06.28.11

From Wrestling to Porn

Chyna once slammed male opponents into submission. After a hard-luck few years, the pro-wrestling pioneer is re-entering the ring with a big adult-film release. Chris Lee reports.

To hear Joanie “Chyna” Laurer tell it, giving up professional wrestling to become a porn star wasn’t a difficult decision—it was a no-brainer.

Performing sex acts before the camera with multiple partners, including some of the most generously endowed men working in adult film today and other women—a new experience for the former World Wrestling Entertainment marquee draw—was “really fun and glamorous” and “like a fantasy,” she explains. And even while Laurer is best remembered from her late '90s/early '00s wrestling heyday as the “ninth wonder of the world”—an improbably chiseled woman with a raven-black mane of hair known for body-slamming male opponents into submission or unconsciousness—Laurer is content to put her days in the ring behind her and commit herself to X-rated pursuits. With the exception of a one-off pay-per-view event for TNA Wrestling in May, the job offers had all but evaporated anyway.

Moreover, she says filming her new, no-holds-barred sex tape Backdoor to Chyna, which was released online  this month and arrived in stores as a DVD yesterday, provided her with the corrective to an incredibly trying phase in her life—a seven-year period during which the former reality-TV regular described herself as professionally adrift, financially distressed, and depressed enough to attempt taking her own life several times.

“This tape empowered me,” Laurer said between sips of iced tea in a busy West Los Angeles coffeehouse. “I felt respected. I felt beautiful. I got paid well. This movie didn’t happen to me. I cast it. I was involved from beginning to end.”

“In a way, it fixed me,” she continued. “I feel like it helped me get over trauma that I needed help with.”

In 1997, Laurer vaulted from obscurity as an amateur bodybuilder to basic-cable fame as a ring diva employed to “bodyguard” WWE star Paul “Triple H” Levesque, who also became her real-life boyfriend. It was thanks to her unique look and take-no-prisoners attitude on-screen that “Chyna Doll” managed to smash the sport’s glass ceiling, becoming the first woman to rumble against men in the ring. Cementing her reputation as an ass-kicker, Laurer became the first—and only—female to hold the WWE Intercontinental Championship and galvanized a generation of wrestling fans who comprise the core of her still-zealous fan base. She became a bona fide celebrity outside of wrestling in the process. 

“Usually the performers in the celebrity sex tape field—Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Karissa Shannon—you don’t see them coming back for more.”

But in 2001, when Levesque left Laurer to take up with Stephanie McMahon, the daughter of the WWE’s chief executive, Laurer quit the federation and all but left the sport. From there, her celebrity quotient—as well as a run of well-publicized self-destructive behavior—superseded Chyna’s athleticism. She appeared on VH1’s The Surreal Life in 2005 and logged a season on Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew in 2008, shot two bestselling nude pictorials for Playboy and babbled her way, seeming dazed and incoherent, through more than a few TV and radio interviews. More infamously, Laurer was hospitalized for what she describes as a “mental breakdown” and arrested for domestic assault after allegedly beating up her on-again-off-again boyfriend, pro wrestler Sean “X-Pac” Waltman.

“After the rug was pulled out from under me in wrestling, I was having some issues,” said Laurer, who is now 40. “A lot of people thought it was substance abuse. Really, the fact of the matter is, I was not mentally well.”

Laurer places the blame for that mental fragility on one primary source: her first sex tape 1 Night in China.

Shot while she and Waltman were still on-again, the film has a lo-fi aesthetic with shaky handheld camera work and terrible lighting (she’s billed as “China” as opposed to Chyna because the wrestling federation made legal claim to her name at that time). Nonetheless, upon its 2004 release, the tape went on to become the top-selling adult DVD of the year.

For her part, however, Laurer claims never to have authorized its release and says she never received a penny in compensation. Further, she says the release of 1 Night in China basically ruined her life and compelled her to attempt suicide on several occasions in 2004; in 2008 she was also hospitalized for mixing alcohol with prescription medication and last September, Laurer was rushed to a hospital after overdosing on sleeping medication. She refuses to even mention 1 Night in China by name, citing her continuing anguish over the “abusive relationship” with Waltman that spawned it.

“That tape happened to me. It was done to me,” Laurer said. “It traumatized me. When that came out, I felt really duped. That was life-changing in a really negative way.”

Asked why she never sued to embargo its distribution, Laurer said dire financial straits prevented her from enlisting an attorney and that ignorance of legal machinations scared her from pursuing a court case. “For lawyers, you have to have money,” she said. “You have to know the who-to and the where-to and the what-for-not. You’re going up against porn, which is big business.”

She knew she was running out of employment options, auditioning for beer commercials and seemed destined for the pop cultural dust heap. But just when it seemed like the 15th minute of her fame had come and gone—at a time when the former wrestling sensation was contemplating moving to Key West, Florida, and taking a waitressing job—a funny thing happened. Laurer decided to jump into hardcore pornography with both feet.

“It’s interesting that she decided to do a professional adult film,” said Steve Javors, managing editor of the AVN Media Network, which publishes Adult Video News magazine. “Usually the performers in the celebrity sex tape field—Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Karissa Shannon—you don’t see them coming back for more. To do something like this, with a budget and some of the best male performers in the business, to make a traditional adult film as opposed to a celebrity sex tape, this is definitely a first.”

A host of adult movie production companies had contacted Laurer during her first wave of porn stardom. And she recalled that Vivid Entertainment—an industry leader with a long track record for producing celebrity sex tapes including Kim Kardashian Superstar and Pamela Anderson & Tommy Lee: Hardcore and Uncensored—had shown uncommon restraint and dignity in dealing with her. So in November 2010, she called Vivid’s founder and Co-Chairman Steven Hirsch about shooting a film for them.

“I was interested but initially skeptical,” Hirsch recalled. “What intrigued me was that new audience. She was so big in the pro wrestling world, she has millions of fans all over the world that are interested in checking her out in something that isn’t wrestling. I thought we could have something good here.”

Early indications seem to bear that kind of thinking out. Although Vivid is a private company and does not release sales information, the executive characterized Backdoor to Chyna’s online sales as “phenomenal.” The movie’s roll-out date had to be moved up twice after it leaked online and dozens of wrestling and entertainment websites began touting its release.

Even while the adult-film industry has seen precipitous declines in recent years with flattening sales and rampant digital piracy, AVN’s Javors explained that Backdoor to Chyna has several distinct advantages that help it stand out in a crowded field.

“The celebrity sex tape genre is huge,” he said. “Every one of them has been a bestseller. She has the success of the first DVD to build off. And then to have something like this that can be promoted with the name recognition—there’s no doubt this will sell many more units than a typical release.”

Neither Hirsch nor Laurer would discuss the payment she received for her performance in Backdoor to Chyna—which, as its name obliquely indicates, features her engaging in anal sex. Both she and Hirsch indicated that Laurer had received a fee for her performance and will also share profits with Vivid under the agreement.

According to Laurer, the experience filming was nothing but positive—even, sometimes, borderline comedic. At one point in the movie, an actor scoops up Laurer for what seems to be a body slam but then turns into a vertical act of oral sex. “I had to try not to laugh during that scene,” she said with a giggle.

Her ease in front of cameras and physical composure as an athlete allowed Laurer to give an unrestrained performance. “The act of having sex was almost erased, because I kept my mind on my objective,” Laurer said. “I knew I was doing something really strong with a great company. And I knew it was going to be a powerful move. It was like a fantasy. You’re being made up to be beautiful. You’re giving yourself to these guys. It was glamorous.”

To be clear, though, Laurer says she never “walked away” from wrestling or technically quit. She feels she’s proven herself in the arena and is under no contractual obligation to continue with the sport. Instead, Laurer expects to sign a contract with Vivid in the near future and marveled at how close she had come to hanging it all up as a performer before this last-ditch career reinvention.

“I started looking for a place in Hawaii,” she said. “I was saying to myself, ‘Do I really want to be in L.A. and keep trying for that one small TV show every couple of years? Maybe I can be happy and live my life.’ And then all of a sudden, Boom!”

“Every day now, people make feel like I’m relevant,” she continued. “Now there’s new movies. I’m getting appearance offers. I’ve got a couple of stalkers. It’s really huge! The sunshine’s coming up. It makes my heart go ba-boomp, ba-boomp, ba-boomp!”