Henry Ford might be famous for saying, “We live many lives,” but former professional wrestler, pornographic actress and ESL teacher Joanie “Chyna” Laurer, who was found dead Wednesday at 45, truly embodied it.
Chyna, who the Associated Press reports was found dead in her apartment in Redondo Beach, Calif., would break the glass ceiling for women in professional wrestling in the 1990s before becoming a pornographic film actress after a private sex tape was leaked. Wanting to escape from the adult film world, she moved to Japan to teach English and center herself before returning to the U.S. last year.
No cause of death has yet been determined. KTLA reported that police were called to her apartment after receiving a 911 call from a friend who dropped by to check on her after not hearing from her for several days.
Twitter shared its condolences for the wrestling hero. One tweeted, “so long, Chyna. One of the best and a true wrestling icon. #DX #IntercontinentalChamp #RIPChyna”
Stephanie McMahon tweeted, “I just heard the tragic news that @ChynaJoanLaurer has passed. She was truly a pioneer in our industry, and she will be missed. #RIPChyna”
Long before she adopted the stage name Chyna and became known to wrestling fans as the “9th Wonder of the World,” Laurer spent her formative years merely trying to keep her head above water.
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. Born in Rochester, N.Y., 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.
According to her book, she had tumultuous relationships with both her biological father Joe Laurer, and her first stepfather.
Throughout all this, before she made a living by chokeslamming, clotheslining and piledriving men on primetime television, she found peace in the deep baritones of the cello.
“I used to love to play the cello . . . and how big and unwieldy it was,” she wrote. “But there was something feminine about it, too – the curves, the shape, the way you held it.”
Determined not to be like her parents, Laurer set her sights on something bigger, though she wasn’t sure what. She started eating – keeping her food down – and lifting weights. When it came time to choose a college, she attended the University of Tampa, where she studied Spanish literature. But things didn’t go much better there. In her book, she wrote that she blacked out drinking one night. When she woke, she was being raped by two football players.
Perhaps as a result, her comfort zone shifted from playing the cello to taking care of her body. As her muscles grew, she graduated and began selling beepers. Though she could pull in $60,000 a year at the job, she hated it. And one night, she caught pro wrestling on TV.
It struck her light a bolt of lighting.
That’s what she wanted to do. But she didn’t want to play the role the woman were generally cast in – ornaments there to titillate male fans and do little more. She wanted to actually wrestle.
“The girl wrestlers?” she wrote. “Forget it. They were all T&A and not nearly as interesting. Wrestling. ‘I can do that!’ I remember shouting at the TV.”
And so she did.
The first stop was attending Walter Kowalski’s wrestling school.
Kowalski, known on the professional wrestling circuit by his stage name “Killer” Kowalski, was against training a woman until the 5 foot 10 inch tall Laurer lifted a man over her head. He was so impressed with her dedication, to say nothing of her strength – she told Time in a 1990 interview that she could benchpress 365 pounds – that when it came time for her first match, he pit her against a man, wrote Gladys L. Knight in her book, “Female Action Heroes: A Guide to Women in Comics, Video Games, Film, and Television.”
Eventually, Vince McMahon, founder of World Wrestling Federation or WWF, would hire her, but it took weeks of convincing and even then, she began as an assistant of sorts to the male wrestlers, Knight wrote. Because of her body size, she was called “monster” and “freak” by the media. Her male colleagues refused to enter the ring with her. Fans would “chuck batteries at me in hate,” she told the Guardian.
Throughout her time in wrestling, she tried not to appear too feminine. She wore tight black lingerie-reminiscent clothing but threw men into ring posts. She got plastic surgery on her face and chose to get breast implants, but she spent $6,000 to get ones that wouldn’t “transform [her] into WWF Barbie,” she told the Guardian. Once, on stage, they burst. She spent so much time researching implants, there is one named the Chyna 2000S after her. She posed for Playboy and legally changed her name to Chyna, TMZ reported.
Mostly, she wrestled.
“She was a woman who dared to fight other men when it was not popular to do so,” Knight wrote. “She became one of the most popular wrestling personalities in history, a position normally reserved for men.”
The WWF even created a storyline in which she would fight against male chauvinists and, in the final match, win.
But even as she rose to prominence, she felt maligned.
“I’m still a woman in a male-dominated activity, but I’ve come a long way and had lots of fun,” she said.
In 2004, a sex tape, called “1 Night In China,” featuring her and her then-boyfriend Sean Waltman was released by Red Light District. Chyna made several claims regarding the tape. Wrestling Inc. reports she said Waltman sold the tape without her permission. In a video interview with VICE, she said it was “a tape I didn’t want to come out.”
But it did, and it sold more than 100,000 copies, according to the New York Times.
“I felt violated, physically, sexually, financially,” she said. “It was in the midst of a tumultuous relationship, an abusive relationship.”
Then she chose to enter the adult film industry.
“There was a perception that was trying to be pushed on me that I was going to be shameless, and a slutty whore, and it was going to be disgusting. I decided to make lemonade out of lemons. That’s when I went to Vivid,” she told VICE, referring to the porn company that would produce her short career, suggesting that the release of “1 Night In China” without her permission led her to the industry.
“I felt safer with Vivid than I would have with the next boyfriend,” she said.
But that didn’t last long. In 2012, she attended the Exxxotica Porn Expo, where she passed out on three different days, according to Bleacher Report. (Waltman has made claims that she was an alcoholic and drug addict; she denied these rumors on “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” Jezebel reported.) Less than a year later, she announced that she was quitting the porn industry and moving to Japan to teach English, where she remained until last June.
“[I was] taking a break, removing myself, regrouping, getting it together and I’m ready to come back,” she told gossip site Too Fab. “It was amazing, it was a really great, spiritual journey for me. [And] It was amazing yesterday to come home. I didn’t know what the vibe would be, it doesn’t even feel like I’ve been gone that long. It was love right off the back.”
“I’m a different person now,”she told VICE. “I’m vegan. I’m still fit, but I’m doing yoga now.”
In the video, she starts crying.
“I went to Japan to regroup,” she said, as she choked back tears. “But I want to be able to come home and do my thing in my country with the hard work that I’ve done and everything that I’ve gone through. Be my own success.”
She’d been back for less than a year when she was found dead Wednesday.