On Wednesday, the path-making professional wrestler Chyna, born Joan Laurer, was found dead in her apartment, with police noting no signs of foul play.
Chyna’s death was first reported to police as a “possible overdose,” a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County coroner’s department confirmed to USA Today, although an official cause of death for the 46-year-old WWE women’s wrestling champion has yet to be determined. At the time of her death, her manager said that she was taking prescription drugs for anxiety and sleep deprivation.
A drug-related death was rumored when news first broke given Laurer’s visible struggles with substance abuse, which were never more public than when she appeared on the first season of VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew in 2008.
Hers is the latest in a long line of premature Dr. Drew alumni deaths, one that boosts the reality show’s now-infamous mortality rate even higher.
In 2013, Dr. Drew Pinsky, longtime host of the call-in radio program Loveline, announced that Celebrity Rehab would end after former cast member and country music singer Mindy McCready committed suicide.
“I’m tired. It’s very stressful and intense for me,” Pinsky said. “To have people questioning my motives and taking aim at me because people get sick and die because they have a life-threatening disease, and I take the blame?”
McCready was the fifth celebrity who appeared on Pinsky’s Pasadena-based addiction recovery show to die while it was still on the air. Up to that point, Rodney King, Grease star Jeff Conaway, Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr, and The Real World cast member Joey Kovar had all passed away, some of them from problems related to those that they had gone on Celebrity Rehab to treat.
Conaway was treated for alcohol and drug addiction in the first two seasons, dying of pneumonia and encephalopathy three years later after an overdose. Starr, featured in Season Three, died from a prescription drug overdose, as Dr. Drew later acknowledged. King drowned in a swimming pool with cocaine, PCP, marijuana, and alcohol in his system. Kovar died of “opiate intoxication.”
As calculated by The Fix, that gave the show an alarming death rate approaching 13 percent of its cast members, sparking conversation about a Celebrity Rehab “curse” and placing further scrutiny on the show’s questionable treatment techniques.
Deaths of Dr. Drew alumni are to be expected. Relapse rates for drug addiction range from 40 to 60 percent according to a 2000 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But as critics like Tracie Egan Morrissey observed, practicing therapy on high-profile public individuals in front of cameras may not have been the most effective form of treatment.
While his now-deceased bandmate was still on the show, Alice in Chains drummer Sean Kinney called the show “pretty disgusting,” saying, “I don’t think it helps anybody and it makes entertainment out of people’s possible death, and that’s pathetic and it’s stupid.”
In her own appearance on the show’s first season, Chyna was reluctant to discuss her own substance abuse onscreen.
“What scares you the most about being here?” an employee of the Pasadena rehab center asked her in an early episode.
“I think what scares me most about being here is the confusion of why I’m here,” she replied, evading the question. “I haven’t decided for myself what the issue is.”
By Episode Five, she was more forthright but still did not directly address drugs or alcohol. In a group meeting, counselor Bob Forrest told her directly, “Your misery is caused by drugs and alcohol but you can’t see it, so it really doesn’t matter what everybody else sees.”
“Frankly, I’m tired of saying the things that I have done and being accused of everything else,” Chyna responded, after Forrest and Pinsky pressed about which substances she used.
“I just feel like I lived in a hell forever,” she acknowledged, but continued to deflect specific questions.
Her struggles persisted after leaving the show. In 2010, the sports icon was reportedly hospitalized in Los Angeles for overdosing on sleeping medication.
Pinsky would go on to defend his show, and its track record of untimely deaths, telling CNN, “If I was doing a show on cancer there would not be much surprise when my cancer patient died. In fact, we’d celebrate a few years of good quality life. People don’t understand that addiction has virtually the same prognosis.”