“Hope you have a beautiful day,” the former WWE wrestling champion Chyna aka Joanie Laurer said as she signed off from a video she posted online recently. “Wake up, wake up, wake up! Or sleep in. Or stay in bed all damn day. It’s Sunday, right? Love y’all, peace.”
The 45-year-old was pronounced dead days later, on April 20, 2016. Fans had expressed concern that she was slurring her words and making bizarre comments throughout-out the 13-minute clip, which saw her making a smoothie and pottering around her home in Redondo Beach in California. She had openly battled addiction for years, appearing on Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew in 2008. In 2010, she was hospitalised after an overdose.
The video certainly wasn’t a fitting epitaph for a woman who can, and should, be described as a legitimate feminist icon. Active as a world-famous pro wrestler from 1997 to her controversial departure from the company in 2001, she assured a generation of a young fans that a female wrestler could be as much of a badass as the men. As she put it in a 1999 interview with The Boston Herald: “[I realised] I could go out and be this big, huge female and entertain people. That’d be my niche.”
And she fully owned that niche, becoming a bodyguard to Triple H, a fellow WWE (named WWF when she joined) wrestler who looked like he could handle himself. She was the first – and last – woman to win the WWE Intercontinental Championship. She was the first woman to enter the Royal Rumble. 67,000 fans watched her win the WWE Woman’s Championship at Wrestlemania 17 in 2001. The woman weighed 180 pounds and could bench press 350. She was a fucking don.
Born in Rochester, New York, in 1970, Laurer studied at the local high school during a childhood she once darkly referred to as “dysfunctional”. Yet she overcame difficulties and graduated from the University of Tampa with a degree in Spanish Literature, becoming a skilled linguist who could speak Spanish, French, German and Japanese.
Laurer struggled throughout her twenties to find her place in life. After trying her hand at bartending, singing and being a saleswoman, she joined a wrestling school run by Walter ‘Killer’ Kowalski’, who was big in the game between the 1950s and 1970s. Having recognised her own talent, she dubbed herself “The ninth wonder of the world”, as cult wrestling champion Andre the Giant had proclaimed himself to be the eighth.
Although she became a WWE icon between 1997 and 2001, her time at the company ended under a cloud. She claimed her contract was not renewed because ex-boyfriend Triple H had campaigned against her, though this was never proved. Yet Chyna proved herself a true fighter, turning to whichever genre could offer the most financial support and fame at the time.
In 2004 she released a sex tape with Sean Waltman, a fellow wrestler with whom she was in a tumultuous relationship. One Night in Chyna – a nod to Paris Hilton’s 2003 sex tape One Night In Paris – sold over 100,000 copies. This ushered her into her into the then-lucrative porn industry and she starred in films such as Backdoor to Chyna and the WWE-themed Chyna Is Queen of the Ring. She was never inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame, which some ascribed to an aversion to her adult films.
She also turned to reality TV during the genre’s mid-noughties boom, appearing in VH1 show The Surreal Life, which saw celebrities kick it in a mansion in Hollywood for two weeks (she in series four starred alongside Austin Powers star Verne Troyer). She made cameos in TV shows such as 3rd Rock from the Sun and Sabrina the Teenage Witch and took a starring role in the B-movie Illegal Aliens with famous heiress Anna Nicole-Smith. Yes, Joanie Laurer was one hell of a survivor.
In 2002 she boxed a Coney Island man named Joey Buttafuoco, who had found infamy when his teenage mistress shot and injured his wife. Chyna lost the fight, but she was never afraid to have a go. And, for that, she was an essential feminist role model.