AJ Lee is a different kind of WWE Diva. In a world of plastic mannequins, she's an injection of pure punk. Rocking jean shorts from Target and skipping around the ring, AJ Lee is more than a little off-kilter. And it's working—fans can feel her manic energy and respond in kind.
The result is a resurgent Divas division. Not only is Lee striking on all cylinders, she's found the perfect foils in the cast of the E! reality show Total Divas. Lee, always looking for authenticity, stands in stark contrast to the often fabricated world of "reality" television, where the only thing that's real are the cameras and producers constantly hovering.
This natural conflict has led to some of the most fascinating television we've seen in the Divas division in years. Not only did Lee drop her famous "pipe bomb" interview, but she took the opportunity to go after WWE announcer Jerry Lawler as well.
The results were nothing short of mesmerizing.
Blurring the line between real and fake is a wrestling staple—and nobody does it better these days than AJ Lee. Bleacher Report sat down with the Divas champion, who defends her Divas title Sunday night at WWE Battleground against Brie Bella, to try to find out exactly how she went about crafting the hottest— and most interesting—character in the WWE today.
Bleacher Report: I wanted to talk with you, more than anybody else on the card, because I've never seen the Divas division in such a great place. Dynamic, interesting and compelling. You must be feeling pretty good about how things are going these days.
AJ Lee: Thank you. That means a lot to me. I appreciate it.
It's pretty cool. I've done a lot of things I never thought I'd be able to do. I had a little list of things like "be champion" and "be in the video game." I've done all that and everything else is kind of gravy. After doing everything I wanted to do, I had to ask "what else is there?"
For a long time, since I was in NXT, I've kind of wanted to redefine the word Diva and find a way to get people connected and make them want to watch. So we're not just some filler match. I think we have people that are capable of doing that.
It may take some rubbing people the wrong way sometimes, but I think we're getting there. For me it's about leaving things so that when I'm not here one day, or when I'm not in the story, I don't have to be involved for it to be cool and interesting.
I think I've done well for myself. Right now what I want to do is kind of just take care of everybody else.
Bleacher Report: It's true, I think, that fans have kind of been accustomed to thinking of the Divas match as a popcorn match. It's going to be two or three minutes, with no storyline. You're kind of programmed not to take it seriously. How have you gone about breaking fans of that habit? Habits can be pretty deep-seeded and hard to break. How do you make fans accept this as a real, legitimate part of the show?
AJ Lee: That's the thing. It takes a long time. And you have to be really brave and take chances, do things differently even though it's not proven to work. That's the scariest thing in the world.
Like, OK, I'm not going to wear a lot of makeup. My hair's going to be a mess. And I'm going to wear Target jean shorts. And let's see if people go along with it.
Bleacher Report: I had never considered what a departure that is. Because it does work so well.
AJ Lee: In a world where everyone is a perfect supermodel, that's a terrifying risk to take. But I can sell T-shirts now, because I took a risk.
It took a lot of bravery on the company's part too. To see me look the way I look and let me do these things. (Laughs). To give us these opportunities. Me, personally, I've had so many amazing opportunities. I don't know why they were so trusting in me.
Bleacher Report: Life is about making the most of those opportunities. Which is the one that pushed you over the top?
AJ Lee: I think the switch got flipped when I did the arc with Kaitlyn. It wasn't about the guys. We weren't just a side element of a feud between the guys. It was a stand-alone "just the girls" story. I didn't have Dolph out there or any of the guys. And the Divas really started to take off.
I give Eve a lot of credit too. She and Kaitlyn had one of the first real stories for the girls in a long time, and we just jumped on the momentum of that. Suddenly we were getting No. 1-rated segments on Raw. Just me and Kaitlyn.
That was amazing to me. And people started saying "it's not just AJ." They saw that there were other girls who were well-rounded personalities worth investing the time for a two- or three-monthlong story. People got on board and I think they're kind of paying more attention now. I hope it keeps going. I want to keep doing things like that.
Bleacher Report: It put you in a position where you could do the now-famous interview about the Total Divas.
AJ Lee: Yeah. (Laughs).
Bleacher Report: But when you talked earlier about being brave and taking risks, what about taking on Jerry Lawler in the commentary booth? I thought that could have really backfired. He's such a beloved figure in some circles that it could have gone very badly in a serious way. Were you nervous at all about what you were planning on saying?
AJ Lee: (Laughs). The funny thing is I get a lot of "oh, I can't believe they let you say that!" Everything that has been kind of controversial in the last couple of weeks has been 100 percent from my mind. It's just been me saying "Let's see how much trouble I can get in."
When you do commentary you don't really plan anything. I watch my matches back and Jerry Lawler rubs me the wrong way. The way he talks about the girls and me in particular. As a character I feel like she wouldn't like him. So, I went out there thinking "I'm ready to fight any of you."
Bleacher Report: You were ready to pay them back for the months of cracks about you being crazy and all the talk about your boyfriend troubles?
AJ Lee: You can't really plan what you are going to say, but I'm kind of a smart a**. I like to jab. That's who I am. I went out there and they were all sort of attacking me and I was not prepared for that. So I kind of went into smart a** mode. And it happened. (Laughs).
We never talked about it, but I think it was fine. It was just a fun little jab I think.
Bleacher Report: It was one of those crazy live television moments that we used to associate with pro wrestling in the 1990s. Of course, you did something similar with the Total Divas. I thought that was really intriguing. My shameful confession is that my wife and I are regular Total Divas viewers and fans. You, or the character of AJ Lee at least, apparently less so?
How much of that had been boiling up inside you for a while? Talking with you now, I see how important it was for you to separate the Divas from the men, to not just be arm candy. And here comes this show that's primarily about boyfriends. Was that kind of messing with your mission?
AJ Lee: I think everything I've tried to do, whether or not it's come off that way immediately, is for the greater good. I'll take the jabs I need to in order to help us all in the long run.
With me personally, I'm backstage and I see these poor girls with cameras everywhere and absolutely no time at home. They go to sleep and then the camera is there recording them waking up. I feel for them and I give them all the credit in the world. Because I can't do that. I could never do that.
Bleacher Report: Now you're singing a different tune.
AJ Lee: I give them credit. Of course on screen I'm not going to say any of that. (Laughs). I'm going to take jabs and stuff as part of the story. But I'm not a hundred percent against it.
As a person, I couldn't do it. The whole story is, they asked me to be on it and I told them no. And it was kind of received the wrong way. I was upset about it and there was a lot of friction between myself and the people who kind of wanted me to jump on board with this show.
It's not who I am. I don't think it helps with what I've done so far either. It may be great for the girls who are kind of spokeswoman kind of women. That's not my world.
But me not jumping on board was kind of perceived the wrong way. I think Vince likes people who are really brave and quirky and like to take risks and stir the pot sometimes. And he was like "OK. She doesn't want to be on it? Let her tell us all why."
No one really knew what I was going to say. So, that's how that happened.
Bleacher Report: I loved it. I think a lot of people did. But, of course, all of that stuff is only part of wrestling. You still have to deliver when you step in the ring. And I know that some wrestlers don't like fans talking about who's a good worker and who's not. But, ultimately, we're on the receiving end of the product. So I can tell you, as a fan, it feels like you've turned the corner this year in the ring. Has something clicked with you in the ring?
AJ Lee: I don't lack confidence. Before I came to WWE I had two-and-a-half years in the indies, which is God awful. Then our NXT program trained me amazingly. I've had a lot of really great teachers and mentors. So, technically, I'm very proud of myself.
As you grow you start to learn what's important. That you can't just go out there and run 1,000 miles per minute. There's an art form to it that I think is hard for some people to understand. I think I was very lucky to be out there to watch Daniel Bryan matches and CM Punk matches and Dolph Ziggler.
To have front-row seats for all these great matches has taught me a lot. I would 100 percent give them credit for being able to grow and learn how to captivate people while you're inside of the ring. To make sure your match isn't a bathroom break, you know?
Bleacher Report: A few years ago the guy that got a lot of credit for helping the Divas in the ring was Fit Finlay. Is he still around to help block out the matches?
AJ Lee: Fit is still around, and he's amazing. He's just a wealth of knowledge. I also take a lot upon myself for my matches. To kind of control situations and see what works.
Bleacher Report: There's still almost like a glass ceiling. You've come a long way, true. But if you had 20 minutes on pay-per-view and 10 minutes on Raw every week, in one of those matches that comes back from a commercial break to continue. How far do you think you could go? Is there a place for women at the top of the card?
AJ Lee: I do 100 percent think we could close the show. We're good enough to do that. Could all of us do it? Probably not. But there's a lot of us who could do that.
I think of our match at Payback, which was the closest I came to a dream match, and maybe the closest I ever will. For there to be this really long, involved story that people cared about and watched on Raw— and then to have the 20-minute pay-per-view match was about as cool as it can get.
The chance to see a Divas match go 20 minutes is so rare, but we proved that we could do it. And, if you take me and Kaitlyn out of the picture, there are other girls who can also do that. Right now we're putting that faith in Brie to do it too.
And after that? I don't know? Is it Naomi?
There are girls who are so capable. It just takes a long time. It took me a year-and-a-half. We just slowly kind of build people, to make you care. Hopefully soon you will care about every single girl in our division. To know their personalities. That's when we could close a show and people would be invested in it and care.
Bleacher Report: Historically, outside the WWE, the women in Japan were the first to really outshine the men inside the ring. The high flying and the nonstop action was amazing. Do you think it would benefit WWE Divas to take on some of that style? Is that the route you take, the go-go-go kind of action match? Is that the Divas' future? Or are you better off sticking with the classic WWE-style match?
AJ Lee: I think trying to be flashy and doing things that are out of your realm of comfort is the problem with the Divas. You have amazing acrobats like Naomi who should be doing that. She's like a little Rey Mysterio to me. But that's not for everyone.
The trick is for Divas to find what works for them. I've done some ridiculous stuff in my career, but there's still nothing that's gotten a reaction as big as me skipping around the ring.
Bleacher Report: (Laughs).
AJ Lee: You have to kind of learn from that. Oh, there is this element that people are reacting to? How do we incorporate that into a match? Instead of trying to be something you're not or trying to compare to the guys.
The key is to be a personality outside of the ring and then bring that personality with you inside the ring. Like, Randy Orton is Randy Orton in the ring. He knows how to do that. Some of the guys are really good at that and we're slowly jumping on board and understanding that.
That's what we need. Not to see flips and tricks and stuff like that. Unless they can really do it. But we all have our strengths and something really interesting about us. That's what we need to figure out—how to show that during matches.
Bleacher Report: Unlike some of the other Divas, which you pointed out in your interview, you're a longtime wrestling fan. There's this video of you meeting Lita when you were a little girl. This is it for you isn't it? This is something you've been thinking about for a long time. How long have you known this is what you need to be doing with your life?
AJ Lee: I was 12 when I told my mom this is what I'm going to do. Nobody really believed me, but I took a bunch of steps to get here. I took drama classes and writing and gymnastics classes and stuff like that. All these little elements I thought would help me.
This is all I ever wanted. I don't mean to judge people. You can be here and this isn't your end game. And that's OK. But I think it works for the character to kind of judge people for that.
I think it's OK if people want things outside of this. But I know I don't. I don't want to walk any red carpets. I don't want to be anywhere but here. I don't want anyone outside of our little world to know my name. I just want to be in the ring, in our company. I don't need anything else. Nothing else can capture my heart that way.
Our fans are like that too. They live in this world and they love this world. So they can get on board with my argument against people using it as a stepping stone. They can relate to that. But I like to convey that message in as douchey a way as possible.
Bleacher Report: Well, you do it very well. Wait, did that come out wrong?
AJ Lee: (Laughs)
Bleacher Report: It's that attitude that led you to get the date of your first title win tattooed on your neck I'd imagine. Is that real? You sure that's not henna? What happens if your career goes the way of Crash Holly, who won the Hardcore title like 100 times? Are you going to do it every time you win the title? You're going to run out of real estate.
AJ Lee: (Laughs). To me it wasn't just about winning the title. I lived in a car. I lived on the street, I lived in a motel. My whole life I always believed I wouldn't be in this situation any more. I'm going to be in WWE and I'm going to be the champion.
That was the light at the end of the tunnel. That made me not lose my mind and not give up. To achieve those goals was all kind of dream sequence. To have the opportunity Kaitlyn and I did, a 20-minute match and everything so absolutely perfect. I had imagined it as a kid and it all came true in real life.
I kind of made the tattoo look like a prison tattoo. I was like a prisoner serving time. To me it was like I finally accomplished something and it was time served. Fourteen years of trying to get here. I made it out of a dark past. That's what it means to me. It just happens to be the date I won the title. That was the ultimate goal.
I think that's the only tattoo I'll ever get. I probably won't get a matching one the day I lose it. (Laughs).
Bleacher Report: With that story behind it, anything else would be diminishing returns. What could possibly mean more than that? That's amazing.
AJ Lee: Exactly.
AJ Lee defends the Divas title against Brie Bella at WWE Battleground on pay-per-view. Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling.