This originally appeared on VICE US.
For a brief period in the mid-2000s, I thought that I'd earn a successful living as a professional pillow fighter. I was part of the Pillow Fight League, a women's-only promotion that mixed pro wrestling-style theatrics, MMA-style fights, and pillows. We'd been attracting a lot of attention and opportunities since our debut show in Toronto the previous year. We'd landed sold out shows in New York, appearances on VH1's Celebrity Fit Club, Good Morning America, and CNN, and a worldwide TV deal. As absurd as it seemed, it really looked like we were starting to go somewhere.
And then, we didn't. I quit the league in 2008 and it folded a few years later. There never was—and never will be—a Pillow Fight League TV show. As I sat at home and binge-watched Netflix's GLOW a decade later, though, it almost felt like there was. Of course, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch's fictional series was based on the real Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling promotion from the 80s, not a group of arty misfit Torontonians who were attempting to create a new sport in the 00s—but the similarities were significant.
Like the wrestlers of GLOW, the PFL's fighters were a group of brilliant, creative women who were driving something that was technically run by men. We trained together regularly and developed almost sibling-like fondness and animosity for each other pretty much immediately. We struggled to define the line between empowering and exploitive in our work, and I'm not sure that we ever really figured it out. Some of us also learned that cocaine generally ruins everything.
I'm still friends or at least in contact with many ex-PFLers—I love and cherish these people like old war buddies—so I reached out to see if anyone else was enjoying/suffering from GLOW-induced memories or flashbacks.
"It took me back to remembering what it was like," Polly Esther (who still goes by her nomme de guerre most of the time) said after blowing through all ten episodes in little more than a day. "There were good times, there were conflicts, there was a lot of drama with us. But we were a family."
The artists formerly known as Sally Spitfire, Mickey Dismantle, and Trashley expressed similar sentiments and fondness for GLOW. All of us were excited to see a show that was about a number of very different women and the bonds they forged because it's something that we rarely see in entertainment, but something that we truly lived and loved.
"One of the things that really impressed me with the casting of GLOW was that they really worked hard to get different women, not just racially or culturally, but different body types, different ages, different backgrounds," Sally—now known as Kat Armstrong—told me. "It's apparent that this is a group of women who otherwise would not necessarily have come together for any purpose, yet have found this common thing that they're interested in. And that was one of the things that I really liked about the PFL. Looking back at [our first live event], there was this Persian girl, and some punk rock chicks, and a nerdy Sarah Bellum, and a pin-up. And yes, those were our characters, but a lot of us wouldn't have met if it wasn't for the PFL."
"I always get the warm and fuzzies when watching content showing women as more than just tits on legs," Mickey, aka Amanda Buckiewicz, said. "There were scrawny women, there were curvy women, there were femmes, there were butches, there were younger women, and older women—and all had a fierce-as-hell attitude but also had insecurities. And they were funny! And complex! It's just, sadly, so rare, that it really warms the cockles of my heart. Because that's what real life is like."
"I was reminded of all the relationships, the friendships," Ashley "Trashley" Shortall agreed. "There was a grit and a grass roots vibe, too, that most definitely spoke to me."
Something else that really seemed to touch all of us, in some way, was watching these characters make genuinely meaningful changes in their lives as the result of a seemingly ridiculous pursuit. I was brutally bullied for being smart and weird as a child (I was later diagnosed as autistic) and earning boos and cheers as the overly academic Sarah Bellum helped me make a peace with my dorky ass that I didn't even know I needed. For Shortall, who saw a lot of herself in GLOW character Machu Picchu's fear of performing in front of an audience, her PFL persona helped her come out of her shell.
"When Liberty Bell gave her spiel about how this was the first time her body was for her, not for her husband or boyfriends or baby, that really resonated with me," said Buckiewicz. "I was drawn to the PFL because as a girl growing up in the suburbs, fighting was always discouraged. Be kind, be pretty, be quiet, right? But in the PFL for the first time I was given an opportunity to be tough, be ugly, to fight and swear and scream and have people hate me publicly. It was awesome."
Polly Esther, who was the first person to try out for the PFL, said that her life changed when owner Stacey Case called her to ask her if she wanted to join the league—and if she wanted to make her crooked teeth part of her persona. "My whole life, I'd been bullied, I'd been called the ugly girl, and then to have this person say no, your teeth look fucking awesome, let's use this and have an amazing time, it freed me so much. I just let go and I had the best time." After a lifetime in the service industry, being Polly the pissed-off waitress also gave her a job where she could finally tell people to fuck off to their faces. It's something she really misses in her post-PFL life.
Which is not to say that the Pillow Fight League was perfect. As much as many of us have enjoyed our GLOW-induced walk down memory lane, the series has also forced us to reflect on some of the seedier and darker aspects of our time as pro pillow fighters. "There were a couple of times where I was watching and I was totally grossed out, and I realized it was because it was so similar to an emotion or something that happened when I was in the PFL," Armstrong reflected.
Watching the wrestlers get heckled at GLOW's debut show dredged up some experiences for Buckiewicz. "I remember at one match—I can't remember who was fighting—but a guy burst through with 'Show us your tits!' And we all looked at him like 'What? That's your takeaway from this? Really?' I stormed up to him and pointed my baseball bat in his face and told him off. I think I told him to show us his dick first. He sat down and shut up after that—and actually, we got a letter from him, sent to the studio, apologizing for his behavior and saying he got way too 'into it' and he actually loves and respects women. Uh-huh."
But as Armstrong points out, even the fact that we're able to debate what was and wasn't fucked up about our time in the league is a step forward. It's a dialogue that we weren't capable of having when we were actually in the league, and a level of nuance that the original female wrestlers of GLOW likely weren't afforded. "I think that in the 80s, when the real Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling was out, you were either titillated, or you were disgusted and there was nothing in between. There was no discourse. At least in the last thirty, close to forty, years, you can be a little bit more aware and say: Were they being exploited? Probably, to some extent. Did those women want to be there? Probably. Was it empowering? Probably. It can be all of those things."