When Nikki Bella fought Ronda Rousey for the Raw Women’s Championship on October 28, 2018, I was wearing a shirt that matched the flag waved by Nikki and her sister Brie as they marched into the ring: The red and black banner of the Bella Army, the name given to their legion of fans. The Bella Army is comprised mostly of young women who identify with the Bellas’ message of fearlessness and love for the planet. The Bella Army had been waiting all year for the moment when Nikki and Brie, her frequent fight partner, would appear together as the main event against Rousey—a former UFC champion, Olympic bronze medalist, and one of the biggest names in women’s sports.
Rousey made her dominance clear within two minutes, tossing Nikki around like a ragdoll. Nikki and Brie worked together (technically cheated, in the famously theatrical way of wrestling), knocking Rousey face-first into the post and trapping her in several headlocks. Rousey responded by stacking both twins on her shoulders and slamming them into the ground. It wasn’t a total blowout—Nikki hit Rousey with a rack attack 2.0 and pinned Rousey for a two-count—but Rousey eventually locked Nikki into her signature armbar, forcing her to tap out and signaling that she’d given up continuing the fight. Rousey retained the championship.
But that night, the Bella Twins solidified their place in wrestling history as two of the first women ever to headline an all-women’s pay-per-view event, just one of many triumphs over the course of their career. While their wrestling careers were cut short by injury and motherhood respectively, they’ve parlayed their fame into a wine company, an athleisure brand, a beauty brand, and a podcast, all while still filming their reality show Total Bellas, currently in its fifth season on the E! network. Their latest joint business venture is a memoir, Incomparable, that provides a fresh reminder of what it took to go from Diva to Superstar.
The Bellas are often bashed by hardcore wrestling fans because of their perceived lack of in-ring ability and their attachment to bigger male stars, specifically John Cena and Brie’s husband Bryan Danielson, another famous, longtime WWE Superstar. Nikki was famously engaged to Cena, who proposed in the ring at Wrestlemania, but they never got married and their breakup played out on camera on Total Bellas. But the Bella Twins’ detractors don’t give enough credit to the role they played in ushering what is now known as the women’s evolution—the current era in which WWE is more supportive of women wrestlers—and their work in bringing wrestling to a wider audience with their outside projects.
In WWE, the organization that brought the Bellas to the forefront, the wresting itself is only half the show. The other half is the drama. The McMahon family, who own and run the company, have crafted what is essentially a long-running soap opera. Wrestling is scripted, but only in the way that reality TV is scripted. Before a match starts, wrestlers know the outcome; this person will win and this person will lose. The artistry of wrestling comes in how the wrestlers arrive at that outcome. Wrestlers communicate with each other throughout the match to relay moves and strategies like two dancers choreographing a performance piece as it unfolds. The referee who stands in the ring with them is also a producer, keeping time, monitoring for injuries, and letting fighters know when it’s time to “go home,” a phrase used to signal it’s time for a match to end. Writers, producers, and ultimately Vince McMahon control every facet of a wrestler’s career, from its inception to their final match. A hairstylist who worked for WWE told me in a 2018 interview, “If you came to work one day and Vince didn’t like your hair, he’d send you to the back to get it fixed.”
Recent wrestling history can be divided into two major “eras,” based on the characters and storylines that dominated the period. The first is the Attitude Era, which solidified iconic wrestlers of the ’90s and early ’00s who became famous in the wider world, like The Undertaker, The Rock, Lita, Trish Stratus, and, of course, Chyna. It’s seen as the golden age of wrestling. But the period was not welcoming to women, who were largely used as valets—the term for those who escort other, more important wrestlers into the ring.
Within WWE, wrestlers can have three distinct roles. A “manager” or “valet” is a person who can perform well on a microphone but isn’t yet a big enough character, or talented enough wrestler, to perform solo. Most often these roles are given to women, who get tied to male wrestlers (i.e Zelina Vega, Lana). “Heels” are villains, and anyone can be a villain. “Baby faces” are the good guys who are meant to elicit cheers and sympathy from the crowd. While wrestlers have some say in developing their characters, their ideas are fine-tuned and hammered to death by producers and wrestling coaches at WWE during the developmental phase of their careers. And during the Attitude Era, in the rare instances women were actually given the opportunity to fight, they were often asked to do so in bikinis, or to stage fights in mud. Trish Stratus, a WWE Hall of Famer and icon, once appeared in a bit with Vince McMahon during which she was forced to get on all fours and bark like a dog. The true sign of the times was the existence of a team of women called “PMS,” or “Pretty Mean Sisters.”
The Divas Era, which began around 2008, was supposed to be a course correction. Women wrestlers were no longer restricted to the roles of valet or manager or eye candy; they were given their own storylines, emerging as athletes with their own two-minute matches. Stephanie McMahon, Vince’s daughter, who also competed during the Divas Era but is now WWE’s chief brand officer, constantly refers to the importance of the time, saying it marked the beginning of what’s now called the Women’s Evolution, a sort of women’s lib moment for wrestling. “‘Divas’ is how WWE branded our female performers starting in 2008, in an effort to give them a more prominent role,” Stephanie wrote in 2016. But at the same time, men still carried the show, with longer matches and, frankly, better material—many storylines for women involved fighting over men, like one for Trish Stratus that revolved around her having an affair with WWE CEO Vince McMahon while his wife, Linda, was comatose. Of course, Linda McMahon was not actually comatose nor were Vince and Trish having an affair, it was just a part of the living theatre of WWE. The era was a blessing and a curse, and the rise of the Bella twins illustrates its contradictions.
Brianna and Stephanie Nicole Garcia-Colace, best known by their in-ring names Nikki and Brie Bella, are without question the most successful women to survive the Divas Era. Before turning to professional wrestling, Nikki and Brie were both athletes, a trait they thought would help them when they agreed to appear on WWE Diva Search. The Diva Search, which first aired in 2003, was essentially a model search for tall women who looked good in bathing suits. It was WWE’s attempt at bringing in a larger—albeit hornier—audience by presenting the grueling process of becoming a wrestler as a Top Model-esque reality show. When the twins appeared on Diva Search in 2006, one of the first questions WWE asked the twins was whether or not they’d be open to a boob job. They were not, though Nikki underwent breast augmentation in 2012; “[My breasts] just disappeared after I started to get really fit for wrestling,” she writes in Incomparable.
“We had seen the WWE’s Attitude Era,” she continues, “when women were expected to fight in bras and thongs, pull each other’s hair, and then make out in the ring. That time was supposed to be over, replaced by a more family-friendly WWE, where women were allowed to actually wrestle.” But Brie describes their first impression of Diva Search as “a long line of girls dressed like go-go dancers,” which perfectly captures the objectifying aesthetic of the women’s division of that time.
The twins debuted on Smackdown in 2008 in a move that would later be known as “twin magic,” which involved the twins swapping places mid-match to cheat their way to a win. Nikki recalls the night vividly:
“Below deck in the dark, I adjusted my costume, hair, and makeup to match Brie as she became more and more disheveled and out of breath. Ninety seconds in, a panting Brie crawled in to join me, while the crowd screamed: ‘Get back in the ring! Get back in the ring!’ And then, in our first-ever ‘Twin Magic’ maneuver, Victoria grabbed me by the legs and pulled me out, tossing me back up. I pretended to be exhausted as she grabbed me by the hair, and then I flipped her over and pinned her for a three count.”
It was perfect heel material. The match lasted a little over two minutes, and the twins debuted as a team a few weeks later, wearing some very questionable pink bell-bottoms. “You make and pay for your own gear,” Nikki explains in the book, referring to the costumes worn by wrestlers, and atrocious gear was one of the more noticeable markers of the Divas Era. When their outfits weren’t downright ugly, women often performed in bedazzled bras and panties—an upgrade from the Attitude Era when they were performing in regular, non-bedazzled bras and panties. And while the wrestlers were responsible for their own gear, no one goes on TV without their look being approved by Vince McMahon. As the Divas Division grew and incorporated more wrestling and less hair pulling, there was a subtle shift in the gear. The Bella Twins put aside their frilly, off-the-shoulder tops and bell-bottoms (a nod to their Mexican roots) in favor of sexy athleisure. Brie bounced between booty shorts and full-length pants (ripped, of course), while Nikki kept the booty shorts but added a crop top covered by a second crop top that she ripped during her entrances.
But all the years of women wrestlers being degraded for the sake of sports entertainment—and literally fighting their way to the top of a male-dominated business—would boil down to a single match involving the Bella Twins that made them polarizing figures in the WWE Universe.
In February of 2015, during a three-hour episode of Raw, the Bella Twins were in a tag-team match with fellow Divas, Paige and Emma. At this point in time, Nikki was the Divas’ Champion, and Paige was one of the most exciting young talents on the roster. It should have been a brawl; instead, it lasted 30 seconds. The women spent more time walking to the ring than they did inside of it, and fans were furious, as was Nikki. In Incomparable, she writes that just a few minutes before the match was set to begin, “The timekeeper told us that our segment had been cut to a flat two minutes, including entrances. We had started out the day planning for eight minutes. On Raw that night, our two-minute fiasco was the only segment for women.” Fans were pissed.
After the match, fans of all four women complained on Twitter; Paige was such a talent in wrestling that the length of the match was particularly offensive to her supporters. Former Divas Champion AJ Lee was also unhappy, calling out Stephanie McMahon on Twitter for giving women less screen time and less money than the men; #GiveDivasaChance began trending on Twitter, a way to place an uncomfortable spotlight on the sexism that had existed in the industry for years. Fan response is particularly important in wrestling; if a storyline doesn’t get what’s called a pop (or a strong reaction), then it can be dead before the next episode airs. The McMahons saw the huge reaction from fans, and—according to the Bellas—this prompted Stephanie McMahon’s husband, iconic wrestler Triple H, to transform the hashtag into a larger storyline, which was ultimately used to denigrate the work of women wrestlers.
Triple H runs NXT, another wrestling promotion owned by WWE, which was then considered the ‘minor league’ of WWE’s main roster. At the time, its wrestling shows were not televised nationally on a weekly basis and its events were held at the Full Sail University campus in Florida. NXT was originally intended as a forum where promising wrestlers could develop their characters and in-ring skills before getting called up to the main rosters of either Raw or Smackdown. But through talents like Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Rhea Ripley, NXT became huge in both the US and the UK. It’s now its own beast of amazing talent and storylines within the larger WWE universe with a weekly national broadcast.
Shortly after the Paige, Emma, Bella Twins debacle, wrestling storylines began pitting the Divas against young wrestlers at NXT, who considered “Divas” to be an insult. Nikki writes, “We had been groomed to be Divas... Then they groomed the NXT girls to give interviews mocking us and mocking the Divas. NXT claimed that WWE had hired Divas to be Divas, but that this next class of women were actually real wrestlers ready to bring change.” Overnight, the McMahons and Triple H had robbed every Diva of the years of work they’d done in popularizing women’s wrestling as if it wasn’t their very idea to create the rift in the first place. Eventually, the word Diva became, and remains to this day, a slur used to pit women wrestlers against each other.
Now, whenever WWE runs a special looking back on its own history with women, AJ Lee is conveniently left out, as was “the ninth wonder of the world,” Chyna until after her death (and Chyna is still not in the hall of fame as an individual, but as a member of Degeneration X). Despite Lee’s work in promoting #GiveDivasaChance, it’s as if she never existed, because she refused to play nice with the company after her retirement in 2015.
But the Bellas laid other important groundwork, beyond participating in the fight that kicked off #GiveDivasaChance. “We wanted stories that were about women,” Brie writes. “WWE wouldn’t give us those stories until we made them miss us by opting to leave when our contracts were up.” Brie writes that when they were asked to come back, they came back with cameras. Hence their reality show, Total Divas, which opened wrestling to an entirely new audience base and provided a new platform for women wrestlers to build on their stories outside of the ring. For all the mocking that the Divas endured, it was their willingness to carry that title and build on it that laid the foundation for #GiveDivasaChance to thrive.
Ultimately, the title of “Diva” became a PG-friendly synonym for “sluts,” and it was finally retired in 2016. It would be another two years before the women were able to acquire the moneymaking holy grail in wrestling: their own pay-per-view broadcast. PPVs like Wrestlemania or Summerslam can set up a wrestler’s reputation for years to come if the match goes well; the best PPVs lead to an increase in merch sales and screen time for any lucky wrestler. In line with their desire to keep up with the times for the sake of money, the McMahons dubbed the pay-per-view event “Evolution,” a wink and nod of a title that gave women credit while also patting the McMahons on back. Every single match would be a women’s match, from the opener to the main event. Nikki Bella, who by this point was inactive due to a neck injury, would be invited back by Vince McMahon himself to fight Ronda Rousey. Despite Nikki losing the match, she writes of the event, “It was a night worth breaking my neck for.”
Some fans see it as unfair to give so much credit to the Bella Twins for the progress women have made in professional wrestling, but it would be just as unfair to pretend that they did nothing at all. When it was announced that the twins would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, disgruntled fans came up with every reason under the sun as to why they were undeserving of an honor held by nearly every wrestler that’s stepped foot in the ring and some that don’t wrestle at all (Donald Trump is in the WWE Hall of Fame, thanks to a storyline that resulted in him shaving Vince McMahon’s head on national television). But whether they had the best ring work or not, the Bella Twins fought, promoted, and merchandised their way to the pinnacle of wrestling success. While they certainly didn’t do it alone, they weren’t resting on their laurels the entire time, a fact they remind readers of in their memoir. “We, along with other Divas-turned-Superstars, have brought more awareness to women’s wrestling-through our TV shows, through cutting great promos, and through pure athletic acrobatics and sport-we have brought more young girls into the audience.”