Maki Itoh's J-Pop Idol Past Explained

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Maki Itoh, the self-proclaimed "Cutest in the World," has made quite an impact on American audiences ever since she appeared on All Elite Wrestling shows in 2021. Her cute look and outfits hide her rough attitude, as she wrestles with a moveset more akin to Jon Moxley than John Cena. Headbutts, foot stomps, profane insults, and middle fingers are standard attacks in a Maki Itoh match. While she's seen as more of a comedy act or gimmick, Itoh has worked long and hard to become the pro wrestler she is today, and she gets more than a few cheers when she enters an arena while singing her own theme music.

Itoh was a star long before she arrived in AEW, touring Japan as a member of popular idol group LinQ, and as a professional wrestler with Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling and DDT Pro-Wrestling. While she refers to herself as the "Fired Idol," many are unaware that she really is a J-pop idol, and really was fired. Here, we will explain Maki Itoh's history in the Japanese entertainment scene.

A crush led to a career as an idol

Maki Itoh was an outsider for much of her young life. Born July 22, 1995 in Ogori City, Fukoka Prefecture, Japan, her city sense of style clashed with the other students at the rural schools she attended. In a 2021 interview with Nikkan SPA (in Japanese), Itoh mentions that she was "bullied just for wearing a miniskirt." She talks about days she didn't want to go to junior high school because she "didn't feel comfortable with the people around [me]."

Maki says it was a boy she was interested in that led her to her idol career. She learned the young man had a crush on idol Yuki Kashiwagi of the group AKB48. After failing to get into any of the high schools she was hoping to attend, as many high schools in Japan require passing an entrance exam, Maki decided to audition to become a Japanese pop music (or J-pop) idol.

Idol tryouts and an intro to pro wrestling

Idol is a term common in Japanese culture, but one we rarely use here in the United States outside of the "American Idol" TV show. According to the book "Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Coverage," the term "idol" refers to musicians recruited by agencies in Japan and assembled into groups. They are "highly produced and promoted singers, models, and media personalities," kind of like modern YouTube or Instagram influencers. While many are talented singers, songwriters, and models, they are chosen to be part of these idol groups based more on their looks and personalities.

Itoh learned that the newly formed idol group LinQ was recruiting members for their second generation of members and applied. After losing a little over six pounds, she was accepted into the "Qty" team of LinQ. This group was more of a B-team, as opposed to the "Ladys" group that did the majority of performances. The Qtys were expected to sell tickets, attend meet and greets with fans, and occasionally perform either on stage or in impromptu street performances. They also made appearances to promote the group.

Maki's first experience with professional wrestling was during one such promotional appearance on August 13, 2013, where she took part in an idol lumberjack match for DDT Pro-Wrestling. While she was only there performing as a lumberjack, attacking wrestlers who fell from the ring with an inflatable hammer, she made an impression on DDT President Sanshiro Takagi. In her SPA interview, Itoh recalls "When I was about 17, I stood in a ring in Ryogoku for the first time and head-butted Mr. Takagi and became famous." She said it was Takagi who then encouraged her to give pro wrestling a shot.

Heading out on her own

Maki began training to become a professional wrestler while also working as an idol, with the pressures of both jobs bearing down on her. She spoke about being put on hiatus by LinQ, and talked candidly to SPA about her battles with depression. It was Takagi's return from an illness that inspired her to rebound from her own difficulties. She said "when I saw him working hard after overcoming his illness, I thought 'I really want to enter this world, so I'll try my best again.'"

Her newfound motivation led to Maki moving, alone, from Fukuoga to Tokyo. She only told her mother, who was managing LinQ at the time. "Actually, I didn't even tell my father. I was wondering if it was possible," she told SPA. Living in the city allowed Itoh to return to her duties with LinQ's Qty squad, but she made the move with zero savings. While Maki trained to be a wrestler and performed with LinQ, she also worked at a bar to make ends meet. She appeared in a few multi person matches from 2013 to 2015, but she didn't make her singles debut until December 11, 2016, against Miyu Yamashita. She had a good showing but lost to the veteran striker. Itoh would not get her first singles victory for another eight months, but even that would come with some complications.

Becoming the Fired Idol

In 2017, LinQ announced that they would be restructuring, which is a common occurrence for idol groups. Maki Itoh was one of the names on the chopping block. According to All About Japan, a common practice in idol groups is the elimination of older or less popular members by "giving them a graduation ceremony." Last Word On Sports note that Itoh needed to sell a certain quantity of tickets or she'd be cut. Maki took her mission seriously, bringing tickets with her to DDT shows and setting up a makeshift table to sell them after her match. She managed to sell all the tickets, but she was let go from LinQ anyway.

Maki learned about her dismissal via social media, and immediately tweeted "Good morning! I got fired from LinQ! I'm Maki Itoh, an idol who fights even after being fired!!" She also used her release to further her wrestling career, shouting to have "Calorie Nante," the LinQ song she had been using as her theme, stopped during her entrance to an Idol Lumberjack Match with Azusa Takigawa. She then announced her firing to the crowd, sang an impromptu cover of another idol song, and went on to get her first singles victory in her short professional career. The news of this match and the events around it led to Maki Itoh trending number one on Japanese Twitter. Thus, the "Fired Idol" was born.

Career after LinQ

After her dismissal from LinQ, Itoh did what came naturally for her and turned her two person wrestling stable, the Itoh Respect Army, into an idol group. Maki formed the stable after challenging, and losing to, the far more experienced Mizuki on her first night in Tokyo Joshi. The two put together an album that was released in 2018 and DDT Pro-Wrestling produced a music video to accompany it.

Itoh began establishing a solo career for herself as well, performing at the 2018 Tokyo Idol Festival on their Other Recommend Live stage, a sort of "battle of the bands" for less popular idol performers. She performed with DDT Pro-Wrestling while at the festival as well.

The women released from LinQ around the same time as Maki were assembled into what was dubbed an "entertainment group" called Tokiwoikiru. Maki Itoh performs a solo version of the group's song "Brooklyn The Hole" as her wrestling entrance song.

Maki Itoh's film roles

Itoh has also had a number of small film roles as a part of her idol career. In 2013, Maki had a small role in a two part thriller called "ADA," and a slightly bigger part in its 2016 sequel. Both featured other LinQ members, along with members of the J-pop idol groups UpUp Girls, Vanilla Beans, and Caramel * Ribbon. These movies are both surprisingly brutal, with the sequel retelling the story of the original from the viewpoint of the antagonist.

Maki was featured in the 2015 short film "Inochi no Tokei," which featured other members of LinQ as well. It was written by LinQ's Manami Sakura, who also made the soundtrack. That same year, Itoh appeared in the horror film "Obakeyashiki Retsuden: Senritsu Meikyuu MAX."

She was also in the 2016 comedy "Minna Suitouto," a story featuring a fictionalized version of LinQ — much like "Spice World" or any of the Beatles' films. 

"Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Coverage" mentions that performing "practices aimed at developing a loyal fanbase" are an important part of the idol career, as idols are brought in to be models, actresses, salespeople, and whatever else puts eyes on the group.

Plastic surgery and self-image

Maki has expressed issues with her self-image in numerous interviews, although she also pokes enough fun at herself to make it difficult to know what's genuine and what's sarcasm. She entered the Miss iD competition in 2014, an alternative beauty pageant described as an "audition that discovers role models for diverse girls" and, while she didn't win, Itoh's appearance in the competition led to a part in the disturbing music video for idol group Urbangarde's song "Heisei Shibou Yuugi."

Itoh made a 2016 appearance on the variety show "Nakai no Mado" on an episode featuring "people with disappointing faces," on which she commented that she had "the biggest face in the idol world." In an Excite news recap of the episode, it's implied that Maki is confident, joking around and even offering inspirational advice.

After a 2019 match with Aja Kong, Maki grabbed a microphone and shared that she'd had plastic surgery with the crowd. This was a day after she tweeted that she spent "$8,000 on a face lift to make my face smaller, and NO ONE NOTICED."

Maki Itoh's pro wrestling career is thriving

Maki's wrestling career has flourished, and she has arguably been even more successful in the ring than on stage. She has obviously worked hard to improve at pro wrestling while she continues her idol career, and her popularity has skyrocketed since her American debut.

DDT held its first show in the U.S. during WrestleMania weekend in 2019, and Maki Ito wrestled at both the "DDT Is Coming To America" show on April 4 and at the incredibly NSFW "Joey Ryan's Penis Party" show the following night. Maki would go on to participate in the Tokyo Princess cup and win her first International Princess Championship later that year. Although her partnership with Mizuki dissolved in 2019, Maki quickly rebounded and formed the NEO Itoh Respect Army with UK wrestler Chris Brookes.

Itoh's most recent brush with a massive audience has come as a result of her appearances for All Elite Wrestling. She participated in the Women's World Title Eliminator Tournament in 2021 in matches taped in both Japan and America, giving her exposure on one of the most watched pro wrestling programs in the United States. Maki has performed as both an opponent and tag team partner for Dr. Britt Baker, DMD, AEW's biggest female performer. Itoh returned in May 2022 as Baker's surprise opponent during the Owen Hart Foundation Women's Tournament.

The future looks bright for the Fired Idol

Itoh remains a popular performer, idol, and pro wrestler today, making appearances for Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling, DDT Pro-Wrestling, All Elite Wrestling, Prestige Wrestling, and Game Changer Wrestling in 2022 alone. She recently performed the song "L.O.V.E." for Matt Cardona and Chelsea Green as they renewed their vows during GCW's Homecoming Weekend 2022 show.

A two time International Princess Champion in Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling, six time DDT Ironman Heavymetalweight Champion, and the winner of the 2021 TJPW Tokyo Princess Cup, there is little doubt that Maki Itoh has a bright future in pro wrestling ahead of her, even as she continues her idol career as a member of Tokiwoikiru. As she expands her impact all around the world, dropping iron headbutts from Canada to Japan, she continues to perform her own entrance theme, and is very active on social media as well, constantly promoting upcoming appearances and product collaborations.

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