Melbourne’s own WWE star Tenille Dashwood has risen to the top of the professional wrestling juggernaut
She emerges out of a cloud of soap bubbles, stomping her feet in time with the music while dancing a jerky, straight-armed movement of her own creation.
Her smile is infectious — the audience, already mimicking her one-of-a-kind dance routine, is swept up in her enthusiasm and chants her name.
She is Emma, sports entertainment superstar, and the adoring masses are all members of her “Emmalution”, poised to take over WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).
Beneath the character, 24-year-old Melbourne native Tenille Dashwood, 24, lives out the dream she has chased since the age of 13.
“It’s crazy, I feel amazing even though it’s still completely surreal,” she says of her rise through the ranks of professional wrestling.
“I’m very lucky to be able to live the life that’s everything I ever wanted, to have made that possible for myself, and to be actually doing it.”
LIKE Emma, I’ve been a fan of wrestling my whole life — and we’re not alone in our devotion. WWE — the company pioneered by US promoter Vince McMahon — broadcasts to 13 million viewers in 145 countries.
Its $659 million annual turnover is set to increase in 2014 with the launch of the WWE Network — a live-streaming 24-hour internet subscription “channel”.
WWE’s dominance is a far cry from the days of Mario Milano and the characters who filled black-and-white TV screens in the 1960s and 1970s.
It’s a success story built on household names likesuch as Hulk Hogan and the Rock, despite steroid and concussion controversies.
For that success to continue, new stars must be created. To that end, legendary wrestler Paul “Triple H” Levesque swapped his in-ring career for the role of WWE’s executive vice-president of talent relations and live events.
That mouthful of a title means Levesque’s domain is now the WWE Performance Centre — a custom-built 26,000sq m world-class training facility in Orlando, Florida.
His responsibilities are the 70 young hopefuls who train with the centre’s staff, five days a week, to earn a lucrative spot on WWE’s programming.
I’m one of the first international journalists invited to see the centre — the hopefuls practising around me, Levesque says, also come from around the globe.
“Some people come to us, some send us tapes, we hold open castings and do auditions,” he says. “We make connections with Olympic athletes, rugby and football players. Some of these people are among the best athletes in the world who just missed out on performing at the highest level in their sport. For them, the WWE is an amazing chance at a new career.”
IT’S at this point in any wrestling discussion that the naysayers protest.
“It’s all fake,” they argue. “Why would they need to train?”
Wrestling is predetermined, absolutely — it’s best defined as a scripted narrative in which conflicts are resolved through simulated sporting competition.
It’s why modern performers prefer to be called “sports entertainers”, as wrestling is only a portion of what they do.
But fake? Not at all.
For starters there are the injuries. Levesque — McMahon’s son-in-law — has torn both quadriceps while his peers have snapped limbs and even had their ears severed from their heads.
Then there’s the competition, which is as cutthroat as in any other profession.
Contestants in each choreographed match are trying to gain greater audience support and become more highly regarded than their opponent.
The more engaging a sports entertainer is, the more likely they will be considered for a run as the champion and earn a bigger slice of that $659 million pie.
Levesque was WWE Champion — think “best actor” Oscar winner — 13 times, and his experiences formed the genesis of the Performance Centre.
“The design of this place comes from a thought: if I wanted to be a superstar today, what would I need to get there?” he says.
“This is about making the next generation of superstars bulletproof — giving them what they need to get here, the tools to make it, everything they must have in order to be as successful as they can be.”
Dashwood and her colleagues are the beneficiaries of that idea.
She was eight years old when she first watched wrestling with her brother, Jake, and was instantly hooked.
After five years idolising “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Trish Stratus, she tried her hand in Australia’s local wrestling scene.
“There was an independent company I trained with maybe once or twice a week for a couple of hours, then I started doing shows once a month,” she says.
“I did that all though my teens while I was going to high school (but) realised I had to get some more professional training to get connections at WWE.”
Dashwood celebrated her 19th birthday by relocating to Calgary, Canada — 13,870km from home — to train with WWE alumnus Lance Storm.
“Then I travelled a bit, working a bit more often, networking all over Canada and the US and Australia when I was back there,” she says.
“I did that until I felt I was ready, until if felt I was what WWE wanted.”
AS Levesque and the coaches lead me through the Performance Centre, I’m immediately struck by its similarities to the Australian Institute of Sport.
The facility boasts an enourmous strength and conditioning room with cardio machines, weights, truck tyres and medicine balls.
In the sports med room, fitness and rehabilitation staff keep the newbies healthy, while a GP is on call 24/7.
The top floor is the “talent retreat”, where athletes can pop a sports drink, cook a protein-balanced meal or review their performance metrics on computers linked to the facility’s central hard drive.
Then there are the unmistakably WWE touches.
Pinned to the notice board is a guide on how to “pitch your character” (12-point font, dot points) as well as a decree banning the use of baby oil at events (slicked muscles don’t look good on HDTV).
The ceilings are covered with steel mesh links — pieces of the infamous “Hell in a Cell” where some of wrestling’s most brutal matches occurred.
Portraits of legendary performers line the walls for inspiration, while the ring bell from the first WrestleMania event is mounted above a doorway.
TV screens play classic matches on a loop and rare memorabilia is displayed behind glass, fuelling a young athlete’s hunger for success.
Most impressive of all are three spaces with odd names: the ring room, the mirror room and the VO room. The first is, unsurprisingly, a 12,000 square foot space boasting seven full-scale WWE rings.
Five are standard issue, used for daily drills and practising how to look like you’re injuring someone without doing them bodily harm. The sixth is the “dress rehearsal” ring, complete with miniature entrance ramp, cameras and lighting.
Before they get anywhere near a TV broadcast, talent can stage and record matches then watch them back with their trainers to hone their skills.
The last ring is Levesque’s favourite — instead of the usual plywood base, it has a super-soft foam core for practising insane aerial moves.
We watch as one performer leaps from the top buckle, twists midair three times and crashes down on to a prone opponent.
His colleague atop the adjacent turnbuckle is told to close his eyes, stretch out his arms and perform 12 squats before he jumps — all the better to learn in order to improve his balance.
“With facilities like these my career could have been longer, I could have had less injuries and I could have been healthier,” Levesque muses.
I ask if that means he would have been a high-flying acrobat instead of the ground-and-pound brawler he portrayed on screen.
“Absolutely not,” he scoffs. “Have you ever seen me on the top rope? No, and there’s a reason for that. I’m a falling down kind of guy, not a jumping off kind of guy.”
Dashwood’s in-ring style includes painful-looking grapples and holds that wouldn’t be out of place in a mixed martial arts bout. These moves got her a foot in WWE’s door.
“I went to a tryout in Tampa (Florida) where WWE chose 50 people out of a huge number of (applicants) and would give out one contract at the end of a week-long camp,” she says.
“I had trained, done all my research, had ideas of how to present myself as a person and as a personality (and) at the end of the week they called out my name.
“I’ve been here about one and a half years now, and I was on TV within the first three or four months, which was only because of my wrestling background.”
DOWN the hall is the mirror room — a small, darkroom-like space furnished with only an iPad-controlled webcam. Here, students deliver soliloquies on savagery, practising how to speak, emote and inspire passion in their fans.
These speeches are — addresses known as “promos”. Their efforts are recorded on the central database for later critique by coaches.
“It’s called the mirror room because, when I learned, that’s what you did — you stood in front of a mirror and practised doing promos,” Levesque says.
“The biggest part of our industry is charisma and personality, how you stand out from the crowd.
“The top star was not always the guy who was the best technician in the ring, sometimes it was the guy with the incredible personality … that’s the hard part to teach.”
Dashwood took to the mirror room like a duck to water. Her Emma persona is fun-loving and slightly batty, with an off-kilter sense of humour and that “dance like no one’s watching” attitude.
She is heroic and stands up for other wrestlers, but is nonetheless a conquering force in the ring, determined to claim championship gold while “Emmataining” the masses.
“The best wrestling characters are an extension of your real-life personality, and I’ve always been a bit of an attention seeker,” Dashwood says, grinning.
“I’m all about having a laugh, having fun, loving being around people who are like that, who give off that positive vibe.
“I just try to be that person and it’s easy because I love doing what I’m doing … if you are happy in your job, it shows.”
DASHWOOD heads next door, to the VO room, to learn a new skill. At the touch of a button, she loads one of the classic WWE matches she watched growing up and records her own sportscaster-style voiceover.
A member of WWE’s full-time announcing team will later review her efforts and offer constructive criticism.
Dashwood wants to bolster her resume now she has “graduated” from the Performance Centre by earning a spot on the company’s flagship show, Raw.
Her debut could not have been more perfectly timed, as the episode was the first to be broadcast live in Australia on Fox 8.
“Debuting on the main roster is literally a dream come true and I couldn’t be happier,” she says, beaming.
“I couldn’t get the grin off my face right now, even if I tried.”
Not everyone makes it to Raw, and those who do have a shelf life like any other professional athlete.
When the spotlight fades, performers can face addiction, health and financial problems, as depicted in the Oscar-winning film The Wrestler.
The Performance Centre tackles those issues before they arise, offering its talent financial planning sessions, counselling and reimbursement of university fees.
“Being in this industry isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure,” Dashwood says.
“Wrestling consumes your whole life … for me that’s fine, it’s what I want, but for others not so much.
“Being in this industry means being at the Performance Centre five days a week, sometimes from morning until night, then doing shows on the road the other days of the week. I’ve only been home (to her Orlando apartment) twice a week for the whole of this year.”
THE last stop on the road between the Performance Centre and Raw is the show called NXT. It features Performance Centre students in full-length matches that enact storylines drafted by Levesque.
But NXT is no rehearsal — matches are filmed before a live audience and screen internationally, including Fox 8.
“NXT is a scaled-down version of Raw — the same feel, same cameras, same lighting, same techniques,” Levesque says.
“The idea is that when you are called up from NXT to Raw, it’s just a bigger building with more people in it.
“It’s all about giving talent the opportunity to grow and perform but, when they get on to the main stage, they are ready to go.”
For Dashwood, NXT was the place all her work — from Australia, Canada and the Performance Centre — came together, and where the Emma persona was truly born.
“Having my TV debut on NXT felt surreal — that one word really sums everything up,” she says.
“It was a little overwhelming but very exciting … I remember it, but I remember matches more since the character and the dance developed. I had more of an identity after that — that’s when I felt like, ‘This is it’.”
I watch from the NXT stands as Emma stomps on to the stage and the audience comes unglued. When she triumphs over her opponent — in perhaps her last NXT bout before moving permanently to Raw — the crowd gives her a standing ovation.
Dashwood lives for moments like these.
“You don’t realise the level of what we do until you get to the airport and see the fans waiting outside for you,” she says.
“It’s the most amazing thing because that used to be me, I know what that feels like, and that’s why it means so much to me.”