Joan Marie Laurer was found dead this week, in her Redondo Beach, California home, at the age of 46. And millions are mourning. Because Laurer—known to the world as Chyna—wasn’t just a staple of professional wrestling’s most iconic era. In an industry defined by the ballooning grandiosity of its testosterone, she was the female star that shined the brightest.
In the WWE’s so-called Attitude Era, with her muscles and her snarl and her literal bazookas, Chyna was a goddess. And, despite the twists and turns that her life took following her untimely firing from the company, this is how Chyna should be remembered: as someone who revolutionized one of entertainment’s most resistant subcultures. Chyna inspired a generation of girls to cut through the bullshit and find their own spot in wrestling’s macho posturing. To those millions mourning, she is the best kind of hero: a complicated one.
Chyna joined the then-WWF in 1997 as part of D-Generation X, who most people know as one of the worst abominations to cross from wrestling culture to the mainstream: you can thank them for teenage boys yelling “suck it” at you while crotch-chopping incessantly. But perception aside, DX was a revelation for pro wrestling: a raunchier (some would say stupider) version of the famous nWo from WWE’s chief rival, World Championship Wrestling.
Along with Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, DX helped usher in the Attitude Era, the grittier and more vulgar wrestling program that came at the turn of the millennium. With it came unrivaled popularity for the WWE. Chyna was both the stable’s only woman and its most fearsome enforcer: standing 5’10” and built like a bodybuilder’s fantasy, she drew your eye no matter what the hell it was she was doing. But there was no fantasy: Chyna’s reign was forever thorny.
There were cruel jokes and insults from both wrestlers and commentators in her early years: they would constantly allude to her lack of sex appeal and her second-rate spot on the roster. But Chyna grew past the role of henchmen into a bonafide star. She was the first woman to ever enter WWE’s Royal Rumble match (the winner of which would headline the biggest show of the year, WrestleMania).
Perhaps more importantly: it wasn’t a novelty; you wouldn’t have been too surprised if she had actually won the Rumble that year. When she took the Intercontinental Championship—the company’s second biggest singles championship—in 1999, she became the first and only woman to ever win a male title in the company. For good measure, she’d win it again the following year.
Even if she was never the world’s best technical wrestler, Chyna was a Hall of Fame-level performer. When she was in the ring, with any opponent—man or woman—you never felt that she was outmatched. She was there because she could, and often did, win. That meant her presence alone subverted audience expectations. Her run created new rules for the future of WWE.
Unfortunately when speaking about Chyna, her in-ring career does not live alone in the public memory. A well-documented battle with substance addiction followed Chyna’s tenure in the WWE, along with a string of public incidents. Most notably: there were charges of domestic abuse against her with regards to Sean Waltman, her ex-fiance, who wrestled under a variety of names but wast best known as X-Pac, her fellow DX’er.
Then in 2015, Chyna accused Paul “Triple H” Levesque—formerly a WWE A-lister, now the company’s COO—of assaulting her when they dated from 1996 to 2000, a claim Levesque has repeatedly denied. Chyna also insinuated that Triple H’s current wife Stephanie McMahon (daughter of Vince McMahon, the owner of WWE) was a “homewrecker,” alleging that Levesque cheated on her with McMahon back in 2000.
WWE would also have you also remember that Chyna released a sex tape with Waltman, along with several other pornographic films, including one that parodied the WWE and the McMahon family. For the WWE it perhaps wasn’t so much the pornography as it was the parody that transgressed too far. That show of disrespect may have been the last bridge Chyna had to burn: before her death this week, WWE had basically washed their hands clean of her, refusing to enter her in its Hall of Fame or to even much acknowledge her presence. That is, until Wednesday morning, when it put out a statement paying their respects to her passing.
At the center of this long-awaited recognition from the company under whose banner Chyna thrived?
Both Stephanie McMahon and Triple H:
Whether she's inducted into the Hall of Fame now or not is almost irrelevant. In the eyes of many—but especially in the hearts of the generation of female wrestling fans that she inspired—Chyna is already a certified icon. Her career, short-lived and checkered, still reverberates today: you could say that Chyna was the first ember that led to the roaring fire that is the WWE’s current women’s division.
She deserved better than to be the butt of jokes and a protagonist in the sick play of mental illness that we sometimes confuse for entertainment. Chyna deserved to be acknowledged and immortalized as the legendary performer that she was. Instead, the wrestling world mourns doubly this week: one, for losing one of its brightest stars, and two, for not acting in time to save her.
We’ll never see another Chyna: there’s only one 9th Wonder of the World.