Nyla Rose is the first transgender wrestler in a major American promotion. But don’t expect AEW to tout that.
Nyla Rose’s tenure with All Elite Wrestling began with what she believed was a joke. It had to be. Late last year she was a fledgling independent wrestler largely unknown in the U.S., as evidenced by her mere 600 or so Twitter followers. Yet here was Kenny Omega—then New Japan’s IWGP heavyweight champion, considered by many the best wrestler in the world today—reaching out unprompted to Rose via direct message. Omega explained to Rose that he was involved with a group planning to launch a major new promotion stateside. Would Rose be interested in working with them?
Skeptical, Rose checked Omega’s Twitter page and found it was verified—that the message came, indeed, from Omega himself. Once the two spoke on the phone, the reality was more clear but no more believable. “I went and had a very quiet heart attack,” Rose says, “dancing around the house like, What is life right now?”
Life for Nyla Rose is changing fast. Less than six months after that first message from Omega and some three weeks after she performed on AEW’s inaugural show, the May pay-per-view Double or Nothing, Rose is still adjusting to her new level of visibility. She’s up to more than 11,700 Twitter followers—some 85% of them, by her estimates, coming in Double or Nothing’s wake—and closing in on 10,000 on Instagram. But more significantly, she is already being positioned as a prominent figure in the women’s division for the increasingly buzzworthy AEW, which will begin airing a weekly primetime TV show on TNT this fall.
Also significant is that Rose is already making history: When she inked her full-time AEW contract earlier this year, Rose became the first out transgender wrestler signed by a major U.S. wrestling promotion. That’s no small feat considering professional wrestling’s checkered-at-best history of LGBTQ representation and the industry’s longtime general reliance on traditional sexual identities and dynamics in presenting its characters and storylines. Her role is not lost on Rose, who has already heard from a number of fans about what her presence means to them.
“A few months ago here you are thinking you’re this little speck on this giant blue planet,” says Rose. “Now suddenly you’re thrust into this position like, oh holy crap, I can make a difference. So I don’t take that lightly.”
The milestone of Rose’s signing was noted by a number of outlets when it was announced in February, but its groundbreaking status was not touted by AEW itself. That’s in keeping with an apparent strategy by the company, which markets itself as “for everyone”—notably, AEW has also signed the openly gay wrestler Sonny Kiss and distributed free sensory sensitivity packages to fans at Double or Nothing— but seems intent to avoid the appearance of hollow tokenism.
“The best wrestlers are gonna field the game and that’s a very diverse profile and I’m really proud of it,” AEW co-founder and EVP Cody Rhodes told reporters after Double or Nothing, in a clip endorsed on Twitter by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “But ... we’re gonna promote them as wrestlers. That’s all the elements of diversity. We’re not gonna make it a p.r. element for us. And that I’m really proud of, because it’s about the wrestling.”
Rose once worried that wrestling as a whole may not have a place for someone like her. She grew up a devoted fan who watched regularly with her grandmother and while in college she enrolled at a local wrestling school. It was a natural extension of not only Rose’s love of wrestling but also of performing and entertaining in general—as a child, she told teachers she wanted to grow up to be a stunt performer. “Every kid wants to be a firefighter or a veterinarian or work at a zoo,” Rose says. “I was like no, I wanna get hit by cars and fall down stairs for a living.”
Around the same time that she began training in the ring, she was grappling with the decision to come out as trans and whether transitioning her gender presentation would be a realistic possibility. “My mother made no secret of how proud she was of me before (transitioning) and how she had the child that she wanted,” Rose says. “I never wanted to take that away from her. I felt on some level like I would be stealing her happiness, as crazy as that may sound.”
Eventually, Rose explains, “There was a point of no return where I was like, I have to do this for me. I’m sorry. I tried to be who you wanted me to be. I tried to live for other people, but at a certain point I had to stop doing that for my own health and wellbeing. I had to be myself.”
When she began to transition, Rose had only wrestled sporadically on small-time independent shows, performances so infrequent that she now considered it more like on-the-job training. She thought her transitioning might have ended any prospects for a full-fledged wrestling career until a fateful trip to West Virginia six years ago. While working on a film production crew, she spotted a flier advertising a local show that night. She showed up to the venue and was granted a tryout by the promotion’s owner, Cody Covey, who was impressed enough by her skills in the ring that he offered her a spot on the card.
But first Rose wanted Covey to know that she was a trans woman. “I just didn’t want him to catch any flack,” Rose says. “He was like, ‘That’s cool, I don’t care. Can you wrestle?’ For him to have that vote of confidence and just not care, it was incredibly emotionally overwhelming.” When Rose returned backstage after her match, she wept. “It kind of all hit me,” Rose says, “that I don’t have to give up on my dream.”
Rose became a regular for Covey Pro and other East Coast promotions, taking on the nickname “Native Beast” as a play on her Oneida Nation heritage. She also earned spots with the Japanese women’s promotions Marvelous and Sendai Girls, where her combination of size and athleticism inspired the moniker “American Kaiju,” a reference to the collective term for Japanese movie monsters such as Godzilla, Mothra, and Gamera.
Eventually Rose’s work found its way in front of Omega, leading to that life-changing message. It was especially fitting that of all of AEW’s stars, it was Omega that contacted her. When Rose had trained at the Marvelous dojo in Japan, her fellow wrestlers had nicknamed her Kenny Omega Hair because of how Rose’s natural curls resembled the Canadian star’s. A game Rose—who describes herself as a “huge” Omega fan—entertained her colleagues in kind by impersonating Omega and his “goodbye and goodnight” catchphrase around the dojo.
Even once she wrapped her head around Omega’s interest on behalf of AEW, Rose expected to be brought in for a one-off deal. Instead she signed a full-time contract and was featured in AEW’s first women’s match, a four-way clash at Double or Nothing with Britt Baker, Kylie Rae, and the legendary Awesome Kong, now best known to a wider audience for portraying Tammé “Welfare Queen” Dawson on the critically acclaimed Netflix series GLOW. Like the rest of the show, the match—which Baker won—was well-received, though Rose says her adrenaline was so overpowering that she remembers only snapshots from the performance.
Rose was also relieved that in the larger discussion of the match, her gender played little role. The response was not entirely without backlash—AEW co-founder Matt Jackson, of the Young Bucks, tweeted that one fan was banned from future shows for transphobic comments—but Rose is encouraged by the balance of the conversation overall. “As much negativity that I do see, I do see much more love and acceptance,” Rose says. “It’s just that sadly negative things seem to get highlighted more than positive things.”
Yet Rose says she is ready for the subset of detractors that may come with her growing platform. On that subject she takes the long view.
“If I can bear the weight, if I can hold up all the hatred and everything and carry that on my back, I know that I’m strong enough to do it,” she says. “If the people out there need to beat me up and I need to absorb that so that the next generation, the youth, can have an easier time, I gladly welcome that.”
In the meantime she has her sights on establishing AEW’s women’s division as the kind of place for bar-setting performances that she experienced working overseas. “I’m really hoping to set the tone and set the pace and create that environment that’s going to fuel the next generation,” she says. “Not just trans people, but inspire anybody to say, ‘Hey, these women lit that on fire. I want to be that. I want to do that.’”
To do that, Rose knows, she might first have to win over some skeptics. She’s confident she has the chops to do so.
“AEW has felt that I am worthy of a chance,” she says. “All I can ask is that some of the people out there, the fans who might be a little bit tight-minded, just give me a chance to show you what I can do in the ring. That’s all.”