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James (left) launches herself at her opponent, Sarita, during her TNA in-ring debut, shown on Oct. 20. Lee South photo
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James in the saddle atop Casanova, one of three horses she owns.Photos of Mickie with horse by Casey Templeton
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A WWE Mickie James action figure
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James' 2010 country album
Everybody has to contend with office politics, but not just anyone can trash-talk their fellow employees during their first day on the job, announcing that they'll soon be replacing them and punctuating the point with a kick to the stomach and an elbow to the face.
Welcome to five-time WWE Women's Champion Mickie James' new job.
After a tumultuous year in which James, who's also a one-time WWE Divas Champion, suffered a serious illness, was fired by World Wrestling Entertainment and built up buzz for her fledgling side career as a country singer, she's back on weekly television, performing for TNA (Total Nonstop Action) Wrestling. Happy to be doing what she loves again, she's content to leave the drama to the scripted wrestling sagas her fans love.
"Wrestling, once it's in your blood, it's in your blood forever," says James, 31, who grew up in Hanover County and graduated from Patrick Henry High School. She now lives just north of Mechanicsville in King William County's Aylett area. "We're athletes and performers, and we come from all realms of life. It takes a really special breed of person to do this. It's one of those things that's hard to walk away from."
Though she's just 5-foot-2 and 130 pounds, the Southern-accented, olive-skinned brunette is a leggy Amazon onscreen, with muscular curves highlighted by flashy, skimpy outfits. James looks as natural posing for glamorous pinup shots as she does in the wrestling ring.
But at home in Aylett, James is just a country girl living in a rural subdivision where stay-at-home moms walk babies in strollers during the day. Her best friend, Melissa Bauer, a fifth-grade teacher at Caroline County's Lewis and Clark Elementary School, lives across the street. Bauer learned that her neighbor was a famous TV wrestler when James invited her over for a cookout about five years ago.
Though she was once in a four-year relationship with wrestler Adam Birch (aka Joey Mercury) and broke off her engagement to wrestler Kenny Dykstra three years ago, James says that these days she's only married to her job and her pets. She has two dogs, Elvis and Butch, and three horses, Rhapsody, Bunny and Casanova. A lifelong horse enthusiast and former competitive rider who volunteers for Virginia Equine Rescue, James has had Rhapsody since she was 11 years old. She and Bauer sometimes ride together at the West Point stable where James boards her horses.
Mainly, though, they "go shopping a lot" and do "girl things," Bauer says, like enjoying a night on the town in Shockoe Slip. "Every single time, there's always someone who will recognize her, but she's extremely gracious," Bauer says. "Most of them want pictures and autographs."
Speaking of which, James long ago drafted Bauer into helping sort and answer her volumes of fan mail. Most of it comes from younger fans who want autographed photos. Some send gifts like handbags and jewelry or even pictures they've drawn of her. Then there's what Bauer deems the "weird stuff." James' more amorous fans send her everything from marriage proposals and requests for lipstick imprints to invitations to hook up. "There's a lot of ‘I hope you can meet me here or there,' " Bauer says, laughing.
James is "very, very family-oriented," Bauer says, and she spends a lot of time with her extended family. Most weekends when she's home, she attends services at Ladysmith Baptist Church in Caroline, where her father, Stuart, coaches youth basketball. (It's not unusual for her to wind up signing autographs for the kids and even some adults at church.)
Born at Richmond Memorial Hospital in 1979, Mickie James grew up in Hanover County's Montpelier area. She was a tomboy who loved riding horses on her grandmother's Caroline County farm.
Her mother, Sandra Knuckles, a Hanover County teacher and real-estate agent, and her father, Stuart, who's retired from his job in wastewater treatment and landscaping at Bear Island Paper Co. in Ashland, divorced when James was young. James has one full sister, a half-sister, a half-brother and three stepbrothers. ("Holidays can get crazy," she says.)
Stuart James passed on his love of wrestlers like Blackjack Mulligan to Mickie and her two sisters. They grew up in the '80s era of Hulkamania, when the old World Wrestling Federation exploded into the merchandising mainstream with action figures, T-shirts and Saturday-morning cartoons. "I wasn't a huge fan of Hulk. I loved the bad guys like ‘Macho Man' Randy Savage and Ric Flair," James says. "Everybody else loved Hulk, so I wasn't into him. Now I love him for what he's done for the industry, but I wasn't a Hulkamaniac. It's funny: I'm the good guy now, and I always loved the bad guys growing up." The James girls gathered in front of the TV with their dad every Saturday evening to follow the latest pugnacious dramas, which often bled outside the confines of the TV screen and onto the living-room floor, where "all the girls would get together and wrassle me," Stuart James recalls with a chuckle.
Describing herself as a natural "performer and clown," Mickie James evinced an interest in entertaining from a young age, recording homemade mix tapes of herself singing Whitney Houston tunes on her boombox.
During high school, James worked summers as a lifeguard at Kings Dominion and waitressed at the Cracker Barrel in Ashland during the school year. She graduated from Patrick Henry High School in 1997, one math credit shy of receiving the honors diploma she needed to seek a scholarship. "My family didn't have enough money to send me to college, and I was trying my hardest," James says. She racked up more than enough credits but failed trigonometry, a required course for the advanced degree.
"I got out of high school with no direction," James remembers sadly. Working at a bar in Shockoe, she was taking martial-arts classes for self-defense when a friend who knew she liked wrestling told her about KYDA, a now-defunct school for aspiring wrestlers in Manassas.
But it was no easy jump into pro-wrestling fame. James' story is one of long years of training, perfecting her art and pulling herself up the ropes until she made it to her feet. No Hollywood producer spotted her at a drugstore counter. No talent agency cast her. She made her own breaks. Mickie James is very much her own creation, and it's doubtful anyone has ever labored harder to earn the scripted championship title.
Mickie James made her semiprofessional wrestling debut in 1999 at a National Guard Armory in "the middle of nowhere" (actually in Staunton, Va., but close enough), wrestling under the name "Alexis Laree" in an inter-gender tag-team match in front of a crowd of about 100 people. "I was by no means great," she says, wincing slightly. "It was probably awful to watch, but it was fun because it was my very first match."
By the early 2000s, she was working the semipro circuit up and down the East Coast, competing for pro-wrestling promoters Ring of Honor. In 2002, she was chosen to wrestle in the first pay-per-view match for the brand-new TNA Wrestling. Wrestling for about six months with TNA, James was partnered with male wrestler (and future world champion) Raven, and she was given a short-lived, pseudo-Goth image.
By 2003, James caught the attention of World Wrestling Entertainment, the NFL of pro wrestling. She was sent to the WWE training school in Louisville, Ky., for what was supposed to be a six-month stint before her television debut. But six months turned into two and a half years, during which James trained in vain as promised slots for her WWE debut came and went, watching as models and actors catapulted in front of her to the WWE big time.
Finally, she'd had enough. Realizing she was lacking something the WWE wanted, James enrolled in acting and modeling classes. She also wrote a script — an ambitious storyline about an emotional female fan/stalker. WWE liked the idea and wanted their writers to develop it for another wrestler already in the TV stable, but in a gutsy move, James made an impassioned plea directly to WWE CEO Vince McMahon.
"I walked right into Vince's office and I said, ‘Mr. McMahon, I heard you read my storyline, and I wanted you to know there's nobody who can do that character better than me.' "
McMahon told her he respected her for having the courage to make the pitch to him.
Then another six months passed.
"I was like, ‘Oh, no, what did I do?' " James recalls.
Fearing that her dream of WWE fame might never materialize, she applied to start college online with American Intercontinental University. "Sitting in Louisville, there was no guarantee I would ever get brought to TV," she says.
Then, on Oct. 9, 2005, the day her freshman semester began, Mickie James debuted as the latest character in WWE female wrestling. (She still finished college online, earning a degree in business administration.)
"It was one of those things where patience really pays off," James says. "Even though I was supposed to debut many times before, any of those ways I was supposed to have debuted would have paled in comparison to this angle."
The fictional Mickie James started out as what James describes as a "Punky Brewster/ Single White Female -type character," a girlish super-fan stalking the WWE's reigning female champion, the blonde bombshell Trish Stratus. Over the course of a yearlong storyline on the weekly WWE Smackdown and Raw TV shows, James obsessively pursued Stratus and was repelled by the object of her affection. In an unusual first for televised wrestling, there was no attempt at hiding what James calls "the lesbian angle." Pushing the envelope during a controversial Christmas broadcast, James told Stratus to look up at a sprig of mistletoe hanging overhead and then pulled Stratus' face to hers and planted a sensuous kiss on the shocked, reluctant champ's lips. (A YouTube video of the moment has logged 2.3 million views.)
At first, James' character wanted to be loved by Stratus. Then she wanted to be Stratus, putting her energy into wresting the title belt from her former idol. As a WWE character, Mickie James was intended to be a villain, a heel, a bad guy. But a funny thing happened along the way: The crowd split into Team Mickie and Team Trish.
"Nobody expected that — it was kind of cool," James says. "It was probably the biggest storyline that they had done with any female in years." The pair got unprecedented screen time for female wrestlers.
"It's such a male-dominated industry," James says, "and we bring everything we have to prove that we're just as good and rough and tough as the guys. Throughout the years, women [wrestlers] have been stigmatized as [just] cute to look at … so when you're actually recognized for how great a wrestler you are and a performer, it's something special."
Off-screen, James remains friends with Stratus, who's now retired from wrestling. But a hint of real-life resentment crops up ever so slightly when James recalls how some fans were incensed that she would dare to take the championship belt from Stratus, "their all-American girl," noting with a touch of sarcasm that Stratus is in fact a Canadian whose background was in modeling, not wrestling. (Stratus did not return calls for comment.)
On April 2, 2006, at Chicago's Allstate Arena, Mickie James took the stage versus Trish Stratus for the female world championship in front of a crowd of more than 17,000 fans at WrestleMania 22. Giant posters of both women hung from the ceiling. James' mother sat in the front row. "WrestleMania is like our Super Bowl," James says. "It's our World Series. It's the biggest show of the year, and everybody wants to be on WrestleMania."
After seven years, James had gone from wrestling at the Staunton National Guard Armory to winning the WWE Women's Championship. "I was crying my eyes out," she recounts. "This was something I had dreamed about as soon as I set foot in a wrestling ring."
Yes, it was scripted. Yes, James knew before she went in the ring that she would win. But you don't become champ unless you're worthy of the title, she reasons.
"You have to recognize the fact that it is acting, and the reason you won it is because of the culmination of this amazing storyline," she says. "It's cool to be the champ, but you know it's not like you're going out and winning a boxing championship where you trained legitimately and won it." Still, "they wouldn't put the championship on you if they didn't know you could hold it. It's an honor and privilege."
Even scripted wrestling comes with risks.
Wrestlers are gifted athletes. Their craft combines gymnastics, stunt work and acting. The goal is to make it look real while also making sure no one is really hurt. When it works, James says, it's like dancing with a great partner. When it doesn't, things can go south quickly: James herself has been knocked unconscious in the ring because her foot slipped. Trish Stratus suffered a dislocated shoulder during one of their bouts.
In late February 2010, James forgot to wear her kneepads when she was practicing at an arena in Texas, and she suffered an abrasion to her knee, which became infected with MRSA, an extremely virulent staph infection. She became sick to her stomach and had trouble walking; her knee swelled as big as her thigh. "I had no idea the severity of this infection or what it could do," James says. "It was in my joints. It was underneath my kneecap. I could have lost my leg from the knee down." James was rushed home for an operation in which her kneecap was opened and drained. She was on painkillers and IV antibiotics
With WrestleMania fast approaching, James' character was written out of scripts, with no onscreen comments about why she was MIA. "It was out of sight, out of mind," James says. "It was a very eye-opening experience." (WWE and McMahon declined to comment for this article.)
James worked hard to heal, and within a month, she returned to Smackdown and Raw just in time to make what would be her final Wrestlemania appearance. Soon afterward, as she was driving home from a promotional morning-radio interview on Richmond's WRXL 102 on April 22, WWE called and said they were letting her go. They wanted to move in a different direction. "I was like, ‘Wow, OK, that stinks.' "
Fortunately, James had more than one folding chair in her wrestling ring.
In 2009, she began laying the groundwork for a career as a country-music singer. Her debut album, Strangers and Angels (produced by Kent Wells, the producer of Dolly Parton's 2008 album Backwoods Barbie ), came out in early 2010. CMA Close Up magazine, the Country Music Association's industry publication, highlighted James as an up-and-coming act to watch in a recent issue. At her debut concert during a benefit in Nashville in February 2010, she opened up for country superstars Rascal Flatts. James is working on a follow-up album now, collaborating with Richmond band 4Play, and she plans a national tour in 2011.
At her album-release party in Nashville last summer, one of her well-wishers was Dixie Carter, president of TNA wrestling. By August, Carter was texting happy birthday wishes to James. In September, it was announced that James had returned to the TNA wrestling stable. She's now filming for its weekly iMPACT! TV shows and cable pay-per-view episodes out of Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. She'll also be touring with TNA about 150 days a year, a schedule that will leave her with time to pursue singing.
"I'm very, very excited to have her," says Carter, who is supportive of James' dreams to expand her fame to country music. TNA has already produced a music video of James performing a song titled "Hardcore Country!" to introduce her matches — and she now sports a country/western look with Native American touches, a nod to her Powhatan ancestors.
Carter could see James becoming the female equivalent of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson if that's what she wanted to do. After all, James has flirted with acting before, from a guest role as a roller-derby star on an episode of USA's TV series Psych to a stint guest-hosting an episode of VH1's Celebrity Fit Club: Boot Camp .
"She's got the main thing you need, and it's the drive, and so once you have that and that determination, I think it will be hard to stop her from accomplishing great things out of wrestling," Carter says. "She's in the prime of her career and she is very determined to take control and lead the women's division in TNA wrestling, and in the few weeks she's been with us, she's done just that."
As always, James remains ambitious. Her goal for now, she says, is to become the "first female to hold every prestigious women's championship" in the pro-wrestling world, which includes TNA's Women's Knockout Championship belt. At press time, she was ranked the No. 1 contender for it.
Count on the script going her way.