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GLOW: who were the real Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling?

The colourful ensemble cast of the Eighties phenomenon that inspired a new Netflix comedy
The colourful ensemble cast of the Eighties phenomenon that inspired a new Netflix comedy

This article has an estimated read time of 7 minutes

For a generation of kids in Eighties America, Saturday morning cartoons were followed up by the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a neon-nightmare proto-WWE variety show that combined colourful spandex, comedy skits and moaning, groaning girl-on-girl fights straight out of a Roger Corman movie.

Knowingly camp and unexpectedly trailblazing, its reputation as a cult relic of yesteryear recognised by few outside of its niche fanbase was smashed wide open in 2017 with the launch of GLOW, a Netflix comedy-drama from the creator of Orange Is the New Black.

GLOW, which returns for a third season on August 9, sees Mad Men's Alison Brie playing the fictitious Ruth Wilder, a struggling actress who answers an open casting call seeking an array of women willing and eager to pummel other women in the wrestling ring, all while adopting fantastical alter egos like Vicky Victoria, Matilda the Hun and Jungle Woman.

It all sounds a little nuts, but GLOW is based on an entirely real television phenomenon, one as Eighties as Joan Collins’s shoulder pads, and every bit as dramatic.

The real-life GLOW was the brainchild of American business mogul David McLane, whose long-held ambition was to launch an exclusively-female wrestling tournament, one that would ideally shake up the predominantly male wrestling industry. Investment arrived in the form of Matt Cimber, a notoriously, ahem, "unique" film director best known for Razzie-primed disasters like Butterfly, the video nastie The Witch Who Came from the Sea, and several Blaxploitation epics in the Seventies.

Alison Brie in the ring in Netflix's GLOW Credit: Erica Parise/Netflix

Cimber was good friends with Israeli billionaire Meshulam Riklis, now most famous for being the svengali behind the camp fame of his much younger wife Pia Zadora, a "jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none" celebrity in the early Eighties, whose brief, much-maligned careers in film and music he personally purchased for her.

Riklis sparked to McLane and Cimber’s concept of a female wrestling show, though rumours have long persisted that he was more intrigued by the possibility of using the show as a tax write-off, particularly as he believed GLOW had little chance of success. He would also use the show to hawk many of his own products, from his cosmetics line Fabergé to his Vegas hotel the Riviera, where GLOW was ultimately filmed.

As for GLOW’s stars, McLane and Cimber wished to avoid replicating the diminutive blondes stomping around on the sidelines holding placards and being wolf-whistled, and instead wished to feature a cast of real-life characters; women of different races, ages and sizes, with outlandish personalities to rival the male wrestling superstars of the era.

Casting calls were held throughout California, drawing the attention of hundreds of struggling actresses eager for their break into the entertainment industry. When McLane and Cimber announced at the audition that GLOW would be a wrestling series, however, most of the assembled auditionees left.

The ones that remained were asked to demonstrate some of their skills, particularly if they were adept at accents or impressions. Whether or not they’d ever clocked somebody wasn’t an immediate requirement. Many of the auditionees knew little about wrestling, but saw the show as an opportunity to get noticed.

Godiva, promoting Fabergé lotion on the show

“I was 19 when I became a GLOW girl and I remember calling my dad for his advice, and he highly encouraged me to do it,” Angelina Altishin, aka wrestler Little Egypt, told The Village Voice. “I remember him telling me that ‘20 years from now when you’ve raised your family you will one day look back and realize that you had an adventure of a lifetime.’”

The auditionees were eventually whittled down to 12, who were then put through their paces by Mexican wrestling legend Mando Guerrero. Each wrestler was also given her own moniker, ones that played off their personalities or ethnicities. The glamorous Lisa Moretti became big-haired Tina Ferrari, Amazonian Dawn Maestas the British-accented Godiva, wrestling legend Emily Dole the terrifying Mt. Fiji.

Others were allowed to craft their own identities, notably sisters Sharon and Donna Wilinsky, who embodied the mud-mask wearing old Jewish women The Housewives, before abandoning that persona in favour of a pair of gonzo heavy metal maniacs known as Spike and Chainsaw.

GLOW wrestlers The Housewives

Each episode started out with a battle rap, the wrestlers taunting one another with trash talk, followed by fights in the ring interspersed with hammy comedy sketches. One, recently recapped on Uproxx, saw wrestler Daisy tricked into preparing for a blind date with Donald Trump. The show’s comedy was never particularly smart or interesting, but its presence helped separate GLOW from its male-dominated rivals, as well as upend any expectations of the series being a purely sexualised T&A-fest.

“GLOW was character-driven, making it much more than a wrestling company,” Godiva told Harold Williams in 2013. “The camp and the character were the most important elements. There hasn't been any other show like it. To me, GLOW more closely resembled Hee Haw or Laugh-in from the Seventies more than it did any wrestling show.

“[It] was a ‘sexy’ show, but it wasn't a ‘sex’ show,” she continued. “The women portrayed on GLOW were independent and empowered. There was no male image on GLOW, no hunky muscle guys leading us to the ring or drying our delicate tears.”

Behind-the-scenes, however, relationships were fraught. Wrestler Tiffany Mellon quit the show amid claims that she and another girl had been harassed by producers because they thought they were in a lesbian relationship. The cast were also forced by producers to inhabit their roles 24/7, meaning few ever knew one another’s real names, and any outside-the-ring contact between the show’s good girls and bad girls was strictly prohibited.

In McLane and Cimber’s minds, GLOW was a 24-hours-a-day experience, its on-screen rivals symbols of all-American heroism and the cartoonish, often non-white, villains determined to be enemies of the United States during the era.

[It] was a ‘sexy’ show, but it wasn't a ‘sex’ show. The women portrayed on GLOW were independent and empowered. There was no hunky muscle guys leading us to the ring or drying our delicate tears.Dawn Maestas

This sometimes resulted in vaguely offensive stereotyping, notably the knife-wielding Russian Ninotchka, a terrorist of vaguely Middle Eastern origin nicknamed Palestina, and a large black woman dubbed Big Bad Mama who, quite naturally, was really into voodoo.

Cimber was also something of a tyrant on set, regularly bullying the women for their weight and enabling a “tough-love” atmosphere on set in the hopes that the cast would take more risks. This sometimes resulted in serious injury, particularly an infamous moment in which wrestler Susie Spirit tore out her elbow tendon on live TV.

He and McLane also fought over the tone of the series. McLane was never happy with GLOW’s flamboyant, campy sensibility, instead wishing GLOW to be a grittier, more true-to-life representation of female wrestling. Cimber wanted the opposite, and it goes without saying that Cimber’s vision ultimately won out.

As GLOW grew in popularity, over 70 wrestlers passed through its hallowed ring ropes, while the show continued to build up its own inner mythology. A Max Headroom knock-off named Sir Miles Headlock provided fight commentary, while both the show’s bad girls and good girls were given their own respective managers -- the bad girls had a Ma Baker-esque old woman known as Aunt Kitty, while the good girls had Jackie Stallone, mother to Sylvester and famed Celebrity Big Brother catchphrase-spawner. For some reason, she wasn’t blessed with her own GLOW moniker.

It has been often speculated that GLOW came to an end at the behest of Pia Zadora, who had read tabloid gossip that her husband was having affairs with many of GLOW’s cast, and demanded he cease financing the show. Its axing came as a surprise to the show’s cast, with many assuming at the end of the show’s fourth season that they would return for a fifth. Its sudden cancellation left many of the women unable to say goodbye to one another. GLOW didn’t survive long enough to see the Nineties.

For many of the women, GLOW proved to be the peak of their respective time in Hollywood, the acting careers many signed on in order to enhance failing to materialise. While some would continue to work in the wrestling industry, notably Lisa Moretti, who later became Ivory for the WWE, others found success outside of the entertainment industry, in real estate, personal training or as members of the Lutheran church.

Tina Ferrari, Americana and Debbie Debutante of GLOW

But in the wonderful 2012 documentary GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, the far majority of the cast interviewed look back with fondness on their experiences on the show, comparing it to a sorority, and recognising the importance of being part of a pop culture phenomenon… albeit one that was relatively short-lived.

“The industry, the lifestyle, it kills a lot of our dear friends way too young. So there’s this whole part of me that’s mad at the industry,” explains Moretti at one point in the film, “but I love the wrestlers, and I respect them so much as these really talented people… What makes us alike is that all we’re different from most gals.”

GLOW returns Netflix on Friday August 9