Interview courtesy of themalestrom.com (with permission).
This is a man’s world … Or at least it used to be. Read our interview with top British women’s wrestler Pollyanna
Wrestling used to be synonymous with Britain in the 70s & 80s. TV show World of Sport was watched by millions as the general public cheered on fan favourites like Big Daddy. After that the US took the torch and became the hotbed for the grappling game with the WWF, now World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), who currently reach a global audience of 650 million homes. In the last few years though there’s been a renaissance for the British scene with promotions like Progress Wrestling championing domestic talent and drumming up a loyal and rapidly growing audience for this athletic endeavour. Although stereotypically a male dominated world, as of late there’s been a distinct changing of the guard, with women’s wrestling becoming the main event for the largest promotion in the world. Dressed casually the woman that The MALESTRÖM meets in a Queens Park café doesn’t look fully like Pollyanna, the Warrior Princess that has made her name as an all out ass kicker on the professional wrestling circuit. But the firm hug she greets us with confirms it’s definitely her as it displays the super strength she uses night after night to fling other women round the ring. The MALESTROM met Pollyanna after her recent whistle stop tour of Germany for a stack of pancakes and bacon and a chat about her journey in the weird and wonderful world of wrestling.
The MALESTRÖM: Tell us where you’ve just got back from?
Pollyanna: I’ve just got back from Germany, I was in Oberhausen for WXW which is the prominent promotion in Germany and one of the best in the world as they bring in talent from Europe and Germany and Japan, so I got to see a lot of people I’d only seen previously on television. The way it’s run is amazing. And the crowd is so into it, they just react to everything. They really look after the talent and the more you look after us the better matches you get and it shows because they have one of the best products in the world.
TM: How did your journey into a career in wrestling begin?
P: I was eleven and I used to watch wrestling on Channel 5, WCW. I loved watching Sting and Goldberg. When it went off 5 I couldn’t watch it anymore as I didn’t have Sky. It was only years later when I was eighteen a friend of mine who was a hardcore WWE fan was talking to me about it and he said a lot of people shit on wrestling as it’s pre-determined, but they don’t realise the athleticism, the story that they generate from it. So I didn’t want to come across as small minded and said show me some stuff. He showed me Shaun Michaels v Kurt Angle at Wrestlemania and it blew me away, it was so good. So I searched around myself for a women’s match and I came across Jazz v Lita v Trish from Wrestlemania X8 and I was like, oh my god girls can wrestle too! I want to do this. So I found a training school in South London and I went in not knowing anything about wrestling, I didn’t understand the story or how to do any moves. I’ve always been a slow learner, so it took a long time till I clicked with it, but I never gave up. A lot of people tried to make me quit, I got badly bullied at first, I got beat up and I got a lot of comments about this and that. But I was like, if I want to get to WWE I have to accept this and push past it. That’s one thing I’m really happy about, the fact I never gave up and because of that I get to do the things I do today.
TM: What would you say to someone who calls wrestling fake?
P: I would never call it fake. Do you watch a film and suddenly thing this is real life? Do you watch theatre and think it’s real life? If you do your an idiot. At the end of the day none of us try to pretend it’s something that it’s not. We, like actors, are trying to make people believe in a story, to get the characters over. I feel like we (wrestlers) should be respected in what we do, I’ve seen girls chip their teeth; break their bones because they work so damn hard. There are people who hit you like you’re in a legit fight and you have to learn to take it and move on. I think to myself, you guys can say all this stuff about it being fake but get in a ring, get in a ring and see how you do.
TM: Tell us how difficult is it to train to be a wrestler?
P: It’s hard. The little things you see us do all day really hurt when you first start, the falls you take in the ring, the rope running. I’ve had cut marks down my back from running. Being thrown into the corner winds you. Not bumping (falling) in the ring the right way can crack your back. If you’re working with someone new you’ve got to realise they won’t be 100% on how to do a particular move, because of that there is a risk, a risk of being dropped on your head, a risk of landing the wrong way and hurting yourself. You have to learn how to protect yourself. There’s a lot of repetition in the training, repetition in learning the basics, how to move round the ring, how to lock up with someone, then you’ll work from a technical standpoint, then you’ll work from the basic move-set, a slam, a suplex, or a dropkick. As you go along and figure out what kind of wrestler you want to be that’s when you pick out the moves that fit the character. My character is a Warrior Princess. One thing I’ve always known with wrestling is I can’t leave my feet, I can’t leap up as high as all the men can. So instead I try and beat up people as much as I can and I’m strong so I can lift the other girls up and throw them around rather than doing leaps and dives to the outside. I can do the dives but, but I feel like a Warrior Princess would be on her feet battling. I’m used to fighting people in wars with swords and armour so I prefer to be on my feet one-on-one. I mean people could say why don’t you do the flashy shit and I’d say it makes no sense.
TM: Let’s talk injuries. Does the chance you’ll get hurt concern you when you step into the ring?
P: I don’t know if it worries me. I feel I’ve accepted the risks. I feel like there is a lot more I could be doing to protect myself. More neck bridges maybe, because I know people that have broken their necks. I’ve been lucky. I was in China doing a tour a year ago and I ripped a muscle in my shoulder. It never comes from a big move, it came from a backwards roll. I didn’t realise and I had to go back straight away and as I did it a girl was pushing me back and I was too tense rather than being loose and as I did it (ripping noises). I tried to keep going but I was like, I can’t, I really can’t. My whole neck and shoulders seized up, it was pretty bad. I took one day off from the schedule and I had to continue wrestling, it was horrible as I physically couldn’t do a match and I felt angry at myself, that I wasn’t stronger. But we were in a different country, where no one spoke the language so trying to go to a hospital where no one could speak English felt too risky for any of us to consider doing. In March I got badly concussed. I’ve been concussed before but that was the only time I’ve left a show and thought I wasn’t ok.
TM: That must have been scary?
P: It was scary in the match, because I got knocked out for a few seconds and when I opened my eyes I couldn’t remember how the rest of the match should go and I started to panic. I thought I’m really going to mess up. I tried to say to my opponent, I can’t remember, I can’t remember and the referee … the referee should always ask if you’re ok if a move fucks up, and he didn’t ask me. He didn’t, I was angry at him as I would have said I’m not ok, give me a second. The girl I was wrestling told me I wasn’t concussed as she didn’t want to take the blame. I didn’t want to blame her, but I said I’m concussed she said “no you’re not.” The promoter never asked me if I was ok, I left the show early and he never asked me, “why did you leave early?” I went to hospital the next day. I had to get my Mum to meet me, I hated to put her through that, but I was in a really bad way. I was really angry that I wasn’t better looked after. It made me feel pretty bitter. I’ve been quite lucky with injuries apart from that, obviously I get banged up and bruised but I’ve never broken any bones or snapped ligaments. I’m happy in that regard.
TM: How gruelling is the travelling element of things? Life in wrestling is often compared to that of a travelling circus …
P: The overseas travel is exhausting, most of the time it’s a 6am flight, then the next day you take a 6am flight home. Which means in two days you’ve not slept, you get back and might end up sleeping a lot of the next day. It takes a lot out of you, it’s worse when you have lots of back-to-back shows, so you’ll get back from one, get a few hours sleep, shower and you’re off to the next one. A few weeks ago I came back from a show and I had to go to one in Kent and I found myself legit falling asleep at the wheel, it gets exhausting. It’s more fun with other people in the car cause you can talk, when I’m on my own I’ll put on a podcast by Steve Austin or Chris Jericho and listen to them talk about the business.
TM: What’s your training schedule like?
P: everyone does different things. I do a lot of weights because I want to be the strongest girl out of everyone. My cardio tends to be 40 second sprints then 20 seconds rest, then keep going. Then a steady 30 minutes at the end to help work off and weight. I know a lot of people do martial arts in the background and some people just wrestle constantly. To be honest there’s not a lot you can do that can prep you for the cardio you need for a match. At first I was like oh it’ll be easy, it’ll fine, but then you realise. I could do so much cardio in the week and get five minutes into the match and feel like throwing up from exhaustion. Imagine lying on your back and getting straight up, now do that for ten minutes, you’ll be ill. You need to have squat strength, you need really good body control. That’s like standing on your head to keep your body steady. You need good strong abs to be able to post for things so people can throw you as much as they want. I do high intensity training as well, these are the things you need to do, doing a lot of training will really help you, but like I say there’s nothing you can do in the gym that replicates stepping into the ring.
TM: Tell us what it’s like being a female in a male dominated world?
P: Things are better now, but when I started I was the only girl in training. I found it tricky, I was the only female for a long time. I remember watching a women’s match for the first time live, whilst I was still in training. I was excited as it was always men’s matches, then I watched it and it was so bad. The guys were always winding me up, they looked at me and said that’s going to be you, and I was like, is that the level of women’s wrestling? That’s what I have to work with! I felt really upset. I wanted to have good matches, do something better. When people look at women’s wrestling like that they don’t push you, they don’t think there’s anything you can do better than the boys, which is true to a degree as boys will always be naturally stronger, but when they see that they don’t think there’s anything for girls to reach, it’s really hard and that’s one of the reasons they’ll try and push you to quit. Fortunately in the last few years things have got so much better, there are so many girls in training now.
TM: How’s the perception of women’s wrestling changed?
P: There’s always going to be dickheads that are like what is this? It’s just tits and ass, which is fine, that’s just what comes of it. But I think WWE has helped a lot with showing how good it can be, which means we’ve a standard to hit, which is good. I’ve always said to the other girls, we can’t fuck up, sorry to put pressure on you, but an average show will have say six matches, that’s five men’s matches and one women’s. If you mess up that’s the crowds perception of women’s wrestling, so If I know we’re the only girls match we fucking make sure we go all out every time and get it right. If you mess up that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but you need to go all out and try and be as good as the boys or beat them, beat them at their game.
TM: Have you ever encountered sexism in the industry?
P: Oh yea, so much. There was this one promoter years ago. I had a match, and I really wanted to work for this promotion. The girl I was facing, I followed what she did as she was more experienced and she was awful. The match wasn’t good and I was really upset. My boyfriend at the time said go and ask him (the promoter) what he thought, I didn’t want to as it wasn’t a good match, but I did. I said hey, were you happy with the match? He just said leave the big moves to the guys, when they see girls all they want to see is a catfight. I got in the car home and just cried. I thought why the hell do I train if that’s what they expect. The other wrestlers in the car said “fuck him, it’s not up to him to say that to you, keep training, keep getting better”.
I feel like when I walk out through the curtain, there’s a low expectation, but that works out well. If expectation is so low all you have to do is have a solid match and they’ll be like ok, and if you have a good match you can blow minds as they don’t expect the girls to be doing stuff like this. It’s a good feeling to change people’s perceptions. I’ve had lots of people come up to me and say you’ve made me love women’s wrestling. It means a lot when another woman comes up to me and says I loved your match as I feel I’m representing every girl in that crowd. I want to impress them. I see a lot with their kids and feel like if they like it and their little girls are watching it they might be like, I want to do that Mummy, I want to be strong and be like here. I feel like your becoming a positive roll model for them and that’s what I want to be. Yes there is still a lot of sexism, but recently it’s got a lot better with what’s happened on television. I remember the first time I wrestled for Progress and I went up to the promoter Jon Briley and I said to him what do you want from the match. And he said to me “set the standard for the girls, give them something that they can look at and say that’s what I want to do”. So I did it and I was so happy with the match and so was he. That’s all he had to say, he never limited us, he always said if you’re the girls representing this division make sure it’s fucking good every time, you have to. Progress putting that much confidence in us makes us better wrestlers. We know we have to go for it every time.
TM: Progress has been a massive part of the renaissance in British Wrestling. Tell us about working for them?
P: I love Progress cause a lot of organisations in Britain made their money through bringing in US stars who’d been on TV with WWE or TNA, which is fine, but the fans were only coming for them. When they’d try and sell the British product on domestic talent the fans wouldn’t come. When Progress started they very much had it in their heads no, we want it to be our stars. As it grew one of the people that really took Progress to the next level was Jimmy Havoc. When he turned from being a guy the fans loved to an evil, evil fucker. He could say to people if you touch me I will kill you and the whole audience would back off as they were so scared of him. He’s not the biggest guy, but he is so terrifying and intimidating. Because of how he changed and the story he created, everyone was trying to get the belt off him and they’d throw three men against him but could never beat him. He’d always find a way out and people loved it. Because they kept pushing all their British guys it grew and grew and people kept watching it. I don’t even know how the audience came about but I feel they are the true heart of Progress. The one rule in Progress is ‘don’t be a dick’, and they aren’t. They have a drink, enjoy it and know they’re not going to be idiots, they cheer the faces (good guys) and even if they like the heels (bad guys) they boo them out of the building, because that’s what they want. It’s like when Jinny came out in my match, they love her but that’s why she gets booed out of the building cause that’s what she needs to hear.
Progress have brought in imports, but never for the star power, it’s been because of the wrestlers. They’ve had Tommaso Ciampa, Sami Callihan, Roderick Strong, Samoa Joe. They always said it wasn’t about using the names to sell the tickets. They sell out every time, before they’ve even announced one match. I don’t know how they do it, but they do it. So they can build a product where we don’t need imports for tickets but rather bring them in on the odd occasion to get a really good match out of them. They’ve built us wrestlers into stars because they gave us that platform and put faith in us. A lot of the wrestlers are grumpy fucks. They’ll sit in the locker room on their phones not speaking to anyone, but the second you see them at Progress they’re in the best mood, pleased to be there, and they always go for it. It’s a really good positive healthy environment and they’re always happy to watch my match and give me pointers.
TM: How much passion does it take to become a wrestler?
P: This business is hard because you wrestle and sometimes feel you’re not given the chances you deserve, and that can grind on someone. And the injuries that come from it … one of my good friends broke his neck, he should have been out six months, he came back after two. I’m still to this day mad at him. It’s one huge mistake wrestlers make, they feel if they take time off they’ll fall behind, if they get momentum in wrestling all these stars they don’t want to stop. They might have a broken foot and they’ll tape it up and take painkillers and keep going, even though in six-months or a year they could be messed up permanently for the rest of their career. It’s like an opponent of mine Wesna, when she messed up her hip, I don’t know if she’d have stopped wrestling if it would have got totally better, but she kept wrestling on it and had to retire just as she was breaking into America. I wrestled her on Friday, and I always loved her, always looked up to her when I watched her, and It always made me sad when I realised she had retired as I thought I’d never get the chance to wrestle her. When I did it was great, but it still makes me really upset she never got that chance (Pollyanna begins to tear up). Because she should have made it in America, she was that damn good. But that’s the tragedy of wrestling unfortunately, the people that really deserve it and work so hard and are legends, who are so, so fucking good they have more talent in their pinky finger than I do in my whole body, but they just don’t get those chances and that’s what’s so upsetting.
TM: Is it heartening that some of the talent is getting recognised and called up by WWE?
P: Tommy End, he’s a really good guy, really smart and he deserves it, I’m happy for him. When I see girls I’m really close with doing well, getting really big, I’m like yes, you totally deserve it cause you work so hard, it’s almost as if their success is my success. You doing this shows just how hard you have to work. One example is Nikki Storm, she’s Nikki Cross in NXT now. She doesn’t look like your typical diva, she’s small, she’s a Scot and she’s a loudmouth. When I saw she got signed I felt she was a huge inspiration for a lot of the girls. A lot of us sometimes feel we’re not going to get there (WWE) because we aren’t pretty enough, our tits aren’t big enough, then she got in and it was like fucking hell man. I mean she worked so hard, I don’t think anybody worked harder than her. I think it showed everyone that if she can get in purely by hard work it shows how fair this business can be. It shows we can get there. A few years ago we may not have believed, but now everyone knows they’ve got a shot.
TM: Is your ultimate goal to lace up your boots in the WWE?
P: A few years ago I wasn’t that interested but now I really do. I want to be on the level where I am one of the best in the world. I always question my ability and never stop questioning what I can do. But if you get to that stage I feel like you must be doing something right to be getting seen by someone like William Regal or Finley. I did a training session with Finley about six years ago. He said to us I’m going to watch you guys wrestle and I know what WWE are looking for so I’ll tell you. I waited for my turn and I saw him give good advice to some people. But some people he ripped into them so badly you had to hang your head. He went up to one guy and said “How long have you been wrestling for?” The guy said “Since 99’” and Finley said “What 99 minutes ago? He told him the biggest mistake he ever made was getting into this ring, people like you are why I’ve not been able to feed my family at times. Straight after this I had to get in the ring, I was so nervous. If he told me I should never have started wrestling, he won’t be wrong. But he was lovely. He said just take your time more, but you were good. I thanked him afterwards and he said it was a pleasure. It was a big moment for me. He treated the girls just like the boys, it was just, if you’re good you’re good, he wasn’t worried about gender and I loved that about him.
TM: Can you tell us more about where your character Pollyanna came from?
P: When I started I wasn’t sure who I wanted to be. One guy came up to me and said you’re pretty crazy, you should do a mad little sister gimmick, and I did for a while and it was fun. But then I had to be a heel for a promotion. They said we want you to be called Pollyanna and be a blue blood. So I was like ok. I watched Regal and the early version of HHH to get ideas, but it never clicked with me. It was only when I went to Japan for five weeks and it gave me a much clearer understanding of how hard you had to work on your character. The girl’s costumes were so amazing. I said I want ring gear like that. So I designed something and decided I wanted to be a Warrior Princess, sort of a remix of Xena. I took a lot of influence from the Japanese fighting spirit that you can never give up. I always want to get a beating when I wrestle and to put over the fact I never give up. The gimmick took aspects of me, it also used the blue blood gimmick but in the right way. Also I’m obsessed with Game Of Thrones so I take influences from the costumes and I’ve even referenced it in matches. I did an entrance on an iron throne like the one in the series. That was awesome. Although my one was on little wheels and I kept thinking I was going to slip backwards off the stage! You start with a character and you have to evolve it, take it to the next level. I want to slowly progress from Princess to Queen, I can’t be a Princess forever. I want to show that I can be a true ruler.
TM: Do you get nervous before matches?
P: Years ago I got nervous before every match and I still do sometimes. At the last Brixton Progress event I was shitting one.
TM: What’s the favourite match you’ve seen and the favourite match you’ve wrestled in?
P: It has to be Johnny Moss Vs Terry Frazier for the British National Championship in 2008. It was amazing! It’s hard to pick just one of my matches. There was one againstAddy Starr I was proud of. And when I wrestled my trainer Emi Sakura in Osaka, Japan, that was a great moment. Oh and can I mention the Main event tag match from Progress, ENDVR? Sorry that’s three.
P: It has to be being the first woman to debut on the main show for Progress. That was me and Jinny. They’d been clear they didn’t want women on the main show so we accepted we’d be on the undercard show ENDVR, so all of us said that’s fine, we’ll do our absolute best to keep going. All the girl’s matches from then started to get so good. When I got asked to do the match I did a Carlton dance from The Fresh Prince, I was so happy. Money is no object they could have got anyone in from around the world but the fact they gave that chance to me and Jinny was an honour. We knew we had to have a great match and thankfully we did. The next time we got brought up we had to do a four-way match, me and Jinny against this lovely Aussie girl Toni Storm and Dahlia Black, that was great fun as we all got on so well. I did a four-way submission spot with the other girls.
I’d had the idea in my head for ages, I’d seen it done with two people and wanted to try with three. I couldn’t see the audiences reaction but when I got back through the curtain I got told all the audience were on their feet cheering, which made me happy. Even one of my heroes Paul Heyman called it impressive, and I’m very much a Paul Heyman girl.
TM: Is there any advice or piece of wisdom that’s stuck with you throughout your career?
P: Keep your lips closed and your ears open. Really watch what you say … at all times, you don’t know who could be listening and who you could upset. And always, always be humble, don’t walk around with arrogance, be appreciative.
TM: What advice would you give a young girl or boy that wants to get into the business?
P: I’d tell them make sure you study. You need to get good grades. Make sure you have some back up if wrestling doesn’t work out. You can do it for eight, maybe ten years but what do you do after if you’ve not got those results? It’s really important. I’d also say if you do want to be a wrestler, don’t just go to training to give it a go. That’s not what you do wrestling for. When I went to wrestle I went as the only girl, on my own, because I really wanted to do it. I’d be up at 7am every day to go to training, I didn’t even hesitate and I’m so lazy, but I’d be straight out of bed to wrestle. If you want to wrestle you’ll wrestle, it shows you’ll stick it out. You can’t think it’ll be easy, it’s not easy, it fucking hurts. It hurts your body and you have to deal with a lot of shit people and be treated like shit. You need to have a good mental state; you need to keep in shape. It’s not easy, but if you don’t give up and you always fucking try, you will get exactly what you want and that’s not a lie. I thought I was never going to get anywhere and I think I’ve done pretty damn well for myself really (laughs).