Meet Nia Jax, the WWE star looking to smash barriers for women

Nia Jax tells Al Jazeera she was bullied for her size growing up but had found a home in professional wrestling.

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    Nia Jax says she decided to become a wrestler after watching her cousin, The Rock, perform live [Courtesy: WWE]
    Nia Jax says she decided to become a wrestler after watching her cousin, The Rock, perform live [Courtesy: WWE]

    This Sunday Nia Jax is set to become a part of history when she performs at World Wrestling Entertainment's (WWE) first ever women's only special event, Evolution.

    When she walks into the ring in the Nassau Coliseum in New York her theme song "I'm not like most girls" will blare from the speakers. Those words have special resonance for both Jax and her fans. 

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    She has become one of the company's most prominent stars, yet Jax, a former plus-size model of Samoan origin, admits that some might find it hard to accept that she's an athlete.

    "This is who I am, I am never going to be a size zero," Jax, who is 182cm tall and weighs 123kg, told Al Jazeera.

    "Just because I'm a bigger girl, they might think I cannot do anything, but no. I can perform just as good as anybody else. I have no problem breaking stereotypes. And proving people wrong, it's actually quite fun," the 34-year-old added.

    Jax decided to become a wrestler after seeing her cousin, WWE's most famous product, The Rock compete live. 

    He helped her get a try-out, which led to a contract with WWE, and her stock rose quickly following her debut in 2015.

    Professional wrestling is, of course, staged entertainment, and winning a championship is WWE's way of rewarding excellent performances.

    That happened for Jax in April. Not only did she become women's champion, but she also did it at the most prestigious event in the business, Wrestlemania.

    The Sydney-born grappler beat Alexa Bliss in front of nearly 80,000 fans at the Superdome in New Orleans for the title.

    But Jax, born Savelina Fanene, says becoming champion meant getting through some difficult times. 

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    "When I first started training in WWE, I noticed I was different from everybody. I thought it was going to be a disadvantage. I was thinking I would need to lose 50 pounds (about 22kg). I thought I needed to blend in. But my coach was a huge proponent of me embracing my size, and making me work with it."

    Jax becoming world champion was also symbolic for WWE, who appeared to be making a statement by making her capture the title at its biggest event.

    Jax's victory over Bliss, a close friend of hers outside the ring, followed a storyline about bullying. Bliss spent the build-up to the fight body shaming Jax live on television, reducing her to tears.

    "I've been bullied because of the way I've looked growing up. So when this storyline came up we were both like, we have to make this as real as possible."

    Jax added: "When we had to cut segments, there were things that Alexa said she didn't want to say, and I was like you have to say this. I was like if you cannot say this, then I cannot provide my true feelings and the people will not resonate with our story".

    Troubled history

    Such humanising storylines have not always been a part of the way WWE represents women.

    The brand's women's division has evolved dramatically from a period known as WWE's attitude era, which lasted from the late 90s through to the early part of the following decade.

    That era was described as misogynistic and sexist by critics and it was a period in which the company's coverage of women, included raunchy content, female stars fighting in lingerie, battling it out in mud baths, and even competing in bikini contests.

    Many fans laud this as WWE's most entertaining period, however it also drew heavy criticism for how women were depicted. 

    Nia Jax has the biggest physical presence of any female wrestler on the WWE roster [Courtesy:WWE]

    Since then WWE has pivoted to become a more family friendly product. Women now headline shows and compete in matches previously reserved for men. Nia herself was part of the first ever women's Royal Rumble in January. It's part of what WWE call their "women's evolution".

    "Being a woman right now in WWE is an amazing thing. We keep breaking barriers and setting new records, proving that it's not just men that draw crowds" says Jax.

    Nonetheless, WWE still continues to draw criticism for its portrayals.

    This is who I am, I am never going to be a size zero

    Nia Jax

    According to Kate Foray, who runs the WWE analysis website the rawbreakdownproject.com, WWE's treatment of women is what created the need for a revolution in the first place.

     "What could go a long way is if WWE actually acknowledged that it was their treatment of women in their company in the first place that created a narrative where a 'revolution had to be had'," she said.

    She added that: "We get a lot of revisionist history, and constant first time ever matches and moments being announced for the women, in an attempt to quickly build a backstory where WWE can say, 'look how progressive we're being with our women'.

    "The attitude era wasn't that long ago."

    WWE's women's only show has also courted controversy. The company received criticism that it only launched the show to counter fan backlash for staging pay-per-view events in Saudi Arabia - in which Jax and her fellow female performers were prohibited to perform at all.

    Jax rejects such ideas.

    "You can create the buzz you want, but we're going to go out there at Evolution and kick some butt. And it's not just that they're just giving the show to us. We've earned it."

    Jax accepts that there will always be critics, but she says she doing her best in her own way to effect people positively.

    Body positivity

    One of those things is her promotion of body positivity. Last year, for instance, she posted a selfie of herself in a bathing suit, admitting it was something she was nervous about, and urging young people to be confident in themselves and how they look. It went viral getting 50,000 likes in just four days.

    She says "it shouldn't matter what you look like, how big you are or what colour is your skin. That's my message."

    Her efforts have been recognised beyond wrestling and she recently won the #seeHER Now Award from the Association of National Advertisers in the US. 

    Nia Jax is a finalist for Game Changer of the Year at the People's Choice Awards [Courtesy: WWE]

    The award was given as a recognition of obstacles and challenges that Jax overcame, and for her positive effect on other women. She is also up alongside the likes of Colin Kaepernick and Serena Williams at the People's Choice Awards as a finalist for the Game Changer of the Year.

    WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon, who is a former women's champion herself, believes Jax's work inside and out of the ring makes her a standout athlete.

    "Nia Jax is a special talent and an even more special person. She is a game-changer, breaking conventions and rejecting stereotypes, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or body type, that have typically applied to women in the public eye," McMahon said.

    "She takes on this role with pride and determination, and her achievements are recognised by every little girl watching a show live or at home who is inspired to say: I want to do that, I want to be like Nia Jax.

    "That's what the Women's Evolution is about, changing attitudes in a positive way about women in WWE, and in the world outside WWE."

    For now though Jax is focused on putting on a show at Evolution, and adding another special moment to what has been a memorable year for the woman known as the Irresistible Force.

    Follow Sohail Malik on Twitter: @SohailAJE

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News