Queen of Heart

Queen of Heart

For Charlotte Flair, one of the stars of ESPN The Magazine's 2018 Body Issue, wrestling is more than just turnbuckles and moonsaults. It's about legacy, family and facing your pain.


Backstage at Baltimore's WWE Smackdown Live, headliner Ashley Fliehr, 32, weaves through the chilly, serpentine halls of the Royal Farms Arena to find the women's dressing room, opening the door on a cramped, communal space cluttered with luggage, massive costume trunks, and flanked by two bathroom stalls that don't shut. After quick hugs with other female competitors busying themselves for the night's event, Fliehr (who wrestles under the stage name "Charlotte Flair," aka "The Queen") edges into a tight corner, strips out of her floral shift dress, and pulls on black leggings and a fitted tank.

"We all change in front of each other," she says of the cheek-by-jowl, modesty-free digs, adding, contrary to what one might imagine, "there are very few wardrobe malfunctions" in professional wrestling, the ladies of WWE prophylactically taped for the gods.

Not far from the dressing room, the Smackdown makeup alley is a makeshift encampment lit by several industrial lights. Pop music plays from a portable speaker. Long tables are lined with hundreds of brushes, piles of eye shadow, concealer, glitter, boxes upon boxes of fake eyelashes, super-strength glue. No wigs. But plenty of extensions, one gamely being held aloft by wrestler Jimmy Uso as a stylist curls it like fusilli, prepping to weave it into fellow wrestler Becky Lynch's hair. A "princess parking only" sign hangs from a 6-foot-high storage case that holds yet more supplies: diaper wipes, Gas-X, body oil.

Fliehr takes an open seat, sits tall in a director's chair while her longtime makeup artist slathers moisturizer on her cheeks and neck. The Queen's makeup is classic. Liquid liner, maybe a sparkle highlight, a tasteful nude lip. As Fliehr's lashes are curled, she chats with 6-foot-4 Irish wrestler Sheamus while his mohawk is dyed crimson red. He complains to Fliehr about "getting caked" in a prank earlier, a crust of icing still smeared across his expansive bare chest. Fliehr laughs, all the nearby wrestlers and glam squad ribbing him about his having it coming, the vibe easy, intimate.

"We take care of our own around here," says Fliehr as her makeup artist pencils in her brows. "It's an undying bond."

Wrestling has always been a family business. Families own the franchises, families wrestle in them. On every level, from crew to cast, legacy abounds. (The Fliehrs no exception, Ashley the daughter of wrestling legend Ric Flair.) Few people leave the industry once they've been exposed to it, pro wrestling a virus that never exits the blood. Which explains why megastar Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson still returns to the ring, getting his fix on a high unavailable even in the heady air of Hollywood.

Ask around and you discover that wrestling quickly transcends a job, serving for competitors as something of a Buddhist metaphor. You're a player in a story whose outcome you have no control over; one day you're the windshield, the next you're the bug. Your mission is to make the most of what you're given. To say wrestling is a joke is to miss the point. Life is a joke, and wrestling -- equal parts soap opera, kabuki theater and morality play -- is simply a way to revel in the interlaced absurdity and stubborn charm of life. The ring one of the few places on earth where no matter how glaringly human you act, no matter whether you're a winner or a loser, people will still love you.

"My job is healing to me," explains Fliehr, standing up from her chair, face painted, hair rolled. "Charlotte is the woman you want to become. A strong, groundbreaking, independent female in a male-dominated world."

She pauses, a sly smile breaking across her face. "I'm embracing the power in it."

“We put our bodies on the line, and it is a physical sport, not just entertainment. ... I hope that everyone sees the athleticism, the grace, the natural beauty.”


Fliehr on appearing in the Body Issue

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Fliehr, the daughter of 16-time world champion Ric Flair and his then-wife Elizabeth, was an athlete from the jump. As a kid she played multiple sports, her true love gymnastics ("I could do a standing back flip at 13") until she grew too tall and pivoted to volleyball, a sport more aligned with her 5-10, broad-shouldered physiology and one in which, as captain, she led her team to two state championships.

"I was taller than the boys. They called me 'beast,'" Fliehr recalls, sighing. "I had really hairy arms."

According to her father, "Ashley didn't cry as a child." The wrestling idol conditioning his children to "be street smart. Nobody bullied my kids, let me put it like that," he says matter-of-factly. As for daughter Ashley, "You couldn't miss the fact that she was aggressive as a girl. Only one boy could beat her at anything."

Flair recalls Ashley ran a 5:13 mile in the ninth grade, her sprawling athleticism ultimately landing her a full ride to Appalachian State on a volleyball scholarship.

"I spent my whole upbringing in sporting camps," Fliehr says. "I didn't do cotillion."

She first decided to train for the WWE in March 2012, when she was 26, after attending a Hall of Fame ceremony with her father.

"We were all sitting around the table," he remembers. "And [WWE talent relations VP] John Laurinaitis looks at Ashley and says, 'Why aren't you wrestling?' I thought to myself, Oh boy, here we go."

Within three months, Fliehr had signed a developmental contract.

"Did I really want to do that?" she says now. "No. But I was looking for something. I was ..." she pauses, searching for the right words. "Getting away."


Ashley Fliehr didn't watch much wrestling growing up, even though her father, Ric Flair, was a 16-time world champion. WWE

Heart

ASHLEY FLIEHR MET the man who would become her husband during a visit home to Charlotte when she was still a freshman at App State. He was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the pair hit it off, their connection intense. When his father passed away shortly after they began dating, Fliehr felt the urge to "be his everything, beck and call, to take care of him even though it had only been a few weeks."

So she did, growing "more and more attached" until, over time, she lost herself entirely, like water into sand.

Fliehr transferred schools so they could be closer. She quit volleyball altogether, forgoing her scholarship, cutting ties with the seat of her identity since she was in grade school, that of a girl with command over her body, that of an athlete.

"The minute I didn't have sports, I was like, 'Who am I?'" Fliehr recalls, adding: "Unless you've been in a codependent relationship, you can't understand. That person is your drug. ... Maybe I was vulnerable because of my dad's life on the road. I don't know."

"I did not set a good example for my kids," Flair candidly acknowledges of his peripatetic leanings -- in the early years, "I'd be gone weeks at a time, driving 3,000 miles for 600 bucks" -- and four divorces. "For somebody that can make friends with anybody, I struggled with being alone."

"I knew my dad had one affair in middle school," Fliehr says. "But I didn't think he was ever going to leave. When he moved out in 2005, everything changed."

Gone were family beach trips to Florida, lazy fishing days and decadent dinners in which Flair would order every appetizer on the menu and hold court for huge groups of friends and relatives. Money became tight, a privation for which Fliehr had no preparation.

"Our finances just got worse and worse," Fliehr remembers, her childhood home eventually foreclosed on, her mother bereft. The dramatic shift in circumstance left Fliehr both resentful of her father and vulnerable to men claiming they could do better.

"I wanted family because mine was so close, and then all of a sudden, we weren't," Fliehr says, swallowing hard. She begins to cry, her shame palpable, if misplaced. "I just have so many regrets," she says of those turbulent, lost years, her voice trailing off. "I don't recognize the person I was then."

Mostly, she doesn't recognize how she was able to disassociate from her body, from the source of her pride, her power. How she allowed an unhealthy relationship to replace every notion she'd ever held about herself, about who she was inside, about what she was capable of. (After six years together, the couple divorced in 2011.)

"When Ashley quit volleyball, we had the worst argument we ever had," her dad recalls, adding that he tried to talk her out of the decision. "She yelled at me: 'I'm tired of making you happy! Quit living your life vicariously through me!' Stuff like that."

"I said some really mean things to him in a parking lot," Fliehr remembers. "And then he left for WrestleMania."

His absence a hole she could not fill.

"People think Ashley had the world handed to her, that she had this wonderful life as the daughter of Ric Flair," says Sara Amato, Fliehr's first professional wrestling coach. "When, really, she's got a sad story."

When, on that 2012 Hall of Fame night, wrestling was mentioned as a career, for the first time in years Fliehr heard the voice of her past, the voice of that headstrong girl who ran like fire and hurled herself fearlessly into the sky and spiked balls with cannon-like ferocity. And amid the crushing din of her fears and insecurities, Fliehr took a cool, cleansing breath, and listened.

She asked her father if he still believed in her. He said he always had. He always would. And Fliehr, pinned but not defeated, gathered up what was left of the young woman she once knew, packed her bags and uprooted to Florida to become the wrestler called Charlotte Flair.


"I want the audience ... to see me as the athlete I am," Fliehr tells ESPN The Magazine. "I am all athlete, and that's important, that my looks have nothing to do with what I do in the WWE." Nick Laham for ESPN

Gut

WWE STARS TRAVEL at least 265 days a year, often more. They work holidays. "Our only off-season is if you get hurt," Fliehr says.

When she's on the road, Fliehr gets her workouts delivered from her trainer via her phone. She finds a local gym, follows the instructions to the letter, an athlete first.

Today, as she pumps out several sets of clean and jerks, she explains she wants "to be the female John Cena." She takes a slurp of water from a jug. "I want to be that standard-bearer. I want a female revolution."

After Fliehr attended her first wrestling camp, she gradually rediscovered her old self, the lifelong jock, the risk taker, the beast. The harder she trained, the tougher she got in the ring and the less hold the ugliness of her recent history possessed, until one day, as if being shook from a nightmare, she stepped outside into the Florida sun and realized she was free.

"With Charlotte, I forged a new identity," she says. "After a while, I'm like, 'Dang, why can't I act like that in real life?'"

Fliehr moves on to squats, donning a weight belt emblazoned in rhinestones with the word "queen." A gift, she says sheepishly.

"Wrestling is less buns and guns now," she continues. "I'm proud of the athleticism. With Ronda [Rousey] coming in, she's an Olympian, not a reality-TV star, not just eye candy."

Fliehr sees WWE's investment in Rousey and other bona fide athletes as a trend elevating women in wrestling, shifting the focus from sexy-time aesthetics to badass sports performance -- a pivot she welcomes.

"I never viewed myself as glamorous. I didn't ooze sex appeal. I was a tomboy, the girl next door." She points at her scalp, indicates the blond extensions she's wearing. "I'm learning."

Fliehr confides she was woefully unprepared for the physical scrutiny she endured when she first got into the ring, naively assuming her incontestable athleticism would be enough.

"Social media and all these dirt sheets said that Charlotte wasn't modelesque, she wasn't pretty, that 'she looked like her dad in a wig.'" Criticism further fueled by her WWE-assigned moniker.

"'Genetically superior,' they came up with that," Fliehr explains of the tagline that was initially burdensome to her. When Charlotte Flair debuted in Atlanta in 2015, the whole arena booed her. "I can't say that it didn't get to me, because it did."

Ironically, everything changed when she went full Queen, a shift she says stopped her worrying about physical perfection and making nice.

"They hated me no matter what. So instead of shying away from it, I decided, 'I don't care if you like me or not.' I was arrogant, cocky. And my career took off."

Fliehr loved being a "bad guy," believing it played to her size, "I'm bigger than all the girls," and to her lineage -- her father a heel for the ages.

Freed from the pleaser confines of the sexy, pretty girl, "fans noticed my athleticism and my performance." They observed what Fliehr could do with her body rather than the body itself. "They learned to respect me."

The standard wrestling ring is 20x20, the ropes basic cordage wrapped in tape. The floor simple canvas layers topping a metal frame. There is very little give or bounce. When your skin rubs against the rope or flooring, it chafes as if rubbed by sandpaper.

"I'm built for wrestling," Fliehr says. "I have a high pain tolerance. My nose has been broken a couple times. Black eyes."

She recently knocked out her front teeth while competing in Germany, flew home to the States for emergency dental work and returned a day later to continue the European tour as if nothing had happened. (Fliehr also had a damaged breast implant repaired June 19, which will take six weeks to heal, an enforced break she finds trying.)

"Ashley's absolutely fearless," her dad says. "Her moonsaults? I could never do any of that s---. She's the best athlete in the company, man or woman."

In the WWE's developmental league, "I was told I couldn't moonsault off the top rope because it was too dangerous," Fliehr says. She did it anyway, flipping through the air flying-squirrel style for the first time at WrestleMania 32, in 2016. Now the stunt appears in every WWE highlight reel.

Though she's recently gone back to being a baby face, Fliehr hasn't lost her regal air, her pomposity. She still dons the ornate robes, a nod to the baller pimp fashion of her dad. She also adopted his "Woo" and wiggle walk -- gloaty affectations atypical of America's sweetheart.

"It's not about the moves," she explains. "It's what you make the audience feel."

"Ashley is unique," observes Amato, herself a former pro. "She has a different kind of motivation. It just means so much more to her."


When Fliehr embraced her moniker "The Queen," she says she stopped worrying about her physical perfection -- confidence that endeared her to her fans. WWE

Blood

ALL REID FLIEHR ever wanted to do was follow his father into the ring. As kids, he and older sister Ashley were tight as ticks.

"My dad traveled so much, Reid and I shared a bed with my mom when we were little," Fliehr says. The siblings stayed close, best friends in high school, occasional roommates in their 20s.

Unlike her younger brother, Fliehr didn't watch much wrestling growing up. She preferred "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Dawson's Creek," "Felicity." When their father was on TV, she made zero effort to tune in.

"She didn't care about it," Flair says of his daughter's interest in his career. "My son was crazy for it, but you know..." He cuts himself off, doesn't finish.

In 1998, Reid won the AAU National Wrestling Tournament. By 2009, he'd been arrested multiple times for narcotic and alcohol-related offenses, twice blowing his auditions for WWE with drug-test failures.

"It was the constant battle of what rehab to send him to," Fliehr says. "It just got worse and worse." And then, "my dad brought him home so he could see me wrestle for the first time."

That night, March 29, 2013, Reid Fliehr was found dead at a Residence Inn in Charlotte. An autopsy revealed the cause was an overdose of heroin along with traces of prescription drugs. He was 25 years old.

"He'd asked me to come home and see him for Christmas," Fliehr says, tears streaming down her cheeks. She declined, chose to stay in Florida, keep training, said she'd see him another time.

"It sticks to me," she says of the decision. She pauses, wipes her face with a tissue. "I didn't want to be a wrestler because of my dad. I wanted to be a wrestler because of my little brother. I'm living his dream."

Fliehr turns her head to the side. "I go back and read his Twitter sometimes," she says softly. "Just to see the stuff he was doing."


Behind the scenes at her Body Issue shoot, Charlotte Flair explains some of the challenges she had when first competing in WWE.

Spine

MUSIC BLARES DURING the tech run-through at the Royal Farms Arena as wrestlers practice their entrances, some more elaborate than others, a giant, electronic clock above the ring ticking the seconds 'til doors open.

Backstage, a trio of seamstresses hunch over tables laden with costumes, hurriedly replacing sequins, doubling seams. Behind them, male wrestlers get greased up like Christmas turkeys. They walk in circles, breathing deep, boots laced, manties skin tight.

Soon, Fliehr joins the other competitors in the waiting area. She's dressed in a shiny, silver-blue bustier, matching bloomers that V at her navel, knee-high, black boots, "CF" sewn into the sides. She closes her eyes, hears the rumble of the crowd.

Minutes later, Charlotte Flair charges through the backstage curtain, a floor-length, jewel-studded, royal-blue robe strung across her shoulders. She struts toward the ring, hips jutting, shoulders thrown back, untying the cape, which skims down her legs, pooling around her ankles.

She gives a slight hop step, clearing the robe to execute a flawless front handspring, then slides under the lowest rope into the ring and onto the mat in a full straddle split, which she converts into a back roll, pushing up from her hands to her feet.

“Ashley's absolutely fearless. Her moonsaults? I could never do any of that s---.”


Ric Flair on his daughter, Ashley

The impressive gymnastics prompt enthusiastic "woos" and chants of, "Go, Charlotte!" from the 8,000-plus fans in the audience. Her opponent, Peyton Royce, gets a more muted reception, the house clearly with Flair, especially when she is thwarted, thrown off the mat and double-teamed by Royce's wrestling partner, Billie Kay.

In the crowd, little girls scramble to stand on their seats. They don't look at the Jumbotron. They look at the women wrestlers in the flesh. They stare directly at Flair, drinking in her thick thighs and muscled abs, marveling at her flips and pins and locks, screaming, "Nooooo!" when she goes down, clapping wildly when she rises.

"Ashley knows you have to give them everything, every night," her father says. "She's like me."

A dedication rough on the body, if buoying to the soul.

"I was so hard on him," Fliehr says of her and her dad's rocky period. "I was like, 'Why can't you just give it up? Why can't you walk away?' Now I understand."

Her match done, a victorious Fliehr loads up the rental for the long drive to her next event. She'll arrive well after midnight, waking early to hit the gym. She likes driving, belting out Alanis Morrisette and Pat Benatar lyrics while the highway blurs by.

Among Fliehr's multiple tattoos is a quote from Proverbs inked on the left side of her torso. Guard your heart above all else, for it will determine the course of your life. On the right side, a cross honors her brother Reid. Fliehr says she thinks of Reid every time she enters the ring. She believes he's watching her.

"I had so many growing pains. Things that I needed to figure out. What path to take."

She says she's got a better handle on what it means to be herself. That Charlotte, in part, taught her that.

"I can't say that when I'm not in the robe, I'm not insecure," she confesses. "But the more I grow into this character, the better my life gets. At 32, I'm the most confident I've ever been in my own skin."

Fliehr pauses a beat, shudders.

"I don't know what would have happened to me if I hadn't found wrestling." She glances over her body, takes stock of her fresh bruises, cracks her neck. "The ring is my safe place."

Allison Glock has been a writer with ESPN for more than 15 years. The author of seven books, her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Outside, Men's Journal and many other publications. She has also written and produced for television and is developing a series with A&E.

Header photo WWE