Featured Image by Steph Reynolds Photography
Candy Lee has always known what she wanted to do. The Samoan-born Kiwi was captivated by wrestling when she immigrated with her family. ‘I started getting into wrestling at a really young age, around four or five. When we moved to New Zealand we were living with my cousins and they would always put on some wrestling. The first wrestling I ever watched was a WWE 2000 Royal Rumble pay-per-view. Taz and Kurt Angle’s match was the first that I saw. It got me hooked! I was like “Oh my God, I love this…”’
Candy debuted in December 2016, at 22 years old. ‘When they [Impact Pro Wrestling Officials] told me, “You’re going to have a match this Saturday,” at the time I didn’t think I was ready. But the management of the promotion I wrestle for seemed confident in me.’ Candy is now the reigning Women’s Champion of her home promotion, Impact Pro Wrestling New Zealand.
But it was women’s wrestling that would capture Candy’s heart. ‘At that young age before I transitioned, I looked up to a lot of things that had to do with femininity,’ Candy explains. In fact, it was her love for former WWE Women’s Champion, Candace Michelle, that drove her to the ring and inspired her namesake.
‘I found her whole character and aura that she portrayed was, what I felt at the time to be what femininity looked like.’
‘Most people I tell that Candace inspired me to be a pro wrestler, find it so strange. They find that most girl wrestling fans just say the usual Trish Stratus and Lita,’ Candy compares how these women’s wrestling icons compared with the inspiration she found in Candace. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I love Trish and I love Lita. But, Candace Michelle was what resonated with me.’
Wrestling has helped Candy develop her own self aura in ways she could never have imagined. When she decided to open up about being a transgender woman, her world continued to flourish. ‘I think I’m a lot more confident. I have more ring experience, and I’m still gaining ring experience as I go. I still get nervous, though.’
‘At first I didn’t want to be open in the wrestling world about it. I did wrestling for my own dreams. I know how wrestling fans can get about things, they’re really passionate. But, when I did decide to be open about it, it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It’s helped with my personal confidence, but I’ve also gotten more support out of it than I thought I would have. The positivity I have received definitely outweighs the negativity.’
As a result, Candy has unintentionally inspired the people around her, and gained a few new fans along the way. ‘When young people tell me that I’ve inspired them, it totally wasn’t my intention to be a role model. I just wanted to do this because I wanted to pursue it.’
‘It’s so cool though, because when I look back I wish that I had people like me to look up to within wrestling.’
Candy agrees that women’s wrestling is evolving, but we can’t fail to credit those who came before us. ‘You know how there’s fans who shame the old eras of wrestling, like the “Divas Era”? I loved every single era of women’s wrestling, because I got something from each era. Although, it is going down a good path today. Now is definitely the best time ever to be women’s wrestling fan or wrestler.’
The “Women’s Evolution” in pro wrestling has been one that has unfolded over time, always gaining momentum. ‘You can’t keep showcasing women the way that they [WWE] were in the early 2000’s. It’s a great shift we’re seeing, but I don’t get the whole, “Who started it?” kind of thinking. I feel like everyone put something towards where we are going now.’
‘There’s been an evolution in the independent scene for a long time. WWE is last to catch up. I get that they cater to the mainstream audience, and most of the time their audience won’t know about the independents, or the all-women’s promotions that are running around the world and how women were already wrestling equal to their male counterparts,’ Candy says.
Candy was unfamiliar with these independent circuits before she joined the business. ‘When I first started training… I didn’t know wrestling happened anywhere other than the WWE. Because my whole life, I’ve only ever watched WWE. So, I’m still kind of a noob when it comes to that.’
Candy brings an important voice to the community and fandom cultures of pro wrestling. ‘I feel like sometimes you get looked down on within the business if you don’t know too much about the independent scene. The reason that I don’t watch New Japan Pro Wrestling [one of Japan’s most popular products] is because they don’t have women’s wrestling, so it’s not really for me. I just don’t like when people do the whole, “You’re not a real wrestling fan,” or, “If you don’t watch a certain wrestling company or certain matches, then you should quit the business.” I don’t get that mentality that some wrestler put out into the world.’
‘People are different; people get inspired by different things…’
‘…That’s why I’m always afraid to talk about why Candace Michelle is an icon to me, because she’s not one of the Four Hoursewomen, or Trish or Lita. I am a fan because I’m watching what I want to watch.’
All wrestling fans are valid. There are so many different kinds of wrestling that cater to different audiences. Wrestling should be something that can be enjoyed by everyone. This is something that WWE’s Finn Bálor has advocated for in his message of “Bálor Club for Everyone” and his inclusion of LGBTQIA people in his public image.
Queer wrestling fans are vast in their numbers – As more wrestlers open up about their identities, queer wrestling communities have the potential to grow stronger and surpass the perpetrated impression of a “boys club”. Representation is key, with promotions as visible as the WWE making moves to reflect the reality of our world. Candy adds, ‘I think the world is progressing. We already have Sonya Deville [the WWE’s first openly-queer women’s performer]. We’ve just seen Finn at WrestleMania 34 include LGBT people in his entrance. That was so touching.’
Nia Jax’s win at the same WrestleMania also moved Candy, where Nia became the first Samoan woman to hold a WWE Championship. ‘Watching her win at WrestleMania, brought me back to when I won the IPW Women’s Championship last December, and I just thought of my moment. The whole storyline about being proud of who you are resonated with me.’ Alongside Nia, Dakota Kai has provided Candy with a sense of belonging as a fan. ‘She’s from Auckland, she wrestled for IPW, she was the first IPW Women’s Champion. She came from a small nation like New Zealand and now she’s signed to WWE NXT and she was at WrestleMania. It just means a lot.’
But we’re only gleaning the surface. There is still work ahead of us. Fans have the ability to create change, by prompting their local promotions to appropriately include performers and workers of diverse sexualities and gender identities, cultural backgrounds and ability. We can call for change in the people we see and the stories we tell.
For Candy, it’s all about improving, with the hope of wrestling overseas in the near future. Her next step is making it to Australia, after wrestling against her first Australian in Shazza McKenzie in May 2018 at IPW. ‘I want to eventually make it to the WWE. Sometimes I feel like a dork when I say that. But that’s what I want for myself, because that’s all I knew growing up and what I’ve always wanted.’
‘Making it in wrestling and making a career out of it would be just enough, if I don’t make it to the WWE. I just want to wrestle and have fun.’
Candy recognises the challenges ahead of her. ‘I feel like being trans might make it a little bit harder to make it into WWE. But I mean, they’ve signed the first Muslim woman, they had the first Indian woman, and they have the first openly lesbian woman. So I think that’s the next logical step in the evolution, to be inclusive of trans males and trans females.’
Candy’s Wrestling Idols:
‘Candace Michelle is obviously my OG. There was this period of time where I didn’t really watch wrestling for a while, then when I came back, Nikki Bella was around as part of the Bella Twins. I love both Nikki and Brie, but Nikki is up there with Candace for me. Kelly Kelly, Maria Kanellis, Nia Jax, the IIconics [Australia’s Billie Kay and Peyton Royce], Carmella and Charlotte are just a few that come to mind.
The girls I wrestle with at Impact Pro Wrestling have been really great opponents, like Ashlee Spencer and Britenay. My next step is to wrestle some [more] Aussie girls. Shazza McKenzie has probably got to be the biggest name [I have wrestled] to date. I really want to wrestle Indi Hartwell, all the Australian girls, everyone!