How Cyndi Lauper Was Essential in the Launch of WWE WrestleMania

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterMarch 30, 2017

Credit: WWE.com

Synthesizer-heavy music bleated, barely audible over the Madison Square Garden crowd, as Cyndi Lauper bounced toward the ring.

The pop singer with radioactive-orange hair and wrists covered in bangles charged ahead of the woman she would manage that night: Wendi Richter. Lauper climbed into the ring, stood on the bottom rope and waved her crimson scarf around her head like a distress signal.

It was March 31, 1985, near the end of WWE's inaugural WrestleMania event.

Wrestling was about to change forever. WWE head Vince McMahon's regional promotion was poised to expand, to stretch its reach to every corner of the globe.

And Lauper, of "She Bop" and "Time After Time" fame, was in the thick of it all.

Among all the muscled colossi, sideshow characters and cartoonish strongmen, Lauper fit right in. She was boisterous and colorful, fun to watch and a touch ridiculous. Just like the world of the squared circle.

Wendi Richter, Cyndi Lauper and Dave Wolff celebrate at WrestleMania.
Wendi Richter, Cyndi Lauper and Dave Wolff celebrate at WrestleMania.Credit: WWE.com

McMahon's plan to take wrestling where it had yet to go included leaning on stars like Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper. In 1985, he created WrestleMania, a wrestling supershow that aired on closed-circuit TV (subsequent editions were broadcast on pay-per-view) to showcase all his newly acquired talent.

The power of celebrity would amplify WrestleMania's potential too. As Hulkamania began rolling and WrestleMania was born, Lauper was one of the most important of those celebrities.

Chance and her seating arrangement on a long flight pulled her into the role.

       

How It Began

If you stood Lauper and Hall of Fame wrestling manager Captain Lou Albano side by side, you might assume they were from the same troupe of oddballs or even the same family.

Like Lauper, Albano wore garish, clashing outfits. Rubber bands wrapped around his long, gray beard. He looked abuzz at all times, his wild eyes darting everywhere.

Captain Lou Albano.
Captain Lou Albano.Credit: WWE.com

It's not surprising, then, that the two misfits from disparate worlds bonded so quickly and deeply.

Albano and Lauper first crossed paths in the confines of an airplane. "I met Captain Lou when I was in Blue Angel," she recalled in Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir. "We were on a plane ride coming back from Puerto Rico."

David Wolff, Lauper's then-manager, was a huge wrestling fan. And upon meeting the man who had accompanied the likes of The Russian Bear Ivan Koloff and The Wild Samoans to the ring, Wolff wasn't satisfied with a one-off interaction. 

He and Lauper invited Albano to appear in one of the pop star's music videos. The captain of the squared circle played Lauper's father in "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," one of the biggest hits of her career.

Lauper wrote in her memoir, "Originally, they wanted the wrestler Gorgeous George to be in the video, but I said, 'No, Captain Lou's the one.'"

Albano scolded her in the video. Lauper responded with a hammerlock, pinning him against the wall.

Little did WWE fans know, that cameo would be the catalyst for a high-profile rivalry.

         

Moolah vs. Richter 

After Albano visited Lauper's world, the singer returned the favor.

Wolff convinced his colorful client to cross-promote with wrestling. McMahon played her music videos at his events. Lauper agreed to plug McMahon's spandex-filled circus when she appeared on Johnny Carson's shows, as she noted in her autobiography.

The connection strengthened over time.

Lauper appeared in a "Piper's Pit" segment on Championship Wrestling in June 1984 to discuss her "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" video.

What looked to be a simple promotional interview quickly unraveled.

Wrestling fans were used to seeing chaos erupt with Piper at the center. The fiery brawler nearly always got into fights with his guests, verbal and/or physical. This time, though, it was Lauper who dished out the violence.

Albano appeared and tried to take credit for the success of Lauper's song. He talked about how his part in the video was key to its popularity, even claiming to have written the lyrics. When he followed that up with a barrage of insults, Lauper snapped. 

She flipped over a table and smacked Albano about the head with her purse. 

And in classic wrestling tradition, this momentary animosity ballooned into a full-fledged feud. Lauper was no wrestler, and Albano had long moved away from in-ring competition. The rivals needed proxies.

Albano chose The Fabulous Moolah, a hard-nosed grappler who won the NWA World Women's Championship in 1956. Lauper went with Richter, a rising talent in neon blue spandex.

It was surprising for WWE to use its women's division as a showcase for this story, as that portion of the roster had long been ignored. But a sudden dip into feminism was on the way. Moolah and Richter would soon headline a wrestling special known as The Brawl to End It All.

MTV broadcast the final match of the July 1984 event, and channel president Les Garland's "eyes brightened" at the idea, as Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham wrote in Sex, Lies and Headlocks. Wolff's passion, Lauper's star power and Garland's favorable impression of McMahon led to the MTV-WWE convergence.

To promote the match, Wolff shot his own promos.

"He raced over to Albano's Manhattan apartment with a handheld video camera he'd borrowed from MTV," Assael and Mooneyham wrote. "After rearranging some furniture, he filmed Albano slobbering milk from his beard and bellowing, 'Ms. Lauper, you're a liar! You're a cheat! You're a disgrace!'"

At the bout's climax, it looked as if Moolah had won, but her shoulders were down during the bridging suplex she doled out to the challenger. 

Lauper rushed in, barking at Albano and Moolah. She wagged her finger in their faces. And once the referee announced Richter's victory, Lauper went from defiant to celebratory. 

She dabbed the new champion with a lemon-yellow handkerchief and hugged her tightly.

Richter had dethroned a titleholder of 28 years. The dastardly Albano had egg on his face. Lauper's presence pushed a standard wrestling narrative into the mainstream.

It all added up to a home run. The Brawl to End It All main event pulled in a massive 9.0 rating, as Geno Mrosko noted for Cageside Seats.

          

WrestleMania I

Lauper's time in the wrestling world wasn't done.

A megashow, designed to catapult WWE into national-powerhouse status, was in the works. And McMahon recruited a stockpile of celebrities to bolster it. Liberace, Muhammad Ali and Mr. T would eventually sign on.

So would the effervescent Lauper.

Months ahead of the first WrestleMania, WWE laid the groundwork for the feud that would pull the pop singer back into the squared circle. She appeared on WWE TV in Madison Square Garden to receive an award and then present one to Albano for his charity work.

Apparently, The Brawl to End It All did its job. Albano and Lauper turned their differences to water under the bridge.

Dick Clark introduced Lauper to the New York audience. World Wrestling Federation President Jack Tunney stood by to watch. Hogan helped Lauper hoist her weighty trophy.

The serene scene soon veered in a new direction, as Piper stepped between the ropes.

Hot Rod loomed near the captain menacingly before smashing a record over his head. In the chaos that broke out, Lauper clung to Piper's legs, and then the heel kicked her aside and powerslammed Wolff to the canvas.

Hogan saved the day, but there was sufficient bad blood created to set up the next in-ring collision.

Lauper accompanied Hogan to the ring for a match against Piper at The War to Settle the Score on Feb. 18, 1985. She was a busy manager that night because she also stood in Richter's corner when she lost the women's title to Leilani Kai.

WrestleMania served as the next chapter to each of those rivalries. 

Richter (with Lauper) would look to reclaim her belt against Kai (who had recruited Moolah as her manager) at the marquee event. The Hulkster teamed with Mr. T against Piper and Paul Orndorff in WrestleMania's top bout.

Lauper proved to be a valuable ringside asset. When Moolah dug her fingers into Richter's hair, Lauper charged in, yanking her foe off her client.

In an army-green jacket and plaid shorts, Lauper was soon bouncing in the ring, celebrating Richter's second championship win.

The wrestling wasn't great as McMahon's flight of fancy came to fruition. It didn't matter. It teemed with buzz.

Hogan, Piper, Andre the Giant and the other grapplers did all the heavy lifting. The celebrities brought in added eyes, making WrestleMania a pop-culture event, not just a niche one.

The marriage of rock and wrestling clicked.  

The warriors of the ring knew it. In an interview with Denny Burkholder of CBSSports.com, The Iron Sheik, who left WrestleMania I as a tag team champion, said: "New York [was] always [the] No. 1 territory, so when [McMahon] told the boys that Muhammad Ali, Liberace, Lauper [would] all come to the show, I knew it would become the best show of all time."

George "The Animal" Steele told Burkholder: "When [McMahon] brought in Cyndi Lauper and the whole music thing, it was perfect timing."

  

The Epilogue  

Lauper would further the connection between wrestling and rock music, continuing to garner mainstream attention on WWE but in a setting where she was more comfortable.

This time, the wrestlers came to her world. 

Piper, Freddie Blassie, Albano, The Iron Sheik and others appeared in the video for her song "The Goonies 'r' Good Enough" from the soundtrack for The Goonies. The two-part mini movie was unabashedly campy. The wrestling heels fit right in.

Lauper would later assist WWE with its journey into music in late 1985: The Wrestling Album.

McMahon's stars doled out a variety of corny tracks. Junkyard Dog sang the silly "Grab Them Cakes," and Albano delivered the bizarre, all-over-the-place, "Captain Lou's History of Music." Lauper sang in the background for Piper's ditty and appeared as her alter-ego, Mona Flambe, in the video for "Land of a Thousand Dances," on which a cast of characters, wrestling and otherwise, sang together.

Producer Rick Derringer recalled what it was like filming the video in a November 2015 interview with James Montgomery of Rolling Stone:

I remember Cyndi Lauper showed up in disguise, wearing a wig, doing her Mona Flambe character. There were wrestlers everywhere. Meat Loaf was there. Roddy Piper pulled me aside and gave me some advice: 'If I have to knock ya down, stay down. Because being in character, if ya get back up, I'm going to have to go to work on ya.'

Again, Lauper lent her star power to hyping a wrestling-related venture. Again, she made wrestling feel more mainstream.

The Wrestling Album didn't lead to a succession of sequels as WrestleMania did. WWE followed up its first supershow with another and has been delivering over-the-top entertainment at the event each year since.

Today, WrestleMania is a massive enterprise. 

WrestleMania 32 in 2016 pulled in $4.55 million in merchandise sales, welcomed over 100,000 fans and reached 1.82 million homes through the WWE Network. WWE is now a global entity, with TV deals all over the world.

Hogan was huge in laying the foundation for that growth. The same goes for all the stars—from Piper to Richter—McMahon scooped up from rival promotions.

And strangely enough, Lauper deserves credit for helping get WWE noticed in the early stages of its expansion. The singer was a key figure in the cross-promotion.

"We did a lot of really fun stuff that left its mark on wrestling," Lauper recalled in her memoir.

David Shoemaker wrote in The Squared Circle: Life and Death in Professional Wrestling: "The interaction between the rising tides of music videos and of pro wrestling introduced the pop-culture mainstream to McMahon's new, Technicolor take on old-school wrasslin' and introduced the existing wrestling audience to the Rock 'n' Wrestling Era."

And one can't tell the story of that era without several mentions of Lauper. She was purse-swinging, bee-boppin' and fist-pumping on center stage as WrestleMania first emerged from its shell.

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