Inside the ring, wrestler Ashlee Spencer may be a formidable “bad girl”, but outside of it, she’s funny, self-deprecating and endearingly honest.
“My character is the ‘Ponsonby Princess’,” she chuckles. “I used to work in a couple of bars in Ponsonby, so I kind of based her around some of the customers — a little bit rich, fabulous and snobby.” I ask if any them have seen the wrestling matches, and she reveals that some of them are dating the male wrestlers, though, she’s not sure if they’ve “realised I’m channelling them!”
I soon learn that Ashlee has some interesting dating anecdotes of her own.
She was exposed to wrestling at an early age, her grandmother being a huge fan of WWE (the US-based professional wrestling group World Wrestling Entertainment, formerly WWF), while her dad competed at grappling. “In my early twenties,, I began dating someone who was obsessed with it,” Ashlee goes on, “so I started watching Total Divas, which is a women’s wrestling show.” Some years later, single and on Tinder, Ashlee came across a wrestler with his championship belt in the photo: “It was the funniest profile I’ve ever seen. We ended up matching and he told me that they were looking for female trainees, so after psyching myself up for about three months, I went for a tryout.”
Ashlee, who mainly competes through Impact Pro Wrestling, made her debut 18 months ago, but began training another 18 months prior. “I arrived at the first training session and did 500 squats, which I wasn’t expecting,” says the wrestler. “I’d never done more than 100 before. I was certainly pushed hard. I thought it would be a breeze, that we’d do some submissions and wrist locks, but it took a month before that happened. They had to ensure I was skilled and strong enough that I wouldn’t injure myself, or others.”
But there’s still plenty of pain: “I am often bruised and very sore. I have been knocked out during a live show and suffered concussion.” This led to “the most cringe worthy thing” she’s ever done. “I became quite confused,” Ashlee tells me. “My brain was going a mile a minute, but I couldn’t get my body to the do the things I needed it to do, so I just ended up hugging someone’s leg in the middle of the ring. Just going in for a cuddle, no menace, nothing! I’ve watched it back and it’s so humiliating.”
Though the outcome is, of course, decided before the competitors step through the ropes, Ashlee says that few, if any, of the matches are choreographed: “We have a booking team and they’ll tell us who they want to win the match, and they might say that they’d like you to win with a certain move, but other than that, it’s pretty much up to us. I’ve worked with the girls in Auckland for three years and we can get into the ring with five minutes’ warning and bust out a 10-minute match. However, my very first match in front of a live crowd took three weeks planning! It was typed out like a movie script.”
Ashlee estimates that up to a third of the average 300-strong audience to be families with children, 20% to be women (“we drag all our friends along!”), and the rest comprising 20- to 50-year-old men. I ask what her family thinks of her pugilistic exploits.
“My mum rolled her eyes when she found and said, ‘You’re just like your grandmother!’” says Ashlee. “She was nervous to begin with. I also wrestle for another company called PWE in Whangarei who I actually won the championship for and my mum was there to see that. It was her first time and she had no idea that I was going to be winning, so she was very excited — even though she knows it doesn’t mean anything in the great scheme of things. But she plastered photos all over Facebook, telling everyone how proud she was of me, so that was really cool.”
Wrestling is relatively small in New Zealand, so hard to make a career out of. To do that, Ashlee says you must head to the UK, Japan, Australia or, for the holy grail, WWE in the USA. Some of Ashlee’s former colleagues have secured contracts overseas. I ask if that’s her aim.
“Yes and no,” she says, after mulling it over for a second or two. “It would be amazing to wrestle for the WWE, but I’m also, how do I put this… I hate being hurt! I love wrestling, and when you’re in the moment and the adrenalin is pumping, you don’t notice the pain, but then I cry about it for a week after. Doing that, being in a ring in front a live audience five times a week scares the crap out of me.”
Owing to the Ponsonby Princess’s controversial reputation, Ashlee says that she has built up an “opposition fan base”: “I have a few loyal people that love me because they think it’s cool that I’m a bitch, but as a ‘bad character’ that’s not what you’re really looking for. The audience need to see me getting beaten up.”
I close by asking Ashlee if considers herself a role model. She doesn’t think that she’s a role model for any “specific thing” but hopes that by promoting wrestling, fitness and veganism (she hasn’t eaten meat since her teens, and has been a fully fledged vegan for two years) she can inspire others to adopt a healthy lifestyle and generally be more confident. “I’ve been communicating with a girl from the US through Instagram recently,” says Ashlee. “She’s 15 and waiting until she turns 16 before she can begin training with her local wrestling school and she’s always asking me for advice about fitness and eating. I find that really rewarding.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces Photography: Winston Gee