw Is War. And Joanie Laurer is not who you might expect. There is no arguing that that body is an anatomical masterpiece, but in person the woman doesn’t seem so scary. Instead you notice perfect teeth, flawless skin and gray-green eyes freshly enhanced by the WWF®’s makeup crew. And she is supremely comfortable publicly setting her onscreen persona aside.
“Actually I prefer it, because that’s who I am,” Laurer says. “There are identity crises for the fans and [also] amongst the talent, I think. There are some people that put themselves in a certain position where they feel that if they break character too much, that will affect the person who is going to buy the next Pay-Per-View to see what happens to them — and that affects them financially and professionally. It’s all intertwined, and so sometimes that line is very difficult to break. For me it’s a choice I made ahead of time. I can’t live my life like that. I have to be separate.”
Feeling at home in her own skin is a new sensation for Laurer. She was raised in Rochester, New York, one of three siblings who endured horrific neglect and abuse at the hands of troubled parents. Though she excelled at academics, earning a U.N. scholarship to Spain as a teen and blazing through college in less than three years, the youngest Laurer did not aspire to the workaday world. She dabbled in a host of oddball occupations that included fronting a band, performing singing telegrams, working for a telephone sex hotline and belly dancing. If it got her some attention, she was willing to give it a go.
“Having my childhood be that way gave me a tremendous drive,” says Laurer. “I felt that I had a lot to prove and I was starving for attention and I did what I had to do to be a part of the spotlight. The question that always really pops in my mind is why my sister never really felt that way or why my brother never really felt that way — why it was so necessary for me to become successful in the entertainment field. To really be unique and set apart from everyone else instead of blending in. Whereas my brother and my sister really craved normality in a family setting, I craved completely the opposite.”
Still, the realization that she was getting nowhere fast led Laurer back to her sister’s New Hampshire home, where she found a job selling beepers and haunted the gym. Rebuffed both as an actress and as a fitness competitor for being too “hard,” Laurer refused to give up on finding a way to combine her impressive physique and desire to perform. She wound up at the wrestling school of legendary grappler Walter “Killer” Kowalski, where her fearlessness and quick-study skills caught the eye of alumnus Paul Levesque, who was making a name for himself as the WWF’s Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Along with the federation’s crown prince, Shane McMahon, Levesque championed Laurer’s 1998 debut in the sports entertainment big leagues. She was given a deceptively dainty moniker and the role of buffed-up bully amid the blond, busty china dolls in the women’s locker room — and in no time, Laurer created a one-woman dynasty, making Chyna a flirtatious femme fatale who could also hold her own against the men in the wrestling ring. She’s even the first woman in WWF history to earn the league’s coveted Intercontinental title.
And she knows what you might be thinking about that. To the folks who dismiss pro wrestling as a script-driven hoax, Chyna offers a refreshingly no-nonsense response. “Yeah, what we do is ‘fake,’” she says, “but it’s like any job position. It’s like someone telling you ‘I’m going to give you this title and you have to be credible in that title, and make all the fans believe that you can hold that title and you can fight these guys who want the title from you. And you can be a spokesperson for the company and do all these interviews and talk shows and be able to represent the company on that level.’ It was a reward to me. Our company has levels just like any other job.”
With success in the WWF securely in her grasp, Laurer felt compelled to exorcise some personal demons as zealously as she exercised her body. She underwent a few cosmetic surgeries, for which she makes no apology. “When you have a very fit or maybe muscular woman out there, they’re portrayed one way,” she muses. “So you either have the ultrafeminine woman who’s the sex kitten, or you have this woman who, if she has force or opinion or a fit body type, all of a sudden she is cast as a very butch, hard he-man. And it’s so opposite of what I am! I am a lady with muscle. I had a harder body and I needed some boobs to make me more feminine just like any other woman out there. Do I condone a 16-year-old going out there and getting a pair of breasts because she wants hers to be as big as her friends’, ’cause the guys are looking at them? Absolutely not!”
And with the WWF’s blessing, Laurer revisited the entertainment industry, which had previously labeled her too tough for TV. This time she was welcomed with open arms, acing a recurring role on NBC’s 3rd Rock From The Sun and becoming the darling of the talk- and award-show circuits. And with her proud, hard body on its November 2000 cover, Playboy enjoyed its best-selling issue in more than a decade. “All the things that were considered to be extreme negatives at one point in my life have now overturned and are these really unique positivities,” Laurer points out. “So I appreciate that!”
In January, Laurer unveiled her autobiography If They Only Knew, a tell-all she hopes will help wrestling fans and detractors alike get to know the woman behind the diva. The book unflinchingly addresses her difficult early years and the struggle to accept her body and herself. But it also allows Laurer to have some fun, entertaining readers with her love of all things girlie, her future aspirations and her personal relationships with other WWF superstars. She fully expects her parents to try to cash in on the book’s success with the help of unscrupulous media sorts, but she prefers to focus her energies on getting the book made into a film. With typical drive, Laurer would be perfectly willing to take on roles on both sides of the camera.
“Being able to do something like that would be an incredible learning process,” she says, “to learn about the movie industry … what really goes into directing and producing. I’ve been on the opposite end, but I’ve never been in the director’s chair.”
There’s one more pending film project on which she has her eye — costarring with Arnold in the next sequel to The Terminator. “Three years ago people used to say to me, ‘Describe the character of Chyna,’ and I used to go, ‘Well I think that Chyna is the Wonder Woman 2000 and she is the Terminator 3.’ And then a couple years later you have this role of a female Terminator coming along and I thought ‘I wanna do that!’ Because there’d be nobody else who’d be as qualified as me. And I believe that. I think there has been a real female action hero — a credible female action hero — that we’re missing out there!”
For now, the credible female wrestler has found a happy home under the auspices of the World Wrestling Federation. “We’re now WWF Entertainment,” she says, “and with the WWF, I’ve done my book. With the WWF, I’ve done my video. And I don’t see why, with the WWF, I can’t do movies and then come right back here and keep doing what I do. I think that I am one of the very few people in this company that has an immense crossover ability. I don’t know exactly what I am going to do in the next couple years, but I know really I am either in the middle or I’m just getting started!”