WWE's Glass Ceiling Is Just a Footnote for Renee Young

She's the first female color commentator in the history of the company. But don't expect Young to list "trailblazer" on her IG anytime soon. She has a bigger mission—to become the greatest to ever put on a headset.
photo of Dave SchillingDave Schilling@@dave_schillingWriter-at-LargeOctober 26, 2018

After three grueling hours of fulfilling her role as WWE’s first ever female color commentator on Monday Night Raw’s live broadcast each week, there’s a good chance Renee Young is going to have to sneak away to the restroom when it’s all over. The enormity of breaking one of professional wrestling’s thickest glass ceilings doesn’t faze her. It’s the smaller things, like not getting a chance to discreetly escape to the lavatory from the announce team’s perch adjacent to WWE’s massive LED stage that, she says, will take some getting used to.

“It was one of the things I was legit the most stressed out about doing commentary,” she reveals. “‘But when do I pee?!’ But I feel like I’ve overcome it.”

Young says that since taking over the third chair on Monday Night Raw from Jonathan Coachman, she’s begun to limit her liquid intake throughout the day. She doesn’t really have all that much time to sip coffee anyway, as her new role requires hours of pre-show preparation and research. In addition to a mandatory production meeting where on-screen talent is briefed on storylines, scripts and talking points, Young takes the initiative to chat with the wrestlers one-on-one, getting a sense of who they are, what’s going on in their real lives and where they see their characters going that week. She also scours social media for any interactions between wrestlers or any trending pop culture stories she can reference.

It’s this kind of work ethic, and an ability to make adjustments on the fly, that has helped Young do something no other female broadcaster has ever accomplished in the 66-year history of WWE: co-piloting the company’s flagship broadcast. To some, that makes Young a trailblazer, but she downplays that label with her trademark self-deprecating, cheery sense of humor. “I’m not going to put it in my Instagram headline: ‘Renee Young, trailblazer.’ I do feel the responsibility of it, but it’s also a responsibility I asked for.”


Renee Young, born Renee Jane Paquette in Toronto, Canada, took one of the more circuitous routes imaginable to get to WWE. She grew up in a show business household; her father was a concert promoter and her mother a bookkeeper. When she was 10, Young was encouraged by a client of her mother’s to try her hand at modeling. “I didn’t even know what that meant,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Sure, it sounds great.’ I would go meet with different talent agencies and different modeling agencies.”

WWE

In addition to modeling, however, Young had a penchant for making people laugh. When her parents divorced, Young found that a well-placed joke could defuse the roiling tension of a divided home. “Kind of taking away that spotlight and the awkwardness of the things that were happening,” she says. “Once I realized that’s something that worked for me, I loved nothing more.” That need to be irreverent would manifest itself at school, too. “I was getting kicked out of class regularly,” she says. “I wasn’t a bad kid. I was just loud. Getting kicked out and still trying to make people laugh in the hallway. I was always in kind of a little bit of a situation. I didn’t know when to shut up. Shocker.”

When she was 16, while bouncing around the modeling world, Young was handed a small pamphlet for the Second City improv training center. She would keep it in her bedroom drawer for years as a reminder of who she truly wanted to be. Finally, when she graduated high school in 2003, she asked her father for the $250 necessary to register for her first improv class.

Improv was her passion, and she fully embraced her time at Second City, hoping to transition to a career as a comedic actress. After a brief spell in Los Angeles when she was 19, she came back to Toronto to work in music videos and commercials before settling on a career hosting on Canada’s The Score sports network in 2009. There, she began fronting a wrestling talk show called Right After Wrestling. (The show aired directly after Monday Night Raw in Canada.) That got the attention of WWE, who brought her in for an audition and eventually hired her to conduct backstage interviews with the wrestlers.

WWE offered Young her biggest platform ever, as well as a very strict set of guidelines about what to say and how to say it. Many of the interactions audiences see on Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live are heavily scripted by a team of writers. The performers are asked to get as close to reciting the lines verbatim as they can for their backstage interviews, in-ring promo segments and pre-taped vignettes. Before most interviews, Young would have to preface the exchange with, “Please welcome my guest at this time”—a catchphrase that’s become fodder for jokes within online wrestling fandom.

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Despite her early struggles with the tried-and-true WWE formula, Young quickly found allies to help her push forward. Former announcer, and current mouthpiece for Brock Lesnar, Paul Heyman was an early supporter of Young. He helped her ease into what can be an overwhelming, esoteric world of wrestling jargon, high pressure and unceasing travel. “He’s had my back from the get-go,” Young says. “He did not need to do that. For whatever reason, he and I have always been close when it comes to talking about being better and wanting to be the best.”

Before her debut as an analyst on Monday Night Raw, Young hunkered down in the stands of the empty arena, where Heyman found her to give his sage counsel. “He just kind of gave me advice on how to be a little more succinct, how to create those little punchlines,” she remembers. “You’ve gotta think about what this is going to sound like in a video package. Make sure you’re saying their name instead of he or she. Just little nuggets like that that you might forget. And I do forget. Sometimes, I might be out there and catch myself saying, ‘Oh, he just speared him’ instead of ‘Roman Reigns just speared Braun Strowman.’”

For the former class clown, it’s not always easy to color inside the rigid lines of WWE’s corporate universe. “Prior to working for WWE, I was always in control of my own material [at The Score].” The commentary role on Raw allows for more off-the-cuff banter for Young, play-by-play announcer Michael Cole and color commentator Corey Graves. “I’ve been here for six years, but until now, I haven’t had many opportunities to flex that [improv] muscle. I’m trying to get back into that mode.”


In her six years with WWE, Young has done pretty much all there is to do besides actually work a wrestling match. She’s worked segments on Raw and SmackDown. She’s hosted an intimate, almost Oprah-style interview show on the WWE Network streaming service called Unfiltered. She’s co-hosted the SmackDown aftershow Talking Smack with former WWE champion Daniel Bryan, and she’s helmed the pre-shows leading up to WWE pay-per-view events.

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Perhaps the strangest detour in Young’s career was a brief, season-long stint on the E! network reality series Total Divas, a series that follows WWE female talent like Nikki and Brie Bella, Natalya, Naomi Paige, and Lana through their day-to-day lives. Total Divas is not all that different from other E! reality franchises like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, with its various mundane real-life dramas set against the backdrop of the glamour of the entertainment industry. One of the main storylines of the show was the question of whether or not John Cena would marry Nikki Bella. The particulars of their coupling and the eventual dissolution of that couple was all fodder for the cameras.

As helpful as the show was for her personal profile, Young departed Total Divas after completing work on Season 7. “I think the hardest part for me, for doing Total Divas, was having my relationship be on display,” she says with a sigh.

Her husband, Jonathan Good, also known as Dean Ambrose, is intensely private, according to those who know him—a shy, reserved, sensitive man who only opens up once you’ve made yourself worthy of his trust. “It’s always a compliment when John has a conversation with me,” says Natalya Neidhart, Total Divas cast member and one of Young’s closest friends on the WWE roster. “He doesn’t talk to that many people, so when he talks to me, I’m so flattered.” Young is the opposite that attracted, still that same young person always trying to make others laugh with a one-liner. “[Renee] didn’t need someone who was going to compete with her, in the sense of being bubbly and charismatic. She needed someone who complemented her, and John is just so quiet. He very rarely lets people in.” That dynamic might not have been ideal for reality TV.

“I think [our relationship] was not something we wanted to pull the curtain back on,” Young says. “That made me uncomfortable as well, because the whole time I’m just saying he’s crazy and how do I deal with this crazy person [for story purposes], which is really not our dynamic. That was really odd to navigate as we were doing it.”

Until 2015, the heightened reality of Total Divas was one, if not the only, path to success for WWE’s women. Women’s wrestling simply wasn’t a major attraction on WWE TV until Stephanie McMahon debuted highly touted prospects Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch to usher in the “Women's Revolution” campaign that gave female performers more to do than just pose for the camera and smile. But Young is a part of a class of performers who have become bona fide stars without that platform. Though she’s never competed in a wrestling match (the closest she’s gotten is a brief feud where she and Ambrose traded insults with The Miz and his wife, Maryse), Young has amassed a social media following on par with former world champions like Bayley and Alexa Bliss. “Renee is going to be a superstar at this,” says Michael Cole, who, in addition to being her cohort on Raw’s announce team, is also the person who oversees every announcer in WWE.

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“When all is said and done, Renee is going to go down as one of the great analysts that we’ve ever had, because you have to stand out in this business,” Cole says. “Renee will stand out because she’s offering something that’s never been done before. Forget the fact that she’s a woman. Put that aside. That’s become a footnote now. She’s different because never before have we had in the wrestling business what Renee offers to the announce booth. It’s that innate ability to talk to people, to be able to dig underneath the surface and find out what makes these superstars tick.”

Her personality and charisma shined even if her on-screen character is mostly just a slightly toned-down version of the real Renee. “I just have to be a little bit more PG when I’m on a live microphone,” she says. The Evolution pay-per-view is something of a culmination of everything Young has been striving for since she joined the wrestling world. “When I was told I was going to be doing it, I was floored,” she says. “I feel like I can open up a door for other women, show other women and girls different paths to go down.”

Young has done her research into other women who’ve made it into the sports commentary world. She’s especially a fan of ESPN NBA analyst Doris Burke, another supreme talent who has a similarly rabid online following. “One of the things I took away [from my research] is that everyone is used to older white men doing commentary and anything that’s not has been deemed wrong. It’s not [wrong]. It’s just trying to change what people are used to hearing.”

Eventually, audiences will get used to Renee Young’s voice on commentary, if they haven’t already. In addition to her weekly job on Raw and the spot on Evolution, she’ll be calling WrestleMania in April. While Raw is three hours and the average pay-per-view is around four, WrestleMania tops out at a whopping seven hours from start to finish. When will Renee get to go to the bathroom then? “If that’s the biggest of Renee’s worries, she has nothing to be concerned about,” Cole says.

“I am not ready for that yet. I don’t think my bladder is quite prepared,” Young says with a chuckle. “We don’t travel with port-a-potties up there.” For every arena, Young has devised a route to the restroom, just in case. It’s absurd that we keep coming back to the issue, but as Young puts it, “This is real life” and she’s not one to hold back on what’s going on in her own head. “She’s relatable because she’s not perfect,” Neidhart says. In that life, as it is in her journey to relieve herself, Young’s mantra is simple: “You gotta navigate your path.”

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