When I watch wrestling, I find myself escaping into that magical world almost completely. I feel the stories deep within my soul, and I try to relate to the characters as best I can. It’s become much easier as the years have gone by as social media has evolved to allow us to understand not just the characters more, but the humans behind them as well. I can invest in the stories, as is intended, but I root for the human beings I can relate to more than I side with a character as a simple babyface or heel.
We each have our unique caveats as we appreciate and honor our own wrestling fandom within. I find I am drawn to those strong individuals who have been forced to fight, not just in the ring but in their lives. Faced with personal turmoil of varying severity, these performers push onward with their dreams still very much alive. For some, this turmoil follows them and grows larger than many could endure. For others, using a great platform to educate and inspire is equally as important as their dream itself. These are the most special of superstars because their legacies do not end within the ring ropes. Their legacy lives on in all they’ve touched in very real and impactful ways outside of it.
In 2012, I was 19 years old and struggling. For the most part, I did not know who I was. Looking back at me from the mirror was a reflection I often hated – a girl who was not happy and was largely lost and alone. I was haunted by memories that were too painful to accept as real and the only place I had to run – to allow myself an escape to heal – was wrestling. I could turn on the television and become lost in the opposite way of what I was used to. I could allow myself to smile at ridiculous stories and cheer those I admired. With WWE turned on, my past melted away and my sadness subsided. It was my favorite escape and my only timeout, from life and from a reality I wasn’t ready to accept.
Beautiful and talented, Paige hooked me from the very first match. Her energy matched her mystique, and her smile pierced the screen. She was very young – the same age as me in fact – which drew me in even more. Here was this “raven haired lady,” as William Regal lovingly called her that summer, the same age as me, living her dream and doing it with such confidence and joy. I looked to her and found inspiration to hold onto. While my own dreams no longer included the wrestling business, I found ways to use the energy she displayed and apply it to my own life. Slowly, I began to feel a little less ashamed of my past and a little more confident in my future.
When she competed for the NXT women’s title – facing off against another favorite, Emma (now known as Impact Wrestling superstar, Tenille Dashwood) – I was as excited as I had been for a wrestling match in a long while. These two amazing women had it all and were about to show the world who they were. The first NXT women’s champion!!! This was history! I was enamored by the respect shown between the two and by the company as a whole. In my eyes, this was what wrestling was at its pinnacle. No frills. No nonsense. Just two fighters, with an ultimate respect for the prize they both covet in a business they hold in the highest esteem. That’s the ageless professional wrestling dream, right?
In the lead up to that match, as WWE so often does exquisitely, the importance of the two young women facing off was highlighted. It wasn’t long-winded or fancy, just the subtle real feelings for no more than 60 seconds from both competitors looking to raise a trophy coveted since childhood. Paige said something during that package that hit me tremendously hard at the time and moved me to tears, so much so I remember having to gather myself so I could enjoy the match. I still remember her words.
“When it comes to it, I’ll beat her. I’m a fighter.”
Words so simple that they’re almost nothing, right? Nothing, yet everything. I heard her character’s words – felt the intensity and emotion in her voice – and I broke. I thought of my own life and what I had allowed it to not just take from me but keep from me. I never looked at myself and thought I was strong. I never considered myself a fighter. But in that moment – hearing Paige sum up her thoughts so concisely and so beautifully – I realized that it could be as easy as that. We’re all fighters. We just have to fight. So, I did.
As I worked on myself and focused on the things I wanted for my future, Paige continued to dominate and climb the ladder. I was hammering school and she was knocking down doors. I followed her lead and worked on myself and my smile. I was not where I wanted to be yet, but it was more progress than I had made in years. I was far from the only one following her lead though, as women’s wrestling also began to turn a very noticeable corner. It was subtle at the time, but with NXT consistently churning out amazing matches and allowing women a more equal platform, she wasn’t just changing one sad girl’s perspective – she was changing a landscape dominated by inequality for generations. There was no perspective in that, only fact.
When her music hit on April 7, 2014, and she sauntered to the ring to stare down AJ Lee, I couldn’t have been happier. My voice is barely a voice at all, but the closest I’ve ever been to screaming over wrestling was when she smiled walking down that ramp on Raw like she absolutely belonged. I jumped off of my futon (college y’all…) and tears streamed down my face like a twelve-year-old at an N’Sync concert. She made it. All the work. All the years. All the adversity. Paige was home.
When she won the Diva’s title – when the overwhelming and very real emotion couldn’t be contained within her – I felt that. The world felt that. It was real and different and as important as women’s wrestling had felt in years. The gravity was palpable. 21 years old and a literal queen in the world she had loved since childhood.
Life is very rarely as clean as a whistle. Sometimes we’re challenged by unfortunate events that can easily define us if we allow them to. Survivors survive, but in situations like these, surviving isn’t living. We live by fighting back and rising above. Paige helped to teach me about these things through completely unrelated events as a WWE superstar. I dissected words and actions written for a character and applied them to my life.
As a teenager, I was raped and assaulted. I permanently lost my voice as a result and fell into a depression that almost consumed me on more than one occasion. My family was not there for me and I was left to navigate the darkness that followed alone. The broken feelings that resulted from these events lasted. I thought it better to hide them than accept them, and I became a shell of myself for many years.
When it came to light that Paige was dealing with her own personal issues, I cannot explain how much my heart broke for her. I wished for her recovery, but more importantly – understanding how one can be so easily swallowed by such darkness – I hoped for her ability to not just survive, but to live as well. The world can be an unforgiving and awful place, but people like her make it seem like there are pathways to places where the awful fades away a little bit. If we only allow ourselves to see them.
It’s so easy to forget that the characters that populate our screens when we tune into our favorite wrestling shows are human themselves. They have lives and issues their own. They are as flawed and as fragile as everyone else is. The way Paige navigated her life during a time when many would have given up, AND the way in which she has opened up about it since, have shown such grace and courage. Her goals to allow transparency in hopes of helping other individuals dealing with similar struggles couldn’t have been easy to shoulder. But she did. For that, I cannot even imagine the number of people she has helped along her way.
I know she has helped me. Eight years ago, she helped a young girl lost in a dark world find the light. She allowed that girl to look at her reflection and not hate the person looking back at her. She is a rare individual who’s reach had transcended the craft she worked so hard to master for so many years. We talk about those in the business who leave indelible impacts, but far too often do we focus on those legacies left in the ring. Some do more. Paige has done more. Infinitely.
How many girls did she help to lift up without knowing? How many faces that had forgotten to smile did she help to remedy? How many lives did she touch and will continue to touch in the many years to come? Those are impossible questions to answer. But I can vouch for an answer to each.
At least one. My own.
When I was lost in the dark, she was a star in the night. She gave me hope, along with the WWE, that perhaps I might be alright after all. Then, years later, she gave me the courage to tell my own story, so that maybe – just maybe – I could be a star in the night for another girl lost in the dark. There is no greater gift anyone could have ever given me, and I will treasure it forever. Beyond her in ring career, which was brilliant, her legacy will live in infamy because of that – unmatched.