Featured Image by @pastasauca (Justine Colla)
Justine Colla has been community managing since she was 11 years old. ‘I used to run Neopets guilds as a kid. I’ve always been obsessed with character development and storylines,’ the now 27-year-old reflects. The current Community Manager at mobile wrestling game The Muscle Hustle has been making waves in wrestling as a queer woman and fan artist extraordinaire.
At 15, Justine was obsessed with World of Warcraft, drawing fan art based on the popular game. From here, she knew that she wanted to pursue game development. In her first year out of school, she went to the Academy of Interactive Entertainment in Sydney, leading to a game art job in the industry. After five years, she found herself at a roadblock. ‘I didn’t like my job. I didn’t really have a plan B. I left tertiary education with an advanced diploma, I was a very average game artist and my portfolio was not strong. I didn’t know what I was going to do.’
Like many, Justine’s relationship with wrestling blossomed with a realisation. ‘It wasn’t until I saw a couple of gimmicky matches, and discovered I had an affinity for Seth Rollins, that I was drawn in. When I watched the [WWE] Royal Rumble 2015, Seth had that match with John Cena and Brock Lesnar. I went into that match liking Seth, so I had someone to back. I was invested in him as a character. I finally understood that wrestling was about storylines and characters.’
‘Not only do you have that, but then you have the layer of who they are as people,’ Justine explains this with her connection to the King of the Cruiserweights, Neville. ‘He’s an amazing wrestler, yet he’s been underrated for his entire life,’ Justine here finding a quality of emotionality to connect with.
‘With wrestling, it’s never going to end. I’m never going to completely consume everything and be like, “Well, I’m done with this now.” I don’t think anyone can ever become a wrestling completionist, because there’s so much to see and there’s so many layers. I’m never going to get bored of it.’
Popular culture fandoms often clash over differences and wrestling fandoms are no exception. Justine shares her experience of finding community on Tumblr. ‘The Tumblr community has always stayed in their lane because they feel like wrestlers don’t want to know about us.’
‘For some reason, not all of them, but a lot of the “smark” community seem to frown upon meta creation. They very much pride themselves on being reactionary, giving their two cents… Generally, when it comes to the Tumblr community, it’s almost like we fill in the blanks. As an artist, as a story writer, as someone who just really enjoys being creative and being creative with other people, that’s what drew me in.’
Artist, Nadia Ramlan, inspired Justine to try her hand at wrestling fan art. She coined her gimmick “Pastasauca” and advocated for artist acknowledgement and community. ‘Finn Balor was the first wrestler to interact with my fan art…There was no one connecting the fan art to people who enjoyed it, let alone the wrestlers themselves,’ and so, Pastasauca would lead the way in bringing wrestling fans together like no one else had before.
Justine’s love for WWE’s cruiserweight division saw her become a pivotal voice for WWE 205 Live fans and queer fans alike. She established an online discord server for fans to interact and share in their love of wrestling. ‘The special thing about 205 Live I have found is that so many of us fans are queer and people of colour. When people started to give up on the show because it was rocky, that’s when I started doing fan art exclusively for the cruiserweights. Because I wanted them to know that there were fans that care about them.’
‘I meet people and they’re like, “I wish there was a place I can talk to other queer fans about wrestling”. If it wasn’t for 205 Live, which for some reason brought all these marginalised fans together, that discord wouldn’t exist…’
‘Everyone engages with wrestling in different ways, but at the end of the day we all fucking love it.’
Justine further realised her talents with people when she moved into marketing and social media. She moved to Melbourne in early 2016 to pursue new opportunities. Along the way, she found success at League of Heels, PAX West, The Muscle Hustle and eventually, Melbourne-based wrestling promotion, Underworld Wrestling.
‘I wouldn’t be working with Underworld if I didn’t do the League of Heels show. I had this very minimal part at the PAX West show in September, where I got on stage and cut a babyface promo, because I knew that I would be turning heel at the November show.’ Justine’s character heel turn into Lady Aviary at the League of Heels 2017 Australian show, was well thought out. ‘I prepared this speech… We needed to do something completely unexpected to reel people in. I turned my back on the games industry. At the November show I was like, “Video game suck!”’
Justine brought her talent for storytelling and character motives to further the success of the League of Heels panel. By bringing on wrestlers like Carlo Cannon and establishing good and bad characters, the event was a roaring success. ‘This was all I have ever wanted with my art, my fan fiction and in wrestling. I want to put on something where people have this very visceral emotional reaction. That’s the most important thing about being a human, is to have these emotions that are very strong and passionate.’
‘When you are a part of a big pop, I don’t think there are many other better feelings. That is why I say to my friends who don’t get wrestling, “Just come to a wrestling show.” They might not completely get what is going on, but it will make them feel something.’
Alongside the thrill of live atmosphere, representation is key in feeling that you are part of something bigger than yourself. Justine is a leading changemaker in Australian wrestling, namely, in her work as Underworld Wrestling’s Community Manager.
‘Current companies that have been putting on shows firstly need to take a moment to look at themselves, look at their storylines, look at what MC’s and wrestlers are saying in the ring, and say this is and isn’t appropriate in 2018. If there’s a gay character being besmirched in kayfabe, there might be a gay person in the crowd who may never go to a wrestling show again. You’re losing a fan.’
‘Secondly, pass the mic. If you’re writing a storyline, write your script and show a woman, show a gay person, show a person of colour. There are even things that I write where someone will tell me that it’s offensive and I didn’t even know. There are too many executive teams in wrestling that are all run by white men, and if that’s the case they need to make that extra effort to ask the people around them, “How can I improve on this?”’
Justine brings youth, in wrestling and real life, and the perspective of a queer woman to Underworld Wrestling and broader community engagement. ‘I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I’m not going to sit down and take bullshit anymore. I appreciate the Underworld team so much. They take on my ideas and make a change to be more inclusive, or they just appreciate the fact that I’m there and speaking up. We never want anyone in Underworld to feel like they don’t belong.’
With her influence, comes a responsibility to her followers, consumers and the public. ‘We have an opportunity to include minority characters who aren’t treated like stereotypes or comic filler. Maybe we have a gay character. It’s about challenging our audience to think, “Maybe I was wrong about that”. I want talent to be able to walk into the Underworld locker room and it to be a place where people look after each other, a place where people feel like they can speak up if they’re not happy.’
‘Everything bleeds down. Our inclusion policy is super visible. Everyone on the Underworld executive team wholeheartedly believes in it, and the wrestlers will follow suit. If all the wrestlers treat all demographics with respect, eventually our community and everyone who is watching our shows will as well.’
Underworld are promising to be a breath of fresh air in Australia’s contemporary wrestling scene. By showcasing untapped female talent and stories, they hope to rewrite the book of wrestling as a product. ‘We were doing interviews and I asked Erika Reid about what it meant to her to be Indigenous and the Underworld Champion representing her heritage. She said being Indigenous is not something you can steal, it is unique, and it is what is inside of you. It’s something that her enemies are going to feel when she rips them apart.’
‘It occurred to me as I watched on terrified, that I’ve never actually seen someone just give her the mic and let her talk like that. Even though I was scared that she was going to rip me apart, I was so happy that I was able to ask something that brought out that genuine visceral passion in her that you can feel. I can’t wait to keep doing these interviews. Sometimes, all you have to do is put someone in front of a camera and let them talk about what makes them get up in the morning.’
‘I’m addicted to that feeling, I love the adrenaline of being around people and a part of a moment…’
‘…That’s what I want to bring to Underworld. I’m really not in it for myself. But people know who I am, and I can use my platform to put people like Erika Reid’s work in the spotlight. I want to create something in Underworld where our women’s division is so fucking cool that there are girls in Australia or even overseas, who are like, “I want to start wrestling training, so I can be a part of Underworld”. There is nothing more powerful than a group of women working together.’
Justine’s Wrestling Idols:
I want to work with Candy Lee so badly… Her being trans doesn’t have to be the thing that defines her. However, she can absolutely be proud of it and she should be. It is such an accomplishment, to be like, “Fuck everyone, I’m going to chase my dream”. She’s going to inspire a generation of trans people who might want to wrestle, too.
I also love Heidi Katrina… I just love that she’s a tall strong bodybuilder. She just exudes confidence. I love any woman wrestler who is pushing stereotypes and proud to and being very visible about it.
I love Su Yung. I think you just see people and you go, that’s a star, and when you see them succeed, you’re like, “Ah I knew it.”
From Australia, I love Vixsin, Erika, Avary… Avary has been pigeon holed and I don’t think anybody realises how talented and creative she is. I can’t wait for the day that she’s given a gimmick that doesn’t rely on her looks and she’s able to creatively flourish and the people who are in charge of creative help build up her confidence.