Pro wrestling superstar Chyna was a force of nature

Chyna (Joanie Laurer), who passed away last week at the age of 46, was one of the top stars of WWE's Attitude Era.

When will Chyna be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame?

It has been an oft-asked question among wrestling fans over the past decade. And with good reason.

Billed as the “Ninth Wonder of the World,” Chyna helped redefine women’s wrestling during the ’90s and was a major player during one of the hottest periods in WWE history.

With her death last week at the age of 46, that question now becomes much easier to answer. Tragically, and somewhat ironically, Chyna’s passing undoubtedly will pave the way for her well-deserved enshrinement.

Whether or not she gets into the politically driven hall, though, is largely inconsequential in light of her massive accomplishments in the wrestling business. Born Joanie Marie Laurer in Rochester, N.Y., Chyna broke gender barriers and glass ceilings and proved that some women can more than hold their own with their male counterparts in, of all places, a wrestling ring.

The female powerhouse was a force of nature like no one had ever witnessed. She was Wonder Woman in black leather hot pants, boots and halter, a celebrity who not only entertained fans, but empowered women.

But she dealt with lifelong depression, insecurity issues and substance abuse. And in the end, sadly, they would prove too much to overcome.

Since unceremoniously parting ways with WWE in 2001, Chyna posed several times for Playboy magazine, appeared in a string of adult films, and was a reality star train wreck on series like “The Surreal Life” and “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.” She also experienced a number of well-documented meltdowns along the way. To WWE, the centerfold and sex tape star became persona non grata.

Even former love interest and current company executive Paul “Triple H” Levesque was once quoted as saying there would be no way the sports entertainment pioneer would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. At least while she was alive.

Since her death, there have been widespread calls for her to be inducted. But for many, Chyna was already there.

Joanie Laurer was found dead on Wednesday at her home in Redondo Beach, Calif.

Unable to reach her by telephone for several days, a friend went to her apartment, found her not breathing and called the police, according to documents. Officers found her lying dead on her bed when they arrived. Police said there were no indications or signs that her death was a result of foul play.

TMZ reported that neighbors told investigators they suspected “overdose” as the cause of death since she’d seemed “under the influence” lately. A manager later said she had been taking medication for anxiety and sleep deprivation.

Days earlier Laurer, looking disheveled and disjointed as she wandered around her apartment wearing headphones and a feather in her hair, posted a rambling 13-minute video. She filmed herself making a smoothie and drinking it in its entirety from the blender in one long drink

At one point while surveying the view from her seaside apartment, she asked, “How lucky am I?”

“Love you all. Peace,” were her final words.

The final results of the investigation could “take up to several months,” the coroner’s office said.

A friend told Daily Mail Online http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3554333/How-Chyna-spent-days-mixing-drink-prescription-drugs-not-remember-black-eye-trying-bury-demons-past.html that Laurer was not suicidal and was planning for the future.

Erik Angra, who was working with her on making a documentary about her life, said she was trying to deal with the demons of her past, including her relationship with her late father, but had found the process upsetting. He said he and other friends were concerned about Laurer, but did not believe she was suicidal, and that her last message to him was a voice mail in which she spoke about her plans for the coming week.

“She was going through a difficult time since she got back to the U.S. with the way she had to deal with media and fame again,” said Angra.

Anthony Anzaldo, who worked as Chyna’s manager and was involved in the documentary, told The New York Daily News that he was the one who found her body. In her bedroom, he said, were prescription pill bottles for Ambien and “one for an anti-anxiety medication similar to Xanax.” Anzaldo said there was no alcohol or illegal drugs.

Anzaldo said Laurer would be cremated with some of her ashes spread in the Pacific Ocean and some in a location where fans can visit them if they wish.

“My only solace is that she obviously died in her sleep with no pain. She was alive one second and dead the next. It doesn’t look like there was a struggle for air,” Anzaldo said.

Dr. Drew Pinsky, who treated Chyna on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew in 2008, told People magazine that he believes she succumbed to addiction.

“I am very sad for Joanie and her loved ones, but I am also terribly angry because I suspect addiction may have taken another life,” he said.

Plans are being made for her brain to be donated to research, according to Anzaldo.

The story of Joanie “Chyna” Laurer is ultimately a sad and tragic one. Depression and substance abuse never seemed to be that far away. The signs were always there, even in her formative years.

In her 2001 autobiography, “If They Only Knew,” Laurer tried to recall how many fathers she had growing up.

“I had three, possibly four, if you count the boyfriend in between who never married my mom,” she wrote. She would move several times (often depending on the man her mother was dating or married to), around New York and beyond. She battled bulimia, only stopping when the capillaries in her eyes burst from the force of vomiting and “stomach lining started showing up in the toilet,” she wrote.

During her college years she claimed she was raped by two football players at party.

She would finally feel validated, though, when she discovered professional wrestling. At 5-10 with a chiseled body and able to bench-press more than 350 pounds, she wasn’t going to fit into the prototypical divas role. And unlike the other divas on the roster, she was neither pristine nor innocent. She was bigger, more athletically built and certainly more muscular than her counterparts, and she knew how to wrestle

Since she’d chucked a job as a singing telegram girl to train with legendary wrestler Walter “Killer” Kowalski in Massachusetts, she had no interest in the women’s division and was thrilled to get a gig working as an Amazon bodyguard for fellow Kowalski product Hunter Hearst Helmsley (Paul “Triple H” Levesque), with whom she would develop a personal relationship outside the ring.

“I’d been rejected at everything,” she told the Boston Herald in 1999, citing unsatisfying efforts as a bartender, saleswoman and singer. But inside the ring, she found her success. “I could go out and be this big, huge female and entertain people. That’d be my niche.”

“At its best, coming into WWF pro wrestling as a beginner is like suddenly having a private table at the best restaurant in town,” said Laurer. “You have arrived, girl, and millions of people are gonna be shouting your name. Your scowling breasts will stare out at kids from the posters of you that they’ve pinned to their closet doors. It’s movin’ on up to the East Side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky. It’s a dream come true in a dream come true.”

But at its worst, she added, it was “a combination of walking the prison yard for the first time and Showgirls.” She suffered abuse and humiliation from fans who spit on her and threw batteries at her, and from wrestlers who resented her being inserted into a man’s world.

“I had to travel with these guys, be on the road with them 250 days out of the year, I had to dress with them, joke, cry, laugh, live with them, and try to make myself part of what was heretofore a man’s world.”

And she more than succeeded.

One of the top stars of WWE’s wildly successful Attitude Era, Chyna helped found the ground-breaking faction D-Generation X, and earned the distinction of being the first and only female to hold the Intercontinental championship.

In the end though, “It’s not about what she did. It’s about who she was,” said longtime friend and former WWE writer Vince Russo. But, he added, “It would be hard to come across someone that was more giving and more loving than she was. Joanie Laurer was the most loving, kind, giving individual I ever met in the wrestling business.”

Considered smart and funny by many of her friends and colleagues, she lived a number of lives outside the wrestling business. She had graduated from the University of Tampa with a degree in Spanish literature, was a trainee with the Peace Corps in Costa Rica and Guatemala, and once contemplated a career in law enforcement.

Wanting to escape from the adult film world and the demons that had followed her for much of her life, she moved to Japan to teach English to Japanese children and center herself before returning to the U.S. last year.

“She ups and leaves and goes to Japan not knowing a soul ... not knowing anyone. So she’s living in Japan on her own teaching English as a second language,” said Russo.

After receiving a number of late-night calls from Chyna, Russo said he became convinced that one morning he would go online and read that she was found dead in her Tokyo apartment.

“She was so incoherent. There was no way she would have been able to get herself on a plane. That’s how bad it was.”

“I was taking a break, removing myself, regrouping, getting it together and I’m ready to come back. It was amazing, it was a really great, spiritual journey for me,” she said upon her return.

Friends say she had been working out several times a week at a hot yoga studio near her home. Aside from her fitness workouts, she also was passionate about playing the cello.

And while her wrestling life was far behind her, she still, to the very end, wanted to reclaim a legacy that she felt was rightfully hers. Public pleas and even letters to WWE fell on deaf ears. Those in charge were well aware of her missteps after wrestling, and some felt they could not risk the possibility of further outbursts or behind-the-scenes intrigue on their watch.

And then, of course, was the bad blood that had existed since Levesque broke off his relationship with her in favor of one that eventually produced a marriage and three children with Stephanie McMahon, daughter of WWE owner Vince McMahon.

After discovering their affair, Chyna confronted the WWE boss, made demands for more money, and was eventually released from the company.

Her former beau and her romantic rival both responded to Chyna’s passing.

“She was truly a pioneer in our industry, and she will be missed,” tweeted Stephanie McMahon.

Chyna was “someone who wasn’t afraid to blaze her own trail and create a path for those who would follow,” Levesque posted on Twitter. “A pioneer whose star shined bright.”

Outside of the wrestling realm, however, her tumultuous life began spinning out of control and her self-destruction began.

In 2005 she was arrested and charged with beating her former boyfriend, Sean “X-Pac” Waltman, after returning from the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. The New York Post later reported that she had stripped naked and jumped into a fish tank at a New York nightclub. Later, during an appearance on the Howard Stern Show, she slurred her words and didn’t deny wanting to do cocaine if it was placed in front of her.

Chyna told the Calgary Sun in 2005 that she was battling drug and alcohol-related issues as well as a mental illness, and confided on “The Surreal Life” that she had once attempted suicide by taking pills. Waltman made a desperate plea to the show’s producers.

“This is a crucial time for you and anyone else who has profited from doing business with her to step up and help save this woman’s life,” Waltman wrote on his website. “(She) is on the losing end of a life-or-death battle with drugs and alcohol, along with severe mental illness.”

In 2008 she was hospitalized after mixing alcohol with prescription medication. Two years later she was hospitalized after overdosing on sleeping tablets.

As the demons of addiction closed in, her hopes of ever re-establishing a relationship with WWE evaporated. The company stayed clear of her until the end.

In a podcast with Steve Austin last year, Levesque said that although her career warranted it, Chyna’s involvement with the porn industry might keep her out of the WWE Hall of Fame.

“It’s a bit difficult, though, and this is the flip side of the coin, and this is the side nobody looks at. I’ve got an 8-year-old kid, and my 8-year-old kid sees Hall of Fame, and my 8-year-old kid goes on the Internet to look at Chyna,” Levesque told Austin. “What comes up? And I’m not criticizing anybody. I’m not criticizing lifestyle choices. Everybody has their reasons. I don’t know what they were. I don’t care to know. It’s not a morality thing or anything else. It is just the fact of what it is. That’s a difficult choice.”

In an interview Thursday with The Daily Mirror, Levesque appeared to have softened his stance, calling Chyna “a great person, an amazing talent, a ground-breaking pioneer.”

“You know it’s not my decision, but I definitely think, as I have said before, that what she did in her life certainly warrants it. There was never anybody like her before her, and there will never be anybody like her after.”

On a podcast with Russo, Chyna claimed Levesque had been abusive toward her during their relationship.

“I think Hunter’s plan was to get me to leave the relationship first. That way he could start dating Stephanie and everything would be cool. We got into a heated argument. We were not getting along. I told him, ‘I know something’s going on; don’t tell me something’s not going on.’ He swiped my hand, I swiped his hand, and then he hit me. And that’s a deal-breaker for me.”

She described the incident as a “Jerry Springer moment.”

“I was just in shock ... it was very surreal. I just couldn’t believe that he hit me.”

It was a claim Levesque would vehemently deny.

Russo said he extended the invitation to Chyna because he felt Levesque had been taking “cheap shots” during his interview on the Austin podcast. “She’s a human being struggling, fighting for her life, and you’re going to take cheap shots. I’m glad that I did that, and I’m glad that interview still exists to this day.”

Several years ago Russo managed to bring Chyna to TNA which she thought would be a “second life” for her, but the company released her due to her adult film. He would later help facilitate her move back to the states, and saw her at a convention last November.

“With all the heartache and the turbulence and the addiction and the pills and the alcohol and all she went through, she looked like a million bucks again.”

Russo, though, said he was puzzled when he discovered that she was doing a documentary apologizing to WWE. “Her losing her fiance wasn’t enough. Her losing her job wasn’t enough. Let’s take her name now so she can’t get work. That’s where the problem began. The trouble didn’t begin with two people falling in love. That’s going to happen. Chyna herself recognized that. But what are you (Chyna) apologizing for? What do you have to be sorry for?”

She just wanted closure.

But there was none, said Russo. “To let a woman who has been suffering now for 15, 16 years over this incident that led to a downward spiral ... she’s not asking for a job, she’s not asking for money, she’s not asking for help. She’s simply asking for closure. How do they deny that?

“She wasn’t validated by her own parents. She wasn’t validated by her fiance who went out and found somebody else. She was still looking for validation. That closure would have been validation.”

Noted San Diego-based sports psychologist Dr. David Reiss says Laurer responded to a tweet he had posted on publicizing depression several months ago.

“Nothing personal, but she asked if she could help and I wrote back that I’d be glad to talk to her and I’d welcome her help.”

Unfortunately she never did.

Without knowing the details of her particular case, Reiss says those suffering from depression have to want to be treated. Unfortunately, much of the treatment is superficial, and medication doesn’t get to the root of underlying problems.

“Too many athletes are afraid to reach out for help or go for quick fix (often snake oil) rehabs,” says Reiss. “Too many practitioners have trouble dealing with athletes in both directions — they get taken in by the celebrity and don’t try to reach the real person and real issues, and they don’t understand that athletes in general (and people in other professions where there is a tendency to enjoy the adrenaline rush and excitement) respond differently to both therapy and psychotropic medications typically used for treatment, and those issues need to be taken into account.”

People who like to “live on the edge” are often put on anti-depressants, he says. In the case of ex-wrestlers and athletes, says Reiss, many are dealing with issues related to chronic pain and often with issues related to even low-level repetitive head trauma.

“At first, it numbs what they’re feeling. But then they don’t feel alive. They don’t feel themselves. They don’t feel normal. And then they become even more depressed. For some athletes it becomes the perfect storm. Even when they go for treatment a lot of times, they’re not really getting sophisticated intervention.”

Ultimately, says Reiss, those suffering from depression must deal with their underlying emotional issues.

“If you don’t deal with the baggage you grew up with, all the rehab in the world won’t help. You can go through the motions, say the right things, but it’s not going to help,” he says.

“Most of the programs out there focus on substance abuse, which is often a significant issue, but there must be attention to the unique individual using the drugs — who they are in ‘real life,’ their personal history, family, etc. — not just a general stereotype. There needs to be more attention to the emotional needs of athletes — from the high school athlete who never goes any further to the retired professional.”

Chyna reportedly had been regularly attending hot yoga classes near her home in recent months, with relationship strife behind her.

“At the end of the day, all she wanted was to be loved,” Russo said on his podcast.

Russo, who has dealt with his own depression, said the breakup with Levesque was the unraveling of Chyna.

“It was an unravelling she never recovered from.”

Russo said that while she was a full-blown addict “because of the circumstances that led to it,” he believes acceptance from her former employer could have helped. “There is nobody that can tell me that that could not have possibly been the step in the direction of sobriety. All she wanted was acceptance and love ... which is free, which cost you nothing, and you could not give that to her?”

Russo concluded his emotional podcast by saying that God had gifted him with an angel.

“Am I heartbroken? Yes. Am I ripped apart? Yes. Am I thankful I had Joanie in my life for the best part of 20 years? Yes. That was an absolute gift from God.”

“Joanie Laurer spent a good part of her life struggling for her life on this planet,” he said. “But right now, as she looks down on all of us, she is the happiest person in the world. She has met her maker. Her maker has thanked her for everything she brought to us ... I know she’s pain-free. I know she’s sitting at the right hand of God with a huge smile on her face. I know they’re pampering her and telling her how much they love her. They’re giving her the affirmation that she never got.”

Tributes poured in by the hundreds following Chyna’s death. Wrestlers and fans expressed an outpouring of support for the larger-than-life personality.

One of the most touching tributes came from WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley, who bonded with Chyna shortly after she joined WWE.

Noting that his heart was aching and his eyes were swollen from crying, Foley posted the following:

“I will always be grateful for the friendship I shared with her, but particularly so for the kindness she showed my children, especially Noelle when she was younger. I will never forget those moments where Joanie would take Noelle by the hand at WWE events in the late 90’s— off to have her makeup done, her fingernails painted; bonding time between big, strong Joanie, and her tiny sidekick. A father doesn’t forget that type of kindness.

“I didn’t know whether to post a classic photo of Chyna in her WWE prime or of Joanie from the last time I saw her — about 10 months ago at a convention on Long Island. I went with the photo from the convention because of the emotion; because it was taken at the exact moment I saw her for the first time in many years. I was told later that Joanie wasn’t sure how I would react to her, and that it meant a great deal to her to be accepted. Like I said, a father doesn’t forget. I called home on my way back from the convention — only about 40 minutes from my house. ‘I’m bringing a friend over to watch the pay-per-view,’ I said to my wife.

“Who’s that?” my wife asked.

“Chyna.”

“Chyna?”

“Yeah, Chyna!”

“And that was pretty much that. A mother, you see, doesn’t forget the kindness shown to her child, either.

“I am so glad we had that night with Joanie. A night to let her know how much we cared about her, whether it was politically correct or not. A night to let her know we loved her — and always would. RIP my dear friend. I pray that somehow in death, you can find the peace that eluded you so frequently during the latter years of your remarkable life.”

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.