Meet the women wrestlers changing the game

Anna Walker

Behind the scenes with the East London group redefining the world
of women's wrestling.

The rain-dampened crowd squeeze into the tiny Resistance Gallery, under the railway arches of Bethnal Green, and momentarily pause their excited chatter to turn their eyes stage-ward. Ducking under the ring, a woman dressed all in black with a bright pink mohican clutches a microphone, and in an instant, the crowd is spellbound as she dictates the rules of this self-professed “secret girl gang.” 

“No racism, no sexism, no homophobia, no transphobia, no body shaming, no ableism, no anti-Semitism, no catcalling…” A quick glance at the surrounding throng and you might think you’ve stumbled into a metal night, but this diverse troop is gathered for something far more dramatic.

Emily Horrible introduces the show
Photography by Yaz Narcin

This is a Pro-Wrestling: EVE event, an independent wrestling promotion founded by the mohican-crowned Emily Read and her husband Dann ten years ago.

Regularly held from this intensely atmospheric East London venue, they’ve earned a dedicated fan base, who arrive ready to applaud, boo and sing their hearts out as their favourite babyfaces and heels (that’s the good and bad guys to the uninitiated) storm the stage. 

A "secret girl gang" sign hangs above the Eve wrestling ring
Photography by Yaz Narcin

One of the star players of the night is a wrestler named Holidead. Wearing demonic face paint in which she could easily pass as the twelfth member of KISS, she writhes around, eyeing her opponent hungrily. 

For Holidead (below), real name Camille Ligon, EVE is something of a sacred space. “I love that it’s just a come as you are kind of place, it welcomes all walks of life—and for someone like myself, that's paradise. I'm not the norm, and EVE isn't about anything cookie-cutter. It’s a family environment for me, in the strangest way possible.”

"EVE is different. The shows have great power within them…"

Outsiders often claim that wrestling is “fake” because winners are predetermined, but there’s nothing artificial about the strength and endurance on display tonight. Holidead’s favourite move is “the spinebuster”, which she describes as “simple, powerful and fun,” though I struggle to see anything simple about a move that requires her to grab her opponent as they run towards her, lift them and then throw them down onto their back. 

This tough-as-nails attitude gains EVE wrestlers immense respect among fans. Nick stood at the very front of tonight's queue, and he's been a wrestling fan for over 30 years. “I love the athleticism and how much emotion you can create”, he explains. “I watch all wrestling, men and women, but EVE is different. The shows have great power within them.”

The fearsome wrestler Holidead in full make up
Photography by Yaz Narcin

For Emily (below), the shows also represent the triumph of internal power. A former wrestler herself, she came to found EVE after having been shocked by the misogyny in other, more mainstream wrestling promotions. 

“I went down to train in Portsmouth when I was 19. I knew that it was going to be a boy’s club and that women [wrestlers] were mainly sexualised, but I didn’t realise just how bad it was going to be. I met all of these people whom I held in high regard and they weren’t just sexist—they were outright groping me.”

“I met Dann online and he was the first man in wrestling who treated me like a human being. Dann was already working in promotion and through him, I realised that I could actually make a difference, and saw that we could create a space that was actually safe for women to perform in.” 

“Emily saw what was going on from the inside because she was experiencing it,” Dann explains. “I saw from the outside the number of women who were trying really hard but not getting opportunities. I just thought Women are fans of wrestling too. Why aren’t we doing anything?

Emily Horrible founder of Eve Pro Wrestling
Photography by Yaz Narcin

For fans like Laura Mauro, who has watched wrestling since she was five, the rampant sexism has become exhausting. 

“I love the ethos of EVE. There’s a lot of really dodgy stuff going on in the mainstream, so I like that they care about doing it ethically. I was getting put off mainstream wrestling because of the sexism and side-lining of women.”

Sisters Valerie and Chi-Chi, who I chat to during the intermission as loud punk plays, feel the same way. 

"Women have come a long way in this business"

“I don’t want to see any f*****g men anymore! Women have come a long way in this business, so we’re here celebrating them and all different ethnicities, all body types, all ages, all sexualities and it’s just wonderful. Ten years ago, it was all just about being skinny and pretty, and now these women are tough, they have their own shows, their own belts… it should always be like that.”

For Holidead, this positivity extends way beyond the ring. “I'm my own worst enemy and being in my head can be literal hell. Wrestling helps me hold on to my sanity [and gives me] a sense of purpose and belonging. For a lot of wrestlers, women, in particular, it’s not just a release but a sense of freedom.”

Wrestler Gisele Shaw
Photography by Yaz Narcin

It’s a story I hear from many of the women involved in EVE—that wrestling has offered them a place to be loud, after a lifetime of being told to be quiet. 

For Holidead’s opponent tonight, Filipino wrestler Gisele Shaw, (pictured above, real name Gisele Mayorodo), finding her character has also meant showing her inner strength to the world.  

“My character is ‘the quintessential diva,’” she explains. “The term ‘diva’ has a bad connotation to it, so I wanted to show the positive side to it since to me it means a strong, confident, beautiful, smart, and witty woman.”

Shaw gets some of the best reactions of the evening, soaring around the venue with her signature “Air Canada” or “Monarch Butterfly" flying twirls.

Gisele Shaw is floored by Holidead
Gisele Shaw is floored by Holidead. Photography by Yaz Narcin

Back in the ring, Trish Adora from Washington DC is gearing up to wage war on her opponent, Mercedez Blaze. Trish is tall and strong, with dots of paint daubed on her face, and her hair piled carefully on top of her head. I’ve seen her perform before, and her calming off-stage presence, contrasted with the eruption of her performance, stuck with me. 

Describing herself as “the Afro-punk”, Trish Adora grew up watching wrestling with her dad and five brothers, becoming a wrestler herself after eight years in the army. 

“Naturally I’m very shy and reserved, but my character is the person I imagined I could be when I looked in the mirror. She speaks up for herself and others. She’s no-nonsense and tough as nails.” 

"My character is the person I imagined I could be when I looked in the mirror"

I watch in awe as Trish Adora (below) and Mercedez throw each other around the ring, never once breaking character as they’re slammed to the floor or throw themselves against the ropes. Every headlock, every choke, I worry for Trish—but she’s out of Mercedez’s holds faster than she’s put in them, punching the air with every victory, throwing out a cry for every setback. She doesn’t win this match, but you wouldn’t know it from the crowd. They love her. 

“Wrestling helps me with my depression and anxiety, and it empowers me completely. When I wouldn’t usually speak in front of an audience, I yell. When I wouldn’t usually walk out in front of an audience, I burst through the curtains. I extend myself in ways I never have before, and it feels so good to finally have a positive outlet and something I can be proud of.”

Trish Adora the Afro Punk in action
Photography by Yaz Narcin

Despite the amazing work EVE has done, gripes with the industry at large aren’t entirely over yet. 

Trish Adora laments that she remains “generally fairly frustrated with the treatment of black wrestlers. There’s a depth to the black experience, and it doesn’t always get portrayed in a positive light.”

Holidead struggles with the fact that “just because you work hard, it doesn't mean that hard work will be rewarded. Like any business, there are always politics at play.”

Meanwhile, mainstream wrestling promotions don't seem entirely happy with EVE's success. “WWE can cause us problems,” Emily muses. 

 “It’s like we’re allowed to do so much,” Dann explains, “but if we get too big for our boots, they’ll shut us down…” 

Jayla Dark's final show wrestling
Photography by Yaz Narcin

One night I attend the final match for Scottish wrestler Jayla Dark (above) before her retirement. As the bout finishes there’s a roar from the upstairs balcony, where performers await their moment on stage. They run down to embrace her, some laughing, some crying, now dressed in comfy tracksuits instead of colourful spandex. And in a moment these women are transformed from their characters, with their rivalries, and their bravado, into sisters. 

“I wanted to build a platform where women could be safe and reach their potential—and we did,” Emily gushes. “But for some reason, I didn’t expect the community… and it’s beautiful. We built a family.”

 

Photography by Yaz Narcin, 105photography.com

For tickets visit evewrestling.com

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