Chyna: 1970-2016, Women's Pro Wrestling Icon

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Chyna, the former WWF star and adult film actress once dubbed the “Ninth Wonder of the World,” died last night at her home in Redondo Beaach, California. She was 45.

Born Joan Laurer in Rochester, N.Y. in 1970, Chyna rose to fame in the late 1990s on the WWF circuit, first serving as a member of Triple H’s stable Degeneration X before betraying him to join Vince McMahon after the 1999 Royal Rumble. She changed allegiances a number of other times, all the while becoming one of the most popular characters in the WWF pantheon, competing alongside men and breaking various gender barriers. Chyna was the first woman to compete in a Royal Rumble match, and at one point was crowned the Intercontinental Champion, the only woman to hold the belt. Her increasing fame led to opportunities for her in film and television, including appearances on Third Rock from the Sun, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Surreal Life.

Chyna began starring in pornographic films in 2004, and she also modeled nude for Playboy twice. The last decade of her life was marred by increasing problems with substance abuse and depression, issues that had plagued her in her adolescence but returned to the forefront after her retirement from pro wrestling. She appeared on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew in 2008, where she claimed she didn’t consider herself an addict, and underwent a number of drug-related hospitalizations in the years afterward. At the time of her death, she was taking medication for anxiety and sleep deprivation.

Chyna leaves behind a complicated legacy. On one hand, she became a star in the male-dominated world of pro wrestling, showing that women could overcome the misogyny of the ring on some level. On the other hand, she essentially made her whole career selling her body—first in wrestling, then in adult films—and, given the substance-related and mental health issues that haunted her for much of her life, may not have been satisfied with this line of work. Can a woman be a symbol of female power if her success comes within institutions whose very existence disempowers women? There will doubtless be several think pieces available in the next few days debating this point.

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