Stylist enters the ring with the women changing the male-dominated world of wrestling…
The woman known as the Princess Diana of British wrestling is nervous. She’s pacing the ring with a stern expression and clenched fists. Her hair is long and mousy, and she wears a black leotard that’s cut to look as though there are bars across her chest. Quiet chatter is punctuated by loud, harsh thuds as she throws herself dramatically to the floor, acting out a move. I’m the only one in the room who flinches.
“Fifteen minutes till doors open,” a voice announces on the speakers overhead. She shoots her opponent a look. “One more time,” she shouts, throwing herself against the ropes to propel her into a clean lunge towards her partner. Tonight, she’s headlining at Eve, an all-female wrestling show in east London, and is intent on making sure her act is perfectly executed. But Victoria Owen – stage name Jetta – needn’t have worried. The reason the audience loves Owen is not for her technical ability, but for her talent for getting them riled up like no other wrestler can. She’ll tease them, stopping mid-performance to pick on someone in the audience or work playful interludes into the fight.
Tonight’s show sees her opponent drink a pina colada while Owen squirms, breathless at the side of the ring after a beating – her own idea. In wrestling, the moves are pre-planned and the wrestlers act out stories crafted to outrage their audience. The song she enters the ring to is Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better and the crowd serenades her with it tenderly.
At 30, Owen has been in the wrestling business for 16 years, but the Princess Diana moniker is a new addition to her roster of nicknames (Mouth Of The Midlands, Sh*t Talk Queen). She took everyone, including the show’s producers, by surprise when she asked to be introduced as it last year. “Ha!” she laughs, when I bring it up. “At first they booed me for it, but now they chant it.” It’s a rowdy, rhythmic “Ohhh Princess Di, Princess Di, Princess Di.” The reason behind it? “I guess it’s because the audience loves her,” says Dann Read, cofounder of Eve. “Even when she’s being a brat, they’re rooting for her.”
Founded by husband and wife Emily and Dann Read in 2010, Eve is a feminist, punk-inspired wrestling promotion that has turned into a movement. Their goal is to make wrestling an inclusive, female-friendly world and, thanks in part to Netflix’s hit women’s wrestling show GLOW, their vision is gaining traction. First popularised in the Eighties, the World Wrestling Federation (today known as World Wrestling Entertainment or WWE) has historically favoured men.
The women who make it are expected to be big-boobed and beautiful; deals with Playboy are often part of their contracts. They are then relegated to the “p*ss break” spots (10-minute filler segments between the main fights) or “bras and panties” matches (where you win by stripping your opponent down to their underwear). Eve is part of Britain’s independent wrestling scene. “Ethically, we’re totally different to companies like WWE,” Dann tells me. “We’re the show that they don’t want to exist because we call them out on their bullsh*t.”
His wife and co-founder, Emily, has a hot pink mohawk, a wicked sense of humour and tonnes of energy. She also has a composed, polite way of moving through a room and speaks with a refined accent. “I grew up in an upper middle-class home,” she tells me. “I was taught to be small and inferior and frightened, because I was a girl. When I was introduced to wrestling, I saw this world where I could be the version of myself that I was in my mind. I could take up space; I could own the ring. I could be this badass brawler or I could make the crowd boo me. It was everything I was told I couldn’t be and I wanted that.”
When I arrive at the old railway arch where their shows are held, there’s a pink patchwork sign that reads “support your local girl gang” above the door and the wrestlers inside are like giddy school kids reuniting after the summer holidays (“Babe! I’ve missed you!”). When the crowd shows up, they aren’t what I anticipated either. Sure, there are die-hard fans in Eve merch, but there are also girls in floral dresses sipping apple cocktails, camp guys hollering “ohhh girl” when a wrestler takes a knock, and women with blue hair and rings through their noses.
When I ask why they’re here, I get everyone from GLOW fans wanting to witness the real thing to wrestling fanatics hoping to see their favourite win. In the room, 150 bodies huddle together, united by a desire to watch people get beaten up. Sweat and anticipation hang heavy in the air.
In the ring, the wrestlers are stars – or rather, their characters are. Dann works with the women on their in-ring personas: in wrestling lingo, the ‘heels’ (bad guys) and ‘baby faces’ (good guys). A baby face will take more beatings and lose more often, while heels are hated with a vengeance. “It’s usually an exaggerated version of themselves but sometimes it’s a different person entirely,” says Dann.
Jamie Hayter, a hard-faced heel known for her cutting insults, is a perfect example of the latter. She’s icy in front of fans, batting away requests for photos with a dirty look. When I meet her she’s shy and reserved, wearing a sweet smile and avoiding eye contact. “There’s so much more emotion behind a crowd booing you in unison than cheering and I love that,” she says when we discuss her choice of persona. “They’re more emotionally invested in me.”
Her opponent tonight, Erin Angel, is the quintessential baby face. She’s a glossy blonde with a bright white smile and an ‘I love pink’ T-shirt. In the ring, she wears angel wings and the crowd is gooey-eyed for her. “I could not be a heel,” she says, “I’m way too shy. No way. In the ring, I become this super confident version of myself that I don’t think I could be any other way. I like being cheered.”
The root desire I come across is power: over themselves, their audience and how they’re perceived. “Many of the women have no confidence when they start,” says Greg Burridge, a trainer at Eve Academy where 20 to 30 trainee wrestlers practise every Sunday. “We’re asking them to be aggressive and to lower their inhibitions.” He tells his class to detach their own personalities from that of their characters (“If you do or say something stupid when you’re in the ring, it’s just your character, not you!”). When you programme your mind this way, any self-consciousness begins to slide away.
“What we’re doing in there,” he says, pointing to the ring, “is therapy. We have people who have been told all their life they’re this or that, they’ve built up all this anger. They get in the ring and become what they despise. Other women are expressing who they really want to be. In the end, it can become their real-life persona,” he says. “I want people to be in awe of what they can do.”
When I meet Dann at the academy the day after the show, there is talk of a “death fight” between two wrestlers – when the tension between two characters has reached fever pitch and they, in short, want to kill each other. But choosing to go this way with a storyline isn’t without risks. A death fight involves bats wrapped in barbed wire, sharp pins scattering the floor, glass and ladders. The idea of showmanship and make-believe suddenly seems silly when there’s shattered glass and blood covering the ring.
“It’s never the ones you expect who want these fights. It’s the quiet ones who want to prove what they can do, push themselves,” Dann explains. In most clubs, including WWE, women are banned from taking part. “They think it’s too violent, that people don’t want to see women bleed.” When I talk to Rhiannon Docherty, an Eve wrestler and trainer, about the possibility of a death fight, her eyes twinkle.
“Oof, been there!” she laughs. I learn she has fallen through tables, picked pins out of her arms and been well-and-truly bloodied. I ask what she loves about them. “They’re really special,” she replies wistfully. “The audience suspends their interest in whether it’s real or not in that moment. They understand how much pain you’re in. I might come out of it thinking, ‘Oh sh*t, I shouldn’t have done that’, but it’s not long before I’m thinking about the next one. Falling through a table was on my bucket list. I want to top it.” At this point, I must look visibly shocked. “I know, it’s crazy,” she says, “but the truth is a wrestler always wants more.”
Photography: Rob Brazier