The bedroom walls looked like those of most rabid wrestling fans in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, plastered with posters of icons from the era — from Bret Hart to Shawn Michaels, Sensational Sherri to Luna Vachon — a time capsule of squared circle heroes from years gone by. For a young Nyla Rose, the posters offered the idea of something more; A cracked door into a world that seemed so hopelessly alluring, but one that always remained locked. How does one become a professional wrestler, anyway? It seemed so silly.
And yet, she persisted.
“I didn’t even know it was a possibility, I guess. It was something I always wanted to do. But growing up, here’s these characters on TV that are larger than life. You don’t actually think it’s an actual profession you can do,” Rose said. “So, it wasn’t until sometime in college that I was like, ‘Oh there are wrestling schools. You can go to wrestling school and actually do this.’”
The early days were decidedly less glamorous than they are now. “My very first gimmick coming out of wrestling school was Robot Ninja. I didn’t even have a character name, it was quite literally just Robot Ninja. The promoter bought some Robot Ninja dolls from a toy store and needed to sell them. He knew I studied martial arts and when I dance, I do the robot. So it was kind of a no-brainer,” she said. I was like, ‘What the hell is wrestling? What have I gotten myself into?’”
Still, despite slowly making a name on the independent wrestling scene, doors remained locked. While strides were being made professionally, Rose was waging a more personal war outside the ring.
“During this part of my life as I’m wrestling and everything, I’m having an internal battle, if you will, of figuring out who I have to be compared to who I want to be. You put yourself on auto pilot and go through the motions,” she said. “Even though I was having a great time wrestling and learning and everything, I still wasn’t completely happy because I still wasn’t completely myself.”
“I reached a breaking point”
The burden of expectations not being met, of a life not fully lived, began to take their toll. Rose was being booked, but not frequently enough. It was all becoming too much to ignore.
“There’s a bit of depression there because in the back of my mind, I know there’s this greater thing, this greater version of myself that I want to be, that I could be,” she said. “But for personal reasons, I can’t quite get there yet.”
But eventually, Rose made the decision to come out as transgender and began transitioning. Without precedence, she had no idea how the wrestling world would react.
“Things came to a head and I reached a breaking point where I was willing to risk it all... so I just said, you know, ‘screw it.’ I threw caution to the wind and told the world who I really was,” she said. “To my surprise, wrestling embraced me.”
Rose began working as an openly trans woman on the independent scene. She forged new relationships, started breaking barriers. Her in-ring work became more polished. She started performing overseas, making a name for herself in Japan. It all started to come together, but that one big break still proved elusive.
That is, until a group of pro wrestling renegades started a company that set out to challenge the establishment. And then everything changed.
Wrestling “for everyone”
It all started with a DM on Twitter.
Back home after a tour in Japan, Rose was figuring out her next step. And then it fell into her lap. “I’m sitting there on my couch, watching who knows what on Netflix. Probably ‘Nailed It!,’” she said. “I’m going through a Twitter binge scroll and I see a little blue icon pop up that says, “Hi, I’m Kenny Omega. I’d love to talk with you a minute.”
Omega, widely regarded as one of the best professional wrestlers in the world, told Rose he was a fan of her work and wanted her to join his new upstart promotion, All Elite Wrestling. The company, founded by Omega and wrestling icons Matt and Nick Jackson and Cody and Brandi Rhodes, placed an emphasis on diversity and progressivism at launch, making a point to call their product “for everyone” in promotional materials and also bringing on board openly gay performer Sonny Kiss.
Once the initial shock of the DM wore off — “I’m thinking,” she said, “‘If this is a Nigerian prince, he hasn’t asked me for my credit card number yet’” — Rose signed with AEW. She became the first-ever transgender wrestler signed to a major promotion: A trailblazer for the modern era.
With new territory comes new questions. For instance, how does a major wrestling organization handle a transgender performer? It became immediately clear that nobody at AEW was going to treat Rose differently from anybody else on the roster.
“It never came up. No one cared. It’s fun to watch all the speculation online, but I was not hired because I am a trans wrestler. I was hired because I’m a wrestler with a performance background and a certain skill set that fits the overall look of the product they were going for, and I just happened to be trans,” she said. “Bless the people at AEW with their hearts as big as they are. They didn’t give two left testicles about what was going on with me.”
In May of this year, Rose made her AEW debut at “Double Or Nothing” in Las Vegas, the promotion’s inaugural pay-per-view. In front of a sold-out crowd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Rose competed in a Fatal Four-Way Match against three of the other top women in the company. It was never mentioned that Rose is trans, a decision that she made herself.
“It was my decision early on to not trivialize that I was trans or make it a character point. Not that I’ve ever shied away from it, but it just wasn’t a part of the character. It wasn’t important in that regard,” she said. She was a trans woman performing in front of 12,000 rabid wrestling fans and roughly 100,000 more watching at home. But she wasn’t a gimmick or a sideshow. Not a prop or a punching bag. She was legitimate and powerful and a star.
Over the moon
Since signing and debuting with AEW, Rose’s profile has skyrocketed. Her social media numbers have exploded, her life veering ever more into the public eye. With that comes the expectation of being a torch bearer. Whether fairly or not, the burden atop her shoulders has become heavier, as she deals with being a major face for the LGBTQ community in the world of professional wrestling.
The moment is not lost on her. “I can say, and I do believe, just from the messages that I’ve received, that a lot of people are over-the-moon excited that they see someone that reflects themselves in an entertainment medium that they enjoy,” she said. “We all like to see a bit of ourselves in the characters that we love.”
And yet, she’s also cognizant of the fact that her character might not be the easiest to embrace. “Some people in the community might not like my character, especially because I lose my temper sometimes and some people have labeled me a ‘bad guy.’ Some people might not like that I portray an asshole on screen, especially as a trans woman,” she said. “Whether you love me or hate me, or you love to hate me, it’s refreshing to see someone who looks like someone you know or looks like a relative of yours.”
It’s all part of this new wrestling frontier, where both AEW and Rose herself are figuring things out on the fly. These moments, in all of their glory, are some that Rose admits she never saw coming.
“Never in a million, bajillion years. I’m still expecting to wake up tomorrow with Neo saying, ‘we’ve started The Matrix.’ It’s completely unreal to me. It’s so unfathomable to make all of these sacrifices and work so hard, you hope you get to actually achieve this,” she said. “Especially somebody in my shoes, as a trans woman, it’s unheard of and it’s incredible.”
Just this month, AEW officially announced a television deal with TNT, with a weekly show set to start airing in October. So, whether you love her or hate her, or love to hate her, Nyla Rose is here to stay.