They're sisters, but they're part of the "brotherhood". Rebecca Kamm enters the world of New Zealand's female pro wrestlers.
There is a longstanding joke among female pro wrestlers in this country, says Ang Whitehead, and that is the price they can command for their dirty socks.
“Yeah, there’s plenty of wrestling creepers,” she says. “That’s what we call them. They’re massive women’s wrestling fans, not wrestling fans. You can sell your worn socks to these gentlemen.”
Then she laughs a laugh that says, oh well, what can you do.
“They’re like, ‘Hi, Scarlett, hi! How are you, Scarlett?’ They ask way-too-personal questions, like ‘Could you put me in that hold?’”
Ang, pronounced Ange, has gentle eyes and a gracious warmth. Her plump bosom, which the 38-year-old harnesses to full effect on stage (“I smash my opponent with my chest and the guys in the crowd are like, YEAH!”) is home to rose tattoos.
Were you a creeper, you might take all this abundance and assume Ang, who wrestles as Scarlett – “the tart with a heart” – is an indiscriminate nurturer; that she might even like to nurture you. I’ve thought about it, and it’s the only plausible explanation for the persistence of their creeping.
“There’s a fine line, you know? You can respect somebody as an athlete, but when you start asking for their underwear, that’s the line," says Ang. "It’s an odd, nasty little underground thing that comes along with female wrestling.”
What about dating, I ask the single mum. Oh yeah, she says, there have been some really awkward dates. “One guy took me out and he was intrigued by the idea of a female wrestler to the point he’d almost fetishised it. He spent his whole time asking, ‘Can you do this move?’ and ‘Do you do that move?’ I got so uncomfortable. I’ve never eaten a meal so fast in my life.”
That particular guy sort of knew her through a mutual friend but mainly he knew her as the image on the promotional posters – “as Scarlett, not Ang”.
When she tells people she’s a wrestler they say, is that like Hulk Hogan? And then, oh, do girls do that? “They don’t realise we’re as rough as the men – that we train with the guys. We’re the sisters, but we’re part of the brotherhood. Most of us are treated like men by the men."
Ang is from Wellington and works in retail but she travels almost every weekend for wrestling. She “debuted” four years ago but she watched matches on TV with her dad as a kid and then as an adult she zoomed around the country to watch it in real life.
“Even though I was a young mum, I started going up to Auckland,” she says. “My parents would babysit. I’d fly away on a Friday and then I’d go watch a show and be back the next day. I don’t think I missed a show for three or four years in a row.”
She thinks maybe she took up wrestling because she wanted to please her rugby-mad dad, who lives his life for sport. “He’s like the South Island Mad Butcher.” Securing his approval was always “lurking” in the background somewhere.
“I never really…,” she pauses. “I mean, I gave him a couple of lovely grandchildren and everything, but you know, when I started wrestling, and particularly once I won my first championship, the pride …”
Why 'Scarlett'? It’s a nod to The Scarlet Letter, written “years and years ago about a woman who was accused of adultery and of being a bit of a tart.” Ang got cast with the floozy stamp ages ago after she wound up involved with some of the guy wrestlers, “which is inevitable after 10 years around people”. But some of those people decreed she was there for the wrong reasons. “There was a lot of judgement.”
In the end, she ran with it. “I thought, if people are going to call me a tart, then I’ll be a tart. I’m young, free and single and I’ll do what I want.”
Ang is one of only nine or so women in this country who wrestle professionally. I’m picking her brain in the warm evening sun outside a wooden school hall in Henderson, where, in a just few hours, a few of those nine will climb into the ring.
It arrived in a trailer this morning, the ring, just an incomprehensible clump of poles and sheets and ropes. Twenty minutes later it was the thumping, crashing heart of the room.
Tonight’s show is staged by a local wrestling promotion called Maniacs United. It’s their women’s championship and the key match is between Ang (Scarlett) and Stacey Stewart (Just Plain Evil.)
“Will JPE score her first ever title win or will Scarlett be the fighting champion she has proved herself to be & fight her way to victory??” asks a Facebook post. “WHAT DO YOU THINK???”
Inside the hall, ten or so wrestlers, mainly men, shift about like sturdy forklifts as they organise props. Things are sibling-style casual: faded black cotton singlets and bare feet and smells drifting by like cartoon wafts – Lynx, hot dogs, sweat, open packets of Twisties.
There is a guy with an astonishing rat’s tail, and a woman in black who looks like Ronnie Wood, neatly laying out the snacks.
Then there is Stacey Stewart: Maniacs United owner, wrestler, wrestling coach, and a sole wrestling promoter. She is the only woman in the country to hold those last two titles. Tonight, she is also the matriarch, a spinning vortex of energy as her attention ping-pongs around the room.
“WHAT? Naah, it’s too hot – leave it, leave it, leave it ... Jono, fix that curtain? Fix up some of those curtains? Thank you … Me and Ang are gonna come through that door … Ang hasn’t put her merch out or anything … I fuckin like that. That's so cool…”
Then, as the audience starts to trickle in: “I’m freaking out.”
The day before the show, I meet Stacey at Starbucks in LynnMall, close to her sons’ school so she can scoop them afterwards. “I don’t actually drink coffee," she says when she arrives, grey hoodie slung over her head. “But I’ve got a V in my bag.”
People always talk about piercing blue eyes, but hers are brown and as trenchant as they come. “She’s a monster in the ring,” Ang tells me later. “People are terrified of her, genuinely.”
On a good night 140 people might come to a show, on a bad night maybe 80. "I've been wrestling in this country for 15 years and still no one knows who I am,” says Stacey. She would advertise, but it's prohibitively expensive. No one here expects to make a living from wrestling; you just can't.
When she's not in the ring or being a single mum, she works as a residential carer. Before we meet, an email arrives with her schedule:
I work today 9am -10am then pick my son up at 1pm then my other son up at 2.40pm then work 11pm-7am. Wed 9am-1pm then 3-8.30pm then 11pm -7am work Thurs work 9am-2pm off Fri but an appointment at 11am. So yeah pretty crazy :)
She won’t reveal her age but she will say wrestling was always an obsession, even as a kid collecting wrestler bubblegum sets.
What’s the appeal, I ask. She looks out into the frenzied LynnMall crowds. “I don't know. Aggression release, maybe? In real life you've got to keep your cool and you've got to be calm. You've got kids, so you've always got to be prim and proper."
She says a lot of people think wrestling’s just a sport, but they’re wrong. “It’s everything: It's respect, it's tradition, it's business, it's performing, it's art, it's sport, it's confidence...”
That last one is in short supply. “If I don't give the performance that I want to, I don't need anyone to tell me, hey, that was crap – I already know. I want it all perfect.”
You're hard on yourself, I say.
“Yes. Hard on myself just in general, really. Oh well.”
For a week after a big show, that's it. She’s a husk. “It's like I completely leave everything I have in that ring,” she says. “I don't have anything. Like, I literally don't have anything.”
She once wrestled eight years for another company, but got fired. It was devastating, although she can see now her behaviour wasn’t up to scratch. “It's hard, because I have symptoms of Asperger's. Like, you would know that when you go up to a group of strangers you shake all their hands, but I didn't know that.”
The kidding around jarred, too. “I'd go, ‘Hey, I'm just not like you guys. I just can't handle this joking thing – can you not do it?’”
Wrestling has an intricate code of conduct. Take a wrestler’s finisher, the move they make right at the end; that’s their signature move and it’s sacred. You must never imitate it. “There's so many unspoken rules,” she says, pained. “It was like, but they're unspoken, how am I supposed to …? That's where I struggled.”
Stacey is awkward and likeable and dogged. Wrestling has treated women like knick-knacks and she has carved them a space. It's a man’s industry, she explains, “in every way. You have pay-per-views in the [World Wrestling Entertainment] where there's eight matches on the card, and still only one's a woman's match.
“I've always, always said that no matter what, my company is going to have this massive focus on women, and that's just the end of it. Of the 25 shows we've done over three years, ten of their main matches have been women.”
Ang is unequivocal: “Right from the outset, [Stacey] hasn’t asked, she’s demanded we’re treated the same.” The first time Ang headlined a show, it was thanks to Stacey, who developed a feud between Ang and another female wrestler, then placed them last. That's the top spot.
“My nerves kicked in," Ang recalls, "and I thought, we'll come out and there’ll be no one left to watch us. But the crowd stayed, and they stuck around to the end, and they roared.”
Dry, saccharine mist explores my lungs. A young woman beside me looks up from her iPhone. “The smoke machine is bubble-gum flavour," she says.
Around the room, 80-odd people sit in plastic garden chairs – family groups and single young men; some family and friends of the wrestlers. A row of very small boys are transfixed: they watch the matches like they’re privy to miracles, forgotten muesli bars crumbling in their delicate fists.
When Frankie Quinn, 21, leaps from the school stage and into the ring, she looks like a woodland fairy in shimmering violet tights. Her opponent is 27-year-old “Devon Lockhart”. He wears lime psychedelic leggings and lime ankle socks and a dopey smile.
Neither wrestler is a badie: Devon apologises when he slams Frankie into the corner, and halfway through draws her to him for a waltz. Frankie’s four-year-old daughter, Indie, shouts “They’re dancing!” and plays a tiny air guitar.
Afterwards, I find Frankie outside on a patch of grass. She’s huddled up knees-to-chest, puffing on a cigarette, beautiful and shy. When she says men have tried to buy her used gear, too, I’m not surprised.
The stay-at-home mum from the North Shore was first encouraged by Stacey to try pro wrestling, "and I’ve just been doing it since".
Why do you like it? “I dunno … it’s hard to explain. I just like the atmosphere."
Stacey is sitting on the concrete to our right, having a rough time of it. “Oh fuck,” she says, “My knee-brace. I’m fucked. I’m fucked. I can’t wrestle without a knee brace. Someone needs to go to my place to get one. I can’t– the main event can’t happen. Maybe I left it in Jono’s truck?”
It’s not in Jono’s truck. Someone races to her place. She still doesn’t look happy; the numbers tonight aren’t what she'd hoped.
Between matches there is a palate-cleasing arm wrestle between "Dream Catcher” Phil Woodgate and Lex Smith, Maniacs United’s 52-year old general manager.
Lex has a burgundy buzz cut and sharp black business shirt rolled up to the elbows. When she wins the arm wrestle, someone hollers: “BEA-TEN BY A LA-DY” on loop, to the tune of The Temptations’ ‘Treat her like a lady’.
We photograph Lex (a government compliance officer – and an “Airsoft Assassin”, martial artist and poet, according to her Twitter bio) in the canteen and she looks elated and a bit overwhelmed. She says, “I’ve never had this much attention before." She hasn’t debuted as a full-on wrestler yet; she’s only been a part of the scene for nine months.
Lex used to watch iconic Kiwi wrestling show On the Mat when she was twelve. Thirty-nine years’ later she saw an ad for a Maniacs United training programme and went along. Now here she is and “it’s a dream come true".
Her persona is a no-nonsense arbitrator, she says. “I’ll get up and be in the face of these huge 110kg guys and they’re two inches from my face and I’m right in there telling them, ‘Nah, you get out of my ring.’”
Her key feud is with an enormous wrestler called Ruff Guts. He knocked her out, once. “And when I say he knocked me out, he actually knocked me out. I’ve got what they call a glass jaw, so it doesn’t take much – a little tap on the jaw and I’m gone.”
Is wrestling fake? It’s the question they get the most and the one they find most irritating. The official term is "sports entertainment" but that's a bit hazy.
Before I meet Stacey at LynnMall she sends me an email about the show: It’s a big deal for her, she says. She really wants to win. Later I ask if she already knew the outcome.
“Yes,” she sighs. “I mean... I guess it's out there anyway.”
Ang says “the fake question” is just about the first thing people ask. “It’s annoying, but it’s understandable, because the outcome is predetermined. But wrestling hurts – the ring’s not that padded. They always say, ‘You can’t fake gravity.’”
Lex Smith, arbitrator, is having none of it. “They’ll come up and say: ‘It’s all fake! It’s fake!’ And my response to that is, come and do a couple of training sessions and you’ll see just how fake it is.
“Then they say, why do you enjoy it so much? And I say, when you walk into a Star Wars movie, you don’t go in there and say 'This is a bunch of fake shit!’ at the top of your lungs and spoil it for everybody as well as yourself. You suspend disbelief and you enjoy yourself.”
The main goal is to toy with the crowd’s emotions, Stacey tells me. "Make them laugh, cry, angry, depressed, sad, annoyed, frustrated.” You want to suspend disbelief to the point people – even people who know it's 'fake' – say, “My god, I'm so invested in this; I need to know what's going to happen.”
“It's an art," she says. "It really is an art.”
Are you always the baddie, I ask. “You'll have no doubt of who I am once you see me on Saturday,” she replies.
Two statuesque men emerge from the school stage to a backdrop of mysterious music. They’re wearing a look that's half motorcycle gang, half goth.
“They look dodgy as,” someone shouts.
“What a racist,” someone shouts back, and erupts into laughter.
Kids yell out disses to the wrestlers and when the wrestlers pay them attention they go all coy like their crush has given them a special smile, even though what they’re getting is back is “What the hell are you looking at, you freaking little idiot”.
At the end of one match an 11-year-old is pulled into the ring and lifted high up onto the shoulders of a wrestler, who presents him with a wooden plaque. The whole hall sings him the birthday song and he beams and shakes his plaque high in the air.
Ang (Scarlett) and Stacey (JPE) materialise from a billow of bubble-gum mist, clutching unidentifiable wooden sticks. Stacey licks hers and screams at everybody to shut up.
“We don’t want you, JPE,” shouts a twenty-something man from the audience I will refer to as Boy.
“You’re a loser,” Stacey tells him.
It is clear that Boy is both deeply invested in Ang, and that his disbelief is properly suspended. “LET’S GO, SCAR-LETT,” he drones, forever.
Things that happen in the fight: Ang slams Stacey’s head against the wall; Stacey crashes a foldable chair against Ang’s head; Stacey puts BBQ skewers into Ang’s head; Stacey drags Ang into the canteen and the crowd rushes to watch them scramble around on the floor next to dusty Twisties.
The crowd chants “Make her bleed! Make her bleed!”
A boy whispers something to his younger sister, who screams in anguish, “IT IS REAL,” then makes a beeline for her dad, whose knee she sits on for the rest of the night, distraught.
Stacey Stewart is stealing the show. She is a swaggering, rolling ball of unfiltered rage.
Eventually, The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ shoots out of the speakers and the audience erupts: Stacey has 'won' the match. She grips her trophy and crawls out of the ring to do a victory prance.
Boy's face is thunder and he is doing the fingers at Stacey, shaking his chubby hands in her face as she passes him by. It feels like the height of rudeness, even here in this hollering hall.
Stacey’s eyes rest on him, and she stops so fleetingly no one else sees.
“Suck it,” she says.