When Tatevik Hunanyan made her pro debut in 2013, the Armenian beauty brought a number of attributes to the wrestling table.
Lovely and lethal with a strong combat arts background, the performer then known as Tatevik The Gamer – a nod to her competitive gaming skills – also was a classically trained ballet dancer and actress who studied at the Lee Strasberg Theater/Film Institute in Los Angeles.
Named after a ninth-century Armenian monastery, Tatevik began her ballet training at the age of 5. By the time she was 15, she was dancing the Argentine tango under the tutelage of renowned dancer Sergei Tumas.
Her varied array of talents in the classical arts field came quite naturally.
Her father, Gevorg Hunanyan, was a noted opera singer and master tenor. Her grandfather, Artashes Hunanyan, was a recognized artist in Armenia, Russia and parts of Europe.
While studying at the Strasberg school, she met legendary martial artist and Hollywood stunt coordinator Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, and began extensive kick boxing and stunt training.
“That’s when my life changed forever. He led me to be where I am today,” she says. “Sensei Benny would always say, ‘Forget what you know, remember what you have forgotten.’ I’m proud to finally say, thank God I remembered.”
Tatevik’s background in acting, martial arts and dance assisted her transition into the professional wrestling world. She appreciates it, she says, for its own unique, aesthetic qualities.
“If I didn’t have these tools, I don’t think I would have appreciated pro wrestling as much as I do when I’m in the ring,” she said in a 2013 interview. “It would feel mechanical. It wouldn’t feel natural. It would be like a painter only working with the colors black and gray. Pro wrestling has been the one sport where I can intertwine all the things that I do.
“People from all over the world have the dream to come here and make a name for themselves and do their own thing. Very few make a living doing this. It’s not easy, and for the most part, it can take a number of years for an artist to make a name for themselves.”
Tatevik says she’s always enjoyed pro wrestling, but wasn’t allowed to see much of it growing up. More than anything, she loved what she called the “freedom” that pro wrestling afforded.
“It’s just me, and it’s very honest. You have the freedom to do what you want and express yourself the way you want. We’re storytellers. I want to wrestle. I want to act. It’s like painting a picture, and the ring is my canvas.”
It’s also the unpredictability of the business that has attracted Tatevik, who turned 30 in August.
“I love that it can take you into so many different directions. You can plan one thing, and it can just change and go a different route. It’s fun, and I love being a part of that.”
Manager Steve Stasiak, who cites Tatevik’s work ethic and dedication, sings her praises.
“Many people get deterred in professional wrestling,” says Stasiak. “Tatevik comes from a culture of hard work, discipline, class, grace and an unrelenting will to be great. I’ve seen her thrive in every environment.”
Fast-forward to 2019, and Tatevik, who holds the distinction of being the first Armenian-born ladies pro wrestler, still has a zest for the business. But, as she has discovered, it can be a tough profession to navigate.
“It’s been a very crazy and surreal journey,” says Tatevik, who was only 1 when her family moved from the former Soviet state of Armenia to California. “This industry is very difficult. It’s overly controlled and selective. It might have nothing to do with your talent or work ethic. I’ve embarked on this wrestling journey, and it’s taken me in many directions and opened a number of doors.”
Dropping “The Gamer” character, Tatevik says she knew she had to be more than “a wrestler” to make it in today’s ever-changing landscape.
“I wanted to do something different because I’ve always been different. The whole Tatevik The Gamer was different, but it wasn’t enough. I knew that I eventually was going to have to come up with something new and find my place in this industry. Especially in a company like WWE, you have to have something special to offer.
“I don’t think it’s interesting enough go out there as just a wrestler. I don’t want to go out there as just a wrestler. I feel this business needs more than just wrestlers. What’s really lacking is that magic, that mystique, that story, that character. And even if there’s just a handful of good characters, we can bring the company up and make everything else work.”
There was a point in her life, she says, where she hit a complete roadblock.
“I wasn’t wrestling anywhere, even though I was training in different schools, remaining consistent in the gym, and was back in my acting classes at the Strasberg Institute. I was comfortable, too comfortable, and I didn’t like that.
“To keep a very long and complicated process simple, in late 2015 I was forced to let go of something I loved very much. I had gone through a very emotional experience and loss in my life, which felt like the death of a family member. But this painful experience was exactly what I needed to make the breakthrough that I did. There was a great sense of betrayal and injustice that I felt as a result from what these people had done. People that I considered family. When the damage was done, that door was shut closed, and I knew it was time to create my own door.”
WWE started calling her for extra work, and in February 2016 Tatevik took her first booking as an extra. Even then she made a special connection just being in a backstage environment.
What she didn’t realize at the time, she says, is that events in her life had been perfectly set to happen in the order that they did for one purpose. And that was finding Sister Abigail, the mysterious, elusive entity connected to WWE star Bray Wyatt.
“There was a perfect balance of pain and love in the midst, which activated the wheel of fortune,” says Tatevik, who claims to have known of the character for several years. And while she didn’t know much about Bray Wyatt or The Wyatt Family, she felt a special relationship to Sister Abigail.
“I knew this about Abigail before even knowing Bray Wyatt,” she says. “I remember being in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2013 at a friend’s dojo and seeing a sheep mask hanging from the top turnbuckle and thinking to myself, ‘What kind of weird (stuff) is that?’ The point is, I never followed the WWE nor was I fan because growing up in a strict household, wrestling was unacceptable. I was on my own spiritual journey in search of my place in this business. And I wanted to rediscover myself in the most organic way possible because I knew that when/if I did, my story would be one of the most authentic and creative stories ever told in this business.”
Tatevik’s creativity kicked into high gear after seeing the Wyatt compound burn to the ground as part of a WWE storyline involving Randy Orton. She knew then that her story would be Sister Abigail’s.
“It was a combination of what had happened to me on a personal level that started to make sense. I wanted to recreate my story based off of what had happened to me,” she says.
“When I witnessed Randy Orton burning the Wyatt family compound to the ground and Bray becoming neurotic at the sight of it happening, I was reminded of my own recent trauma. Still, not only that, it was as if I had made a connection to the real Sister Abigail. The entire story was downloaded in my psyche on an ethereal level, and it suddenly all came together. I knew exactly why this was happening, why my world was recently burned down, where Sister Abigail has been the entire time, how and where she is going, etc. Of course, by now, you’re questioning my sanity, but this was an authentic experience, and I was more than excited to reveal my truth to WWE.”
Vision for character
Independently she did her research and went to work on developing the character which, to that point, had been basically undefined.
“I showed up with everything on Sister Abigail that I had created. I created my own outfit. A seamstress and designer friend of mine helped put the look together. I had a lookbook which was titled ‘The Resurrection of Sister Abigail.’ This was the character concept created by me. I painted the picture from then, now and the future. I laid out the whole platform.”
“I put myself on camera for them before they did anything with it,” she added. “I wanted to paint the picture of an older Abigail suffering in purgatory and how she escaped, as she steps into her new body. I hired a professional makeup artist to age me to look like I was in my 60s. I wanted to strip down the beauty from everything.”
She says she knew timing was of the essence, so she got to work immediately.
“I became obsessed with everything Sister Abigail that exists. I purchased books on Sister Abigail in which two were available: ‘A Force of Habit: A Sister Abigail Mystery’ and ‘Sister Abigail Townsend,’ the story of the real-life Sister Abigail who was a traveling missionary. I did this because I wanted to educate myself as much as possible even though the stories were unrelated to my vision for the character.
“I remember isolating myself from everyone as I went more in-depth with the idea, writing and connecting my version of Sister Abigail to Bray and the WWE. In my lookbook, my objective was to elevate Bray Wyatt’s characters as I introduced them to Sister Abigail. I revealed that after her passing, Sister Abigail was given a chance to cleanse and purify her soul over eons of repentance. An unexpected chance at forgiveness and a path to redemption, but no redemption is without sacrifice. Paying her ultimate price in purgatory, her punishment was that she would endure the mental, physical and spiritual pains of the one she loved most, Bray Wyatt.
“But with Bray Wyatt in possession of Abigail’s magic, his connection to her was very much alive. So the moment Randy burnt the compound, Bray activated her magic on a much higher level, made contact, and thanks to Randy, pushed her spirit out. Not to give away too much, but I gave the WWE options, which I later realized wasn’t the smartest thing to do because when you give them more than you should, chances are they’ll go in the direction that keeps you out of the picture. But the reason I felt that it was a good idea to give them options was because I wanted them to be convinced that I had this character down entirely and then some more.”
“WWE didn’t tell me to do anything, by the way, I pretty much surprised them,” she added. “Maybe I didn’t go at it the right way on a business level, where an agent or someone would have to make some kind of deal with them before I gave anything up. But it wasn’t kind of that situation.”
Character in trouble
When she handed her work to WWE on Sept. 11, 2017, Tatevik said it was one of the best and worst feelings she had experienced in a long time.
“The best being that I had hit a home run on a creative level with the company, and the worst was knowing I no longer had control, and it resulted in what they had done with the material on Oct. 2, 2017/Oct. 9, 2017. The worst part about it was that no one asked why all this was happening because for every effect, there is a cause. Debuting Sister Abigail in that fashion was not my idea; in fact, when they decided to jump the gun without my involvement, I knew that this was the beginning of the end, and my character was in trouble. So I continued developing creative ways to save the Sister Abigail character, submitting ideas of how the character can be brought to life as I followed where they were taking the story each week.”
Initially Tatevik received favorable responses from those in the company, she says. Her bookings increased, and some even called her the would-be Sister Abigail behind the scenes. While she says she was never given any kind of instructions or direction, she was operating on “a highly intuitive level and trusting myself in the process.”
“They took control and ran with it. And I was chasing them to make sure they weren’t going to mess it up. That was my number one concern … that they were going to screw this up. Now everything changed. What people thought Sister Abigail is or is not, including the WWE and Bray Wyatt, everything changed. Now the real entity walks in and hands them over the key, and says ‘Here it is.’ But you kick me out of the door, that’s not OK. You take my key and run with it and you lock the door, now I have to break the door I created down and hope that I can somehow get back in, which is literally what I had to do.
“What began to concern me was that I was going to be kept inside out for the long run because the people who were supposed to provide me with direction kept redirecting their attention away,” she says. “I was kept in because they knew I was Sister Abigail but kept me out because I wasn’t a talent under contract.
“With the angle of the mummified veil over Bray Wyatt, none of that was in the book. They were reading out of the script. First of all it was too long and I think they knew that. I think they did that because they wanted to turn people off to the idea of a real Sister Abigail. And it worked.”
Feedback declined, and Tatevik realized that she needed some type of insurance policy to protect her creative contributions.
“I felt I was being somewhat manipulated. They were very excited at what I had done. They couldn’t believe that somebody from the outside could just walk in and have these kinds of solutions. It wasn’t an idea; it was a solution, and that’s powerful stuff …that’s why they plugged it in. That’s why Sister Abigail was alive.”
In the meantime, the revamped Bray Wyatt character has become one of the hottest acts in the company, portraying a mild-mannered host of the “Firefly Fun House” kids show, but also undergoing a ghoulish transformation as a terrifying alter ego known as “The Fiend,” terrorizing WWE’s roster.
On June 5, 2018, Tatevik applied to trademark “Sister Abigail” for use in professional wrestling after WWE abandoned its application to obtain the trademark.
She says she wasn’t going to just bow her head and walk away.
“I filed for the Sister Abigail mark because I had enough of the significant amount of giving on my end and little to no return on theirs,” says Tatevik. “But by now, Bray Wyatt’s timeline had changed, and there was no form of guarantee or direction from their end. I didn’t feel good about trademarking the name, but I knew that I would feel worse if I continued to risk an outcome that would make me feel worse, like witnessing someone else in this role.
"In their first opposition to my mark, they responded by stating that I had only expressed an ‘interest’ in playing the role, failing to recognize the work that I had put in. I couldn’t help but wonder if Bray calling Abby the Witch a ‘bully’ during the first Firefly Fun House episode was a reflection of how the WWE felt about my decision to trademark the name. Needless to say, we all deserve the truth, and I’m not ready to give up on myself and my family just yet.”
But on March 19, 2019, WWE officially contested her attempt at securing the “Sister Abigail” name, claiming that she did not create the character and has consequently attempted to usurp the intellectual property of WWE.
WWE also claimed that given the fact that WWE’s “Sister Abigail” intellectual property was exactly the same as Hunanyan’s trademark, and that WWE’s ‘Sister Abigail’ and (Tatevik) Hunanyan’s version both resided within the same industry, the duplication would no doubt cause confusion to consumers.
Tatevik readily admits that she did not create the Sister Abigail name, but gave life to the character and the change in timeline of the Bray Wyatt character.
“It’s especially important to state that I was not instructed by the WWE to create the Sister Abigail character, nor were there any plans for this character to be brought to life. WWE took my concept for the Sister Abigail character, and applied it to Bray Wyatt. And they kept me out of the picture. I think that’s what people may be confused by. I’m not trying to run with the name. I’m not even trying to fight the WWE. I’m trying to fight for the truth.
“I would also like to be clear that this is not to make the WWE look bad or to point fingers at anyone because I am ultimately responsible for my actions, decisions and eventually the change in Bray Wyatt’s timeline as we have it today,” says Tatevik. “I have always believed that everything happens for a reason, and this is very true in my case based on the powerful experiences I’ve had so far in my time in the business.”
As for the storyline Sister Abigail, “They have Abby the witch now, which represents Sister Abigail,” one of the characters in Wyatt’s Firefly Funhouse, says Tatevik.
“Sister Abigail is an extraordinary woman,” says Tatevik, who is currently pursuing a degree at Ashford University in California. “I’ve heard that there have been several women in this business who have stood in line for this role. But the problem they’ve all shared is that none of them is this character nor was Abigail ever interested in any of them. I mean this on a literal level because no one can ‘play’ any role. The character chooses you and gives you permission to play them. And getting there is an earned right. I earned the right to give life to Sister Abigail. And any great performer in our industry can understand what this means.”
Tatevik claims she is only interested in “doing the right thing.”
“Sometimes doing what’s best for you is what’s best for business … I’m not interested in recovering money from the WWE, nor am I impressed with the glitz and glamour. All I have ever wanted in my life was to do the right thing and to pass that on. And the right thing to do in this case is only one thing, and that is to connect the real truth of Sister Abigail to people.
“I hope that this helps people understand exactly what kind of story is in front of them. It’s not an idea; it’s a real story I’m fighting for, which is my life … The power has been in my journey the entire time, not the destination. I feel that I have done things the right way, my way, and maybe even in the way Sister Abigail would do it.”
Reach Mike Mooneyham at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham. His newly released book — “Final Bell” — is now available at https://evepostbooks.com and on Amazon.com