Shrines are weird, especially when the idolized wear funny clothes and have names like Bubba. Such is life for wrestling groupies, seekers of the men behind the masks. Some call them ring rats. They don’t like that very much.
By Vanessa Grigoriadis
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Pleased to feet you: An amateur wrestler gets his face stomped.
With a steady, expressionless stare, the security guard-who used to wrestle as 'The Dog," which explains the little gold canine dangling from his left ear-points out a pair of girls and says, 'That's what wrestlers call ring rats. Rats get no respect. Rats are lower than dog-doo. Rats can suck-start a Harley."
Jill Hodges and Ellie Braddy, both of whom are 18 and gripping tiny black purses, push through a crowd of male adolescents outside Viking Hall in Philadelphia. Yesterday, they drove ten hours from Charlotte, North Carolina, in Braddy's two-door Beretta, with a Magic Markered sign in the passenger window: WE'RE GOING TO WRESTLING!!! Tomorrow, they're planning to hit the World Wrestling Federation's corporate headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, hoping maybe they'll get invited up to WWF founder Vince McMahon's office-they once shook hands with him at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Hilton lobby. "Vince was so nice," says Braddy. "He asked us all about how we liked the show and where we were going to party that night."
Wrestling fans Ellie Braddy and Jill Hodges in their hotel room in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Rushing through the arena as fast as is possible in high heels, Hodges and Braddy head toward their seats, which are right next to the wrestlers' stage entrance. Hodges looks like Anna Nicole Smith and Braddy is a skinny tomboy with long brown hair, pretty in a metal-chick kind of way. They attract wolf whistles, orgasmic groans, and wrestling chants, the kind fans usually shout out during onstage action.
"Git on the ho train!"
"Here, Miss Kitty!"
Then, in a stage whisper, the words "puppies, puppies, puppies." That's wrestling slang for breasts-in this case, Hodges' 40-Ds, which protrude from a white blouse cut so low that the tops of her nipples show.
"Shoot, Jill," pouts Braddy, who's nowhere near as well endowed as her friend. "All the guys are always putting you over." (That's lingo for "making popular," as in what Vince McMahon has done with the Rock)
There's a huge cheer as the show begins. Fans leap to their feet, and Braddy cranes her neck to see over the boys in front of her. "Can't see shit! Can't see shit!" she chants, in an unsuccessful attempt to make them sit down.
"Oooh, here comes Danny Doring," cries Hodges, pulling out a compact to check her lipstick ("Danny Doring has this weird thing where everyone has to keep their socks on in his hotel room," offers Braddy. "Unless the lights are off. Then it's okay.")
Doring, in nothing but neon pink briefs, climbs into the ring. He slips an arm around his bikini-clad "valet" (the official term for the pretty girl who "belongs" to a wrestler), Miss Congeniality (now the WWF wrestling diva Lita). "All the lathes love the Danaconda!" he growls, pointing at his crotch. "But there's only one lady who gets to take a ride on the dastardly side!"
"Now, that just ain't true!" says Hodges, fluffing her platinum curls.
Suddenly, for reasons that are mysterious, Miss Congeniality pisses Doring off. Down she goes. The crowd screams: "Wham, bam, thank you ma'am!" A long-bearded wrestler, Amish Roadkill, appears and scoops up Miss Congeniality, booming, "Roadkill's always had his fun with farm animals-he's never had a fish dish!"
Doring spits in Miss Congeniality's face. "Listen, bitch," he shouts, "Danny Doring has a slut in every city in America!"
"Uh-huh!" yells Hodges. She waves her hands wildly over her head, her breasts nearly popping out of her top. "Right here!"
It’s the conversation, stupid: Hodges cheers over beers.
Braddy offers ringside support.
Everyone knows that the few women who attend pro-wrestling shows without their husbands or sons are likely to fall into one of two categories: wrestlers' rats or wrestlers' wives. (The WWF disputes this, claiming that 32 percent of its viewing audience is female.) In the Philly arena, the rats always sit on bleachers directly to the right of the stage entrance, and the wives remain on the left. There are usually about two dozen of each.
"Those girls are rodents, and I mean, like, the animals that eat wires and live under your house," hisses a brunette wife wearing what seems to be the wives' uniform (big sweatshirt, light jeans) and a pink butterfly clip in her hair. "Marking out [chasing] for any wrestler they see, even the guys who don't get paid squat. Guys kayfabing [tricking] them, all, 'I ain't got a wife.' They're just unpaid hookers."
A chubby 23-year-old wife named Amber leans in dose. "You know," she confides, "I'm not the first girl to go from rat to wife."
Although they're well aware of the appellation, none of the so-called rats cop to the label, nor do they like the word groupie. They prefer "fan." And fans they are: Turned on by the circus-on-the-road atmosphere, with its own stars, in-jokes, and lexicon, they know as much about wrestling as any obsessed adolescent boy. But while most of the girls' dreams are just a hotel key away, some actually want the bright lights to shine on them. Hodges, for now, is content to notch her belt in the bedroom, but she says, "The idea that you could be one of these wrestlers' girlfriends, and then because of him they'd let you get in the ring-that's, like, my dream."
Braddy is much more serious (and optimistic) about the prospect, even though she knows well that, aside from exceptions like Lita and Chyna, most women in the WWF are simply used as novelty acts or valets. "When I started wrestling, the guys were like, 'Okay, either this chick is going to screw all of us, or she's a lesbo," says Joanie Laurer, the buff wrestler formerly known as Chyna (she quit the WWF this past June after a contract dispute). "Guys would tackle me really hard in the ring, just to show me they weren't going to take any crap from a woman. I'd get my purse super-glued shut, or funny drawings with extra members drawn on put in my suitcase. It was like getting hazed."
Still, Braddy remains undeterred-she's preparing for her big break by volunteering on the indie circuit and has even made up her own character: Blaze, a black-clad prophet of doom whom she swears would be the toughest chick around. "I'm going to make it as Blaze," Braddy says. "I know I am."
But for most of the women hanging around the ring, "it all comes down to one thing," says another wife who, in her younger years, slept with several wrestlers who went on to become superstars in the WWF. "I can go to a movie and say to my girlfriend, 'You know what? I'd give it up for Brad Pitt.' But where the hell am I going to meet Brad Pitt, unless I'm living in L.A. or stalking him or something?" She smiles. "But I can meet any wrestler I want at the Marriott bar after the show. Then, when the pay-per-view comes on, I can sit on the couch with my girlfriend and just pop-I'm all, 'Hey, there's the guy that I screwed three weeks ago."
With a blast of small-time pyrotechnics and a medley of beer cans crushing against foreheads, the Philly show wraps up around midnight. The audience starts to shuffle out of the arena, the wives disappear backstage, and soon all that's left is the rats. They wait patiently for about an hour as the wrestlers shower, change out of costume, and get their foreheads stitched up (they often "blade" onstage with a razor to make their faces bloody). Almost all the rats are 18 to 22 years old: In addition to Hodges and Braddy, the group tonight includes Candy, an attractive 7-Eleven clerk, and Lori, a nursery-school teacher who keeps nervously tucking a WWF: DO IT DOGGY STYLE T-shirt under her bra so as to display her pierced navel more prominently.
"Rats used to be the same make and model as Roseanne, but the bigger wrestling gets, the better-looking the rats are," says a roadie lingering nearby. "Myself being single as a dollar bill, I notice these things."
Suddenly a door flings open, and C.W. Anderson, a little-known wrestler with a sparse blond beard, emerges from backstage.
"Hey, Buckethead!" Braddy shouts.
"Shut up, Squeaky," Anderson yells back (Braddy has a high voice).
"One time," Braddy says excitedly, "we went to Pizza Hut, and I called C.W. Buckethead, and he got so pissed off at me that he slammed a glass down on the table and said he was going to kick my ass. And this other guy had to be all, 'You got to apologize to Squeaky." Braddy kicks Buckethead playfully in the leg as she tells the story.
"Room 1020!" Hodges calls out, to no one in particular.
As the wrestlers start to clear out of the parking lot, Hodges and Braddy make their way to their car. Near the exit, about 20 teenage boys are waiting for autographs. A very drunk 14-year-old in a New York Jets T-shirt spots Braddy and runs right up to her.
"Look! I got Rob Van Dam to sign my arm," he says, rolling up his sleeve.
Braddy inspects the signature, nodding. "You should go to a tattoo artist and get that done permanently," she advises.
"Tell the Sandman to come out here and I'll give him a beer," says the kid.
"We ain't seen Sandman," says Hodges.
"Come on, I saw you talking to all the wrestlers," he says. "Tell Balls Mahoney to come here. Tell Balls that if he doesn't come out here he's not my favorite wrestler anymore."
Hodges and Braddy shake their heads and start walking away.
"Hey!" he calls out. "If you can't get me Balls' autograph, I want yours!"
Braddy pauses, turns around, takes the Magic Marker, and rolls up his sweatshirt. She proudly scrawls BLAZE across his other arm.
Blaze of glory, almost: Braddy in an amateur wrestling ring.
"Wrestling used to come on after cartoons, and I just loved it," explains Braddy, sitting in the driver's seat of her Beretta. "I cried my first day of kindergarten because I thought I was going to miss it." She and Hodges were friends even back then, in the coastal North Carolina suburb of Belhaven, but grew apart when Hodges was sent to an all-girls Baptist high school with six students in the graduating class. Neither girl drinks or smokes, nor has either ever been out on a "real honest-to-God date," and they both talk about being snubbed by the popular jocks. At her local high school, Braddy was in junior ROTC, on the drill team, and a linebacker for the local Powder Puff football league. Hodges says she wasn't really interested in much-until senior year, when Braddy introduced her to wrestling. "I was like, 'Damn, these guys are real good-looking,'" says Hodges.
Hodges watched wrestling on TV every Monday night all winter and started reading Braddy's wrestling magazines and checking out websites; they were watching the pay-per-view special when Owen Hart was killed in a botched stunt in Kansas City on May 23, 1999. "Some girls cry when soap stars die or something, but I loved Owen," says Braddy. In memoriam, she wore a black armband to her high school graduation. The next day, she and Hodges spent their graduation money on their first tattoos: Braddy got a dragonfly on her left shoulder and Hodges got a butterfly on her right shoulder, so that "when we're sitting close together, they look like they're flying toward each other."
At the end of that summer, Hodges and Braddy moved to Charlotte. "Our parents wanted us to go on living at home," says Hodges. "Go to college, be a nurse." Instead, they found a carpeted two-bedroom apartment just off the interstate, on the third floor of a newly built complex with white aluminum siding, unpainted wood terraces, and an American flag that flies next to a dozen red-white-and-blue NOW RENTING banners. Hodges was able to swipe some wall decorations from home-a few Christmas wreaths, framed posters of teddy bears, and, for the kitchen wall, three pink oversize ceramic bowls. There's no couch, though, so they just lie around on the floor most of the time, painting their toenails sparkly blue or listening to their boom box, which balances precariously on the kitchen counter next to a few CDs: Shania Twain, Sarah McLachlan, Faith Hill, and WWF Full Metal: The Album.
But the box doesn't work today, nor do the lights, nor does the TV. Hodges and Braddy's electricity was shut off yesterday, their phone was turned off a couple weeks ago, and Hodges can't afford to buy any more minutes for her cell phone. Although they found some work peddling Dali and Escher art posters in area office buildings for $125 a week, the boss seems to have disappeared (without paying them for the month), so they've decided to rent out Braddy's bedroom to a friend. They bunk together on the floor of Hodges' room, on her slightly saggy air mattress.
"You know," says Braddy, rummaging around in the bathroom, "tickets to shows are at least $25 each for the bad seats, and it's $30 for pay-per-views once a month. That trip to Philly cost us $400-lookit, I can't find your purple lipliner, Jill-and we had nothing when we got back. She walks back into the dim bedroom and flips the light switch. "Shoot, why do I keep trying to put on the lights?"
"Plus there's the shrine, which is real expensive to keep up," says Hodges.
Hodges and Braddy's shrine is in the living room. It includes signed Undertaker and Steve Austin plaques, a fake ID with Randy "PeeWee" Anderson's name, and Polaroids of both girls arm-in-arm with Mankind. "I'm going to take this and show it to him tonight," says Hodges. They've also got about 20 wrestling dolls, like the Rock ("We'd both give it up for the Rock"), Val Veins ("Seems like a real douchebag"), and Dan Severin ("A real gentleman-he took us out to the Waffle House with Jill's sister"). The Waffle House night is memorialized in one of their eight photo albums devoted to wrestling; on its cover, Hodges has scrawled JACKSONVILLE, NRAS, JULY 10, MET SEVERIN, THE BEAST: BEST DAY OF MY LIFE!!!!!!
With hopes that this could be another "best day," Hodges and Braddy are about to drive up to Raleigh for another WWF show. Hodges has a crush on one of the Dudley Boyz and wants to see a member of the Acolytes Protection Agency who she met last summer. Braddy has it bad for one of the Hardy Boyz, who are matched against the Dudleys tonight. Braddy grabs her Eternity perfume out of the dark bathroom; on her way out, her hair dryer clatters to the floor. "Shit, it's damn dark," she says, feeling her way around the linoleum floor. "Jill--can't see shit! Can't see shit!"
"Can't see shit!" cries Hodges, clapping her hands.
Packing a small shopping bag with tight black clothing, Hodges starts to ramble. "Yeah, the money thing is real bad," she says. "I have bills and stuff, but all I want to do is watch wrestling. Especially now that the guys are really putting me over."
Braddy frowns. "I beat you in wrestling," she reminds Hodges. "I power-bombed you."
"I don't remember," says Hodges.
"You don't remember me arm-wrestling your Uncle Buddy?" asks Braddy. "Then I went over to the couch and I power-bombed you."
"Yeah," mumbles Hodges. "I guess I remember."
After Hodges and Braddy sneak down to the most awesome ringside seats at the Raleigh arena, after Hodges shoves the photo of herself with Mankind in his bloody face and he gives her the thumbs up for everyone to see, after Braddy miraculously catches the cap of Billy Gunn's water bottle, after a mustached WWF employee appears seemingly from nowhere to hand Hodges a little slip of paper with the Dudley Boyz' cell phone number on it, after all this, the girls immediately make their exit. They run up through the sold-out stands to the pay phones while the Rock and Triple H are still battling it out for the WWF title-"I found out who's going to win anyway over the Internet," declares Braddy. Hodges dials, and the Dudleys tell her to meet them at their hotel, near the airport.
"We'll be there in 20," says one of the Dudleys. "We might be late, but don't leave, you understand? You don't leave." Hodges and Braddy drive to the three-story Fairfield Inn, park and make their way to the lobby where, for three and a half hours, they wait. Two drunk paralegals come through with the news that the Rock is across the street at the Waffle House. The star workers (that's what wrestlers call one another), like Al Snow and D'Lo Brown, pass tiredly, wheeling black Pullman suitcases; Kane stomps by with a white towel draped over his face. Braddy is in the bathroom when wrestlers Christian and Edge disappear up an elevator, so the girls walk the halls for a while in hopes of finding the superstars. A pot-bellied ref smoking a cigarette and cupping a Coors Light asks Hodges and Braddy up to his room. They politely decline.
Braddy slumps in a hard-backed green chair. "Why do we always have to be waiting?" she whines. "Wait in the lobby, wait outside the bar, wait in the parking lot. Can you wait a little while in the freezing cold? Wait, wait, wait. I'm tired of it."
Still, they wait. The lobby is quiet. At midnight, with her last dollar, Hodges buys a bag of Ruffles and is munching away when the Dudleys finally appear. "Oh God, get these away from me," she cries, pushing the potato chips across the table. "I don't want them to see me stuffing my face."
As it turns out, the Dudleys' invitation wasn't meant for both girls. They pull Hodges into a corner and explain that they're just interested in her. She comes back over to Braddy to apologize, and her words are contrite, but her whole body is quaking with excitement.
"Now that was just rude," says Braddy, dumbstruck, as Hodges scampers off to the Dudleys' room. "I guess they don't like me 'cause I'm flat-chested." She gets back in her Beretta to see if she can find the Rock at the Waffle House, but he's gone. She starts hitting other hotels.
"You know," she says, scanning the empty road for vacancy signs, "it would really hurt my feelings if 1 thought that the guys just wanted to hang out with me just for sex, the way they do with Jill. At least I know they like me just for me. I'm the real fan."
There's no one at the Marriott, or at the Microtel. Signs for the airport start whizzing by. "Hell, we're damn lost," says Braddy with a sigh. "Hell. All the guys always like Jill. It's because of her boobs. If they ever let me wrestle as Blaze, I'd definitely get implants."
Six months later, perhaps in lieu of surgery, Braddy started hanging out with the would-be superstars at Southern Championship Wrestling. It was there that an amateur named Toad offered her a shot-as his green-skirted valet, Lillypad. This was after she and Hodges had moved back in with their parents in Belhaven due to lack of funds. Hodges got a job at a day-care center, Braddy as a teller at a check-casher. But she still gets in the ring a couple nights a week. "The other day-it was so cool-there was a battle royale and the script called for someone going through the table," says Braddy. "Everyone else was like, 'No way,' but I said, 'Hell, yeah!' It didn't hurt too bad."
Right now, however, at three o'clock in the morning, she's sick and tired of wrestling. "I just want to find Jill and get out of here," Braddy says. She drives back to the Fairfield and coaxes the concierge into slipping her the Dudleys' room number. D-Von Dudley and Hodges are lying on one bed, watching an old wrestling video; Bubba Ray Dudley bruised his ribs in the ring tonight so he's moving slow, but not quite slow enough to resist lifting Braddy over his head and throwing her on the floor.
"I power-bombed you," he declares.
"That hurt," says Braddy, giggling and rolling around on the burgundy carpet. -