WWE diva Natalya: Pretty in pink but red hot in the ring

WWE PHOTO Natalya (Nattie Neidhart) is a former WWE Divas champion.

Don’t tell Nattie Neidhart that there’s something she can’t do.

She may be pretty in pink and hot as a firecracker, but to the lovely WWE diva known as Natalya, there isn’t anything that can’t be accomplished through hard work and perseverance.

It’s a lesson she learned from her grandfather, the late great Stu Hart, and one that she follows every day of her life.

Neidhart, who will be appearing on next Sunday’s WWE Smackdown show at the North Charleston Coliseum, just happens to be the only female to graduate from the infamous Hart Family Dungeon. She’s also the first third-generation female wrestler to enter the squared circle, and the first third-generation female to hold the WWE Divas Championship which she won at Survivor Series in 2010.

“Natalya” comes from good — make that great — genes.

Her late grandfather is a WWE Hall of Famer. Uncle Bret Hart is a WWE Hall of Famer and a five-time world heavyweight champion. Her father, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, was a top pro wrestler in his own right as well as a former NFL player and national shot-put champion. Her great grandfather, Harry Smith, was an Olympic runner, a New York City Marathon winner and a roommate of Jim Thorpe.

Needless to say, expectations have been pretty high for the 29-year-old femme fatale.

“There’s always been extremely high expectations for me ... especially coming from the Hart family,” she says. “I don’t come from just any family. I consider my family to be royalty.”

The Canadian beauty admits that statement might across as sounding a tad arrogant, but there’s no denying that she comes from stock that is pure wrestling royalty. And that means she has a lot to live up to.

“I truly do put the most expectations on myself because I think about my grandfather and the things that he accomplished, the things that my uncles Bret and Owen and The British Bulldogs accomplished, and what my father has accomplished. I know that I have to be great. And especially being a female in the Hart family, I know that I’m a trailblazer.”

Surprisingly enough, being a third-generation product from one of wrestling’s most celebrated families didn’t make the path to the big leagues any easier.

In fact, says Neidhart, that royalty thing undoubtedly made the road even harder.

“I’ve never ever gotten a free ride off of my family’s name. I had a very challenging time getting to the WWE because I had such expectations for myself and I really had to find who Natalya was. It was just not an easy road.”

Neidhart worked tirelessly to get noticed by WWE. She sent the company tapes for five years and never got hired. She bombarded the office with letters and even had tryouts.

That “open door” never existed.

“I never got a developmental contract because of my family. I struggled and fought tooth and nail for a job here. A lot of people think that just because I’m third generation it was easy. My family didn’t make it easier for me. I would have loved to have had an open door, but there’s been a lot of controversy in my family. I felt like I had so much to prove on my own, and that’s why I put so much pressure on myself to be the best.”

WWE finally signed Neidhart to a developmental contract in 2007, but even then, her future with the company was far from decided.

She had the family name, the wrestling background, good looks and an indomitable spirit. But making it to the main roster sometimes involves a little luck and being in the right place at the right time.

Neidhart made the most of her opportunity during a developmental run that included Deep South Wrestling, Ohio Valley Wrestling and Florida Championship Wrestling where she got to “manage” her cousin D.H. Smith (Harry Smith) and boyfriend Tyson Kidd (TJ Wilson). She gained her inspiration drawing from experiences growing up and training in Calgary.

Succeeding in the wrestling business was no longer an option. It became a mission.

“I felt like I had so much to prove on my own, and that’s why I put so much pressure on myself to be the best. That’s why I trained in the Dungeon and went to Japan and trained with the best female wrestlers in the world, lived in England and traveled the world before I ever got to WWE. I just wanted to be the best.”

Neidhart was called up to the main roster in 2008 and hasn’t looked back. She has brought to the divas division a sense of athleticism and grittiness that she learned in the Hart Dungeon and from working in places like Japan.

She realizes, however, that gaining the spot and holding the spot are two entirely different things.

“I really love what I do. The thing is that it never gets any easier. Once you get hired by WWE, you have to try to get up on the main roster. You’re down in developmental trying to break through and find the thing that will make you stand out. Once you get on the main roster, it’s always very challenging. It makes your job fun because you never stagnate. You’re hungry and you’re always striving for more. If you’re good at what you do, it’s hard to be replaced.”

Unlike many divas, who are brought up to the main roster with limited ring experience, Neidhart had an extensive mat background that included martial arts. Most of her wrestling training came under the watchful eyes of her uncles and a world-class Japanese trainer known as Tokyo Joe (Yukihiro Sakeda), whom Bret Hart once described as “the best teacher of pro wrestling in the world.”

“He was a very famous, trained many stars from Japan and had been very connected to my family,” says Neidhart. “He was my first big break, and I was the only female he ever trained. He had only trained Triple Crown champions. Training with him was probably only second to the Dungeon on the list of most incredible things I’ve ever done in my life.”

Joe was just one of many unique characters that had helped make the Calgary-based and Hart-run Stampede Wrestling promotion one of the most colorful territories in the business. The Japanese grappler was working for Stampede back in the early 70’s when his budding career was cut short when his car slid off the road during a snowstorm. While he was pushing it out of the way of passing vehicles, he was struck from behind by another car that slid off the road, costing him a leg from the knee down.

Despite the loss of his limb, Joe remained involved in wrestling for years, helping train some of Stampede’s top performers.

Neidhart has wonderful memories of growing up around the Hart family home. Her uncle Bret had once jokingly called the house, a rambling 20-room, twin-gabled Victorian mansion perched in the hills of Calgary, “a cross between a big hotel where the housekeepers had quit, a cat and dog refuge, and an orphanage for troubled children.”

That wasn’t far from the truth.

The estate had a labyrinth of a yard piled high with the husks of beat-up Cadillacs that had been driven to death in places like Moose Jaw and Yellowknife. There were always youngsters wrestling in the outdoor rings. But the real grappling took place in the Dungeon, a world-famous lair in the bowels of the mansion that launched countless wrestling careers, and a place where Stu Hart would put his “students” in torturous, terrifying submission holds and squeeze until their blood vessels burst or they simply blacked out.

A feared and dangerous shooter, Stu stretched hundreds of aspiring grapplers, making the toughest, most macho of men squeal like children, begging for escape from one of his excruciatingly painful holds.

Fortunately for Nattie, Stu was in his late 70s by the time she was training in the Dungeon, and his involvement was limited to coming down and watching her work out.

“He would watch us all the time and give us pointers. I think it kind of made him feel young again. He loved to give pointers about how to throw a good uppercut or a good back elbow or a good forearm. He absolutely loved that.”

It’s no surprise that Neidhart’s biggest influence was her grandfather.

The family patriarch was a farm boy from Saskatchewan who had grown up destitute and survived a hardscrabble youth to become one of western Canada’s most revered figures.

His vice-like handshake, growly voice and gruff exterior belied a loving father and grandfather and a compassionate soul who would open his home to friends and strangers alike, a man quick to assist others down on their luck. The Hart house, a Calgary landmark for almost 100 years, was often filled with pets and invited strangers who had an affinity for wrestling and an interest in Stu’s never-ending stories.

“My grandfather was my hero and is still my hero in my life,” says Neidhart. “He overcame so much. When he was a young boy, he was homeless and lived with dogs in the Saskatchewan wilderness just to keep warm. And he didn’t really have a family. He took up amateur wrestling at the YMCA mostly to keep warm. He didn’t have a home or anywhere to go.”

Her grandfather, she says, lived it all and saw it all during his 88 years.

“He legitimately took a really bad situation, and through the power of positive thinking, he turned his entire life around and became a self-made millionaire. He donated a lot of his money to children’s charities through his Stampede Wrestling promotion. Before he passed away he was honored by the queen of England for his work with charities. He’s just not my wrestling role model, but also the role model in my life who taught me that anything can be accomplished through perseverance.”

Neidhart realizes that she must now carry a different type of mantle for the family name.

“As much as I want to compare myself to my uncles and my grandfather and the Hart clan, I’m different because I’m the first female to actually wrestle,” she says. “It has always been a lot of pressure, and I’ve been a perfectionist my entire life. I’ve always wanted to be excellent at everything I’ve done. Whether it was in school, where I had to gets straight A’s or it wasn’t good enough. I have a type A personality.

“Same with WWE. I want to be the best. I really, really put pressure on myself to be amazing, but I also know that with hard work comes excellence. My grandfather always instilled in us that talent can’t be stopped. If you work hard you can do anything.”

Along with the name Hart has come considerable controversy over the years. To Neidhart, though, it’s no different than other celebrities who are constantly in the spotlight and subject to media scrutiny.

It just happens to be her family.

“Most families do go through a lot. Every family has stories. When you’re a celebrity, the spotlight is on you. When something happens in the family, big or small, it’s on the cover of a newspaper or on the Internet. But I feel very blessed.”

Yet again, she says, it was lessons learned from her grandfather that helped keep her strong.

“Another thing my grandfather instilled in me is resilience. I’m a very resilient person. I’m kind of like Rocky. No matter how many times I get knocked out, it’s not how hard the punch is, it’s how many times you keep getting back up. My grandfather taught us that you have to keep moving forward.

“Our family has had its ups and downs, but most fans when they think of the Hart family will remember what my uncle Bret accomplished or what my uncle Owen accomplished, or my dad and Bret when they were The Hart Foundation, or Stu Hart getting inducted into the Hall of Fame. I think people, for the most part, recognize how extremely talented the Hart family was and what good people they were and all the good things they did.”

Nattie Neidhart may be only 29 years old, but she has the spirit and savvy of an old-school artist inside the ring. She likes to work off the crowd, somewhat of a lost art in today’s generation of sports entertainment.

“Last year Alicia Fox and I worked together nearly 65 times. We got so many different reactions in so many different cities. In Germany for example, which is very pro-Hart, they loved Natalya. The entire front row was in pink and black. It just changes the dynamic of the match.”

And, like the old saying goes, it still says “wrestling” on the marquee.

“I just want to entertain people and give them the best wrestling match that I can give them. And remind them that I’m from the Dungeon,” she adds.

One thing that might come as a surprise to many fans is that Neidhart, despite having wrestled for a decade now, has always gotten stage fright before going to the ring.

“I can’t eat, I can’t drink any water, it’s almost like a weird energy that I get. I thrive on that energy of just being really on my toes because I really love what I do.”

She chuckles when asked about a recent angle the creative staff had her involved in. She was the victim of a humiliating flatulence problem in various backstage segments and skits. It was far from the first time a diva has had to endure a less-than-flattering storyline.

Neidhart, though, rolled with the flow and made the best of the situation.

“I’m always interested in finding different ways to diversify myself. I’m always looking to expand and to grow,” she says. “ I think of our most entertaining stuff, and one of the favorite matches of my career was with Hornswoggle in front of about 20,000 people in London. I remember Hornswoggle attacking me, and it was so much fun because it was unorthodox.

“Looking back on my family’s career, even my grandfather wrestled a lion. There’s so many unique things that we have to do. I’ve always been a fan of comedy, and one of my favorite TV characters of all time was Chris Farley. I just like to try different things. It was just something different. The good thing about it, whether the people interpreted it as good or bad, was that it did get me a lot of attention.”

There’s no argument there. While some creative minds inside the company might call it “character development,” others weren’t so happy with Natalya’s portrayal.

Neidhart’s own uncle, Smith Hart, took to his Twitter account to lash out, calling it a waste of his niece’s considerable talents.

Former WWE diva Maria Kanellis called the angle “demeaning.”

“For me as a diva, if somebody is talking about me, it’s a good thing,” laughs Nattie. “I like to have my ego fortified.”

She realizes that today’s product involves much more than simply wrestling.

“I don’t take myself too seriously. What we do is about having fun and entertaining people. Sometimes, at the end of the day, people want to see more than headlocks and dropkicks. I know some people thought that was a little bit extreme, but I’ve always been game to try different things. And who knows, one of these days you may even see me in a love angle with Hornswoggle. I may get a big crush on Hornswoggle.”

Could it be one of those grey areas where fiction and fantasy cross paths?

“I actually do have a little crush on him. He’s built in the front and stacked in the back,” she laughs.

Times have changed in the wrestling business, but Natalie Katherine Neidhart knows it’s always going to be an uphill battle for a woman in a man’s game.

That simply means that she’s got to be better than most, and she has to bring her “A” game very night.

“I think there’s always going to be a little competition with everyone. Especially with the girls since if there’s eight matches on our show, there’s seven matches with men in them and just one girls’ match. So it’s highly competitive. There’s probably under 50 women in the world who can do what we do and make a living from it. It’s extremely competitive, so you really have to be at the top of your game to do it.”

Neidhart, a fitness fanatic who specializes in Olympic powerlifting, has continued to impress in WWE. She has embraced her “Natalya” character, which she jokes embraces her true inner diva. “A little bit naughty, a little bit nice.” She formed a top heel duo with Beth Phoenix as “Divas of Doom.” Like Neidhart, Phoenix toiled on the independent circuit for a number of years before making it to WWE.

“I have always believed that talent rises to the top,” says Neidhart. “And I’ve always believed in my work and training in the Dungeon and coming from the roots that I’ve come from and just putting in that hard work.”

For now, though, Nattie “Natalya” Neidhart is just enjoying the ride.

“Working with WWE is a dream come true. Growing up in the Hart family and wanting to do this my entire life is a dream fulfilled. There’s only a handful of people on the planet that can do what we do. Only the strong survive here in WWE. I’ve really come to realize that it takes a very special person to work for WWE and be able to endure all the travel and craziness, but it’s a kind of craziness that we thrive on. You have to be in amazing physical condition and you have to be mentally strong. It’s a lot of hard work. But it’s what I’ve wanted to do my whole life.”

Next Sunday’s show will be headlined by a Triple Threat match with Sheamus defending his world heavyweight title against Daniel Bryan and Christian. Other top bouts include Cody Rhodes vs. Big Show for the Intercontinental title, and Randy Orton against Kane in a No DQ match.

Tickets are available at the box office, online at Ticketmaster.com or charge by phone at 1-800-745-3000.

Action gets under way at 6 p.m. at the Coliseum.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.