Chyna Was a Titan of Wrestling. Joanie Laurer Was a More Complicated Woman
In the 1990s, on the tail of the Golden Age of professional wrestling, there seemed to be an endless string of high-profile men that cycled in and out of the ring. But unlike anyone before, there was only one athlete like Chyna. Joanie Laurer, who performed under the name Chyna from 1997 to 2011, was nearly six feet tall and over 200 pounds. She redefined the place of women in professional wrestling and was exalted as one of the greatest in the sport. But by the time her tenure was over, the legacy of Chyna had been muddied. Struggling with addiction and media exposure, Laurer's life came to a tragic end.
That journey is explored in Vice's new documentary Vice Versa: Chyna, which will air on Vice TV on Thursday night at 9 p.m. For the first time, wrestlers and friends close to the legend will open up about the politics, intimate details, and struggles that Laurer faced throughout her career. But for those unfamiliar with Chyna herself, the story of the famous wrestler is as incredible as it is heartbreaking.
Who is Joanie Laurer?
Laurer was born in Rochester, New York in 1969. In her biography, If They Only Knew, she detailed a tumultuous childhood that involved multiple moves, multiple stepfathers, an eating disorder, and sexual assault from a seventh grade teacher. Laurer persisted, turning to working out in high school and eventually pushing forward and attending college. Also in her book, she alleged that she was raped by two men while attending the University of Tampa. After college, she enlisted in the Peace Corps and held an assortment of odd jobs, including a cocktail waitress, a 900 number operator, and a belly dancer. Later, she started entering fitness competitions, regularly placing first.
Chyna's Ascent and Descent from Greatness
Laurer's wrestling career started in 1995, when she started wrestling under the name Joanie Lee. After meeting Paul Levesque and Michael Hickenbottom (better known by their stage names Triple H and Shawn Michaels, respectively) in 1996 following a WWF (now WWE) show, the company reviewed her wrestling tapes and expressed interest in her joining the organization. WWF's rival, WCW, was also considering Laurer for a position.
According to Laurer, after accepting the WCW position, WWF countered and brought her on as a wrestler in 1997 as part of the famed wrestling faction Degeneration-X. This was disputed, partly, by one of Laurer's mentors who called her a liar, claiming he landed Laurer the position. In an interview about whether wrestling was a reputable sport and form of entertainment, she said, "I'm probably one of the most recognizable female athletes in the world right now. If I go to India, they know who I am... how does that demean me?"
At the same time, Laurer starting dating Levesque and remained with him until 2000. In her early years at WWF, she adopted the name Chyna and became a force for women in wrestling unlike anyone before. She entered battle royale style matches—the first for a woman—and rose through the ranks to become one of wrestling's most popular and profitable stars, despite men in the circuit being intimidated by the idea of a woman beating them. Chyna ultimately became the first and only woman to win the Intercontinental Championship.
Behind the scenes, Laurer posed for Playboy, which stirred controversy in the wrestling circuit. A number of different issues started to arise, particularly after she and Levesque broke up in 2000, that led to Laurer leaving WWF. Reports of her pursuing an acting career were dominant at the time, but later on, it was confirmed that Laurer asked for a salary more than double the one she was offered from WWF, which they ultimately passed on.
The Media Spiral
Following her departure from the WWF, Laurer's public wrestling career never reached the same heights of her heyday. Ultimately, she found herself in a bind, unable to bring the name "Chyna" along with her, as it was licensed to the WWF. In a 2015 video, she addressed some of the issues, clarifying, "My name is Chyna. Those who know me as Joanie or Joan, that's cool. But just to let everyone know, my name is legally Chyna."
In 2004, a sex tape of her and then-boyfriend Sean Waltman (known as wrestler X-Pac) surfaced, titled One Night in China. The video and her subsequent pornographic films would haunt her for years, and before her death, she spoke on the issues, saying, "A tape came out that I didn't want to come out. I felt violated, both physically, sexually, financially. It was in the midst of a tumultuous relationship. An abusive relationship." She continued making videos, saying she was making "lemonade out of lemons."
Later in life, Laurer developed a famous friendship with Anna Nicole Smith and went on Larry King Live to discuss her friend's death right after it was announced. She also appeared in a series of small bit roles on television, as well as film. Ultimately, from the time that Laurer was in wrestling and dating Levesque, she allegedly struggled with mental health issues and addiction, according to reports from family. In the years following her departure from the WWF, she appeared multiple times in the media, discussing her relationships, allegations of physical abuse against Waltman, addiction, and complicated relationship with the WWF.
In 2010, she overdosed on sleeping pills. In 2012, she moved to Japan and started working as an English teacher, alleging that her reputation was ruined in America, preventing her from working in media. "It’s one of the most disheartening illustrations I’ve ever seen of what mental illness and drug abuse can do to a person,” Jim Ross said for a Bleacher Report piece on Laurer. “The saddest part is that, at her core, Joanie Laurer was a very loving, sweet person—a gentle soul. She just couldn’t overcome her demons.”
In the same piece, Laurer's friend, Tonia Moore added (of their shared use of meth), "When you get caught up in that stuff, it feels like you’re in a time warp. Life doesn’t move forward very much. You sit around and come up with all these ideas but never follow through with any of them.”
An Unexpected Loss
In 2015, Laurer moved back to the United States. Six years after her 2010 overdose, Laurer was found in her California home, unconscious. Days before her death, she posted a video that was incoherent, though she seemed in good spirits. Initial reports expected that she died from an accidental overdose. Later in 2016, it was revealed that in addition to alcohol, Laurer had diazepam, nordazepam, oxycodone, oxymorphone, and temazepam in her system. Though her career and legacy were complicated by a number of issues in her life, Laurer remains one of the most influential wrestlers of the modern era, eventually being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2019.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.