Nyla Rose Is Pro Wrestling’s First Trans Superstar
“For the first time, I was being myself, even though I was playing a character. Before I was playing a character who was playing a character.”
Nyla Rose was wreaking havoc, inhaling and exhaling with eyes bulging, battering her wrestling rival, Shanna, then exiting the ring and snatching a wooden folding table.
“Tables,” the crowd at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois, chanted with gleeful anticipation, “tables, tables, tables.”
Setting up the object between the ropes, the hulking warrior known as “The Native Beast” bent Shanna forward, prepping the pretty blonde for additional punishment. In an apparent effort to restore order, referee Rick Knox stepped forward, beseeching the raven-haired aggressor to end the assault.
Rose looked kindly at the official and extended her hand in a gesture of peace. When Knox grabbed it, though, he was kicked in the stomach and power-bombed through the table.
Shanna was swiftly deposited on top of him.
Mounting the ropes, Rose looked into the television camera, sticking out her tongue and spreading her manicured fingers into a claw.
Afterwards, referee Knox recalled Rose fussing over him backstage, repeatedly asking for reassurance that he was OK. But before the two even touched, he was convinced that Nyla would take care of him.
“When I was approached and asked if I was willing to do this spot, I knew I’d be safe in her hands,” he recounted. “She was very professional about it. She let me take my own bump rather than driving me through the table. And she made sure that Shanna was slammed in a way that neither of us would get hurt. I think for both Nyla and I, it was this weird little bonding moment.”
According to storyline—as the plot twists in professional wrestling are known—Rose’s egregious behavior had earned her a suspension from All Elite Wrestling (AEW), an upstart organization seen on TNT each Wednesday. But the brief absence over the Christmas break only seemed to make fans more curious about when she’d return and combust again.
“If you don’t have good characters, what do you have?” she explained. “That’s the ingredient of wrestling.”
And Nyla Rose knows how to play a character. For most of her life, she said, she found herself in the unfortunate position of working a persona that didn’t suit her—one that the mother and actress had to leave behind to become the first transgender star signed by a major American wrestling company.
“She looks like she could throw around the women and the men,” noted Bobby Pitts, a 36-year-old hospital sanitation worker from Gainesville, Florida, who attended a recent event in Jacksonville with a sign declaring, “I Ditch Work for AEW.” “She breaks barriers. I’ve been a wrestling fan for 30 years, and this is a welcome change.”
“Think about it. Does the LGBT community really get represented in other sports? Not as much as they’d like you to think. But in professional wrestling, if you’re a little different, you kind of fit in.”
“The Boy Diva” Rick Cataldo, a drag queen as well as the promoter and booker for A Matter of Pride, a New York-based wrestling outfit featuring LGBT talent, touted Rose as the kind of pioneer the trans community needs: “She is so with the times. Yet, she’s such a timeless attraction.”
Even if she is the best-known, Rose is not the first transgender athlete to join the wrestling business. Candy Lee in New Zealand, Harley Ryder in the U.K., and Asuka in Japan—not to be confused with the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) multiple titleholder of the same name—have all found their way into the industry, primarily working for smaller organizations.
As working-class entertainment, professional wrestling was historically not a place where members of the LGBT community came to find tolerance. The pastime tended to exploit prejudices that spectators brought with them to the proverbial smoke-filled arena. Hence, Japanese heels—or villains—would “Pearl Harbor” rivals from behind, Germans goose-stepped, black wrestlers used the head butt to full advantage, and certain men provoked derision by batting their eyelashes, wilting their wrists and wiggling their hips.
Yet, in Mexican lucha libre, there has long been a sub-culture of exotico competitors who enter the ring in gaudy showgirl attire and deliberately challenge the country’s macho culture—“unmanning” their opponents after the bell rings. Although the early exoticos were used as villains to antagonize homophobic audiences, by the 1980s, several, like Cassandro, May Flowers, Pimpernela Escarlata and Baby Sharon, had declared themselves gay. In time, even fans from rural, conservative backgrounds were cheering their favorite exoticos.
In the United States, there was no such progressiveness.
During the early days of television, platinum blond Gorgeous George was a staple. The self-proclaimed “Human Orchid” would enter the ring on a red carpet as his valet sprinkled rose petals at his feet and de-sanitized the ring with perfume. While George—who married twice and had a child from an outside relationship—never mentioned his sexuality, the mere implication of gender fluidity was enough to send spectators into a rage.
Over the years, the camp routine was perpetuated by such names as Beautiful Bobby, “Exotic” Adrian Street, “Adorable” Adrian Adonis and Goldust, who—clad in a sparkly jumpsuit, gold and black face paint and a long, blond wig—would flabbergast opponents with loud, suggestive breathing and biting sounds, while caressing his body. When he first turned “babyface”—the insider term for fan favorite—in 1996, Goldust was asked by a heckling rival if he was “queer.”
Goldust responded “no,” and punched his tormentor in the face.
A generation later, it’s a different business. Indeed, in 2016, Dustin Rhodes, the wrestler who portrayed Goldust, took to social media to defend his transgender step-child against bullies.
“We’ve come around at the right time,” said Brandi Rhodes, AEW’s chief brand officer, as well as an on-air talent and the real-life sister-in-law of Goldust. “I never remember a time in wrestling when people could speak up and say, ‘We want to be included.’ Our goal is that both the wrestlers and the fans feel welcome here.”
It was Brandi’s husband, Cody Rhodes—Dustin’s half-brother and the youngest son of the legendary “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes—who helped form AEW last year, joining with a number of other mat titans, including the Young Bucks tag team and Kenny Omega, the former holder of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in Japan, and the current AAA Mega Champion in Mexico. All were considered among the best wrestlers in the world who weren’t committed to WWE. But All Elite Wrestling—named for the Being the Elite You Tube series featuring the above-mentioned stars and various cohorts—would not have come into being were it not for president and CEO Tony Khan, a lifetime wrestling fan whose father, Shahid, happens to be the billionaire owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and the Fulham Football Club in the UK.
While Brandi Rhodes maintained that Rose was recruited to AEW because of her versatile wrestling skills, the fact that she was transgender only enhanced her appeal. “We’re an open-minded company,” Rhodes said, “and we intend to grow that way.”
Nonetheless, a number of fans complained that Rose’s signing was a naked grab at political correctness. Despite pro wrestling’s pre-determined nature, some even protested that it was wrong for a competitor who’d been presumed male at birth to share the ring with women.
Other sporting organizations like World Athletics (previously the IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee have imposed regulations on trans athletes, but the AEW’s policy is to not distinguish between the wrestlers on its female roster.
“I know she gets hate on the Internet,” observed fellow AEW wrestler, “Bad Boy” Joey Janela. “And I understand what that can do to you because I’ve been through it myself. But when she’s backstage, not only do people love her, but she has respect.”
On Twitter, Rose has advised watchers to “hate me for the right reasons.”
“The vast majority of fans get it,” she said. “They hate me because they’re supposed to hate me. Or they like me. There’s a small majority of fans who hide behind a fake profile on Twitter who must have something wrong in their lives that results in this nonsensical, transphobic hatred. But that’s their problem, not mine.”
Growing up in northwest Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, Rose, 37, was raised with a sense of foreboding. The crack epidemic had seized the community, and Rose was urged not to play outside unless it was in the alley behind her apartment building.
“I probably saw more dead bodies by the time I was 6 than some coroners see in their entire careers,” she said.
The Oneida ancestry she now invokes as “The Native Beast” came from her father, an engineer, but she knew little about it at the time. While her father was an active part of her childhood, Rose lived with her mother, an early education teacher, and was perceived by most people in the neighborhood as some combination of black and white.
“I was too black for the white kids,” she recalled, “and too white for the black kids.”
It was through her grandmother that she first gained a fondness for wrestling. Watching the World Wrestling Federation—the name WWE used before the 2002 lawsuit with the World Wildlife Fund that forced it to change its acronym—the two were entertained by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the Ultimate Warrior and Jake “The Snake” Roberts. But Rose was particularly intrigued by John “Earthquake” Tenta, a Canadian-born former sumo wrestler, billed at 6 foot 7 inches and 468 pounds.
In 1990, Earthquake partook in an injury angle that saw him crush Hulk Hogan with a splash, prompting the Hulkster to seek revenge at the SummerSlam pay-per-view.
“Earthquake really caught my attention,” Rose said. “Here was this larger-than-life guy, who’d jump up and down on the mat, shaking the ring, and I’d think, ‘Oh my God, his opponent’s going to die.’”
It was a character with more than a passing resemblance to the Native Beast, but, at the time, Rose wasn’t looking at Earthquake and seeing her future. “It wasn’t that deep,” she admitted. “I was having fun with my grandmother. I don’t think I connected with what wrestling could be for me, in terms of a release and possible career.”
At the time, pro wrestling was considered the type of diversion young boys generally pursued. “It was macho,” Rose said. “I really didn’t think about how little old ladies loved wrestling, and I didn’t know that, in Japan, schoolgirls went to wrestling together. In America, for some reason, it was lumped in with boy things.”
After the family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, when Rose was in seventh grade, the awkward pre-adolescent wore an Undertaker shirt to school one day, and instantly had a new friend network of fellow wrestling fans.
It wasn’t until 11th grade at TC Williams High School that Rose began experimenting with her gender expression, painting her fingernails and even wearing a skirt to class one day.
“I was a theater kid,” she said, “so people just thought I was being eccentric.”
Romantically, she had started to date girls. “I wasn’t identifying as gay. I didn’t have the language to navigate those types of things. I always found men attractive, but it was socially easier to date women.”
At Northern Virginia Community College, Rose found herself able to contemplate the wide spectrum of the LGBT community. “I wasn’t quite sure where I fit in there,” she said. But in certain social settings, she dressed as a woman and referred to herself as “Nicole.”
“I was looking at self-resolution of what some of these signs meant,” Rose said. “It made it much easier to accept myself by dealing with people who didn’t approve. I had friends who reminded me not to run and hide. With their love and support, I knew I could show up as Nicole and get validation.”
“At the time, I wasn’t thinking about what life could be like as a woman. I just thought I might end up as a male-presenting person who might have to go through life as a quote/unquote ‘crossdresser.’”
As she figured out her wardrobe, one item was consistent, regardless of her gender expression—a T-shirt that, depending on the day, bore the countenance of the Undertaker, “Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels or the “Big Red Machine” Kane. In fact, while taking judo and taekwondo classes, Rose envisioned herself as a pro wrestler, one with a brassy female manager, who grabbed the mic and spouted all the things the conflicted college student wanted to shout out to the world.
Just as college was winding down, a friend told Rose about a training school located about an hour from her home. James Zaveski, aka “Sweet Jimmy Z,” had been running the Kyda Pro Wrestling academy and a small indie promotion that extended from the Mid-Atlantic states into New York. He’s since relocated from Manassas, Virginia, to Morgantown, West Virginia, where he works as an assistant principal at a middle school.
“I’ve been wrestling since I went to graduate school for my master’s degree in school psychology,” he quipped, “and I still can’t pay my bills.”
Rose drove down for a tryout, running the ropes, locking up with other trainees and engaging in a number of elementary drills, but mentioned that—between school and her job in a gym—weekdays were inconvenient for her.
Zaveski arranged for Rose to train on Saturdays instead. “Male or female, you could feel her charisma right away,” he said.
But training was a grind. “You have these ‘blow-up drills,’” Rose recounted. “They’re for conditioning, and you go until you can’t breathe. You do bump after bump after bump, turning your body into one giant callous.
“At one point, I was in a pretty serious car accident, and that was nothing compared to what I felt in the ring.”
There were a number of occasions when she contemplated quitting. “I’d be thinking, ‘Is there a way to bow out gracefully?’ But I couldn’t do it. I had to see it through.”
For her ring debut, Rose developed a contemptible persona. “I was a playboy, a womanizer. I played up every aspect of a cocky male who you wanted to hate, but the irony went right over my head.”
Once in a while, Rose’s mother attended events and helped out at the merchandise table. Zaveski remembered her being as spirited as her kid. “When fans were rude, she’d curse them out so badly, she’d make them blush. She could have kicked their asses, too. She was the type of woman who’d call you every name to your face, then give you a hug. And she was sincere about both.”
In fact, it was Rose’s rapport with her mother that made her hesitant about fully acknowledging her desire to live as a woman. “My mother was always happy she had a son, and I didn’t want to take that away from her. But in my personal life, I was miserable. I felt like I was living in a prison, just going through the motions. I was angry. And to all the people who I took it out on—I’m sorry.”
Ultimately, Rose realized that her mother would accept her regardless of her gender identity and decided to transition.
She stopped taking bookings on indie shows. How could she wrestle as a man when she was going through the process of becoming a woman? As enamored as she was with the wrestling business, there were other matters that she needed to take care of first.
Fortuitously, Rose happened to have a friend who was also transitioning at the time. “We made the leap together,” Rose said. “It’s a very scary thing to go through hormone replacement therapy and not look back. We supported each other rather than self-medicating.”
She had reached the point where she’d only present as male at her job at the gym. But she’d become confident enough to tell her employers about her decision. As with her mother, she was met with acceptance. “Now, I was ‘living full-time,’ as we say. It felt right. I finally smiled in pictures.”
While she’d stopped attending wrestling events, Rose kept peripherally in touch with her friends from the industry. One day, two stopped by her home and asked if she was interested in appearing on a card. Standing before them as the woman she knew herself to be, Rose explained her situation, and why she thought that wouldn’t be possible.
“I remember one of my friends had a look on his face like I was ribbing him,” Rose said. “But 10 minutes after they left, they called me from the car. They just wanted me to know that they supported me. It was immediate. My older friends from growing up couldn’t handle my transition, couldn’t be around it. But wrestling is filled with so many wacky, zany characters that if you have a good heart, you’re welcome.”
Most likely, news of Rose’s transformation made the rounds on the friends’ social network. Regardless, when she showed up at the group’s annual gathering to watch WWE’s Royal Rumble pay-per-view, “no one seemed to even think twice about it.”
Not long afterwards, Zaveski and Rose were riding motorcycles together. “It was only when I got behind her and noticed her bra strap that I thought about something being different.”
Nicole had given way to Nyla—a combination of abbreviations for New York and Los Angeles that Rose had created as she pursued acting. In 2016, she’d appear in the Canadian TV series, The Switch, as Sü, a Native American who moves to Vancouver to transition, only to be fired from her IT job after coming out.
“My boss announced a round of layoffs,” her character remarks, “that affected only me.”
Four years earlier, while working on another production in West Virginia, she spotted a poster for an indie show and decided to contact the promoter. In late 2012, she wrestled her first match as a woman, incorporating her father’s Native heritage into her gimmick by sporting an outfit with fringes.
“For the first time, I was being myself, even though I was playing a character,” she said. “Before I was playing a character who was playing a character.”
To Zaveski, Rose’s wrestling talent has only improved since her transition. “As a male(-presenting person), there was a lot of just classic scientific wrestling that wasn’t bad, but didn’t stand out. As a female, she’s power bombing people, just being a beast. And it sure works.”
Given the nature of pro wrestling, there were fans who wondered if Rose’s act was a “work”—or a con. “It was talked about,” said Zaveski. “Is this real? In wrestling, you don’t know what’s a storyline. But this was here. This was life.”
What concerned Rose the most was playing into clichés that undermined the LGBT community. “I didn’t want to be in a situation where a trans person is the butt of a joke,” she said. “I’m Nyla the wrestler who is trans, not Nyla the trans wrestler.”
When Zaveski asked Rose about the best way to portray her gender identity, he was told to simply be honest with the audience. “She didn’t want it on the poster, but she didn’t want us to kayfabe,” he noted, using the insider wrestling term for withholding the truth from the public.
On her return show for Zaveski, Rose was pitted against her friend Kacee Carlisle. “Nyla was so nervous before the match, excited, everything else, that she became gassed (out of breath) quickly,” Zaveski said. “I think she puked in the ring. But she swallowed it. She didn’t want to mess up my canvas.”
Cataldo is still amused by the memory of meeting Rose in a dressing room for the first time. “She just gave me a look and we started laughing. Here she is, a trans woman, and I’m a drag queen—and we’re two queer performers in the wrestling business.”
It was 2016 when Cataldo—who once worked a tag team match alongside heralded exotico Cassandro in Mexico—decided to start A Matter of Pride, one of a number of groups run by a company called New York Wrestling Connection, to showcase LGBT talent. “If you’re part of the community and you’re booked on another show, you all might be booked the same way,” Cataldo explained. “In A Matter of Pride, everyone has to find their own character.”
Rose refers to the organization as “a project born of love. There are fans who have no tie to the LGBT community, but they support A Matter of Pride because it’s good wrestling, and they respect the concept behind it. That’s an ally.”
In 2019, during the week of WrestleMania—WWE’s version of the World Cup, when dozens of smaller promotions capitalize on the influx of fans by staging events within driving distance of the spectacular—a Matter of Pride card featured Rose battling trans veteran Mariah Moreno. As a special touch, the referee was a transgender woman, as well.
After beating Moreno—who’d also been known by the ring name Amanda the Bloodthirsty Vixen—with a spear followed by a power bomb, Rose brushed her opponent’s hair out of her face and embraced her.
“It was a very special moment,” Cataldo noted. “Mariah had been around for 10 years. She was out and proud and ahead of her time. And Nyla—this is her time.”
As AEW was being conceived, Kenny Omega remembered watching Rose, while he traveled around the world, attempting to live up to his reputation as the industry’s “best bout machine.” Now that the nascent company was formulating a roster, he lobbied hard for the Native Beast.
“I was not familiar with her work,” Brandi Rhodes conceded. “So I went to YouTube to look her up. And I saw that she could perform any kind of match and tell a simple story with people of various experience levels. And she fit our philosophy of seeing what the world looks like and developing it from there. What’s real speaks for itself.”
By this stage, the wrestling business had been evolving for several years. Dalton Castle, the former World Champion of Ring of Honor—a wrestling league owned by the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group—played an androgynous babyface for most of the period in which he was accompanied to combat by two scantily clad subordinates known as “The Boys.” In addition to working with GLAAD on anti-discrimination campaigns, WWE hired openly gay Sonya Deville in 2015—two years after Darren Young (now Fred Rosser) came out while working for the sports entertainment monolith —and recently signed Jake Atlas, another well-respected competitor who is openly gay. Along with Rose, AEW is home to Sonny Kiss, a bleached blond African-American wrestler who twerks during his matches and describes himself as gender-neutral.
During a WWE event in December in Daytona Beach, wrestler Sami Zayn demanded that a patron who shouted a homophobic slur be removed from the Ocean Centre. Despite his role as a heel, Zayn later elicited chuckles by asking fans, “Hey, is this seat empty now? What happened?”
Still, the existence of homophobia and transphobia is unnerving to Rose, who feared traveling to indie shows with wrestlers she didn’t know. “Trans women of color in the D.C. area don’t have a long life expectancy,” she explained. In 2016, the murder rate for black trans women in the United States was more than seven times as high as that of the general population. “So at the end of the day, it’s a sad reality of my life.”
When her storyline suspension was lifted, Nyla Rose returned to action at Daily’s Place, a 5,500-seat Jacksonville amphitheater adjacent to TIAA Bank Field, the Jaguars’ home stadium. She was booked in a four-way match with Dr. Britt Baker, who works as a dentist on her days off in Winter Park, Florida, and two Japanese stars, Hiraku Shida and Riho, the AEW Women’s World Champion.
Of all the women working in AEW, Riho is the one most often depicted as Rose’s arch-enemy, the result of defeating the Native Beast in the finals of the championship tournament on the company’s first edition of its weekly television show, AEW Dynamite, in October.
Physically, the two couldn’t be more different. Standing just 5’1” and weighing less than 100 pounds, Riho looked a little girl about to go to war—an image accentuated by the pink and white colors she wore to the ring.
By contrast, Rose marched down the aisle in a combination of gold lame and black, a Native American-style breechcloth hugging her waist. What the audience didn’t know was that the costume was created by Rose’s wife, a school bus driver and seamstress.
Throughout her adult life, Rose had dated both men and women. She was working at the gym and wrestling on indies when she met her spouse through Tinder. After several dates, Rose asked her new love interest a very important question:
“How do you feel about pro wrestling?”
At the first show that they attended together, Rose’s friend Hyjinx broke his leg in a steel cage match, and the new couple drove him to the hospital. Observed Rose, “That was a very awkward date.”
But the romance held.
Rose’s partner already had two kids from a previous relationship and, after the pair married, they had another child together. The Native Beast disclosed little about her family—other than that her youngest child had a personality that seemed compatible with the wrestling business.
As soon as the bell rang, Rose went after Riho, then hit Dr. Baker with the champion’s belt. Very quickly, Rose became the focal point of the match, plowing through her adversaries. At one point, Riho launched herself from the top rope, but Rose sidestepped the move, and the titlist flew into Shida instead.
Backstage, “Bad Boy” Joey Janela watched the confrontation on a monitor, and determined that Rose had taken on the role of the “ring general” in the bout, directing her various opponents. “It’s so easy for a four-way to fall apart,” he noted, “with so many different people and non-stop action. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of professionalism to keep everything moving.”
Indeed, when the referee told the various participants that they were going to a commercial break, Rose—who’s wrestled in Japan—whispered to Riho, “chotto matte,” a term that roughly translates to “slow it down.” “Because of the language barrier,” Rose revealed, “Riho wasn’t getting the time cues from the referee. I’m not even sure if she realized that we’d gone to a commercial. I’m such a weird personality that I don’t like taking charge because I don’t want to seem bossy. But I wanted everyone to know that we were going to do some cool shit, and we didn’t want the people at home to miss it.”
Once the commercials ended, the pace quickened. The Native Beast dangled Shida over the ropes in the center of the ring, then leaped from the top turnbuckle to deliver a guillotine knee to the back of her foe’s head. Then, Rose placed Shida on a table and tumbled on top, cracking the wood and sending them both to the floor.
The rules stipulated that the first person to score a victory in the clash would emerge with the belt. In the end, Riho managed to retain the title by surprising Baker and tying her up for the three-count. Seemingly frustrated over the fact that a championship win had evaded her once again, Rose unleashed her fury on the diminutive victor, positioning her on yet another table and hurling herself onto it, splitting the object in half.
Apparently impervious to the jeers of the crowd, Rose turned to the audience and waved at them like a hero—before scowling and slapping her hand down dismissively.
Even those shouting for another suspension were charmed. “It used to be that people would look at you funny if you were still in your twenties and watching wrestling,” said Dakota Flake, 25, a construction worker who’d traveled to the show from Augusta, Georgia. “But when you see a company building their stories around someone like Nyla Rose, encouraging diversity, it takes the stigma away.”
At his middle-school day job, Rose’s former trainer expressed gratitude to the friend he knew as both a man and a woman. “I grew up because of her,” said Zaveski. “She opened my eyes. We’ve got kids in my school who are identifying as non-binary. And that’s here in West Virginia. And seeing Nyla on TV week after week just normalizes it for them.”
In the hotel bar after the Jacksonville show, Rose donned a tiara, unwinding alongside talent like Luchasaurus, Jungle Boy and Orange Cassidy. With AEW basking in its honeymoon period, the mood was idealistic, if not giddy. Still, the Native Beast was conscious of the role her new prominence has bestowed on her.
“I know there are other people just like me who are struggling,” she said. “But if I can use my experience to draw the heat to me and take it off of them, I’m strong enough to carry that burden.”
Keith Elliot Greeberg is a New York Times bestselling author who co-wrote the autobiographies of WWE Hall of Famers Ric Flair, Freddie Blassie and Superstar Billy Graham, as well as the third edition of the WWE Encyclopedia of Sports Entertainment. His next book, Too Sweet: The Indie Wrestling Revolution, will be released by ECW Press in the fall.