Back in November Andrew and I went to a WWE Raw house show. It may sound like an unremarkable and standard night out for wrestling fans, but this was a rather special show for us. There is a very personal account of why this was such a difficult challenge for me here, but stay with us for the duration of this post before clicking away. This story is about how I found myself unexpectedly backstage and how I made an attempt at keeping a cool head while literally faced with my heroes.
We bought the tickets months in advance, not entirely sure we’d be able to go. A few weeks from show time, I contacted WWE’s international PR office and requested a press photography pass. I signed the waiver and sent it back. This document basically meant I wouldn’t sue the McMahons if, for example, CM Punk crushed and killed me following a top rope dive while I skipped around the ring with my camera. I can’t walk especially well, let alone skip, so no fear of death. But hey, what a way to go!
With just a few days left to cross off the calendar, the PR agent seemed to have gone underground without getting back in touch as he’d promised. I packed up my DSLR on show night and we headed for the arena hoping I was on the list and able to collect my golden ticket at the front desk.
The Friday night traffic made us late. The show was starting just as we walked through the arena doors. On the plus side, no queue. On the downside, nobody knew where my press pass was. I was anxious that we were missing the introductions and as I wasn’t on a particular commission, I very nearly told them I’d do without my camera. Just at that moment, the box office clerk asked one of his staff to escort us to the production office.
We walked. Then we walked some more. It soon became apparent that we were heading for the curtain. I gave Andrew the side-eye and whispered “I think we might be going backstage.” His “maybe” exuded constraint, his face was more ‘holy shit!’ Here’s the thing. When you’re a member of the press, you’re not supposed to get starstruck. You’re meant to hold your nerve and be one of the guys, whether you feel in control of your emotions or not. I didn’t have a sane grip on what was about to happen, but I kept a strictly professional face.
We reached the curtain and several arena employees started radioing each other about my arrival. Andrew and I excitedly glanced at each other some more before I had to leave him at the black fabric doorway and allow myself to be ushered to the production room. It felt like entering a dishevelled royal palace; murky, but oozing mystique. At this point I really was backstage. Andrew will tell you that I left him to fend for himself. And I did, reluctantly. But ‘alone’ meant hanging out at the side curtain with John Laurinaitis, so it wasn’t all that bad.
Waiting at the gorilla position were Tensai and Michael McGillicutty. They were excessively oily and kicking their legs to keep warm. They puffed their cheeks out in preparation for their match as we glided through their view. I was pretty stoked. Just being able to see two WWE guys psyching themselves up for combat was exciting. As we walked into a new corridor, I quietly revelled in the fact that I’d be able to relay this sweaty scene to Andrew when I returned. And then John Cena walked towards me.
If you were reading this blog before we relaunched you’ll know that, despite his criticism, I generally tend to defend John Cena. Considering I’ve probably heard his theme music thousands of times by now, those first few seconds still make my shoulder muscles tense in the most wonderful way. To summarise, I AM BACKSTAGE AND MOTHERFUCKING JOHN CENA IS WALKING MY WAY! Also, he’s much more human-looking in person. It was a comforting discovery. John clearly had somewhere to be and so did I. Our shoulders scuffed. We passed like ships in the night. It was beautiful, man.
I entered the production room. The show was being managed entirely from this small space. Cables for collections of personal electronics ran around the room while faces I didn’t recognise replied to emails and referees reclined on couches with drinks. I sat demurely while the manager made his way over to the room. It just so happened that they sat me in sight of the door. The door was open and directly opposite the male locker room. Life is like a locker room door, you never know what (who) you’re gonna get.
It became clear that nobody needing press clearance had been passed on to WWE tour staff. Dealing with those of us just trying to get back into the arena with our papers rubber-stamped was becoming an increasing and understandable headache for the show directors. They wanted us out, but not until they knew we weren’t fooling them. From across the room I caught the eye of another guy waiting for his pass. He had the same look of outer-calm-inner-squeal that I did. If our eyes were talking to each other, they were saying, “OMG. This shit cray, right?”
The locker room door opened and closed every ten seconds or so. I didn’t want to be ‘that girl’, but with the wrestlers dashing from room to room laughing and joking with each other, it was hard not to gawp. Dolph Ziggler, Zack Ryder and Antonio Cesaro, among others, skimmed past me. If I’d thought it through I could have angled myself so that Claudio could see my CHIKARA emblazoned jacket. We could have shared a deep and meaningful discourse on the BDK and the hole left in the roster following his promotion to the big leagues. It wasn’t to be. Finlay had just arrived. The production room was getting hectic. I was starting to feel awkward and unwelcome. So began the interrogation.
WWE are immensely protective of their product. Basically, you want them more than they need you and we all knew it. The manager had arrived and both my fellow camera carrier and I began pleading our cases. We shouldn’t have had to do this. We already had pre-clearance. And just as one of the referees began blistering me with “Yeah, that’s what they all say!” when I swore I wasn’t selling the pictures for profit, the manager took the paperwork and asked me to sit outside while he finished the necessaries. “You know the rules. No finishers and absolutely NO VIDEO!” I didn’t argue.
I grabbed my walking stick and made for the door, almost walking into Paul Heyman as I left. “Whoa! Busy room tonight. Oh pardon me, ma’am.” Ma’am. Paul Heyman called me ma’am and stepped aside gently, giving me room to walk through. I’ve spent years thinking he’s slippery and impolite and with one ma’am I was converted. I’m a Paul Heyman girl. Now. Of sorts.
So I waited. To my right the roster were in a little cubby hole watching the show. I was surprised. I always imagined that at WWE those ‘we’re all watching backstage’ shots were staged for TV. They’re not. Everyone’s watching everything. It’s nice to know they care that much. It’s unfair to have expected that they don’t.
I looked to my left. Kane shuffled my way. I looked to my right again. Dolph Ziggler approached Kane with a smirk. Just inches from my knees they had a cryptic conversation I didn’t and wasn’t supposed to understand. All I could ascertain was that something had been suggested to Kane. He had apparently seemed unhappy about it. He wasn’t. He was alright. Dolph was pleased to hear that. Seriously, no idea. I started texting Andrew, who was still waiting at the curtain, to make it look like I wasn’t listening. Because, you know, I’m totally cool with all this. Match-ready Ziggler stood at my side with his lean limbs making me feel like the chubbiest thing on the planet was no problem. I’m fine with this. (I was not fine with this.)
With that, I was allowed to leave with my clearance in place. I rescued Andrew from Johnny’s side and we sauntered across the arena. Stewards booted out the kids who thought they’d got lucky in stealing our roomy aisle seats and I whipped out my officially approved zoom lens.
My favourite image backstage wasn’t seeing John Cena’s breeze as he sailed past me, or Dolph Ziggler’s sickeningly defined, well, everything. It wasn’t even becoming a born again Paul Heyman girl on the basis of one, gentlemanly word. It was Eve Torres rushing around in her ring gear, tanned within an inch of her life and with her hair twisted up into enormous velcro rollers. It felt private, like I was peeking in on something I wasn’t supposed to see. It was one of those moments I’d loved to have captured on camera, but you can’t. I couldn’t. This was their space to be themselves. It’s where they’re ‘off’. These people spend their lives continually being asked to pose and smile when they don’t feel like it. Behind the curtain, they don’t have to be anything.
The show itself was brilliant. Kane and Daniel Bryan commanded the crowd with their genuinely laugh-out-loud comedy. I finally understood why Damien Sandow is so highly regarded. CM Punk allowed his happier side to shine through as he interacted with the audience and the gathered masses flipped their lids for Ryback. Everyone loves a three word chant, right?
We went home with burgers and a glow about us. It sounds saccharine, but it really was one of the most perfect evenings of my life and the best things about the night couldn’t be bought with a ticket. It took me about four days to fully recover physically. Worth every minute.
Images property Rachel Davies