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The little corner of the web known as the Internet Wrestling Community (IWC) was abuzz in early September when a male fan posted a photo with makeup-free World Wrestling Entertainment Raw women’s champion, Alexa Bliss. He captioned the picture with this little ditty: “For those who think Alexa Bliss is so hot is what she really look like [sic].”
Not only is this exemplary of the ugliest aspects of the IWC — not to mention the fact that he’s plain wrong and Alexa Bliss is stunning with or without cosmetic enhancement — it also highlights the importance of makeup in sports entertainment.
Professional wrestling — which is choreographed and predetermined — is more a spectacle than a sport, as far as the two can be separated. Wrestlers need to be able to emote so that fans seated in the rafters can understand what’s going on in the ring just as well as those in the front row and watching on TV, and makeup serves to amplify this.
Though makeup has been paramount for both male and female wrestlers since wrestling’s beginnings as a carnival act as far back as the 19th century, its presence was really felt in the 1980s, when WWE programming became syndicated and exploded into living rooms across America and the world. The fledgling MTV joined forces with the WWE to form the Rock ’n’ Wrestling Connection in 1984 in a co-branded effort to appeal to younger demographics, beginning with the appearance of a WWE wrestler as Cyndi Lauper’s father in her “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video.
Reverberations of Lauper’s outrageous look could be felt in the styling of Wendi Richter (whom Lauper chose to represent her in a match), who favored the cotton-candy eyeshadow that was everywhere in the ’80s. Misty Blue Simmes, the all-American with Farrah Fawcett waves who was no doubt the inspiration for Liberty Bell on Netflix’s GLOW, also applied colored eyeshadow liberally. Larger-than-life Sherri Martel wore heavy eye makeup too, but she took it a step further, finding inspiration in nature for the butterflies and spiderwebs on her lids.
Japanese wrestler Bull Nakano took it to a whole new level, though, sporting hair-raising blue lips that splintered across her face, mimicking the presence of veins under the skin. It’s plain to see that countless female wrestlers have been influenced by Nakano’s daring veneer.
The wrestling laywoman only has to watch GLOW to see how makeup informs and enhances in-ring performance. Take, for example, Alison Brie’s character, Ruth. She’s written as a somewhat frumpy (which, come on, it’s Alison Brie), down-on-her-luck actress, but once she affixes fake eyelashes and paints on a dark metallic lip, Ruth really comes into her own as her Soviet wrestling persona, Zoya the Destroyer.
These ’80s trends seems garish to us now, but they served to illuminate female wrestlers’ femininity in the ring. Those who participated in “Attitude Era” of the late ’90s and early 2000s were primarily positioned as beautiful, cosmetically — and often surgically — enhanced trophies who were sometimes permitted to wrestle in bra-and-panties matches (in which the winner is the first woman to strip her opponent to her underwear). Occasionally women, such as Trish Stratus and Lita, broke out of that mold. While each had her own iconic look, they shared a penchant for over-plucked eyebrows and over-lined lips, trends that defined the early aughts.
Today, female wrestlers are taking to social media and reality television (the E! series Total Divas, which follows the lives of WWE’s female Superstars, tag-teamed with Total Intensity cosmetics for a co-branded partnership in 2016) to share their makeup looks, realizing how a strong brow, lined eye, and bright lip can heighten the action and emotion in the ring. Take a look at any female wrestler in her element, and you’ll find she often has a flawless manicure to go along with her punches.
Independent wrestler Mia Yim is taking claws to a whole new level, pairing beauty with activism as ambassador for the Put the Nail in It campaign. Joined by celebrities such as Carrie Underwood, Tamron Hall, and Alan Cumming, Put the Nail in It, an initiative started by Safe Horizon, the US’s largest domestic violence organization, aims to raise awareness about and prevention of domestic violence by sparking a conversation prompted by painting your ring fingernail purple.
“I started getting more and more support from people who knew what the campaign meant or asked why my nail was painted,” Yim told The Huffington Post last year. “So painting my nail became my secret way of telling the world ‘I’m a survivor.’”
WWE’s Charlotte — whose ring-finger decoration includes diamante eye decals — is the most recent wrestler to join the campaign.
Cosmetics have long been marketed to subjugate women and appeal to our insecurities, so there is some validity to the argument that makeup distracts from athleticism in the ring. My eye has certainly been drawn to the smudged red lipstick of Sasha Banks, Bianca Belair, and Lacey Evans. The vibrant weaves of Becky Lynch, Banks, and others serve as an immediate touchstone for new or casual wrestling fans, but their mass of hair sometimes obscures the action.
In other highly sexualized women’s sports, such as the Legends Football League, flawless foundation, feathery lashes, and lined lips are of paramount importance, even at the expense of adequately protective headgear. (Competitors wear hockey helmets that obscure their faces less than a football helmet might.) In contrast, the US women’s soccer team wears makeup on the field not because their sport demands it, but because they want to.
Female wrestlers such as Asuka are taking this freedom of choice to new performative heights. She previously wore a full face of white face paint to wrestle as Kana in Japan, but currently dons a single black line painted horizontally across her face behind a geisha mask to the WWE ring, a company that is still beholden to its sexist ways. Melding the sensuality of a geisha with the decidedly unsexy guise of Batman’s the Joker, and sometimes even (fake) blood specks, Asuka is one of several modern female wrestlers using makeup to do more than exaggerate femininity.
On the independent wrestling scene, Aussie woman wrestler Erika Reid also incorporates extreme makeup into her character, which pays tribute to her indigenous Australian heritage. “My indigenous heritage is very important to me. It identifies who I am. I was raised in a strong Aboriginal family,” she has said. “My heritage is who I am, and it’s something I want people to be proud of and get behind.”
Like Asuka, a horizontal line just under Reid’s eyes spans the width of her face, and she underscores her look with dots reminiscent of traditional Aboriginal art, along with a single line down her chin accompanied by dots on either side and, no doubt drawing inspiration from Bull Nakano, a blue-black lip.
According to Reid, her ring look is a “spiritual artwork.” “My face is my canvas and I am giving my everything to my spirits; the placement of the paint is just where I feel it's fitting. It's my interpretation of my people's art,” she tells Racked. “I find that our eyes are a powerful instrument, our eyes tell a story, and I wanted to emphasize my eyes and my journey.
“The lines and dots on my chin are the gateway into my mouth,” Reid continues. “It is where we can spread the good and the bad, it is how we express how we feel, so to me having the paint there keeps my mouth protected from the bad. It is how I express myself inside and outside the ring.”
Former Impact Wrestling women’s champion Rosemary and “the Undead Bride” Su Yung’s made-up faces read like road maps of wrestling’s past, with clear influences from the likes of Sting, Nakano, and Asuka, as well as from Asia and horror movies.
Although it’s less required, male wrestlers wear makeup, too. The recently retired Undertaker often wore eyeliner to the ring as part of his undead gimmick. However, his unblended panda eyes could make his character seem hokey, instead of being a masculine character who wears makeup and is still taken seriously. Goldust relies on body paint to create his “androgynous” look in the vein of the flamboyant midcentury star Gorgeous George and the eyeshadow- and hair clip-wearing Adrian Adonis, characters which in practice reek of gay and trans panic. And one of the WWE’s top male stars, Finn Bálor, obscures his his baby blues and rippling abs — normally accessorized with an über-masculine leather jacket — with the stroke of a body paintbrush when his alter ego, the Demon, comes out to play.
As a former wrestling Girl Friday, I can tell you that male wrestlers’ grooming habits rival that of the most performatively feminine women out there. We’re kidding ourselves if we think they’re not wearing some form of makeup in the age of high-definition.
But women have long been at the mercy of a zero-sum game when it comes to makeup. “You’re beautiful without makeup” and “What are you hiding under there?” are common refrains heard by women who favor a more dramatic look. Yet when women do go au natural — not the “natural” makeup we wear that men think is makeup-free — they meet the same ridicule Bliss faced.
As much as the WWE tries to position itself as part of the evolution of women’s sports, name-dropping Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey (who just signed with the WWE) whenever they get the chance, and even trademarking their decision to give female wrestlers (then called Divas) longer than 30-second matches as the “Diva’s Revolution,” cosmetic adornment will likely always be paramount in an inherently sexist and patriarchal industry, lorded over by a handful of powerful white men.
But as is evidenced by the more extreme looks worn by women on the indies, makeup is an integral part of the performance that occurs in the ring. As we move toward a better understanding of the politics of makeup and feminism in wrestling, we can see that its use is perhaps less about being beholden to rigid femininity and more about how it accentuates the characters therein.