An advocate for mental health, former WWE Women's Champion AJ Lee was around for a different time for women in pro wrestling. A rare gem, AJ broke the mold of what a traditional WWE Diva was meant to be. Her story has been told in her book "Crazy Is My Superpower", from WWE to her life outside of wrestling.
Speaking to Kristine Leahy on her "Fair Game" show last night, AJ talked about what got her into wrestling. There is a viral video of her crying when meeting Lita, but her fandom came at a young age with her brother.
"My brother was my best friend in the world growing up," AJ stated. "He couldn't stand me and he tried getting of me, but when we watched wrestling together he'd get me to shut up for a few minutes. We'd watch wrestling for a few years and this one day I thought, 'I'm going to do that.' I remember my mom walking past us and I went, 'I'm going to be a wrestler when I grow up.' and she thought that was nice. I was 12, and from that day I knew what I wanted to do."
When talent try out for WWE, there are various ways to go about it. Some do Tough Enough while others do a Diva Search. AJ knew she wanted to be a star with WWE and wanted to do whatever it took to get in. Wanting to make her childhood dream a reality, AJ took the ultimate gamble and made a name for herself on the independent scene.
"I went to film school for a solid six months, I could not afford it. I saw that as a sign that I should get into wrestling," AJ continued. "At about 18-19 I started in the independent circuit, training at a local gym. I wrestled in gyms and bingo halls, getting paid in food sometimes. I remember one time I made $60 for four matches in one night, I thought I was loaded. At this point every 3-4 years WWE would have this open casting call that you had to pay $1,500 to participate in. I've never seen that much money in my life. I missed one year and I said I was going to save up my money. I saved all of my indie wrestling bookings, I was a secretary at the time. I starved for a year, I stole food at my jobs waiting room. I paid to try out. It was this four-day tryout in Florida. Out of 80 guys, there were also dancers and models, and then there was me. And I got signed."
In her book, AJ talks about mental health and how it has affected her life. While with WWE they ran an "AJ is crazy" storyline. Separating the character AJ Lee from AJ Mendez was something she wanted to accomplish, whether on the mic or in the ring. Once a show ended, she wanted a chance to unwind and show that there is more to life from the act.
"I think I had just seen the opposite happen a lot in wrestling, where people would take match results and storylines or career trajectories very personally," AJ stated. "As someone who is very hyper-aware of my mental health from a young age, I knew that wasn't going to be healthy. Very early on I really had to decide that wrestling is a show, like anything on TV you're playing characters, you're in storylines. Sometimes you're down here and sometimes you're at the top of the mountain. None of that is reflective of me as a person. I would just leave the show and go to my hotel and be me. Even if I won the championship that day I was hanging out and eating crap in my hotel room and going to bed early that night."
AJ was well-known for being outspoken when it came to women's wrestling. While others were getting reality shows, she was setting a record as one of the longest-reigning Divas Champions at the time. Her infamous pipebomb against the cast of Total Divas was one of the factors that helped provide her with crowd support. This was during a time when the women weren't given enough time to actually wrestle. Times have changed and women are now main eventing WrestleMania. From being told nobody would sleep with her to where these women are at now, AJ looked back at how there was a standard for women and how she always wanted to break that mold.
"In my time in the business, there was so much pressure on the girls to conform to a mold and a formula that worked," said AJ. "Not only was there pressure, but you'd also sort of be punished if you didn't. There was a time when they checked if our manicures were perfect, if our hair wasn't long enough they'd tell us we had to get extensions, your weight would be commented on. That made for a lot of pressure where girls didn't feel like they could just show who their genuine self was. I've always been willing to fail if the only option is to do it my way. What is true and genuine to me, or failure, I will choose to do it my way. Being the person riding the fine line of getting in trouble a lot I was willing to do that, that's what helped me. I was rare at the time."
AJ Lee retired from pro wrestling in 2015 after WrestleMania 31. Following her husband CM Punk, AJ has stayed out of the pro wrestling spotlight since. When asked whether an in-ring return in possible, AJ left the interview with an answer that may give fans some sort of hope.
"I'd say never say never," AJ said. "Every time I've said 'never' in my life I ended up doing the thing. 'I'm never going to date a wrestler, never going to date another wrestler.' And then it keeps going and I ended up marrying one. I say that I don't know what the future holds, to not hold your breath. But never say never."