Editor’s note: This column orginally appeared on Diva-Dirt.com and is the initial installment of Maria Kanellis‘s new online blog.
What’s up all you Stars and Studs!!
First off, I would like to say thank you to Diva Dirt for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this amazing website. I have loved the website since the day it opened and it has on many occasions introduced me to new women wrestlers from around the world. Yes, I am a women’s wrestling fan. I have been for a long time and yes, I take a huge interest in the women’s wrestling shows even though I am not the best women’s wrestler. That title goes to Victoria, Mickie, Sara Del Rey, MsChif, Kong, or Cheerleader Melissa active currently. And yes, that is my opinion. Secondly, there are so many things I could talk about… The Bellas, Ring of Honor, Pay the Fan, my relationship with Michael Bennett, my “big projects”, Total Divas, wrestling bullies, Raw, SmackDown, TNA, or just my thoughts on the current state of women’s wrestling. We will have plenty of time for all of it but first I want to give you my story.
My name is Mary Louis Kanellis and I am 31. I am from a small town outside of Chicago called Ottawa, Illinois. I have one beautiful intelligent sister, Janny, and one father of two and veteran brother, Bill. One funny story about my brother and me — we used to wrestle all the time and I broke his nose. Oops. I blame sibling rivalry and WWE. We used to watch it as a family when we were little. My parents are blue collar. My dad is a recently retired prison guard and my mother is a nurse’s aide at a nursing home. I grew up middle class and I began working at the age of 12. I was a bus girl, then ice cream maker, Jimmy John employee and dance teacher. For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be an entertainer. I started dance lessons at the age of three. I used to, as a little girl, host television shows in my bathroom mirror. I started modeling at the age of 14 and I never looked back. As a model I felt I could get out of my small town and away from the teasing/bullying I experienced in school and in dance I could express myself with movement. I have always been different. I dressed different, I got my boobs at 12 before any other girl did, I liked fashion, and I was a creative person. In school I always got As in Art classes and I struggled in Mathematics. I remember when I was still in grade school girls used to make fun of my long hair and one time shut my hair in the bathroom door. Their laughter and the fact that I never fit in made me want a career in entertainment more than anything else. I only felt less lonely when I would look at the girls in magazines with their crazy clothes, confident looks, fearless makeup, and chicken legs. (Yes, I had skinny chicken legs all through school.) I was a victim of bullying and that continued into high school. When I went to high school I thought that I would find a place to fit in but it only got worse. In my freshmen year, my choir teacher, Mr. Amm, was the only person thus far in my life that made me feel that being weird was perfect. But my school counselor told me I could not fit everything into my schedule if I took choir the next year so I was alone again. Girls used to put negative and hurtful things on my locker. They would put pictures of me with a circle around my face calling me a slut or they would draw a mustache on a picture from the Seventeen magazine I was in and tape it to my locker.
I tried out for the dance team in high school, the Ottawa Pomerettes, but I didn’t have a white collar name in my small town so even though all the senior girls told me I had great tryout and should have made it, the coach would not put me on the team. My junior year when I was dating one of the varsity football team captains, I made the dance team. It was obvious why I made the team that particular year. Football was religion in my town. So, even though it was not my intention that was my first education about politics. I loved the dance team and performing at football and basketball games. But the coach was mean spirited and made fun of my long hair and told me I should cut it. No matter how hard I worked that coach did not like me. So, at practices I was put on display for what not to do or who not to be.
The dance studio was a different story. Jeanne Marie’s School of Dance is where I learned to perform and not be afraid to stand out. I felt at home on the wood floors of the dance studio above my old gym and alive in front of a crowd. We had recitals, competed in competitions, and performed at the yearly Riverfest in front of the entire town of Ottawa. Jeanne Armstrong, one of my dance teachers, had a way of pushing the best performance out of you. It didn’t matter how sick, tired, hurt, or depressed you were, YOU DANCED. I loved the crazy and sometimes (who am I kidding, most times) ugly costumes we wore and I loved forgetting the pain from the bullying I experienced during the day in high school. Jeanne, Rhonda, and Leigh Ann will forever be role models to me. I often think about what might have happened if my mom and I would have bought the studio after Jeanne sold it. It would have been a completely different life. By the time I left the studio it had a new owner. I was 21 and teaching 10 dance classes a week. It feels like a lifetime ago. My eyes were focused on Los Angeles and the entertainment business. It was time to go… Or I thought it was.
Somehow I ended up in Covington, Kentucky. I ending up engaged to my high school sweetheart that I didn’t love, but he loved me and wrestling. My ex and I used to watched wrestling all the time. I loved the women and looked at them as role models to get out of my bad situation. The Divas kept me going when I was depressed. So, I taught at a dance studio, went to the University of Cincinnati, and worked at a Sears all while trying to get modeling jobs in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was a hard time. My fiancé was a drug addict and I was trying to get as far as possible from him and Ottawa as I could. I finally did when I got offered a modeling job in Miami, Florida. I was so excited!! The agency was going to put me up in a model studio and I was going to work in Miami. It sounded perfect. So, I packed everything I could in my Neon, broke up with my drug addict fiancé, and drove to Miami. As soon as I got there I knew something was wrong. There was no model studio and I was supposed to live with the owner of the agency. I had saved up a little bit of money so I got an efficiency in the same building still hoping I would be represented by the agent so I could make some money. It was scary and a big joke at the same time. I was so naive I did get a few jobs while I was in Miami but even with my very best attempts I couldn’t make enough money to stay. During the last job I did for the agency, while I was changing in the bathroom the agent walked in on me and tried to feel me up. He got kicked pretty hard in his (I’m assuming tiny) privates and I ran away. I ended up sleeping in my car and calling my mommy on a pay phone to ask her to send me money. I was 22, scared and alone. I had to go back to Ottawa, Illinois. Los Angeles was getting further away. My dream was slipping away.
On the way back to Ottawa I stopped in Knoxville, Tennessee for a Hawaiian Tropic bikini contest. I had been a Hawaiian Tropic bikini model since I was 17. My mom used to go with me to the bars the contests were being held at so I could enter even though I was under age. My mom has always been my biggest supporter and one of my best friends. With Hawaiian Tropics I got a taste of traveling. I went to Hawaii on my very first flight for Hawaiian Tropics. Bikini modeling was a better fit for me. I tried runway modeling and they told me I was too short and too fat. I visited so many agencies in Chicago and always got the same response: Too short. Too fat. Too short. Too fat. So, there I was in Knoxville running back home after a failed attempt in Miami, trying to make some money by winning a contest. That night they were casting at the bikini contest for girls to star in a new reality show. I didn’t know the name or what the show was about. All I heard was Los Angeles and I wanted to try out. I did the casting that night hoping something would come out of it. By the way, I didn’t even place in the bikini contest that night. Haha… I just drove to Ottawa after the contest with the little bit of money I had left.
Back in Ottawa I got a job at a timeshare company and lived miserably from day to day. Going to Hawaiian Tropics contests when I could was the only thing I looked forward to. I won Miss Chicago, Illinois that year and went to Hawaii for the National Competition. I didn’t place in the Nationals but I loved the way it felt to model for pictures on the beach. Sunrise in the background and sand under my feet. I felt free. Free from everyone’s labels. Free from my past.
Then I got the phone call that changed everything. It was the reality show: Outback Jack, although it wasn’t called that at the time. They wanted me to come to LOS ANGELES for a callback. I went to LA and I was hooked. I remember the way the smog smelled when I got off the plane, the beautiful people, and the billboards on Sunset Boulevard like it was yesterday, but it was almost 10 years ago. I got cast on the show. I went to Australia in May of 2004 to shoot the show and fell in “love” with some Australian dude I barely knew. I was still young and stupid. But Australia was beautiful and so was he at the time. Jack told me he loved me the night I got eliminated from the the show and it wasn’t his choice to eliminate me but the producers. More politicking. Marissa made it to the final two instead because she was the typical bad girl and she made for better TV than me. In the end, Jack picked Natalie and they lived happily ever after in Louisville, Kentucky. They are happy, married, and have three daughters. Congrats to them! People always say, “Thank God for unanswered prayers”, and I do everyday. Jack was not my “one”. He was a fling on spring break that you forget in two weeks. And forget I did as soon as June came and I got even more exciting news.
In May 2004, after I got home from Australia, I entered into the Diva Search online. See, even though the drug addict fiancee was gone I still watched wrestling. So I entered online and in June I got a call from Howard Finkel and as you know, the rest is history…
We can pick up the story next time but I wanted to share my history before WWE because I was a fan and still am. I am a real person with real problems and feelings. I have dealt with terrible things like bullying, an attempted rape, abuse, homelessness and fear all before WWE. All entertainers have dealt with reality. We do not always have the glamorous lives that you might think we do. But, through it all, I have been able to build a wrestling family that I am proud of. I am enjoying my life so much more now than I ever have. Maybe it is age or maybe it is experience but I am happy to be a part of a company that builds stars instead of tearing them apart. Ring of Honor.
“The First Lady of ROH”