One of the original and most influential WWE Divas, Joanie Laurer revolutionized the role of women in wrestling, combining strength, beauty and empowerment in an intrigued package. Although her muscular physique and intense physical power were intimidating at first, she would quickly become the focus of many wrestling fan’s crushes, mesmerized by her personality. Known affectionately as the “Ninth Wonder of the World”, she paved the way for the WWE Divas of today while shattering the glass ceiling for female wrestlers of all shapes and sizes.
The news of her passing at her home in Redondo Beach, California has shaken the world of wrestling. Although the cause of her death is still under investigation by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s department, the spectre of disenchantment certainly lingers. For most of the 2000s, the news of wrestlers passing away before the age of 50 was one of the most controversial in all sport. The idea that Joanie Laurer is now part of this group is nothing short of tragic.
Of note, the overwhelming majority of wrestlers that passed on were men. Except for Miss Elizabeth, who was the manager to Randy “Macho Man” Savage and Sensational Sherri (a member of the WWE Hall of Fame), women in wrestling were all but immune to this tragic chapter of wrestling history. Suddenly, Laurer’s passing is a sobering reality.
While she was first introduced to the WWE Universe under the sobriquet Chyna, known as the bodyguard of the game changing D-Generation X, which ushered in the WWE’s Attitude Era, Laurer would become one of the most popular personalities in the promotion, subsequently becoming a pop culture icon, gracing the covers of popular mainstream magazines such as Newsweek and TV Guide. Appearing on the red carpet at the Emmy Awards and on TV in a guest spot on the sitcom Third Rock from the Sun, while receiving countless offers to appear in mainstream movies, she had crossed over into a showbiz realm traditionally occupied by male counterparts such as Hulk Hogan.
Early in Laurer’s tenure in WWE, two career defining moments would embody the spirit of the WWE Attitude. It had become evident that she had underwent a breast enhancement surgical procedure, one that fellow D-Generation X members discussed during one of their sophomoric yet entertaining monologues. Although such enhancements are a stereotype among women in wrestling, there was a unique symbolism, setting the stage for her growing sex appeal, which in turn would make her a fan favorite among both male and female wrestling fans.
The other involved the first time Laurer actually spoke behind the mic. For over a year, her role as Chyna involved a menacing stare and arms crossed, symbolizing that she meant business. The moment that wall crumbled and she began to speak, it added a whole new dimension to her own image while simultaneously increasing the popularity of D-Generation X.
At a time when wrestling’s Monday Night Wars were still being contested, and the wrestling dirt sheets were grist for the ever intriguing rumor mill, it had become commonly known that Laurer was in a relationship with D-Generation X member Triple H. Further reports would suggest that he was the force who enabled her to be hired by WWE.
Their relationship certainly took on a moment of reality in the WWE Universe as distraught wrestlers were visibly shaken by the in-ring passing of Owen Hart. With Laurer at his side, Triple H admirably showed himself at his most vulnerable during his career, tearful during his commentary at the Owen Hart Tribute Show.
Laurer’s popularity would soon propel her into wrestling history on two separate occasions. In 1999, she would become the first female competitor to particiapte in the Royal Rumble. Defeating Jeff Jarrett for the Intercontinental Championship, she would become the first (and only) woman to hold the title, a remarkable achievement, which helped increase the drawing power of women in wrestling. During that time, many women in wrestling were valets to male wrestlers, an eye candy that usually helped increase the profile of a male wrestler. One could argue that Chyna’s rise to the Intercontinental Championship helped add new credibility to the role of women in wrestling, eventually leading to the WWE establishing a Divas division, one that has flourished in the last decade and a half.
Sadly, Laurer’s wrestling career would plunge into a downward spiral following a highly popular magazine pictorial. Appearing in a complete state of undress, fully frontal in the pages of the iconic Playboy, Laurer redefined what sexy means. She would even acknowledge in an interview with Michael Landsberg on his popular TSN talk show Off The Record that she received positive feedback from women about her pictorial. Taking into account that many women in general experience issues with body image, Laurer was a revelation, exuding confidence and proud of her amazing physique, proving that women of all shapes and sizes deserved to be comfortable in their own skin.
Rumors suggested that some of wrestling’s power brokers were not happy with Laurer’s unforeseen level of popularity and success, while a break-up with Triple H did not soothe such tensions. Instead of being with D-Generation X, she was now in a program with Eddie Guerrero, which was not a good fit for either wrestler. From there, her luster would slowly fade, no longer part of the WWE’s main event picture. Less than three years after her first pictorial for Playboy, Laurer would be out of WWE, disappearing as quickly as she came. Despite appearing in New Japan Pro Wrestling and rumors of offers from TNA Wrestling (which was ironically started by Jarrett), she would never recapture the mat magic of her time in WWE.
Suddenly, Laurer was part of D-list events such as Celebrity boxing, later gaining infamy for starring in adult films. Working in a low budget film with Anna Nicole Smith before her own tragic passing, Laurer would appear on Larry King Live discussing the experience of working with her. In looking at Laurer in the interview, it had become evident that she was no longer the same person. Having seen her weight expand and the loss of her smile, one could not help but feel there was a sad foreshadowing to come.
While Laurer becomes another sad footnote in wrestling’s darkest chapter, she held a profound place in the hearts and minds of many in the wrestling industry during an exceptional four year time span. Although future glories were not meant to be, one cannot dispute that her legacy is one highly deserving of posthumous induction into the WWE Hall of Fame.