One of the very real things about being a wrestling fan at any stage of your life, for however long you may be detained by the action, is the fact that so many of these once great performers, the ones you tuned in to watch, are all too often consumed by an unforgiving and suffocating business. They slip away – whether plain forgotten, injured, or worse. It’s chilling to go back and watch the extravaganzas of old and find multiple matches full of young people who should still be, but aren’t.
Joanie Laurer, better known as Chyna, died this week, aged forty-five. A hugely influential figure with a markedly unique look, Chyna debuted as a bodyguard for Triple H in 1997, but within a couple of years she was not only being booked in matches, she was being booked against men – huge, top superstar men – and she won. And the story told was entirely fair and believable. This was a welcome departure from female representation of the time: every other woman on the roster was being booked in hideously sleazy, smutty angles in which they invariably were forced to tear each other’s clothes off. Chyna wouldn’t have fit in there, nor did she want to, so, working with the tools they had, they made her a legit superstar, an enigma that no rival promotion could boast or hope to manufacture. It’s widely rumored that for some time in 1999, the WWF were even considering putting the World Championship on her in response to her soaring popularity. Though it ultimately didn’t happen, she did win the Intercontinental Championship twice, and she also took part in the cornerstone Royal Rumble and King of the Ring tournaments; I believe she is still the only woman to have taken on any of those things.
I didn’t really care about the titles or tourneys – I loved Chyna just because she was the epitome of badass; an outcast who didn’t seem to care that she was different, indeed, she turned it to her advantage. The cocky guy would come out and snigger at having to wrestle a woman, and then Chyna would kick him in the balls and damn near drive him through the ring. It was glorious, and probably a lot more entertaining than I’ve made it sound. She always seemed to hold her own and survive. That’s what makes the end of her career, and life, so sad.
Chyna’s star continued to grow until late 2000 when the aforementioned Triple H, her real-life partner, began cheating on her with Stephanie McMahon, the daughter of boss Vince McMahon. When Trips and Steph got serious and this became common knowledge, it appeared the only thing they thought reasonable thing to do was phase Chyna out of the company completely. It’s a dreadful controversy and one about which I don’t know the full details, but it makes that period of her career so hard to revisit with knowing eyes – not that there’s that much anyway, given how scarcely she appeared in those final months of her contract. She basically vanished in 2001.
It seems that this really was the beginning of the end – I don’t think she was ever able to get over this. Then followed fifteen years of a horrible downward spiral with ultimately no real reprieve or closure from either party; there were several periods where she seemed to be doing better – a couple of years ago she was living and vlogging in Japan, where she had a job teaching English there – but each time something seemed to knock her back down. It’s a damn shame that it’s such a sad ending and that she wasn’t able to seek the right help, to power on through like her kick-ass performer self always could and like I willed she would, but the legacy of that awesome figure does power on, and will for a very long time. I can think of few others so effortlessly ground-breaking and influential as Chyna.
Joanie ‘Chyna’ Laurer
1970 – 2016