World Wrestling Entertainment fans are used to a type of female performer the company calls “Divas”: They’re typically blond, surgically enhanced and look like something out of a comic book.
With her tiny build and cute features, AJ Lee doesn’t look like a comic book character; she looks like a comic book reader. And in 2012, she counteracted years of WWE wisdom to become one of the company’s top stars.
“I said on NXT” — the WWE developmental program where she got her start in 2010 — “that I wanted to redefine the term ‘Diva.’ I knew what I meant, but I didn’t think I would actually be able to,” says Lee, on the phone Friday from her Tampa, Fla., home.
“Fans are ready to have a girl that is a tomboy that is more relatable, and is the kind of girl you sit on the couch and play video games with. I had this vision in my head that this could work, and it was kind of a fight to be able to be me. I’m not those perfect standards for a Diva. I hope that maybe I can set a new standard, and that’s that there is no standard.”
Lee is breaking all kinds of standards in WWE, where she made her official debut in 2011. She’s worked her way up from valet to love interest to main event star; and at one point this year, she was the General Manager of “Raw,” an on-screen position where she oversaw the action on WWE’s flagship television program. She’s had storylines with several of the company’s top male stars, including CM Punk and John Cena, and just started a storyline with tough guy grappler Dolph Ziggler.
“It’s definitely been a Cinderella year for me,” says Lee, born April Mendez, who will be a part of the action when the WWE’s Holiday Tour hits Joe Louis Arena Wednesday. “It’s been my dream come true. I feel like I was sitting at home writing this myself. It doesn’t feel real, that someone has let me do all this stuff.”
Lee, 25, was born the youngest of three children in New Jersey. Her older sister was “the girliest girl on earth, and it made me want to puke all the time”; so she would watch wrestling with her older brother. She was enamored with early stars such as Randy “Macho Man” Savage — Savage’s better half, Miss Elizabeth, was Lee’s first idol — and she later became a fan of performers such as Trish Stratus and Lita. At 12, she knew she wanted to pursue wrestling as a career.
She worked her way up through the ranks, wrestling on the independent circuit in New Jersey and in a developmental league in Florida, and has become accustomed to the lifestyle of long drives, early wake-up calls and always living out of a bag. She’s excited for her current storyline with Ziggler and hopes to bag a Divas title reign in 2013.
But she’s trying not to get ahead of herself.
“Every time a chapter closes, I keep thinking it’s over,” says Lee, who oftentimes skips to the ring, an expression of youth that counterbalances the testosterone-driven environment around her. “I’m grateful and prepared for it to be the end of the road, and for me to disappear or something. But I don’t, and then something really cool happens. So I’m going to keep that attitude, because it seems to be working.”
Editor’s note: This interview was reported to me by David Dexter. I am not sure where it first appeared. No rights are implied or intended.