Words: Maggie Hitchins
Not familiar with Stephanie McMahon? You could be forgiven.
The pro-wrestler and Chief Brand Officer at WWE doesn’t have much time to play the fame game.
She’s busy representing World Wrestling Entertainment Inc – of which she is CBO - in the 150 countries in which they operate, defeating fellow wrestlers in front of millions and raising her three daughters at the home she shares with fellow wrestler Paul Levesque.
Unlikely as it might seem, I am an unapologetic WWE fan despite my 30 years. And for many young fans like me (I started watching at 12), Stephanie was an idol.
She was strong, she was fierce, she was unapologetic and she held her own in the male dominated world of pro wrestling.
Where every other woman I was being encouraged to idolise was stripping off in music videos or falling drunkenly out of a nightclub, here was a woman whose body was strong, whose strength was palpable, whose ambition was worn like a badge of honour.
Stephanie McMahon made her WWE debut at the tender age of 22. She is the daughter of Vince McMahon, who is Chairman of the company to this day.
She became Women’s Champion a year after her debut and, alongside stars like The Rock, Chyna and Stone Cold Steve Austin, hers was one of the golden ages for the WWE.
She worked for the company, on reception, design and TV production during her performing career and was made executive vice president of Creative in 2007.
In 2003 she married fellow wrestler Paul Levesque, Triple H, and in 2006 the couple welcomed their first daughter.
She continues to perform to this day and, she tells me, took her first two girls on tour with her for three years of their lives.
In person Stephanie, 37, is warm, engaging and forthcoming – quite the opposite of the villainous character she plays on WWE. Yet there’s no denying a steel that lies beneath and as the face of the business it’s little surprise that she answers questions in perfect sound bites.
I meet her in London’s Zetter Townhouse - she jetted in from Rome that morning and is off to Berlin first thing tomorrow.
She’s fiercely proud to be a working mum and grateful for the recent trend – galvanised in the USA by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – for a more open discussion about a woman’s right to have a family and a successful career.
With husband, Paul Levesque, and Vanessa Hudgens
But she is also realistic about the sacrifices needed to make this happen. ‘I think the juggling act is different for every person. Can women have it all? It depends what it means to each person. What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve your goal? I have an incredible team which I need as I travel a lot for work but there are certain things I try to stick to’.
‘I have three children and it’s really important to me that I am there when they wake up, get them off to school and there at night. Sometimes I will make them stay up past bedtime as I want to see them – some people may feel that is against their rules but I do that. I don’t live strictly by the book.’
‘My oldest two girls were on the road with me every week until my middle child was one. I was so committed to Raw and Smackdown at that time – we’d fly in, drive around on tour bus. It was a really challenging time but I think they are exposed to so much more, as a result. In our household we write our own book and it works for us.’
Stephanie says there was no dawning moment when she realised she wanted to move into the family business, of which she is the fourth generation at the helm. ‘It was in my blood, there was no family pressure but for me there was no other option.’
And she is open about the challenges she faced when she first arrived, a fresh faced young girl in a world of men with the added challenge of being the boss’ daughter.
‘It has its very own unique set of challenges and, while I would love my daughters to join WWE, they will need to work elsewhere first - it’s important to learn to be successful outside the family business.’
And has she encountered sexism in testosterone-fueled world of WWE? ‘Any woman in business has experienced sexism. The way I personally combat it is not to acknowledge it, I just push forward and choose not to dwell on it, recognise it or accept it.’
‘I am who I am. I am going to be strong and I am going to be aggressive and I am going to be direct. I will get the job done. It doesn’t matter my gender, it matters whether I get the job done.’
Since having her three children she has continued to work with the same ambition and determination she showed before motherhood.
An average day might see her in the companies head office in Connecticut, flying off to Rome to to participate in WWE’s community giving programs or in New York for a WWE broadcast– this month she returned to the ring for the first time in 10 years at SummerSlam.
Stephanie's three daughters, aged 8, 6 and 3
She admits people will always criticise her decisions and that she has struggled with that in the past. ‘I ignore what other people think. Women in general want to be liked and I had a hard time with people in the past not liking me for who I was, particularly as I was the daughter of a celebrity.
‘My dad turned to me one day and said ‘Steph you are never going to be able to please everyone but as long as you can look in the mirror and say I am a good person, and feel good about yourself, that’s all you need.’ And that’s what I try to do every day.
Stephanie gets an average of five hours' sleep a night - it’s the one compromise she has to make, but says she does work hard to spend time on herself. ‘As women we have to do a little something for ourselves every day. So often the first thing we sacrifice is ourselves and the truth is If we are happy, if we are healthy, if we are satisfied, we are going to be that much better for our families and for our work.’
She is honest about the challenges that come with working with your partner. Husband Paul Levesque is an executive at the company as well as being one of its most successful stars.
‘It’s very complicated when you work together with your partner. The only way to make it work is communication. It’s so easy for little things to affect you and if you hold them in they come out in a horrible way.
‘I also recommend a date night, every couple of weeks, because you need to dedicate time to your partner. We so often sacrifice time with our partner for time with the kids. You have to do that to keep the romance alive. But I love my husband now more than when we first married. When he walks in a room I light up. ’
Our conversation turns to the show, the amount of women that watch it (a third of their audience in the USA) and the accusations by some fans that the term ‘Divas’ to refer to the female characters is sexist.
‘Regarding that decision we are trying to create a brand with the Divas, it’s not derogatory. And regarding the lack of strong female characters on the show, I think we went through a period where we had these great characters like Trish, Lita, Chyna and myself and then we had a transitional period.
‘Paige, our current Divas champion, is a 21-year-old Brit and she is brilliant and quirky and it’s wonderful. We are on a huge upswing in terms of her divas. I am a huge supporter of strong female characters.’
‘Story lines are what drives anything, you need a reason to care. When the divas are incorporated into the story you start to care so we will be pushing for more of that.’
Stephanie in the ring, she remains one of the shows most loved characters
And if anyone should know about challenging sexism, representing strong female characters and fighting against gender stereotypes, it's the woman sat in front of me.
With big plans for the future of WWE, Stephanie's recent return to the ring and an intense workout regime – she exercises daily to stay in shape - I want to know what the secret are to juggling such a hectic schedule?
‘I have great help, a great team. Nobody can do it alone. Paul and I co-parent, so he will be at home for a few days if I am away and vice versa.
‘Sleep gets sacrificed, I get four-five hours a night but a little trick? Silk lash extensions, every few weeks, and I can still look glamorous no matter how exhausted I am!’
For more information please visit www.wwe.com. WWE returns to tour the UK in November, for tickets please visit bookingsdirect.com
Words: Maggie Hitchins