If you haven’t been sucked into a GLOW-shaped Netflix hole yet, allow us to set the scene. The show is a throwback to a spandex delight of an '80s reality TV show called The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, documenting the trials and tribulations of a bunch of out-of-work LA actresses hoping to get their big break.
The original show, and the Netflix series (from the creators of Orange is the New Black), is based around the curious world of pro-wrestling. Yes, exactly – the one where testosterone-filled, muscle-bound men slam each other to the floor shouting and screaming. Except this time, with chicks. Which isn’t unheard of (Ronda Rousey is the US’ well-known star) but, for a long time, rampant sexism and ‘bra and panties’ matches did somewhat inhibit the sport’s progression into the 21st century.
That, and the fact that pro-wrestling is pretty hard to define. Another star, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, once described it as "like stand-up comedy". But put simply, this is a heightened mix of MMA and Geordie Shore, only with even more steroids. Fights involve choreographed moves and carefully constructed storylines, and last up to 20 minutes. Points are scored by pinning your opponent to the mat for three seconds. This isn’t just sport, it’s scripted drama. By the time you’ve added huge raucous crowds, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more intense, intimidating and unforgiving place than Saturday night at a pro-wrestling fight.
Yet for some reason it’s where 32-year-old bipolar sufferer Emily Read, who’s spent most of her upper-middle-class life feeling out of place, is most at home.
While her two older sisters were busy leading ‘normal’ childhoods in rural Norfolk, Read was glued to the wrestling channel with her dad. “I think a lot of it was filled with me feeling out of sorts and I assume that’s because I was bipolar,” explains Read, who wasn’t diagnosed correctly until she was 26. “I suppose I had a very normal upbringing, but it was difficult for me. And I never knew why.”
She spent her formative years deliberately evading diagnosis. “I grew up being told that mental health isn’t a thing,” explains Read. “So whenever the doctors gave me a test where you answer questions by ticking boxes, I lied.” As a result, by the time Read left school and her contemporaries were heading off to university, she had been wrongly diagnosed with ME. But despite this, she felt compelled to leave her family to follow her dreams of becoming a pro-wrestler, a few hundred miles away in Portsmouth.
“My mum was horrified, she was absolutely convinced I would be paralysed, or killed,” offers Read. “But I get this thing, where I feel like I should be doing something, I just go all in.”
It paid off: Read joined a pro-wrestling training camp and to date is the only woman to have made it through. She began to meet people she could relate to and in this high-drama world, for the first time in her life, she started to feel like she belonged. That is, until the outrageous sexism that riddles the industry started to get to her.
Not so long ago, WWE, the world’s largest pro-wrestling company, referred to its female fights officially as the 'Divas Division' – and unofficially as the 'piss-break'. Read, with her mousy hair and B cup, didn’t fit the aesthetic ideals that most promoters went for. “At the time they liked women with huge fake breasts,” explains Read. “They were getting them deals with Playboy as well. It's just the look they wanted.”
“I had seen some horrific sexism by that point,” she continues. “At its worst, being informed – just informed – that other trainees [at the camp] had the right to sleep with you if you were a female trainee. Now I’m not saying that they would have raped me if I’d said no, but it was this attitude that we were dealing with. That was just fact.”
Another standard practice in the world of pro-wrestling was slut-shaming. “If one of the female trainees did sleep with a trainer or wrestler, or start dating someone, then they were a slut”, Read continues.
It’s remarkable that anyone, no matter their mental state, could cope in this kind of situation. Let alone someone who was living alone, miles from home, with an undiagnosed mental illness. And for a while, Read stood her ground. “I have never been a pushover. I wouldn’t let the guys give me pet names, or touch me – if they grabbed my arse during a move, they wouldn’t ever do that again”, she laughs.
But when Read began to date a promoter, she couldn’t stand the taunts of being “that girl who dates a promoter just to get on shows”, and conceded. “It was a horrible environment to be in, wrestling wasn’t what I hoped it would be. And that’s what I struggled with too. But that’s when I met Dann [now her husband] and I saw how wrestling could be, the creative side.”
It was at this point that Read switched from competing to promoting, falling in love with the sport all over again as she worked her way up the ranks. Now, over a decade later, Emily and Dann run a popular ‘feminist-punk-rock’ wrestling company called Pro-Wrestling: EVE. Their sexism-free, homophobia-free, seriously fucking empowering shows are a hit, and their one-strike policy with "nasty" troublemakers has garnered them a broad fanbase – including trans people, many of whom don’t feel safe watching the sport live elsewhere.
And Read speaks of her own female trainees [who she works with through EVE] with an almost maternal sense of pride. “They can’t shout at the beginning – they either try and shout and nothing comes out, or they’re really quiet. It’s so conditioned in women to be quiet and small, it’s a real hindrance when it comes to wrestling,” she says. “And I see women learn to be big and loud and take up space. And the community spirit is superb.”
But success hasn’t come easy in those 12 years since Read left home. She’s found the love of her life, had two children, bought a house and started running a health food shop, but she’s also suffered a major breakdown. Because she grew up being told “mental health wasn’t a thing”, Read spent most of her adult life trying to “fix” herself, without getting the medical assistance she desperately needed.
“I don’t think you can name a complementary therapy I haven’t tried,” says Read. “From crystal healing to homeopathy, all the way down to things like the Lightning Process. And none of them fixed me. Because I have a chemical imbalance in my brain.” Things got particularly bad when once again, in her mid-twenties, she was misdiagnosed: this time with depression.
“I’d been self-harming for a while, and one day I locked the shop door and started using the parcel opener to cut my arm. And I just thought, this isn’t right, I shouldn’t be doing this,” she explains. “I’d started taking anti-depressants and I couldn’t understand why I was suddenly so much worse.
“I tried to leave, because I was going to get a train to the next station where there were always through trains. I was going to go and jump in front of one.” Read pauses for a moment then continues: “And as I looked to the right to the train station, a lady walked past with a buggy and a little girl walking next to her. And I remembered I had kids. Then I looked to my left and saw my doctor’s.
“I went in there and they were so kind to me. I have no idea what I must have looked like.”
Read was hospitalised for three months. She and Dann lost their shop, lost EVE and lost their house. But it saved her life: finally, she was correctly diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Upon leaving hospital it took her a further two years to get back to normal, and finally they got EVE back up and running. Read then returned to her ringmaster duties. “It wasn’t until we started doing it again that I realised, I needed it,” Read reflects. “I needed something that helped me make a difference.”
To see Emily, Dann and Pro Wrestling: EVE in action, head to The Resistance Gallery, Bethnal Green on Saturday 15th July.