The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling have endured kicks to the head, knees to the groin, body-slams, insults, rivalries, ridicule and spangly neon unitards. On Friday, they face what may be their toughest challenge yet: a new Netflix series based on them.
Their old TV show, “GLOW,” was huge in the 1980s. The women sang, danced, did sketch comedy and flung each other around a ring. “Orange Is the New Black” creator Jenji Kohan is bringing it back as a half-hour scripted comedy called, well, “GLOW.”
The new “GLOW” is a fictionalized version of how the old “GLOW” came to be. None of the original women are in it. Nor — with one exception — were they consulted — a fact that doesn’t exactly sit well.
When asked about it, former wrestler Tracee Meltzer — whose character on the old show was Park Avenue princess Roxy Astor — rolls her eyes. “Some are happy. Some are sad. Some girls you can’t even bring it up to,” she says.
The women are in their 50s and 60s now. They are accountants, real estate agents, sales associates, tech support workers and pet groomers. Yet wrestling is still very much on their minds.
Meltzer continues: “They say it’s not about us, but then why are they using our name? Why not call it something else?”
If the women feel proprietary about “GLOW,” it’s only because they gave so much of themselves to it. It was brutal work. The pay was measly, the material was campy and racist. For many, however, it was the best job they ever had.
The joke, of course, is that professional wrestling is fake. But the pain was real. Virtually none of them started out as trained wrestlers. They were actors, dancers and models who answered casting calls for “a new sports entertainment show.”
Dee Booher, who played German villainess Matilda the Hun, recalls that after a match, “these girls sometimes came out with handfuls of hair.” At her apartment in Seal Beach, Calif., in Orange County, she flips through an old photo album while sitting in a motorized wheelchair — the result of wrestling-related spinal deterioration. Her fingers, numb from nerve damage, are tipped with Band-Aids from burning herself while cooking.
“I’d beat ’em up. Eat ’em up! It was beautiful!” she says. “Here’s Spanish Red. Look at this girl. Look at how she moves. She was a dancer. Here’s Ashley. Look at those ta-tas on her.”
Angelina Altishin, who played Little Egypt, tore her anterior cruciate ligament. Laurie Thompson, a.k.a. Susie Spirit, knocked her elbow out. Everybody suffered cuts to the eyes from cheap glitter weaponized with dried hair spray.
There were broken collarbones, broken shoulders and broken toes. “And that was just the tryouts,” Cheryl Rusa recalls with glee. “No, it never got easier.”
Patricia Summerland, a.k.a. Sunny the California Girl, cracked a wrist, broke two knuckles, ripped muscles and ligaments in her waist, and blacked out from being hung upside down and dropped on her head — a piledriver. “It’s the deadliest maneuver in wrestling,” she explains. “They no longer do them.”
She did them every night. Once, after a piledriver, paramedics carried her out on a stretcher.
“I hope you’re getting paid enough for this,” she recalls one of the medics telling her.
The women made between $300 and $700 a week. No dental. No medical.
Then there was the emotional pain.
“The boys” — meaning director Matt Cimber and producer David McLane — “liked to get us riled up,” Booher recalls. The angrier the girls, the better the footage. “It was twisted.”
Cimber, the creative engine behind the show, was a veteran director of Broadway and blaxploitation films. He excelled at the art of casting aspersion. “Your butt looks like mashed potatoes!” he’d yell. Or, “You’re no good. That’s why she’s making $200 more than you!” Or, “You are more boring than a Sicilian funeral!”
Still, the girls stayed.
One, in fact, would rather have died than leave. Christy Smith, who played scary fundamentalist preacher Evangelina, slit her wrists when Cimber dropped her from the show during training. She smeared the blood across the walls. She fought the paramedics and kicked open the cop car doors.
“She was strong as an ox,” her roommate Eileen O’Hara, a.k.a. MTV, or Melody Trouble Vixen, remembers. “She had all her eggs in that basket.”
Cimber kept her on.
The show was shot in Las Vegas, so each eight-month season, 30-plus “GLOW” girls bunked up at the Riviera Hotel (then in later seasons at a dumpy apartment building off the strip).
“We lived together. Worked together. Hurt together,” says O’Hara with more than a little wistfulness.
Cimber dreamed up their characters, heightened stereotypes all — housewives wielding brooms and plungers, New Orleans voodoo queens, slutty cheerleaders, sexpot Russian communists. But most of the women embraced these personas as if they were being granted superhero identities.
Take Sandy Manley. A genetic anomaly called Turner syndrome makes her short. Cimber cast her as a gremlin.
“It never felt exploitative,” Manley insists. Not when Cimber called her an “ankle biter.” Not even when another wrestler dumped her into a trash can. It was cathartic.
Manley is 4-foot-8, but when playing Gremlina, she felt seven feet tall.
O’Hara says she felt more exploited in the corporate environment she worked in pre-“GLOW.”
And the tiny, tacky costumes? She shrugs. “It was the ’80s.”
Besides, you got to be famous. “People would stand in line all day to watch us film,” Booher recalls. The girls made appearances on sitcoms and game shows and late-night talk shows. When they performed in Panama, thousands of fans mobbed their van. Each time she used the restroom there, Jeanne Basone, who played bad-girl street-urchin Hollywood, had to be escorted by armed military guard. “It was insane,” she recalls.
At the center of everything was the ring. It was violent, yet intimate. Careful, yet wild. You had to protect your opponent from injury, yet make the crowd think you were killing her.
“We came alive in the ring,” Booher says. “Like winding up a good-girl doll or a bad-girl doll.”
When Booher pantomimes her signature move, the belly bop, a great weight seems to lift from her large, slumping shoulders. “I’d take them into my belly and ba-boom!” A hearty cackle. “Oh, it was joyous.”
Then, in 1990, “GLOW” was abruptly canceled. The show’s main financial backer, Israeli billionaire and Riviera Hotel owner Meshulam Riklis, withdrew his support. To this day, the women are unsure why — though they suspect Riklis’s wife, Pia Zadora, wanted him away from the harem of sexy, young female wrestlers. Cimber was simply tired of doing it, he says now.
The women dropped back into their ordinary lives. Of the hundred or so girls who churned through the system, zero went on to full-time acting careers. Only four became full-time wrestlers. Booher was one of them. She thinks she stayed in it longer than she should have. Afterward, she earned a living doing what she calls “slam-o-grams,” singing telegrams with wrestling.
“That’s part of the damage in this business,” she says with a wry laugh. “You don’t want to disappoint. Them or yourself. You don’t want to admit that it might be ending. So for 10 years, I pretended I was still there . . . and I wasn’t.”
Booher had the nagging suspicion that during “GLOW,” while she was struggling to pay her bills, others had made millions off her talent.
“I was angry,” Booher admits. “For years.”
Some of the girls became drug addicts. Some, alcoholics. At least two wound up homeless. Meltzer’s tag-team partner Sandra Scott, a.k.a. Tiffany Mellon, turned to porn. “I tell ya, if she’s gonna do something, she’s gonna be the best at it,” Meltzer says. “She did 100 films.”
Some wanted to be rid of “GLOW.” “Frankly, it was so painful, I didn’t want to bring up those memories,” Altishin says.
Some wanted to milk it for all it was worth. Ursula Hayden, a.k.a. Babe the Farmer’s Daughter, purchased the trademark in 2001 from Riklis. For years afterward, she eked out a living selling videos of the old episodes.
Others simply couldn’t let go psychologically. As Meltzer says, “For me, it was just never quite done.”
The new Netflix “GLOW” turned out to be an easy sell. Showrunner Carly Mensch had worked with Kohan and emailed her the idea.
“Do you want to make a show about women’s wrestling in the ’80s?” she wrote.
“Yes,” Kohan wrote back.
“Not that she would have said yes to any piece of crap idea we sent her,” Mensch clarifies. Rather, Kohan is “always looking for opportunities to support her writers and nurture their new wacky ideas.”
Mensch and co-showrunner Liz Flahive were drawn to the connections among the women.
“There was something amazing about learning that wrestling isn’t really about fighting your partner,” Flahive says. “It’s about trusting your partner.”
“We found that so beautiful,” Mensch adds, “and so exactly opposite of what our assumptions were.”
They spoke with only one of the original wrestlers: Hayden, who owns the trademark. “When we thought about building characters, we really wanted to do it however we wanted to and not feel tied to any real-life stories,” Flahive says.
They hope that the interest in the old world will drive interest in the new, and vice versa.
As to whether they plan to bring in any of the original women: “We can’t answer that at this stage,” Mensch says. “We made Season 1, and now we’re just hoping to get to Season 2.”
In the meantime, the original wrestlers continue to enhance their legacy. Meltzer hosts annual “GLOW”-themed cruises. Fellow “GLOW” girls and fans attend.
Oddly enough, the show touched lives. “Person after person came up to us at the last cruise saying, ‘I was dead inside. You woke me up,’ ” O’Hara says. “They figured, if we could be that outrageous, then so could they.”
And while “GLOW” might not have made the women rich, it did give some of them the confidence to make themselves rich.
Altishin was 19, working in a T-shirt store, when Emily Dole happened in. At 350 pounds, the Samoan American Dole played the show’s most recognizable character, the pure-hearted Mountain Fiji. “You can do better than this,” Dole advised. “You should be doing what I’m doing.” Altishin couldn’t see it. But she borrowed Dole’s belief in her and joined the cast.
When “GLOW” ended, Altishin went into real estate. She was 23. “Aren’t you a little young?” she recalls doubters saying.
“Young?” she says now. “Try bumping with Matilda the Hun. Try running for your life in a ring with a giant who says she eats raw meat. You think I can’t do real estate? Just watch. Twenty years later, over a thousand sales, five houses paid off, I retired at the age of 45.”
Though the two women hadn’t spoken for years, it was Altishin who came to the rescue when a flood destroyed Dole’s possessions. She reached out to the wrestling nonprofit Cauliflower Alley Club, and, within days, they had a check for Dole.
Seated at a banquet hall table at the Gold Coast Casino in Las Vegas, Altishin flicks a tear from the corner of her eye as she talks. In a few moments, she and 14 other “GLOW” girls will be accepting an award from Cauliflower Alley. Here, the years melt away. The women are doing each others’ lipstick and sitting in each others’ laps.
Says Meltzer, “You mess with one ‘GLOW’ girl, you mess with all of us.”
Currently, no one is speaking much with Hayden. The other “GLOW” girls resent her. Yet they understand her.
“Somebody’s offering you money and you don’t have money? When she’s selling videos of us to make her money? You’re gonna go, ‘yeah,’ ” Meltzer says. “But I would have also thought, ‘What can I do for the girls?’ ”
Asked whether he misses the old show, director Cimber scowls. “No,” he grouses. “Because it was driving me nuts.” All those women. All that drama.
Netflix didn’t contact Cimber, either. It wasn’t until a big announcement appeared in the trades that he even heard they were making a show.
“And then our phones rang off the hook,” says Cimber’s wife, Lynn.
Some of the women plan to binge-watch the new “GLOW” when it debuts. Summerland will be there with popcorn: “Whether we’re going to eat it or throw it at the screen,” she says, “remains to be seen.”