Jenji Kohan’s new Netflix show boasts big hair and body slams.
The writer and producer Jenji Kohan is known for creating smart, multi-dimensional female characters who inhabit seldom explored worlds. “Orange is the New Black,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Weeds” offered insights into the areas of female prisons, single parenting and the drug trade. In “G.L.O.W.,” the new series she’s producing for Netflix, Kohan sheds light on a different subculture: female wrestling.
G.L.O.W., which will be released in June, is based on the “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” an hour-long TV show that aired weekly from 1986-1990. The all-female wrestling league started as a wrestling promotion, but soon became a cultural phenomenon, influencing the future of the sport forever.
G.L.O.W. was a small, low-budget affair, part vaudevillian variety show and part wrestling match. What it lacked in technique it made up for in grit (and?—?in true 80s fashion?—?white people rapping badly).
Lighting up the wrestling world
In the 80s, opportunities for female wrestlers were scant. The WWE would occasionally introduce women into storylines, but rarely were they allowed inside the ring to compete. The Olympics didn’t establish women’s wrestling events until 2004.
Women’s wrestling was considered a novelty and female matches were used as marketing ploys to help sell tickets for men’s matches. Dee Booher, who played Matilda the Hun on G.L.O.W., was one of the few women who wrestled prior to joining the cast. In the documentary “GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” Booher recalls showing up to matches and being told that she couldn’t wrestle a man. Instead, organizers let her wrestle a bear. As she tells it, she lasted longer than her male counterparts.
Turning actresses into athletes
Casting for the show began in 1985. With few established female wrestlers available, the production staff turned to aspiring actresses. As one wrestler remembers it, the show put out an open call, but did not specify what the series would be about. After learning that the show would focus on wrestling, many women walked out of the audition.
Those who stayed were put through a physically and emotionally grueling training camp run by a stuntman and professional wrestler named Mando Guerrero. Guerrero was from a dynastic Mexican wrestling family. Under his tutelage, the women trained for eight hours a day, every day. Guerrero pulled no punches; in the documentary, one of the wrestlers recalls him placing an aspiring cast member in a sleeper hold on the first day of camp to show that he wasn’t messing around.
By the end of the casting process, 36 women were chosen to participate in Season 1. Most were actresses and models hoping to break into the entertainment industry, but the open call also yielded dancers, stunt women, a phlebotomist and an Olympic shot putter from American Samoa.
The G.L.O.W. experience
In 1986, G.L.O.W. began filming at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. The women moved into apartments down the street, colloquially referred to as “the G.L.O.W. House.”
To wrangle their cast members, some of whom were as young as 19, producers implemented strict curfews. The women were required to remain in character whenever they were on hotel grounds and producers punished misbehavior with heavy fines.
From training camp to campy characters
The wrestling enthusiast and producer David McLane conceived of the idea for G.L.O.W., but credit for the show’s campy tone and kitschy characters goes to director Matt Cimber. Cimber, who is famously known as the last husband of actress Jayne Mansfield, saw the show as a cross between character-driven sketch comedy and professional wrestling.
During training, Cimber assigned each cast member a character, loosely based on his first impression of the woman. These characters were cartoonish in nature, with names like Little Egypt, Susie Spirit, Jailbait, MTV, Americana and Babe the Farmer’s Daughter. The wrestlers took these snap-judgment assessments and fleshed them out, adding costumes, elaborate props, accents and back stories.
Subtlety was not the show’s strong point: The characters were divided into groups of “Good girls” and “Bad girls” and the women were expected to fraternize only with characters of their same classification; failure to do so resulted in fines. Every G.L.O.W. match was a take on the classic struggle of good versus evil, with fresh-faced American characters like Susie Spirit and Americana squaring off against threatening foreign entities like the Louisiana voodoo queen Big Bad Mama or the ambiguously Russian Ninotchka. In these thinly veiled parodies of real life political issues, the good guys usually triumphed.
The rise and fall of the G.L.O.W. empire
Nobody expected G.L.O.W. to succeed?—?the show was essentially an infomercial, with wrestlers hawking products like Faberge shampoo in between wrestling matches and sketches. To the surprise of both the cast and crew, G.L.O.W. garnered a cult-like following with a demographic that encompassed everyone from hardcore wrestling fans to children. The documentary claims the show beat out male wrestling shows in the same time slot and it was not uncommon for thousands of people to wait outside the 200-seat showroom where the matches were held, in the hopes of snagging a ticket.
Shortly into its run, G.L.O.W. became a cultural sensation, landing the wrestlers cameos on hit shows like “Married With Children” and the opportunity to pose for Playboy. With the mounting ratings came increased pressure on the women: Director Matt Cimber was known for his particularly abrasive methods of motivating his cast, which included public humiliation and disparaging remarks about their bodies.
As the show reached its zenith, G.L.O.W.’s staff and audience pushed the wrestlers to fight bigger and harder?—?often at the expense of their physical well-being. The athletes suffered from physical injuries that long outlasted the show’s four year run. At least one former wrestler uses a wheelchair to get around and another retreated to a residential treatment center after blowing out her knees.
After filming more than 100 shows, G.L.O.W. was abruptly cancelled in 1990. The cause of death was financial: Meshulam Riklis?—?an Israeli businessman and the show’s main financial backer?—?pulled his money from the project. Per the documentary, Riklis provided no official explanation for his decision, but cast members speculate that his wife, the actress Pia Zadora, wanted to separate him from the young, nubile wrestlers.
The show’s unexpected end came as a shock to its stars, who describe their relationship like a sisterhood. The women scattered after efforts to remount G.L.O.W. fizzled. Some stayed in the wrestling industry, working both in the ring and behind the scenes. Others acted or found work in other parts of the entertainment industry. It wasn’t until documentarians began chronicling the show’s journey in 2012 that the stars finally reunited for a long-awaited good-bye and some more awkward rapping.
Netflix’s reimagining of the show will concentrate on the personal and professional lives of a group of fictitious female wrestlers. Alison Brie and Marc Maron star in the series, which is slated to debut on June 23, 2017. To hold you over until then, here are the original ladies of G.L.O.W performing the show’s theme song.