One-on-one with former WWE Diva Terri Runnels
When you think of wrestling’s “Attitude Era”, a few key names always come to mind: The Rock, Degeneration-X and, of course, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. However, few characters were as memorable (or edgy) as the androgynous Golddust or his fairer counterpart, the seductive cigar enthusiast known as Marlena. In actuality, the woman known legally as Terri Runnels was already an established performer in the pro wrestling world, having portrayed a mean-spirited (yet equally hot) bespectacled manager named Alexandra York in World Championship Wrestling. With no proper in-ring training or aspirations to speak of, Terri carved herself a long and prominent career in the spotlight based on her beauty, versatility and willingness to do whatever was needed to entertain.
At almost 50 years old, the ever-gorgeous Terri is preparing to reveal her new website (theterrirunnels.com), a gateway to personal “Territalks2u” Skype sessions, rare memorabilia and fantastic pics from her first official photo shoot in nine years. In the face of the WWE’s “New Era” of wrestling (especially for the women), we spoke with her about coming up during wrestling’s “wild west” days, her relationships with other women in the locker room and what today’s wrestling business sorely needs.
SI: Most people know that you actually started out working as a makeup artist for Ted Turner’s corporation, which led to a relationship with World Championship Wrestling and your eventual jump to the wrestling business. How did the idea actually come up for you to be brought in as an on-camera character named Alexandra York?
Terri Runnels: Ole Anderson was the booker at the time. Tony Schiavone, one of the commentators, took me to lunch and basically laid down the idea for the character and asked me if I was interested. I came up with the name, Alexandra York…that just sounded like a good, snotty name for the character. The name is literally the only thing I had anything to do with. Honestly, I do not know whose brain child it was, but yeah. That's how it all began.
SI: Did you have any conversations or even any personal aspirations before that specific conversation about getting into the business?
SI: So you were blindsided...
TR: My life plan was that I was going to a fashion college in Atlanta, and I was going to use that degree in fashion merchandising to earn enough money to live in New York to become an actress. Being a wrestler was never, ever anything that I thought about. I didn't go to anyone and say, "I want to do this." Literally, it was put in my lap, but I do have to say this: The course of events that led up to all of this had to do with me having just sheer chutzpah because my father stopped paying for my college.
I went back home with my tail tucked between my legs to my little, tiny town of Live Oak, Florida, and I think I was there for a couple of months doing ad layouts for the local newspaper and thinking, "Okay. I will wither and die right here if I don't get out of this town." Nothing against the town, but I knew I couldn't live there forever. Thank you for the small town values, but I've got to go.
I called an old professor and said, "Get me out of here. Help me," And she said, "Do you mind shampooing hair and sweeping floors at my stylist’s”? I said, "Not at all." Literally, it was the fact that I was shampooing the hair of an anchor or a correspondent from CNN, and I whispered in her ear, "Who is in charge of makeup at CNN?" She gave me the name, and I badgered that poor lady every day, Ramona Horton. I badgered her every day until she saw me and gave me an interview and hired me right there on the spot.
That wouldn’t have happened if it were not for me being tenacious and not knowing that I couldn't do something.I'll give myself a little bit of credit.
SI: Before you were pursuing a job in entertainment, you already had the instincts that you needed to succeed in entertainment.
TR: I guess. I was just a tenacious little booger, that's all.
SI: Okay. You go to WCW. This was 1990, I believe, when you started working there?
TR: Yes, at the very, very end of the '80s and the beginning of the '90s, yes.
SI: At that time, female personalities in the wrestling world were few and far between, weren’t they?
TR: There were two other females that I can remember that were there at that time. One was Nancy… “Woman”, who we know tragically is no longer with us, and Madusa, Debra Miceli. I guess she was Alundra Blayze [in WWE], but Madusa is what many people know her by. They were there, but it was a swinging door life. They were in a little bit, and then they were gone.
To be honest with you, I've always said this, that I felt as though in this industry, that women were like icing on a cake, and nobody wants to eat a piece of cake that has equal portions of icing on it. It's too sweet. It's too much. It's like, "Yuck." At the same time, nobody wants a piece of cake that has no icing.
It's just finding the right amount of icing. Do you know what I'm saying? A lot of women have not liked that because I have said that women shouldn't be as big of a part of our industry. That's just the way I see it.
SI: Let’s talk about that thought a bit more. Women’s wrestling has had a huge shift this year, at least under the WWE umbrella. It feels like fans, as well as the company itself, has turned against the concept of “Divas” and is shifting to a more serious, athletically-driven presentation. Going back you your “icing” metaphor, is this a good move, or are they threatening to take away some of the less-intense “sweetness” that the ladies provide the audience.
TR: Here's my thought on it. I begged them to leave me as manager. I loved taking bumps from the guys…the bigger the bump, the better. I loved that. Being physical was not my issue. I didn't have a problem with that. I loved it. It was when he pushed me to wrestle another female that I just...I begged him. I'm like, "Vince, I'm not good at it. There's so many others that are so much better. Please don't make me wrestle." He would chuckle and say, "You're going to be great. It's going to be great. You're going to be great."
There was not one match that I ever had with a female that I went into it feeling great and accomplished because I was not a trained wrestler. God bless the girls that worked with me, because literally, it was, "Okay. What can we teach Terri in the course of a couple of hours to be able to pull this match off tonight?" I was thrown into the frying pan in so many ways.
SI: Going back to when you first started, things were a lot less politically correct…both on-camera and behind the curtain. As a woman, did you encounter challenges coexisting with male coworkers, especially those with more of an old-school mentality?
TR: No. You want me to tell you realistically how it was? This pisses me off, I swear. This is just typical males, though, and males in a sports entertainment field, probably, make it even more of an exaggerated thing.
It always blew my mind. I had my makeup room. If so-and-so wants to get makeup, and they came into my makeup room or so-and-so needed help with their hair, I helped out. Whatever I did. If somebody just came in to hang out with me in my makeup room, it was like it was just assumed by the other guys that I'm now dating that guy. That used to bother me, like, "Dude, are you kidding me? I just did his makeup." Or, "No. We just hung out and chatted like...What makes you think that just because I spent a few minutes with somebody in the makeup room that I like them?" That kind of stuff used to blow my mind…I didn't understand it.
That being said, I am very happy that I got to be a part of the end of that era. In so many ways, I miss that. That was such a magical time when there was a true line of delineation betwixt wrestler and fan, and the character that you portrayed. You could actually continue that on after the show, on the way to the car or at the hotel.
If you were a heel, you could still be a heel and work it...Any time you were in public you worked...Whether you were at the grocery store, you could be a heel. Not only could you be a heel, but you were expected to be a heel. I really miss that, and I love that I got to be a part of that. Love it.
SI: It's interesting to think about the overall difference in how performers and the product are perceived. It ties back to the current change in women's wrestling because if you think back to some of the biggest female super stars in wrestling history, like Miss Elizabeth or yourself or even back to a Missy Hyatt, it was all about their characters, and maybe that was enabled by the fact that people really bought into them back then.
TR: I'll go and do an independent show and do an autograph signing. Occasionally, I will manage somebody on the road somewhere. I'll ask them, "Tell me, who are you? Who is your character?" They'll tell me, "My character's, he's a gym rat or he does this." I'm like, "No, no, no. Tell me who he is." They have no idea. If you can't tell me what your character eats for breakfast, how your character responds to rushhour traffic, what your character would do on a Sunday afternoon...You've got to know all those things. If you don't know who your character is, the audience sure as hell is not going to know who your character is.
What I brought to the table was I created my characters. When I say, "created," I definitely created Marlena completely. I knew how she'd respond to any and every scenario literally. I tried to encourage the guys and girls today, "When you're sitting at a red light, and you've got down time, or you're on an airplane, and you're watching people pass by," Have a dialogue in your brain with the people passing by in your character. Quietly. Don't burst out loud and be thrown off the plane because people think you've lost your mind...
Start learning to live life and consult with your character often if you, indeed, want to make it in this business. That's a big thing.
SI: When you came to work for WWF alongside your then-husband, you debuted as “Marlena”, a strictly non-physical role managing Golddust. Did that cause any issues with your female peers, most of whom were wrestlers?
TR: No. It's funny. I just talked to Trish Stratus yesterday when I was going through Toronto. I ended the conversation with calling her, "Kiddo," and she laughed, saying, "Funny. I'm 40 years old, and you're calling me, ‘Kiddo,’ but then again, you were always like a mama bear or big sis in the locker room." I think because I was in wrestling for so long...I was there a long time going back to my WCW days. They did see me as a veteran of the business. No, I didn't get any grief from any of the girls about wrestling or when I didn't want to wrestle.
They knew. They knew that I respected the hell out of them. I loved them dearly. In fact, we had a great locker room. Everybody had a great time. Nobody caused anybody else grief. It was a tight-knit group of girls. There was never a time that they made me feel like, "You'd better get your shit together, Terri, and learn how to wrestle, because we're all doing it, so you'd better." No. Never, ever, ever.
SI: You spoke earlier about focusing on characters. This has been a pivotal year for WWE’s female superstars, as the company has made a distinct shift in focus from the superficial focus of the “Divas” era to a more serious, athletic presentation. You thrived in an era where the approach was often just the opposite, style and sexuality over down-and-dirty ring work. That being said, how do you think that women in pro wrestling should be best utilized?
TR: I will stick with what I've always said. I think we are amazing. I think that wrestling without us is drab and would suck. How's that for a really proper term?
The more I hear about what they want to do with the women's division, the more I think that they deserve their own show. Can you imagine that you are one of 15 girls, and you literally have one, possibly two chances to be on the show? I just don't think it's fair to them. To me, it's like either give them their own show or don't build it up…don't give them false hope.
Don’t get me wrong: I love to watch women wrestle. I think women who bust ass and wrestle do a great job, and I'm so proud of them. I'd love to see them have their own show. I think that would be phenomenal. To me, that solves the whole problem and puzzle and is the best case scenario. That doesn't mean that you have to take that one match off of Raw. That can still be there and still play a part, but I think you take and you create a separate entity for the girls, and that really does give them what they deserve.
SI: Do you think that Marlena would have a place in today's sports entertainment world?
TR: I don't know. Should she have a place? Abso-freaking-lutely, and therein lies what I think is missing in today's product. Sometimes when I watch the product, it's almost like the people that come out, the most they've put into their character is their costume.
Like, "If you can't understand who I am by my costume and by a couple of hand gestures and words to the crowd, I don't know how to help you." Honestly, that's what it seems like, some people, that's all you get is, "This is my character," and it's a costume. There has to be so much more depth, to me, in order for me to sink my teeth into it, buy it and settle in for the long haul to want to watch you all the time.