WWE Superstar Alexa Bliss wants you to know three things:
1. Twice in her young life she has found herself inches from death.
2. In one instance, Disney World saved her life, literally.
3. She doesn't plan on going back there anytime soon. The pearly gates, that is. Disney has become a pretty regular thing.
But more on all that later.
Ask anyone what they first notice about Alexa "Lexi" Kaufman, now Bliss, you'll get the same answer, right down the line: that face. Sure, it's pretty -- big blue eyes, pert nose, Midwestern corn-fed as the day is long. But that's not what the fans, fighters and WWE brass see (at least, that's not all they see).
SmackDown's reigning heel doesn't just have a good face, she gives good face. With an arched eyebrow and curled lip, the envy of moustache-twirling villains and middle-school girls everywhere, Bliss has alternately stalked, hair-flipped and bodily driven herself to the head of a new generation of female wrestlers.
As two-time women's SmackDown champion, Bliss, 25, faces off at WrestleMania 33 this weekend against every single wrestler in the division. It won't be the hardest thing she's faced, not by a long shot. That dubious honor goes to the voice in the back of her head.
Precocious, dramatic and athletic from a young age, Kaufman fills family photo albums with wide toothy (or in some cases, toothless) grins. Growing up in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, she found an outlet for her energy in gymnastics, kickboxing and then All-Star cheerleading.
Like many young teens, she spent what little downtime she had poring over magazines, comparing her body to the bodies she saw in those pages, curve for curve, inch for inch.
"I'd think, 'Why can't I look like these people? What's wrong with me?'" she says. "I'd see girls at school who were in better shape, and I was just always so down on myself."
By age 15, concern with her appearance had evolved into something more insidious. The young teen started eating less and less, winnowing down her already petite 5"1' frame. By 17, she was 90 pounds; when her parents took her to the hospital, doctors recorded her heart rate at a glacial 28 beats per minute, and effectively committed her. She was, they said, 24 hours away from total organ failure and death.
For two and a half days, doctors kept Kaufman awake; falling asleep would have lowered her heart rate enough to kill her. It took six weeks to stabilize her body.
"I was so scared," she says. "I asked the doctor if I was going to die, and he said, 'Well, we're doing what we can right now.' That's not what I wanted to hear."
But what jerked her to attention more than anything was a frank discussion with her parents and hospital staff. "They explained to me that one in four people with eating disorders dies, and that I was very close to being that one. I was very close to becoming a statistic, and what would my life have meant? Maybe one or two people would learn from me, but that was it."
While Kaufman would recover from her scare in high school, and go on to compete in cheerleading her senior year and in college, the strain of athletics, the constant weighing, triggered the voice in her head again, the one doctors told her would never go away. This time she dropped to 85 pounds and left school. Again, the weeks in hospital, the near-death experience, therapists, psychiatrists.
Her second breakthrough came on a family trip to Disney World (which is owned by ESPN's parent company, Walt Disney Co.). Frustrated by the Greek chorus of medical professionals and their assorted prescriptions, she'd taken a break for the annual Kaufman trip to Orlando, Florida. She wasn't expecting clarity, and certainly not in the way it presented itself.
Staring at an uneaten plain chicken breast at a Disney restaurant, Kaufman picked up the scent of her mother's cheese fries. While her family watched, not daring to breathe, she grabbed one and popped it into her mouth. "It was just one of those things that made me comfortable," she says. "So then I just did it. I just ate it."
It wasn't a cure (there's no such thing), but it was therapeutic in a way that all the shrinks hadn't been. Soon after, Kaufman began to rebuild. She wanted to put weight back on, but not with cheese fries, so she sought advice from her personal trainer, who introduced her to the body-building community. She trained for five weeks before appearing at a Natural Ohio Bodybuilding Association competition, where she took first in her division and overall, earning a pro card in the process.
It was enough to get her thinking about next steps. A fan of WWE's Rey Mysterio and the gymnastic prowess of the Lucha Libre wrestling style, Kaufman applied to an open casting call for wrestlers -- to her mother's horror. Her combination of athletic ability and, you know, that face, landed her a contract, and she made her debut at Triple-H-run developmental brand NXT (think of it as WWE's farm team) in May 2013. By August she was a roster member, reborn as Alexa Bliss.
In many ways, Alexa Bliss arrived at WWE at just the right moment. The previous year had seen the departure of several Divas -- the moniker given to female wrestlers. While the brand spun it as an opportunity for more women to rise through the ranks, in reality, it was the beginning of the end for the decade-plus-old brand.
While women's professional wrestling dates back to the 1930s in the U.S. (even longer if you count sideshow and county fair attractions), and saw spikes of popularity in the 1950s with the arrival of the The Fabulous Moolah, aka Mary Lillian Ellison, the level of seriousness with which it was treated was inconsistent at best. Female wrestlers, known as Divas from about 2000 on, fought "Bra and Panties" matches -- in which the winner was determined based on who could strip her opponent down to her unmentionables first -- until the early 2000s. Until late last year, the title belt featured a bedazzled butterfly.
If the focus was more on looks than athleticism in the big leagues, at NXT, established in 2012 to train up-and-coming talent in both the physical and dramatic rigors of wrestling, things were starting to change.
"When my husband [WWE Talent EVP Triple H] took over talent development, he really wanted to recruit the most elite athletes in the world, male and female," says Stephanie McMahon, chief brand officer at WWE. "He trained men and women the same way and gave the NXT women the same amount of time to tell their story in the ring. As a result, like any sport or performances, the higher repetitions meant these women were becoming incredible performers and rising to the top. Fans wanted more."
In 2014, the Divas Championship made the WrestleMania card. By early 2015, the organization and its fans had picked up on the momentum generated by MMA promotion UFC, which had begun building its women's division in a meaningful way. After wrestler AJ Lee leveled criticism at Stephanie McMahon and the WWE for the brevity of women's bouts and their pay relative to the men, the hashtag #GiveDivasAChance trended internationally.
Meanwhile, Bliss was training at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando under former Chikara and Shimmer wrestler Sara Amato, who remembers the newcomer arriving looking small enough to be consumed by the ring. "She was maybe a little over 100 pounds when she got to us," says Amato. "And it's such a brutal sport on a female body -- on any body, really."
Concerned that a high-visibility gig like the WWE would resurrect her demons, but infatuated with the challenge and drama of the ring, Bliss had a choice to make. Underweight, her body took brutal punishment from the ropes and steel floor beams of the ring; if she didn't want to break apart, she'd need to put on some pounds. She found inspiration in the other female wrestlers at NXT, who, under Triple H's mandate, were coming in at a level of athleticism and from a diversity of backgrounds the division had never seen before.
"They were all so strong -- they all had muscle, and they all looked great," she says. "I noticed the more muscle I put on, the more cushion and padding I had, the better my performances were getting. I decided I could be this little, stick-thin thing out there and be hurt all the time, or I could show my athleticism, and if it comes with a little bit of weight on the side, it is what it is."
Amato noticed a change in Bliss. "Alexa really worked hard to be in the right state of mind, to put on weight in a healthy way, and to be able to maintain the physicality that's required to be a Superstar."
McMahon also remembers early encounters with the petite dynamo. The two filmed a workout video together shortly after Bliss arrived at the Performance Center. "I remember looking in her eyes and going, 'Wow, she's got something.' She just kind of jumps off the page. I asked my husband about her and he said, 'Yeah, that's Alexa Bliss, I think she's going to make it, too.'"
As Bliss put in her time at NXT, developing herself as a heel, the WWE began to sunset Divas. In July, Bliss was drafted from NXT to the SmackDown brand, and by August, the women's division had been rechristened the Women's Championship; from that point forward, all female fighters would be called Superstars, just like their male counterparts.
Bliss matured right along with the brand, adjusting to the brutal travel schedule, becoming the first woman to capture two SmackDown titles, and branding herself someone fans loved and loved to hate.
"No matter if she's cutting a promo or selling in the ring, you just connect with her," says Amato. "Her face says everything, and you could either love her or hate her, feel bad for her, want to cry with her. She just has that connection through just a look."
Since Bliss arrived within the division, women's wrestling has enjoyed longer bouts, headline status and more representation on pay-per-view cards. On Sunday, when Bliss faces every other woman in SmackDown, it will be to prove she deserves the title she's been fighting for, in one way or another, since she was 15. But she'll also be at least partly carrying the burden of the future of women in this business.
"It's such an honor to be a woman in WWE right now," says Bliss, "because our women are trailblazers. We've made history time and time again. And I think having a match for the title with all the women in the biggest event of the year is an honor. And I've made myself a promise that I'm going to be the evolution of the women's revolution."
After all the downturns, the battles with her demons, Bliss has emerged, wiser, smiling, perched on the ropes -- an unlikely for the girl whose heart nearly gave out, twice. Turns out, there's a fourth thing Miss Bliss wants you to know: She's not going to stop.