When AJ Lee took the microphone on WWE Raw two weeks ago, the Funkadactyls—two of the new stars of WWE's Total Divas reality series on E!—weren't nervous. Nobody in the ring was.
You can forgive them for that. They didn't know any better.
After all, the mic in AJ's hand looked like a regular microphone. Who knew that standing on the ramp, looking down at a ring full of WWE Divas finally getting their big break in a business that doesn't always make it easy for women, Lee was about to drop bombs that would ignite the Divas division like it has never been ignited before?
"Do you want to know what I see when I look in that ring? Honestly?" she asked, sneer about to bust the seams of her pretty face. "Cheap, interchangeable, expendable, useless women. Women who have turned to reality television because they just weren't gifted enough to be actresses. And they just weren't talented enough to be champion.
"I have done more in one year than all of you have done in your entire collected careers....I have shattered glass ceilings and broken down doors. Why? So a bunch of stiff, ungrateful plastic mannequins can waltz on through without even as much as a thank you?...I gave my life to this and you were just handed 15 minutes of fame...you're all worthless excuses for women and you will never be able to touch me."
Compared to CM Punk's famous "pipe bomb," it was the rare WWE interview with a ring of truth. Sure, it was part of the storyline, but it also felt real. Lee, and perhaps others backstage, were harboring some ill will toward the reality television stars.
When the heat finally exploded, it was scorching.
Trinity "Naomi" McCrae took it all in stride. After all, she and Lee had a long history together, breaking into the business at the same time. The two had competed tooth-and-nail for the Florida Championship Wrestling Divas title and learned side by side in WWE's developmental system.
"She definitely hit some nerves with all of us. But I think it's great entertainment," Naomi told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "She had her moment to speak and say her truth. When it comes back around, and I have my moment to speak my truth, I think it's going to be a great story to tell. I think there's definitely something there with me and her. I have so much to say and when I get the opportunity to say it, I think it's going to make an impact.
"I'd love to work a match with her one day. A real match. A real angle and storyline. There's so much there that hasn't been said; for me, I think it'd be good. It'll be entertaining, it'll ruffle feathers. I think AJ is very much the female version of CM Punk. Which makes her so cool."
For Ariane "Cameron" Andrew, it hit a little closer to home. A newcomer to the WWE scene, she was only in the developmental system for what she calls "a hot minute." Was the promo perhaps targeted toward her and the other women who haven't quite earned their respect in the ring yet?
"It was very intense. It's the nature of the business. There was stuff that hit home, but at the end of the day, it's opening more doors," Ariane said. "I may not have come from a wrestling background but that doesn't mean you can't grow to love something and become very passionate about it. I just want to be able to prove myself and be able to show that I have what it takes."
For the two Divas, who were until now best known for accompanying Brodus Clay and Tensai to the ring for their matches, the heat is most definitely on. All the talk of politics and backstage shenanigans aside, there's one truth in the WWE Universe—at some point, everyone gets their shot to make it. Some may get more than one, but everyone has at least a chance to go out and prove they belong.
For the Funkadactyls, that time is now.
"I'm ready. I'm not scared," Trinity said. "This is something I've been waiting for for a long time. I feel like all I need is my shot. I think the WWE knows what I have to offer and knows my potential. My talent and my athleticism has gotten me this far and it's something, at the end of the day, will make me shine. I just need that one moment and I feel like I'm slowly building up to it.
"We work in a male-dominated business, and for women, it's more a struggle to get over and get the respect that you want from the Universe and from the boys in the back. But I think that's what drives all of the women here. We love breaking barriers. We love the challenge. The thrill of the chase."
Ariane, still learning on the job, is grateful for the opportunity to prove herself in a demanding business. With two college degrees, one in business marketing and one in psychology, she has a fall-back plan if necessary. But she's hoping this will be the opportunity that will make all of that unnecessary.
"There is pressure, but it's pressure in a good way. We were already getting to perform on Monday Night Raw, which people would die for," she said. "But we wanted to show we were more than just dancers. That we can bring it all and be that Diva role model. That either one of us could one day be Diva's champion.
"I think it's great because Total Divas is actually giving all the girls an opportunity to shine. People are now more interested in the Divas, including AJ as champion. This has always been a male dominated world and to be making moves and having people say 'Hey, I actually want to watch the Divas to see what they can bring' is pretty cool. We work just as hard as the guys do. It's nice to show what we can bring to the table and break barriers and make history."
Both women were self-described tomboys growing up—track stars with a natural flair for performance. Trinity, an Orlando Magic dancer who heard the WWE was hiring, took in a live show and was immediately hooked. She has performance in her blood.
Her uncle, singer George McCrae, had a hit in the 1970s with "Rock Your Baby." But he likely never took a hard fall on the canvas or an errant elbow to the mouth, which is just part of life as a developing wrestling talent.
"They say every time you take a bump it's like being in a mini car accident because of the impact it has on your body," Trinity said. "It definitely takes time getting used to the ring because at first your body is so sore. It's tight and tender and it really hurts. But over time you get used to it and it becomes second nature."
Ariane was quick to co-sign her partner. Her experiences running cross country and rocking And 1 shirts and Jordans on the court didn't prepare her for what the ring would bring.
"When you first start this it's like 'Oh my God.' I remember having bruises on me the size of grapefruits," she said. "But your body gets used to it."
Of course, wrestling is about much more than taking a fall. In the developmental system, wrestlers learn not only the mechanics of a match but the psychology that underlies it as well. They also study the history of the business and learn to steal from the best. For Trinity, that meant careful consideration of the Japanese scene, where, for several decades, the women were every bit as talented in the ring as the men.
"My favorite Japanese wrestler was Manami Toyota. I watch her matches and I'm in awe," Trinity revealed. Clad in black leather, Toyota was a heroine for young Japanese girls throughout the 1990s. "I consider myself a high-flyer and I like doing things to make the crowd pop and to stand out from the other girls, but when I watch her I'm really amazed by what she does. There are things she can do that to this day I'm still trying to learn how to do."
Closer to home, others stood out as well, including trailblazing African American Diva Jacqueline. But, for Trinity, another high-flyer also provided a template to follow.
"In the WWE the one Diva who really stood out to me was Lita, because she was so athletic. And more than athletic, she was just unique and different and edgy."
It takes, however, much more than physical talent to make it in the cutthroat world of the WWE. Plenty of gifted performers have come and gone over the years—men and women who had the physical tools to succeed but were never able to make the audience care.
That's the difference between making it and packing your bags. And for WWE Divas, who often don't get the time on the microphone or in the ring to really stand out, the chance to even make people care is the biggest commodity of all.
The Total Divas Push
Despite coming clean with athletic commissions years ago—revealing that professional wrestling is more entertainment than sport—the WWE is still an incredibly insular world. What goes on backstage is a very carefully guarded secret.
Fans have always gotten to known the characters they see on television, not the men and women behind the persona. Hulk Hogan but not Terry Bollea. Steve Austin but not Steve Williams. A reality television show, one that pulls back the curtain and reveals the people behind the characters, would have been unthinkable, even a decade ago.
Today? Total Divas is driving unprecedented interest in the WWE's most-often overlooked performers. And much of that success comes from the drive and natural charisma of talented Divas like Trinity and Ariane. It's a total life experience—the two are seen at work and play, making their significant others as much a part of the show as they are.
"It was pretty much automatic. I knew if I was doing it, he was doing it," Trinity said of her fiance, fellow WWE star Jon Fatu, who plays Jimmy Uso. "And if he wasn't able to do it I probably wouldn't have been open to it. He is my life. If I wasn't able to include him, then to me it wouldn't have been real. It was definitely scary. Because you're letting people see you in a different light and opening up about personal things."
With reality television, performers take the good with the bad. Aside from a shoot hurricanrana that Trinity insists was real ("he just pissed me off," she said), her relationship with Uso has mostly been portrayed as idyllic. Ariane's relationship with Vincent, however, has been a bit more explosive.
Her bald-headed beau has been seen looking to start fights backstage and drunkenly shoveling cotton candy at her at a bachelorette party.
That, she says, is part of the deal when you sign up for a show like this. But the experience, she revealed, didn't create any tension between the two.
"We feel like we have a story to tell and this is a way for our fans to get to know more about us. To see who we really are," Ariane said. "Vince is very supportive. He's always been supportive since day one. I knew him before I even started doing this. No matter what it's been, he's been there for me 110 percent. Which is great. Because we are gone a lot and the travel is grueling. This is our family. WWE, we are all family with each other. He was actually really happy. He said 'This is something I can actually be a part of with you. We can make this history together.' It's great when you have someone truly in your corner."
The real relationship, however, at the center of both women's storyline is the one between the pair. The two have argued back and forth on every episode, once even getting physical at a go-cart track, a terrified child caught in their midst.
"When you're with someone 24/7, you're bound to bump heads," Ariane said. "You put a group of women together and everyone is going to have differences. Especially when you're in a competitive world. At the end of the day, I love Trinity. She's like my sister from another mister. You're going to have those ups and downs no matter what. But, as you see on the show, we always work it out and come together."
Trinity agrees that the two have had their ups and downs. But she says the strongest relationships are sometimes the ones that can withstand those kinds of shaky moments.
"With any relationship, whether it is like family or business partners, sometimes you have disagreements, you have fallouts, but you have to be able to get over them and come back even stronger," Trinity said. "That's just how we are. We fight, but at the end of the day, we care about each other. They say you aren't best friends if you don't have fights. But we hash it out."
Which brings us back, full circle, to AJ Lee. While the Divas champion may have questioned how the women from Total Divas got their opportunity, it arrived at their doorstep nonetheless.
"It's bringing more focus to the Divas division," Ariane said. ""Even her dropping that pipe bomb, it just gives opportunity to all the women. Now Naomi is having a title match...I hope that this experience gives us a way to break through in the business. To beat the odds."
"At some point, everyone gets their opportunity. Sometimes it's not when we want or how we want, but eventually it happens. I always said 'When it does, I'll be ready.' I'm ready."