Text by Sadaf Shaikh
If you were a kid that grew up in the 90s, there’s a very good chance you were caught up in the all-pervading delirium of World Wrestling Entertainment. RAW stars were celebrities in the own right with wrestlers like The Undertaker, John Cena, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Hulk Hogan and Bautista commanding legions of fans. Each wrestler had a signature move and theme song to his name and the audience would break into raucous cheers whenever the greats came on. Wrestling trump cards were all the rage with every kid having a pack in his pockets — the pre-pubescent equivalent of having the latest iPhone. The boys would get giddy with excitement while talking animatedly about their favourite wrestlers and any girl who tried to enter their little club was either scoffed at or labelled ‘one of the guys’ for being ‘cool’.
Even more surprising was the flippant way in which women were portrayed. Skimpily dressed, heavily made up and always hurling abuses at their opponents, they were a mere accessory to their male counterparts when the network wanted to up the glam quotient or inject some drama. Somewhere down the line, not too long after realising that Santa Claus never existed came the earth-shattering revelation that WWE was staged. While it may have been heartbreaking to find out that your favourite SmackDown rivals were high-fiving each other behind the scenes, there may have been another thought that was even more nagging. If this was for the showmanship, what was stopping the network from nurturing strong female talent that could serve as role models for young girls? What compelled them to create characters that were only meant to cater to the male gaze? Why wasn’t there greater female representation in wrestling?
These were only a few of the questions that troubled the mind of a young Stephanie McMahon who watched her father and Chairman and CEO of WWE Vince McMahon head the family enterprise for many years. Meanwhile, Senior McMahon was preparing Stephanie to take over the reins of the family-owned business when she came of age but his daughter had a different vision for the future of WWE that would make it a more inclusive platform for women. We spoke to the Chief Brand Officer about the changing face of the much-loved entertainment sport and the Women’s Evolution platform NXT — the first pay-per-view to consist solely of women’s matches — which will also see India’s very own Kavita Devi compete on a global scale.
What was it like growing up with Vince McMahon for a father?
“When I was young, I’d watch my father commentate on ‘Saturday Night’s Main Events’ with Jesse Ventura. It was just what my dad did; I didn’t look at it as anything unusual. It wasn’t until I was a little older and the other kids tried to make fun of me that I realized my situation was a little different. I actually kicked a kid in the shins once for saying wrestling was fake. My father had always been a fitness enthusiast and he was the one to introduce me to the gym. He was extremely intense and trained so hard, it looked like fun and I really began to enjoy working out.”
How did you manage to hold your own in a male-dominated industry like WWE?
“Right off the bat, I’d like to point out that it used to be a male-dominated industry. That certainly isn’t the case anymore — our audience is 40 per cent women. Earlier, women in WWE were treated as secondary or tertiary characters, and it wasn’t until our fans started a hashtag called #GiveDivasAChance — a reaction to a 30-second tag match that took place on Monday Night Raw — that the movement really took off. The hashtag trended worldwide for three whole days; it was so loud that our chairman and CEO — my father — responded saying “We hear you and we are going to give the divas a chance.” That year at WrestleMania AT&T Stadium, Hall of Famer Lita went out and unveiled the new championship belt, announcing the re-branding of the divas’ division to the women’s division. She proclaimed that our women were going to be called Superstars, same as the men. That was a turning point for how women were perceived in WWE and since that time they have been regularly featured in main events on all television and pay-per-view programming.”
Tell us about the Women’s Evolution platform in detail. How was the idea conceived and was it long overdue with the feminist wave having taken the world by storm?
“It’s a local initiative where our wrestlers are given the opportunity to hone their skills on a live, non-televised platform. The reactions from the audience are recorded in real time — that’s how one can learn what’s working and what’s not. My husband Paul Michael Levesque (Triple H) created these opportunities for women and our audience responded in kind. Chants of ‘This is wrestling’ and ‘Women’s wrestling’ resonated throughout the room.
Women’s Evolution is a crucial step in the right direction for equality in WWE and will undoubtedly dredge the industry of sexism. We have tremendous talent on our roster and there is a high level of intensity that is brought in by all our women. Whether it’s Sasha Banks or Ember Moon, every single woman has an incredible personality and is constantly raising the level of competition, which more and more people are noticing. It is a great step forward and I would like for there to be just as many women as there are men on the WWE roster and to have parity in the true sense of the word.”
Will you also be competing on the Women’s Evolution platform?
“For now, I’m just privileged to be the voice of a movement that has been a long time coming since women stepped in the ring. In terms of my own participation, I do not have any plans to compete in Evolution, but I’m open to getting in the ring if it calls for it.”
India’s Kavita Dalal will be performing on your developmental territory NXT. India has been largely absent from the WWE arena until now; was this your way of encouraging participation from Indian women?
“We wanted to do more than just create a platform for women; we wanted it to be a global one. Global localisation, as my husband calls it. With the brand available in 180 countries, the women’s evolution platform has contenders from all parts of the world and India is a huge part of that plan. I hope to see a women’s main event at WrestleMania. It would be a crowning achievement in this movement.”
How different is women’s wrestling now as compared to the time you started out?
“The whole scene has changed dramatically with women like Ronda Rousey who brings such an incredible showmanship to the arena. From participating in the Olympics and being a UFC champion to starring in movies and being an executive producer and philanthropist, she has done it all. We have women like her who are bringing such star power to the WWE platform that it has escalated the interest in women’s wrestling while improving the quality of the professionals.
The growth of the industry has also registered with me on a personal level. Recently, I was in the UK with my husband who was shooting for NXT and we were having dinner with our three daughters. I was approached by a trio of little girls who stopped to ask for my autograph and I was so amazed by their level of excitement because it’s usually my husband who gets that sort of attention.”
What is your advice for women who want to pursue careers in industries that are dominated by men?
“First things first, get an education. You need to be educated before you start following your dreams. With this, I think working really hard and setting goals helps you go a long way. There is nothing you can’t achieve but you need to be ready to work hard if you want to accomplish your goals.”
Being married to one of the most popular wrestling icons (Triple H), what does being one half of a power couple feel like?
“It wasn’t love at first sight, but you could definitely call it chemistry at first sight; I have never been more attracted to anyone in my entire life. Paul would just look at me and I would just blush — it actually still happens to this day. He’s been an incredible partner to have in this journey, both emotionally and professionally. A lot of what he started to do at NXT — our developmental show which is now one of the most-watched programs on the WWE Network — really helped us get to where we are. Paul started to recruit elite athletes and dedicated the same amount of effort to training the women as he did the men, hence opening them up to equal opportunities. I have immense respect for him as a human being, before anything else.”
Quick 5 with Kavita Dalal, the first Indian to compete on WWE’s developmental territory NXT:
Why did you decide to get into wrestling?
“To be honest, I was never interested in wrestling. I was fascinated by weightlifting and wanted to pursue it professionally, which I did for about 14 years. Wrestling was only a natural extension of it. I think the timing was right and I had some great mentors to guide me. I was never satisfied with my achievements in weightlifting, I always believed that I deserved more than I got in that arena. That’s when I turned my attention towards wrestling.”
You were trained by The Great Khali as well as Sara Del Rey. What are the primary differences between being trained by a woman as opposed to being trained by a man?
“I prefer training with a female coach because it allows for a certain level of comfort. You don’t have to explain how your body works and what it is going through when you train intensely. Physically, the bodies of men and women are not the same and many factors come into play because of it.”
Having competed in professional wrestling as well as competitive wrestling at the 2016 Asian Games, how different is your approach towards the two?
“It’s like chalk and cheese. You are essentially representing your country at the Asian Games so there’s a lot more at stake. The amount of pride I felt when I won the gold medal for India was a like a dream come true and I don’t think it is fair to compare it to my work in professional wrestling.”
Do you think women’s wrestling is largely sexist, especially when it comes to WWE?
“Times are changing and while wrestling was predominantly a male-driven sport, you can hardly say that anymore. As an Indian, even being a part of something like this is quite daring and out there. WWE has brought in some truly fantastic female talent and has been respectful to their style and strengths. For example, I am proud of my culture and wanted to wear a salwar suit while competing. They were extremely accommodating and welcoming of this and it was important to me that they respected my cultural aesthetic.”
Are there any women wrestlers you look up to in WWE?
“It would have to be Ronda Rousey. I admire her because she fights for justice. She is amazingly disciplined and has such a great intensity about her.”