The Real Women of 'GLOW' Told Us About the Sexism They Dealt with in the 80s
Season two of 'GLOW' on Netflix tackles the issues the real 'Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling' battled beyond the ring.
The female wrestlers of GLOW in the 1980s. Photo courtesy Lillian Weaver.
The first season of GLOW on Netflix introduced viewers to the hard-hitting, grueling world of women’s professional wrestling. But season two, premiering Friday, explores issues the women battled beyond the ring. The new season follows Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) and Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) as they navigate the “boys’ club” culture that plagued pro wrestling and Hollywood in the 80s. As the women of GLOW push for more creative control of their show-within-the-show, they’re forced to cope with sexual harassment and dodge a number of sexist blockades hurled their way.
These depictions aren’t far off from what the real Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling—the 80s show on which the Netflix series is based—had to deal with, according to a number of original cast members who spoke with VICE. They recalled a hostile work environment, and some allege sexual harassment on set. Their accounts are indicative of pro wrestling’s troubling track record on its treatment of female performers.
Today, few fragments of that dark history remain. Female wrestlers are getting more air-time than ever and are billed as the main attraction at the industry’s largest shows. But the shift is quite recent. Just three years ago, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) still referred to its women as “divas” and gave them just a fraction of the screen time allotted to male counterparts. And certain inequities still linger. In the era of #MeToo and “Time’s Up,” WWE women like April Mendez (“AJ Lee”) have spoken out about the industry’s unfair wage gap.
Decades earlier in the mid-80s, however, TV producer David McLane saw an untapped market for women’s wrestling, and the real-life GLOW became the first pro wrestling show with an all-female cast. It lasted more than 100 episodes and laid the groundwork for today’s equality efforts in the WWE. Despite its legacy, working on GLOW was hardly smooth sailing, and the women and men who brought the show to life endured quite a few grueling challenges.
Turning a “joke” into a show
Many in the television business in the 80s laughed at McLane’s vision of an all-female wrestling show. It didn’t help that the young producer’s clean-cut look and penchant for wearing a tuxedo made him look like a groom on top of a wedding cake, according to original GLOW director Matt Cimber. But McLane was convinced that women’s wrestling could compete with the powerful, Hulk Hogan-led Worldwide Wrestling Federation (WWF), the industry leader then and now. (The WWF changed its name to the WWE in 2002.)
McLane had a hard time convincing people to be a part of the show. Cimber thought GLOW was a joke, and only agreed to direct it as a favor to businessman Meshulam Riklis, who’d arranged for GLOW to be hosted at a hotel his corporation owned in Las Vegas. When Cimber explained the premise of the show at an initial group audition for the pilot, half of the women got up and left, original cast member April Hom Enriquez told VICE. In the end, 12 women, including Enriquez, who played “The Royal Hawaiian” in season one, were cast for the pilot, and embarked on six weeks of in-ring training.
“They said we weren’t real wrestlers”
After they wrapped the GLOW pilot, Enriquez and original cast member Cindy Ferda (who played “Americana” under her maiden name, Maranne, in seasons one and two) were then charged with training other women brought on for the first season, solely based on their own six-week crash course in pro wrestling. Enriquez, like a handful of women on the show, went on to suffer an in-ring injury that ended her career at age 23. “I [broke] a couple fingers. [And] a wrist. I dislocated my shoulder, but what did me in was when I had a back injury,” she said.
Most of the women who wrestled on GLOW were actresses, singers, and dancers—not wrestlers. Some didn’t have any experience performing at all. Dawn Maestas, who played “Godiva” in seasons three and four, was waiting tables when a friend called and urged her to audition for the show. “I had never done anything in show business before,” Maestas told VICE. “I had never done television, and I wasn’t an actress.”
During early training sessions for season three, Cheryl Rusa (who played “Lightning”) remembered laughing while women trying out for the show struggled to do forward rolls. “I don’t know how anybody can’t forward roll, or know the difference between [that and] rolling over sideways with your feet up in the air like a dog,” Rusa told VICE. “It was too funny not to laugh.”
Since so many of his stars lacked wrestling experience, Cimber told VICE the threat of injury caused him to steer the show toward comedy sketches with political commentary. “Matt’s vision was a cross between MAD Magazine and Hee-Haw,” said Sandy Manley, who played “Gremlina” in season three. “It was very much cutting-edge. There was no political correctness. I don’t know if we could’ve gotten away with some of the stuff we got away with in the 80s today.”
Each wrestler played a distinctive character, but those characters were often racially insensitive caricatures, with fake accents and an emphasis on cultural stereotypes. The show built up animosity through back-and-forth interviews between characters or groups who would then settle the matter in the ring.
While filming, the women of GLOW sometimes wrestled three or four matches a day. In order to improve rapidly, they trained more than ten hours a day, six days a week. Under those conditions, being criticized by their male counterparts felt unfathomable, but it happened anyway. “They said we weren’t real wrestlers,” Maestas remembered. “I was like, ‘You know, I can do a backflip off the top turnbuckle?’”
“A hostile work environment”
Long days of training, followed by hours of improv classes, and a midnight curfew sequestered the women in the world of GLOW. Cimber likened himself to a “drill sergeant” for the Marines. “We were getting our asses beat every day,” Rusa said. “We were like militarily boot camped.”
Some women said the toughest part of working on the show was Cimber’s attitude towards them on set. Former cast members told VICE the director constantly berated them, criticized their bodies, and called them derogatory names. “[Cimber] was a very, very blunt man—that part [Netflix] did get right,” Manley said. “Matt was very brutally blunt, and he was a very harsh motivator at times.”
Women described Cimber as everything from a “school bully” to a “benevolent dictator.” Lillian Weaver (credited under her maiden name Lily Crabtree), who played “Corporal Kelly #2” in season three, said she cried nearly every day from stress. “You want to look at a hostile work environment? This was a hostile work environment,” she said. “I used to have nightmares about Matt. Even after I quit GLOW—him just screaming at me and screaming at me.”
Cimber, in addition to Weaver and other women interviewed by VICE, said his hostile on-set demeanor was meant to motivate the actresses to work harder, so they wouldn’t get hurt in the ring. "The key was discipline," Cimber told VICE. "If anybody got badly hurt, I would feel guilty, [so] I came down hard."
“He could’ve probably got better results using different methods, but that’s just who he was,” Weaver said. “Was it right or wrong? I wouldn’t say it was exactly right. But do I think that was the status quo for Hollywood at the time? Yeah, I think it was. I guess it’s changing now. But how long did it take before people started standing up and saying, ‘I don’t like being treated this way?’”
Harassment on set
Some women who spoke with VICE also said they faced either sexual harassment or “uncomfortable” physical scenarios on set—another issue many of the women called an unfortunate byproduct of Hollywood culture in the 80s. “It’s the way it was back then,” Rusa told VICE. “Not that it was right, but it was normal. It was normal M.O. It was Hollywood bullshit."
Other actresses, like Enriquez, said they were aware this was an issue across the industry and took preemptive action to make it clear they wouldn't tolerate sexual harassment. “I put it out there before it even became an issue,” Enriquez said. “I said, 'You want me to work? I’m here to work.'"
“[A lot of the women on GLOW] were actresses or singers or whatever, so they were used to that, where producers take advantage of you,” Weaver added. “Especially in this day-and-age, with how things are going down [with #MeToo] and women coming out with what they’ve been through to work in Hollywood and to get their parts, it’s very real and it definitely does happen. They kind of kept you feeling insecure.”
Still, five GLOW actresses tell VICE inappropriate behavior did happen. Rusa described an incident where Cimber invited her to a meeting regarding her character, only to come on to her and touch her backside. She said she was scared to say no, because she was afraid to "rock the boat."
“I didn’t say no, no. I was afraid to say no. I was afraid about even addressing the issue, so I skirted past it,” Rusa said. “I wanted to be on TV, but I wasn’t willing to do anything bad to [be on TV]—not that anybody was telling me to do anything bad, but in my head I’m like, ‘I can’t do that. I’ve got to just concentrate on this.’”
Another time, Rusa remembers running away from a man on set. “One of the writers was chasing me around a butcher block table, and he thought it was funny, and I’m just not letting him get close to me," she said. "I’m like, ‘Forget it.' It was funny in a sense, but I’m like, ‘Fucking dude, get away from me.’ It’s not like we weren’t in a house full of everybody. Everybody was there, so nothing was happening anyway, but that is where he’s thinking, ‘Oh, we’re having fun,’ and I’m thinking, ‘This isn’t fun.’”
VICE asked Cimber to comment on the incident between him and Rusa, but he said he had no recollection of it. “I couldn’t remember pinching her ass, and I wouldn’t know why, but she says I did,” he said. “Am I going to sit here and contradict her?” Cimber also denied claims that women were harassed by other men working on the show. "It's hard for me to believe," he said. "GLOW girls are tough. I wouldn't believe they would do that."
Multiple former cast members explained that the way the show was organized—with wrestlers spending all their time with each other and the crew, living in network-funded apartments, working six days a week, and living according to Cimber’s strict rules and curfews—forged a sense of isolation and regulation. “We were in a fishbowl,” Rusa said. “You’ve got all these women and just two or three guys—of course they’re going to hit on the girls.”
Most women VICE spoke with said they didn’t talk about issues of harassment with each other because it wasn’t something openly talked about then. Instead, as Rusa put it regarding women in Hollywood in the late 80s, it was more about “fending for yourself” and focusing on work-related accomplishments.
But for Weaver, who remembers calling her boyfriend in tears nearly every night during her time on GLOW, ignoring the way she was treated and how it affected her hasn’t been easy.
“When we went to the reunion—when they were doing the GLOW documentary [in 2012]—the first time I saw Matt, it all came rushing back," Weaver said. "As soon as I saw him—and I hadn’t seen him for 30 years—these feelings of like, 'You’re a real piece of shit,' all just came back, and I thought, ‘Wow, he had a lot of control over us.’ He really formed what we thought of ourselves, good or bad. That’s a lot of control. It’s kind of a strange situation. We were an all-women cast—wrestlers, strong, powerful women. But we were controlled by Matt. So, in a way, we weren’t."
“We were trailblazers”
GLOW became one of the most influential shows in the history of women’s pro wrestling, despite the dangers and hostility on set. Before GLOW, the sport was largely looked at as low-tier entertainment. Cimber said when women were involved, most people thought of “mud wrestling.”
Laurie Thompson, who played “Susie Spirit” in seasons one and two, was also a principal dancer in the Folies Bergere in Las Vegas while shooting GLOW. She said women’s wrestling was so widely looked down upon prior to the late 80s, that the producer of the Folies Bergere—which often featured topless showgirls—asked her not to tell anyone about GLOW because they didn’t want to be associated with women’s wrestling.
“Women in wrestling back in that day were an afterthought or a castaway,” Weaver said. “Maybe we broke that ground to make the room for women to become more in wrestling.”
In many ways, GLOW was decades ahead of the pro wrestling world in the way it showcased female characters. Today, women’s wrestling is the industry’s fastest growing division, with stars like Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair, and Sasha Banks further legitimizing women’s place in the sport.
Manley said one of the pioneering traits of the show was that it featured “women of all shapes, sizes, religions, races, and ethnic backgrounds”—something companies like the WWE have only started addressing in recent years.
“That inclusion is something the professional wrestling world still fails at today,” Rusa said. “WWE never understood this and still to this day doesn’t understand it. You had somebody for everybody. There was somebody for them to identify with.”
Rusa said she has inspiring memories of young fans coming up to her at shows to either stand in awe of “Lightning” or thank her for playing a character they could look up to on television each week. Beyond “Superwoman,” Rusa said there were no female role models for her to look up to when she was growing up. It reached the point where she even wished she wasn’t a girl. “Being a girl meant you were going to be weak when you grew up,” she said. “For younger kids who saw us, I think [GLOW] empowered them.”
GLOW’s most direct link to the changing industry is Lisa Moretti, who played “Tina Ferrari” in seasons one and two. After her stint on GLOW, Moretti continued her wrestling career, joining the WWE (then the WWF) in early 1999. As the character “Ivory,” Moretti won the WWF Women’s Championship three times and was recently inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame as a part of the 2018 class, becoming just the 13th female inductee.
“We were trailblazers,” Enriquez said. “We were the first all-female wrestling show. It started a new way.”
In 2016, the WWE announced it would stop referring to female wrestlers as “divas” and began making sweeping changes to their portrayal of women wrestlers, including getting rid of the derogatory pink butterfly design on its championship belt. WWE also began listing women as main event attractions for the first time in the company’s history. McLane himself recently announced a new all-female show called WOW-Women of Wrestling, which will begin airing on AXS TV in early 2019.
Cast members like Maestas, whose limited experience in show business was highlighted by her time in GLOW, say they feel a profound connection to the history of women in pro wrestling.
“We were two decades ahead of [the WWE] and I’m very, very proud to have been involved in GLOW,” she said. “I feel like we absolutely paved the way for women, and even the whole attitude toward female wrestlers now.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.