In their own words: The leaders of the WWE women's revolution
WWE is in the middle of a women's revolution. Gone are the days when women, or "divas," are seen as beautiful objects competing in lingerie or "gravy bowl" matches.
Taking a cue from the UFC, WWE is finally putting its women on the same level as its men, with three leading the way: Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch. Each of them took distinctive paths to break the glass ceiling for a new generation of fans.
For a long time, women in the WWE were not the main attraction and weren't treated the same way as men. And despite a number of entertainment platforms -- five hours of live Raw and SmackDown TV per week, monthly pay-per-view events and a developmental league that blossomed into a third brand (NXT) -- the WWE's women's division was struggling to be more than an afterthought.
Of course there have been legendary female competitors, such as Trish Stratus and Lita. But in between their moments of storytelling, there were "bra and panties" matches and bikini contents, or they were simply paraded as a wrestler's valet -- all of which did nothing to advance female characters.
But that's changing.
In 2013, Paige and Emma competed to be crowned the first NXT women's champion, and momentum built from there. The women of NXT were given a bigger spotlight, which included a deeper roster, more time to compete and engaging story lines. Fans noticed and reacted with praise.
While women like Charlotte, Sasha and Becky became central characters on NXT, Raw and SmackDown stagnated. Women on the main rosters were only competing in two-minute, meaningless matches. Fans started the #GiveDivasaChance campaign after a 30-second match on Raw in early 2015. The hashtag trended worldwide for 24 hours, and even WWE kingpin Vince McMahon acknowledged it, promising a change.
WWE began rebooting its women's division by putting its best female performers from NXT on the main show. The biggest milestone came at this year's WrestleMania, WWE's flagship show. There, Charlotte, Sasha and Becky competed in a triple-threat match, trying to become the first WWE women's champion, a newly devised title that looks identical to the men's championship title. They also stopped referring to the women as divas.
In their own words, Charlotte, Sasha and Becky discuss how they got into professional wrestling, their thoughts on the women before them and how it feels to be at the forefront of the biggest, most positive impact ever seen in women's wrestling.
Daughter of legendary pro wrestler, Ric Flair, Ashley Fliehr, 30, has been wrestling for only four years. She's a two-time Raw Women's Champion and is on track for a legendary career. Just like her dad.
My dad was my favorite wrestler growing up, obviously. I was always around wrestling, I went to shows, but I never pictured myself where I am today.
My brothers, David and Reid, were more into wrestling. When they wrestled, it was hard on my brothers because they were always compared to my dad.
Four years ago I decided, OK, I'm going to wrestle. I was at the WWE Hall of Fame for the Four Horsemen in Miami, and John Laurinaitis [WWE vice president of talent relations] was at dinner with my family and he asked me, "Why aren't you doing this?" I told him, "I never thought about it." My little brother, Reid, was like, "Oh my god! We can do it together!" I was personal training at the time, so I thought, I'll give it a shot.
I don't know how Reid convinced me. Even when I was driving to Tampa with the U-Haul packed, I thought, "What am I doing?!" I never wanted to be a wrestler. When I got there though, the wrestling -- the physical part -- was super easy. I've played sports, and I've been a tomboy my whole life. But I didn't have a goal.
After my brother Reid passed away in 2013, I realized this was what I was meant to do. And I just got better.
Out of all of the sports I've played, I felt like this is where I belong.
The four of us -- Sasha, Becky, Bayley and myself -- we weren't saying, "Let's change women's wrestling." It happened organically.
The more comfortable I got, and the more developed all of our characters became, the more serious we became, and we got more time. I remember thinking, "Oh my gosh, we're doing this!" They were giving us 20-minute matches and people were saying we're stealing the show.
The hard part for me was not the wrestling -- it was showing emotion, telling a story and being able to connect with fans. Coming out as Ric Flair's daughter and being called athletically gifted, it's hard to say, "Hey, like me! You can relate to me!" It wasn't working, so I completely switched my character. I find it easier to pretend to be the person everyone already thinks I am versus being who I am.
Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado, 24, has dreamed of being a pro wrestler since she was 12. By incorporating elements of her real life (her cousin is Snoop Dogg), Banks created a fan-favorite persona of "The Boss" -- a flashy, confident woman with shutter shades and marketable jewelry. She's currently the Raw women's champion.
I remember watching wrestling when I was really young with my dad, but I never really understood what it was. One night, when I was 10, I was clicking through the channels and I saw wrestling. I thought, "What is this? This is interesting."
My mom walked into the room and said, "This is no good. You need to turn it off." I turned it off and went into my mother's room, and I continued watching. Every single week, I was so entertained. As a kid, I had so many dreams: I wanted to be a firefighter and a hair stylist, but the first wrestler I ever saw was Eddie Guerrero, and then I was instantly hooked. I only wanted to be in WWE.
I don't know if it was the entertainment or the sports aspect, there was just something that made my heart so happy. Every week, watching those two hours of wrestling were just the happiest of my life. There was never a moment where I wasn't thinking about wrestling.
It was so frustrating for me to see amazing women in WWE do what the guys would do, and then the next week they would be in a "bra and panties" match. Growing up, that wasn't what I wanted to do. I watched a lot of Japanese women's wrestling, so I knew what women could do in the ring. I knew we could be just like the guys.
Once I turned 18, my mom got a job in Boston, and there was a school I had researched when I was 12 -- Chaotic Wrestling. They had a camp, and whoever impressed the coaches the most would get three months free training. I remember walking in, and I was the only girl. I was expecting these guys to look like John Cena, but they were all teenage boys. I thought, "Yeah, I got this in the bag!" I got the three months of free training, and that's how I started my journey.
I started training when I was 18, got signed at 20 from one tryout. Who does that?
We say things like "women's wrestling" and "women's revolution." I hope one day it's not "a good women's match." I don't want the women's wrestling part. I just want to be equal to my partners. Why can't we be treated equal?
I think once we get a women's main event at a pay-per-view and you drop "women's wrestling," that will prove we are on the same level. A couple of years ago we were seen as the popcorn match or the bathroom break for the fans, and that's not the case anymore.
I want to be the main event at WrestleMania. I feel if that's not in my lifetime, I know that I'm helping build the foundation for the next generation of women to do that.
Dublin-native Rebecca Quin, 29, was a pro wrestler for four years and found moderate success until 2006, when she suddenly quit. For seven years, she took odd jobs such as teaching English as a foreign language, personal training, being a Hollywood stuntwoman and attending clown school. In 2013, she decided to restart her wrestling training. She is currently the first SmackDown women's champion.
When I was a little kid, I used to watch with my brother when there was Macho Man and Hulk Hogan. But then I fell out of it for a few years.
My brother started watching it again, and I would insult him every time by saying it's for kids. But any time Mick Foley would come on, I wanted to see what he would say. I was so drawn to him. So then it became, "OK, just let me know when Mick Foley is on." And then I saw Lita, and I was like, "Whoa, she is cool!" She was someone I could relate to.
When I started wrestling, I started only to get in shape. I found out that a wrestling school had opened in Ireland, and I wanted to go because I was hanging out with the wrong crowd and I wanted to turn my life around. It seemed so far out of the realm of possibilities of things that I could do. It wasn't even a dream.
When I was younger, I didn't want to come to WWE because I didn't fit into the mold. I couldn't identify myself with the term "diva." The divas brand was meant to put a spotlight on the women, but the term to me felt more glamorous than me.
I quit wrestling in 2006 because I just got lost. My mom didn't want me wrestling, I was wondering if I was going to make it in wrestling, I got injured in a match, I was 19, I was away from home, living in Florida and I just got lost. I couldn't face it, so I stepped away. It was like a death for me, and that is not an exaggeration. I struggled for years to find what I wanted to do.
I was away for seven years. I always kept journals, and it's crazy to go back and read these journals because it seemed like I had unfinished business. I always felt like it was something I was meant to do, but I just didn't know how to get back in. So I ended up just trying to do something to fill the void.
Coming back, I always stayed in touch with Finn Balor. I remember having lunch with him one time on this little bench in Dublin, and I was like, "Will I come back? Won't I come back?" And he goes, "Would you just go back now? Because if you don't you're going to be sitting here with me in 10 years wishing that you had gone back, and it's going to be too late."
And he was so right. Everything before that moment was me trying to put a circle into a square hole and there, it was like, this is what I was meant to do.
I want to main event WrestleMania. I feel like if you don't go in with big ambitions or a big vision, you're half lost. You need something to aim for, and the scarier it is, the better it is. Just because it's not the norm doesn't mean that it will stay that way. The world is constantly changing and evolving, and so is WWE!