By Gare Joyce in Brooklyn, N.Y., and East Rutherford, N.J.
By Gare Joyce in Brooklyn, N.Y., and East Rutherford, N.J.
Breaking free of the roles wrestling thrust on women, WWE Hall of Famer Chyna left behind a difficult history and an undeniable legacy

Jan LaQue was a long way from Henderson, N.C. and even further from her comfort zone, which centres around a Methodist church and rescue dogs. She leads a quiet, conservative life in retirement, tending to innocent, oft-mistreated animals and to her husband, who is disabled. She is not for the big city, not even a little bit, and certainly not for the red carpet, but that’s precisely where she found herself on a Saturday night in April. Those who had waited by the VIP entrance to watch the stars of WWE enter the Barclays Center wondered precisely who she was.

Likewise the rubberneckers behind the velvet ropes tried to make the thin, long-haired guy in his forties who accompanied LaQue. Rob Potylo looked like a musician or a comic, and he is in fact both, with his own regular show at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Together they made an unlikely tag team. LaQue was a bundle of nerves while Potylo, a.k.a. Robby Roadsteamer, was smiling like a lottery winner and snapping photos like a tourist.

When they were brought to the plush Qatar Airways Club, where champagne was being served, a WWE official presented LaQue with a standard jeweller’s box holding a Hall of Fame ring. LaQue wouldn’t be called up to the ring during the broadcast to follow but would watch the show from the stands instead. Maybe for the best. No fretting about a speech to make, just a private moment for someone who jealously guards her privacy.

Soon after she came into possession of the ring, famous wrestlers — some bygone stars, others on the card for Wrestlemania 35 — came over one-by-one to introduce themselves to LaQue. With few exceptions Potlyo had to prompt her; she didn’t recognize the faces and many of the names only sounded kind of familiar. She never really tracked pro wrestling and to this day she has never gone to a show. She stumbled over Finn Balor’s name. She wasn’t quite sure who Billy Corgan was even after Potylo explained that the Smashing Pumpkins are musicians and not a tag team. She did recognize Sean Waltman, a.k.a. X-Pac, when he approached, though.

“You look just like her,” Waltman said. He then leaned over and gave her a hug. “I’m so sorry for everything.”

Potylo took a picture of them together, with LaQue holding Waltman’s tiny, one-eyed emotional-support dog, Lulu. And then Waltman told her how much her late daughter deserved her place in the WWE’s Hall of Fame — LaQue’s daughter having been the Ninth Wonder of the World, the late Joan Laurer, who rose to fame in what was then called the WWF 20 years ago as Chyna and was entering WWE’s Hall of Fame as a member of D-Generation X, as the lone female in the ranks of the baddest boys in the WWF’s Attitude Era. (The name change from WWF to WWE occurred in May 2002.)

When first introduced, Chyna wasn't even given a backstory. No matter, she could say more with a glance than most managed with a mic in hand.

Prior to Laurer’s arrival, women in the WWF played minor roles divided into two realms: the old-school in-ring talent that included and was fairly limited to The Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young, who were a hair-pulling, eye-gouging novelty act on undercards; and the side-of-the-ring accessories like Miss Elizabeth, the cornerwoman and real-life wife of Macho Man Randy Savage, who mostly stood by her man and evoked the damsel at threat of being tied to the train tracks.

Chyna was neither of these. She was incredibly jacked and could bench more than 100 pounds over her bodyweight — for disbelievers there’s YouTube video of her pressing 315 without a spot. As a member of D-Generation X, a stable that debuted in 1997, she started off as a silent, glowering bodyguard and henchman for Triple H, her real-life boyfriend. She was so formidable that she could haul off and sucker The Rock, who, in the Attitude Era of the late ’90s, was fully licensed to return fire. She took her bumps.

For years, principals in WWE were reluctant to talk about Chyna. “She was radioactive, the third rail no one wanted to touch,” says Potylo, who had been helping Chyna with publicity and promotion at the time of her death in 2016. “[WWE wrestlers] were afraid to talk about her because she was out of.” (WWE did not reply to Sportsnet’s requests for interviews and comment.)

Now, however, thanks to her Hall of Fame recognition with DX, there’s something of a thaw. Says 14-time tag-team champion Matt Hardy: “Chyna was the first woman who was taken as seriously as men. She was booked and promoted as being as threatening as any man. She was intimidating and credible. She was way ahead of her time with her look and physicality. There was no foil for her [among women]. With DX, it was a perfect storm for her — they worked so well off each other. She was put in a position to succeed and do some amazing things.”

“Joanie set her mind on doing something and she wouldn’t let anything stop her.”

In time, Chyna established herself as player in her own right. She became the first woman to compete in the Royal Rumble and in doing so managed to eliminate Mark Henry. Chyna won the Intercontinental Title by pinning Jeff Jarrett, who shot a sexist-heel angle — in what was billed as a “Good Housekeeping Match,” she used a pot, a pan, a garbage can, a broom and, yes, a kitchen sink to brain the champion. The coup de grapple was ice tongs to Jarrett’s testicles.

The night after the Hall of Fame induction, WWE staged Wrestlemania 35 at Met Life Stadium and 85,000 came out to see what many described as a paradigm shift in the game’s history: women headlining the biggest show of the year. It was neither a reach nor a gamble, but rather a testament to the rising fan interest in three women, Becky Lynch, a.k.a. The Man, Charlotte Flair and Ronda Rousey. They worked like yeowomen to earn both that interest and their due respect, but it’s hard to imagine women’s wrestling reaching the heights it has if Chyna hadn’t happened on the scene and shone so brightly, if too briefly.

Able to bench 300-plus pounds without a spot, Chyna could hold her own in the ring alongside any fellow pro — and legends like Jesse Ventura

To Jan LaQue, she isn’t Chyna; she was, is and will forever be Joanie. “Joanie set her mind on doing something and she wouldn’t let anything stop her,” LaQue says. “I told my kids you can do anything. Just buckle down. And that’s what she did. ”

Joanie Laurer — she was never really little Joanie Laurer — was the violin- and cello-playing A-student who could pick up languages, who finished high school in Spain, who majored in Spanish literature at the University of Tampa, who aspired to become an FBI agent and who spent time in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica after college. She was a high-achiever but her autobiography, If They Only Knew, disturbingly laid out her pain and the family dysfunction that she long strained to hide — her biological father was an abusive alcoholic, her stepfathers no better, and, after her mother took the kids and struck out on her own, it felt like they lived out of suitcases. Laurer was just 16 when her mother urged her to go into drug rehab. The book also reveals that she was molested by a teacher in public school and raped by two men in college.

If, as her mother says, Laurer was able to do anything she put her mind to, she couldn’t find that single thing she wanted to do after her stint in the Peace Corps. In her twenties, she picked up odd jobs, including stints as a bartender, a salesperson and singer, the latter being a shock to those familiar with her almost cartoonish voice. None of the work was satisfying and her life felt aimless. In the 1990s, she was living in New Hampshire with her sister and was channel surfing when she chanced on a wrestling broadcast. She didn’t know it immediately but she had found her calling and what she came to believe would be her safe place. “I’d been rejected at everything,” Chyna told the Boston Herald in 1999. “I could go out and be this big, huge female and entertain people. That’d be my niche.”

Laurer started training at a wrestling school in Massachusetts under the tutelage of Killer Kowalski, a Windsor-born heel whose colourful career dated back to the 1940s and who is perhaps best noted for a knee drop that ripped off the cauliflower ear of Yukon Eric. Kowalski’s school had produced dozens of pros, including Paul Michael Levesque, the New Hampshire native who, after stints as Terra Ryzin and other forgettable characters in lesser outfits, got over in the WWF as Hunter Hearst Helmsley, better known today as Triple H. Laurer had only a year of ring experience when she met Levesque and Shawn Michaels after a show in 1996 and they lobbied the WWF to sign her. In the run-up to Wrestlemania 35, Triple H told ESPN Radio that it was a hard sell. “When her role as my bodyguard was first being brought up to Vince, it was heavily resisted. ‘No one is going to believe in that,’ [McMahon said]. Chyna and I had to push really hard. Then her impact was undeniable.”

Chyna’s run with the WWF was unprecedented and to this point unparalleled. She needed no backstory to draw in fans, her mere presence at ringside and between the ropes was enough. In fact, in the beginning, she didn’t even have a name and was sold as a fan who jumped into the action out of the crowd. When she debuted on Raw in February of 1997, interjecting herself in a feud between Triple H and Goldust, announcer Jim Ross exclaimed: “Who the hell is that? … Is that a woman?” The next night when Chyna again attacked and ragdolled Goldust’s trophy manager, Marlena, Ross cried: “There’s that woman, that huge woman, that Amazon again … that insane woman.” In time, that woman was established as Chyna, but it was left to Triple H and others to do the storytelling. Not that it mattered — Chyna said more with a look than others could while desperately selling on the mic.

Chyna’s run in the WWF lasted only five years, wrapping in an alliance with Eddy Guerrero in 2001, and no star ever left with more acrimony.

Joan Laurer had been in a long-term, real-life relationship with Levesque strained by her drug abuse and a disagreement over their future — he wanted to have children, she didn’t. In a case of life imitating art, Triple H entered into a pact with Stephanie McMahon, Vince’s daughter, for a SmackDown! storyline that led to a marriage-for-show-purposes. Behind the scenes, however, a real-life relationship blossomed between the two, thus making any working relationship between Levesque amd Laurer too awkward to be sustainable.

Vince Russo, the writer who scripted the narratives of the Attitude Era and himself landed on the outs with the organization, said the breakup with Levesque took a far greater toll on Laurer than just killing her wrestling career: “It was the unravelling,” Russo said on his podcast, The Brand. “And it was an unravelling she never recovered from.”

As Russo tells it, he had never gone directly to Laurer to discuss her storylines and work. Rather, he’d spoken to Levesque, who would pass along directions to her — thus, Triple H had been not just talent but also her champion when bringing her into the WWF and middle management in her meteoric rise. Not that she subordinated herself to Levesque; she showed what Russo calls “old-school respect,” a gratitude for being brought into the DX fold.

The souring of Chyna’s prospects with the company started with the breakup but escalated quickly after a dispute with Vince McMahon. Playboy had made her an offer to do a cover and pictorial, a potential boon to her personal brand and, by association, the WWF’s profile. She wrote in her autobiography and repeated in many television and radio appearances that McMahon made it clear she shouldn’t do the Playboy shoot if she wanted to win a championship. She did it anyway. It was Chyna’s bad luck that the WWF was feeling the heat from a Christian family values group that had pressured sponsors to pull commercials from SmackDown!, the flagship program in the Attitude Era.

McMahon has long denied that Chyna’s previous relationship with Triple H, his future son-in law, or her posing for Playboy impacted her departure from the company, but when her contract expired, she was not renewed. Instead, she was written out of the show despite being the reigning women’s champion.

If the curtain had dropped there, Laurer’s relationship with the WWE might have been reparable, but her time after leaving the company was a tragic spectacle, one scandal cascading after another. “She paid a real terrible price for being an outsider,” Potylo says. “When she fell out of the tree, she hit every branch on the way down.”

Laurer believed that her Playboy cover and pictorial contributed to the WWE choosing not to renew her contract — something McMahon has long denied

Laurer wound up in a drug-fuelled relationship with Sean Waltman, who had left WWE in 2002, and they released a pair of homemade porn videos: One Night in China and Another Night in China. She later claimed to have been bilked by the distributors and to have made no money from the videos even though they sold more than 100,000 copies. She was also charged with physically assaulting Waltman. Their engagement was broken off and the recriminations that emerged in its wake seeped even more sordid details to the public.

She made a series of appearances on TV, some that were scripted to good effect (Third Rock from the Sun, Sabrina the Teenage Witch) but also in reality shows that were unflattering at best and more often embarrassing. Many thought that she reached her nadir with an appearance on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew in 2008 — Laurer signed up in a failed attempt to get sober.

“When she fell out of the tree, she hit every branch on the way down.”

Still, Chyna seemed poised to make a comeback to the ring in 2011 when she signed on with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, but the TNA gig lasted just two shows — she was dropped when she revealed that she had yet another porn video that was going to hit the market. In this video, she appeared with male porn actors dressed up as wrestling stars, including knockoffs of Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and Triple H.

With each embarrassing turn on a reality show, incoherent appearance on Howard Stern and tabloid headline, Laurer was putting the possibility of any sort of return to favour further and further out of reach. “[When] my eight-year-old kid sees Hall of Fame [and] goes on the Internet to look at Chyna, what comes up?” Triple H said when asked about Chyna’s chances of making the Hall of Fame on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast in 2015. “I’m not criticizing lifestyle choices. It is just the fact of what it is.”

Striking out on her own, Laurer seemed to stabilize for a time. She converted to Mormonism and moved to Japan for three years, where she taught English as a second language. Potylo reached out to her there and told her that he wanted to help rebuild her brand and maybe squeeze in one last run in the ring — with women playing an ever greater role in pro wrestling, there was still no one who wielded the psychic clout that she did, even more than a decade removed from her last WWF appearance.

Despite Potylo’s enthusiasms and loyal fans, despite her vows to re-enter rehab, despite reconciling with her mother after a decades-long estrangement, there’d be no happy ending to the story of Joan Laurer and Chyna. In April 2016, she was found dead in her apartment in Redondo Beach, Calif. The coroner’s toxicology report determined that she died of an accidental overdose of alcohol, combined with the anxiety drugs diazepam and nordazepam along with oxycodone and a sleep aid.

“This was someone who died of a broken heart.”

In the weeks before the 2019 Hall of Fame induction and Wrestlemania 35, Triple H weighed in on the legacy of the woman who learned the business in Killer Kowalski’s gym just as he did in the ’90s. “She was massively important — massive to DX, massive to my career,” he told ESPN. “At the time of her passing, when [a place in the Hall of Fame] became everyone’s thought, you really needed to let some time go by. The time is right now. You couldn’t think of a better moment in time with Becky [Lynch], Ronda [Rousey] and Charlotte [Flair] headlining Wrestlemania, with the women’s evolution being where it is … it fits.”

Potylo has been the custodian of Chyna’s memory longer than he knew her — she died not quite a year after they met. They travelled across the country together and were roommates for a time. At some deep level, but not a physical one, he fell in love with Chyna and Joan Laurer. “I saw how the other wrestlers would avoid her at the Comic Cons. I was with her [in the summer of 2015] when she went to Stamford [home of WWE’s headquarters] with a documentary crew. And she knocked on the front door, just to try to get a meeting, just to get back any form of a relationship again … and she got turned away. It was a stunt that wasn’t her idea. It was the wrong way to handle it. I could see what effect that had on her mentally in the last months of her life,” Potylo says. “She wanted to reconnect with her WWE family so effing bad. She was losing her grip on reality. She had a lot of people turn their backs on her. This wasn’t a woman who died in a hotel room of heart attack. This was someone who died of a broken heart.”

The documentary was supposed to hit theatres in 2017, but, after release of a trailer, it was postponed and then shelved, apparently indefinitely.

Laurer was a standout student who majored in Spanish literature at university, but she also strained to hide personal pain and family dysfunction for years

A few minutes before the induction show, LaQue and Potylo were ushered out of the lounge and made it to their seats on the floor of Barclays Center. On the way, LaQue said she appreciated all the stars who came up to her and offered condolences and best wishes. Even Waltman. Maybe especially so. “It wasn’t just him,” she said. “It was Joanie, too. It was both of them. They fed off each other. But you move on and you let go and forgive.”

She made silent note of two who didn’t come up to her in the lounge: Vince McMahon and Triple H. Later on, she would describe it as “a real disappointment but not a surprise with everything that went on.”

Like so much in the WWE demimonde, the Hall of Fame induction has a surreal aspect — you can dress it up in black tie but it’s still wrestling. The famous names go up on stage and hear the cheers once more, but the toll of the years are plain and painful to see — it’s true in the broad strokes and never more than in the case of the Ultimate Warrior, who looked so impossibly frail as he gave his induction speech and died of heart failure four days later, at age 54. And this year’s ceremony had its strangest ever moment when a fan ran out of the stands, leaped into the ring and tackled Bret Hart, on stage beside Natalya Neidhart for the honouring of the Hart Foundation.

This scene played out directly in front of LaQue and Potylo, who were sitting in front of the horrified Hart retinue.

“Is this planned?” she asked.

“No way,” he said. “He’s got to be 60 and he’s had a stroke. No way. Look at how security got in there.”

LaQue and Waltman connected at the induction ceremony, where the D-Generation X member apologized to Laurer's mother "for everything."

Hart picked up seemingly with no hesitation and went into a long, colourful and occasionally ribald story of his partnership and friendship with Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, his brother-in-law. When Hart and his niece came off the stage, it was DX’s turn and predictably even as middle-aged men those famous names who made the Attitude Era acted like adolescents, thumbing their noses at authority. They repeatedly thanked McMahon, who reportedly hates being thanked by name at the ceremony. For DX it became a running gag. Given that Triple H is McMahon’s son-in-law, they might have had a little more rope than others.

The members talked about their life and times. Strangely, they did not mention Rick Rude — his sudden death from heart failure at age 40 in ’99, the height of the Attitude Era, might have made for an awkward moment. That said, there was no avoiding Chyna. Her image went up on the Jumbotron above the crowd and the wrestlers on the arena floor: a still photo of late-’90s vintage with her trademark leather two-piece and best death stare on. Shawn Michaels was holding the mic.

“The word ‘trailblazer’ gets thrown around quite a bit these days, but this group that stands before you tonight would not have reached the heights it reached without the contribution of the biggest and the best trailblazer …”

And here Michaels paused and, if your eyes were to be believed, not for effect. His lip quivered. And in a breath the audience took up the chant that grew ever louder: “She deserves it.”

“You’re not going to get any argument out of me or any of us,” Michaels continued. “We wouldn’t be where we’re at or who we are without the contributions of the Ninth Wonder of the World, Chyna.”

And Triple H added: “She’s here. The real her. And believe me, the real her would love this.”

At that moment, with Michaels’s and Triple H’s acknowledgment buttressed by the fans’ vocal support, the prospect of Chyna eventually going into the Hall of Fame as a singles performer seemed more likely than ever before. Overdue, yes. Impossible, no.

The five on stage took turns at the mic, less rude than back in the day, and after drenching those in the front row with Super Soakers that escaped the notice of security, they departed and the show came to an end.

When the house lights came up and the arena started to empty, LaQue and Potylo got up out of their seats and headed to the exits. “Did you hear those cheers?” LaQue said as they left for the hotel. “The house came down for Joanie.”

Design by Sasha Barkans. Edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

WWE via @ChynaJoanLaurer; Getty Images; David Sherman/AP; Craig Lassig/AFP/Getty Images; Spencer Platt/Newsmakers; @ChynaJoanLaurer; Courtesy Jan LaQue.