I never called her Chyna. To me she was always Joanie.
To millions of fans she was the former WWE female powerhouse wrestler with the purposely misspelled name, but her fearless theatrics in the wrestling ring were not something I ever saw. And I also did not know the reality star train wreck who stumbled for the cameras on VH1’s “The Surreal Life,” “The Surreal Life Games” and “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew.”
We first met in late 2011, long after all that had gone down.
Instead of a scary, drunk mess, I sat down with a smart, funny and vivacious young woman working hard to keep her demons behind her and fighting to reclaim her legacy. A legacy that had been wrongfully taken away from her by a greedy corporation that used her up and discarded her. She was in and out of court fighting her former WWE boss, Vince McMahon, for the right to use the name Chyna.
I interviewed her for a feature in a national men’s magazine. She showed up at my Beverly Hills studio free of hangups or handlers. She was incredibly focused and humble. Rather than arrive via a car service, Joanie traveled via city bus. She said taking the bus put her in touch with people and made her feel “normal” — a feeling that she longed for.
The focus of the interview was on Chyna’s return to the world of adult entertainment, a confusing move since Chyna had reluctantly entered that seedy arena once before, when a sex tape of she and her then-fiance and fellow WWE entertainer Sean Waltman went public.
She claimed then that the film, entitled “One Night in Chyna,” was never intended to be released, and was done so without her permission as revenge by Mr. Waltman over the couple’s bad breakup.
But this time out was different. She had entered into an agreement with a known adult company to make films in which she could control both content and direction. Her attitude at the time was rather positive and clearheaded. She told me, “Look, this is what life is offering me right now, so I’m just gonna go for it.” The interview was easily the most pleasant and joyful I have ever done.
Afterwords we had lunch together with a PR friend of mine, Victoria. This became a regular tradition in the months and months that followed. Each lunch was filled with laughter and stories. Not once in those many meals was Joanie anything but upbeat and thinking of the future.
The laughter only stopped when we found out Victoria had brain cancer. I remember one very poignant moment at a BBQ in my backyard when Joanie wrapped her huge arms around Victoria, squeezing so tight. As if she was hoping to crush the cancer.
Joanie told her, “You have to get better. I need my friend.”
Although Victoria fought a brave battle against cancer, it eventually took her life, leaving us devastated. Joanie could not make the funeral. At that point she had reinvented herself yet again and was living in Japan teaching English to children.
Always moving forward. Never letting the problems of the past stop her.
News of her death this morning shocked me. I was further sickened by all the Friday-morning quarterbacks assuming that because she had battled the demons of addiction in the past, that her death must have been somehow related to that. While only the coroner will know for sure, I don’t believe that was the cause.
When I reconnected with her late last year, she was not only proudly sober but incredibly high on life. Joanie was busy working on a documentary and spent most of her days surfing and doing “hot yoga.” She seemed to have found the mind, soul, body balance she longed for her whole life.
We planned on lunching and doing an interview for this paper, but life has a funny way of getting in the way.
Last time we spoke, she said, “We have to do this soon. OK? Promise? Love you.”
I said, “I promise. Stay well.”
The coverage of her death tells the story of what people thought she was: an aggressive, over-the-top, larger-than-life personality hell-bound for disaster. That wasn’t who she really was. Chyna — Joanie — was like most people at their core. All she really wanted out of her life was to love and be loved.
My hope is that, if there is a heaven, Joanie and Victoria are sitting there is a booth at lunch laughing.