March is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ third-annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world.
Today, we feature A.J. Mendez Brooks, who many know as former three-time WWE Divas champion A.J. Lee.
Brooks’ biography “Crazy Is My Superpower: How I Triumphed by Breaking Bones, Breaking Hearts and Breaking the Rules” chronicles her growth from feisty kid with a difficult home life in New Jersey to wrestling superstar at 5-2 and 110 pounds during an era when “divas” dominated the WWE landscape.
In unyieldingly honest terms, Brooks writes about moving from house to house as kid and dealing with her mother’s bipolar disorder that was not identified until later in her life and how her own bipolar disorder empowered her without defining her.
While acknowledging that most readers will be those who remember her wrestling career – she wears her ring gear in the photo on the cover – she hopes to become an advocate for a wider community.
The book is available April 4 and she will be on a promotion tour with appearances in April in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Texas with more stops to come.
“I’m really excited to share it with the world,” she told USA TODAY High School Sports. “It’s been a little while since I’ve seen the fans. I’d love to see new faces that are connecting to the message of being open about mental health and being proactive about mental health. That will be a new journey of mine to provide people with those resources and be a voice for the people in this community.”
While the book offers some detail about her relationship and marriage to former WWE champion Phil “C.M.”Punk, including their first kiss – which happened on live TV – she opted not to delve too deeply in that part of her life. “I just believe some things are sacred, that’s all,”she said.
Here is our conversation with Mendez Brooks on her book and much more:
Q: What made you decide to write this book?
A: Since I was a little kid, anytime anything kind of trying or hard would happen in our lives, I would try to bring some kind of levity to the situation and tell my sister that it was all fodder for the tell-all. I’m just going to write about it some day and that’s why it’s happening. That was our way of kind of getting through stuff. … It became this lifelong joke that turned into a lifelong goal. I was at a point where it just felt like I needed to kind of put my truth out there and move on with the next chapter of my life, and it felt like the right time.
Q: What has the reaction been from your family?
A: At the end of the day, I think they want me to be happy and continue to do the things that satisfy me creatively. Everyone’s kind of supportive in that way. My sister has been the person that, when I was drawing my own comic books, she would sit there and read everything and give me feedback. She was my first audience, so she was the first person I sent the book to, and I actually sent her writing samples throughout it. She feels such a huge part of it. She sent me this text right when she read it, and it was the longest text I’ve ever gotten in my life. I screen-grabbed it and printed it out and hung it in my office. It meant the absolute world to me that she loved it and she thought I did our family justice and kept a promise to her.
Q: She acknowledge at the end of the book that you didn’t ask permission per se to share your parents’ story. You are very straight-forward about your mother’s mental struggles. Was her reaction a bit different than your sister’s?
A: I think everyone’s just really proud that we’re going to try to help people that are in similar situations. The best you can do is use your pain to maybe make somebody else’s life a little bit easier, or at least make people feel a little bit less alone, and I think they all get that that’s the goal.
Q: At one point in the book you say that everything you were told should be your greatest weaknesses and insecurities – whether it’s short or nerdy or weak or loud – have actually been your greatest strengths. You say you had success because of them, not in spite of them. That’s a powerful message. How has that manifested itself in your life?
A: When people try to deny you your worth, it just kind of lights a fire under your butt to prove them wrong. You don’t want to believe the bad stuff. Growing up, even when you see magazines in a store that say, “How to hide your forehead” or “How to hide cellulite” and all this stuff about how to hide your flaws, it’s such an unhealthy message.
That starts at the physical level. When I was studying film and television and then when I wanted to enter wrestling, there’s a lot about that that is the physical. For so long I was told I wasn’t good enough on this very basic level. When you start fighting that level, you go deeper, and you realize, “I don’t need to hide the way I look” and try to be a version of somebody else. I need to be the best version of myself, and that includes embracing the things that people might tell you are wrong with you.
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For me, though, the more important level was on the inside, with my anxiety, with my impulsive behavior, with my loudmouth, with my style. These are the things that there was a time I felt the pressure to hide them or to change them, and I kind of fought back from that and that makes you really proud of who you are.
Q: That said, you played A.J. Lee the character and said that gave you an outlet for some things that might not have had an outlet. So how much of April is A.J.?
A: I think every breath between the structured words. So much of it is a script, so it’s everything that’s behind the script — your mannerisms, your voice, your temperament. You have to put your soul into it because people see through it when you don’t. I think that’s what connected me the most to the fans was this sort of unspoken honesty.
I also touch on this a little bit in the book that it was reaching deep down to things I felt could be the worst traits of a person, or the most embarrassing traits of a person, or the most embarrassing moments in your life, and just saying, “Hey, let’s just put this on television and be so open and proud of it and just see how people react.” People embraced that, so I feel she’s a lot of me. She’s probably a lot meaner than I am, though (laughs).
Q: With the title of the book, you embrace labels like crazy. But one label that I know you didn’t embrace during your WWE career is diva. Why didn’t you like the term and what do you think about the company’s decision to use “superstars” for both men and women.
A: For me, embracing words like “crazy” or “impulsive” or “tomboy” and things that have these negative connotations, I think they’re kind of placed upon people in a negative way. Embracing it is a way to break that negative stigma.
It was sort of the opposite with the word “diva.” There was an embracing of something that was not, I think, truthful to everyone that was on the roster. There weren’t divas. I think the connotations for that just weren’t true to who our girls were. When you enter that world and you say, “This is just how the business is now, but we will be different. We will show that we have layers.” I actually have the quote in one of my speeches that I wanted to redefine the term “diva.” You can call me that, but it’s going to mean something new. I think my generation definitely did that and I’m really proud of that. To know that the girls after me have kind of taken that ball and run with it and are evolving, it warms my heart. There’s nothing else I could have wanted more for the future than for it to be so redefined that the word was abolished.
Q: Why do you think you were able to form such a bond with the fans?
A: It’s a famous quote and it’s slightly cheesy, but I want people to remember how I made them feel. When I was eliminated from NXT, I got to kind of give this very raw, off-the-cuff speech about wanting to redefine a woman’s role in wrestling, and how it was a time when different women who sat at home playing video games instead of going to prom could be accepted on television.
That’s not in wrestling, that’s on television in general, and that’s basically “Let’s redefine the standard of beauty and a standard of what is a beauty goal, or a personality goal in women.” I felt such a warmth and the crowd embrace that in my entire tenure there, and that connection is something I always want to maintain. … And to me, that’s the best thing I could have done in my whole life is making people feel a little bit more included.
Q: In the book, you outlined a 10-year plan and say you’ve outlined another 10-year plan. For someone who just turned 30, that’s a lot of long-term planning. What’s on the current 10-year plan?
A: That’s kind of the mind-blowing thing, and sometimes I get slightly overwhelmed because I am only 30. I feel that “lucky” is like a cheesy word and it implies that you’re not in control of what’s happening, but I will say that I am fortunate that I am so young, and because I have kind of a world of opportunity open to me now. I don’t know how many people get to have two careers that are both dream careers. I’m so grateful for that.
Right now there’s a definite 10-year plan written down. I feel putting it into the universe before it’s accomplished, though, might jinx things a bit. I’m on the road, writing and telling my story; being open about mental illness and becoming an activist and making people feel less alone. That is where my life is headed right now. I want to pass that on and help people. It’s the most satisfying thing I can do.
Q: At the time you were in WWE, the women were given more limited time for matches and promos. You’re working in a business that ultra-competitive, but also collaborative with your opponent and the other performers. How did you deal with that aspect of it?
A: If you watch entertainment news or if you’re on social media, there is this atmosphere that encourages that competition – who can be the best, who can be the prettiest – and I think what people miss is that there’s so much room for everyone at the top. By helping each other out, you can get there faster; it’ll be more fun; it’ll be easier when you work together. That’s something that became obvious to me because I was so fortunate to have supportive women throughout my career. In situations that could have been competitive, and I talk about it a little in the book, times that I felt maybe my job was on the line, or felt I had to have a standout performance or needed to have someone to collaborate with and I was lucky enough to have wonderful women support me at those crucial moments. It makes you realize that you’re not just in it alone
My hope is that, not just in wrestling but in entertainment, in business, in sports, in whatever field you’re going into, if women realize that they are stronger together so much more will be accomplished. There’s not room for just one person at the top. I think there’s a lot of room. That was the only way I could have succeeded was by having a wonderful support group around me.
Q: It’s been well-documented that your husband’s release papers from WWE arrived on your wedding day. The company has apologized for that timing. We’ve heard him talk about, but it was your wedding day too.
A: Right now there is ongoing litigation so I actually can’t talk about that. I’m sorry.
Q: Fair enough. Injuries were part of your decision to retire, but do you think you would have continued on with WWE had the relationship between the company and Punk not deteriorated?
A: Again, I’m sorry. Because of the ongoing litigation, I can’t address specifics like that.
EDITOR’S NOTE: WWE Senior Ringside Physician Dr. Chris Amann filed a lawsuit against C.M. Punk, seeking $1 million in damages for defamation and invasion of privacy following Punk’s appearance on a 2014 podcast in which he said the doctor misdiagnosed a staph infection and mistreated a concussion before Punk’s WWE departure.
Q: You have become an advocate for this stray dogs and are an animal rescue ambassador for the ASPCA. Why have you developed such a connection with animals?
A: I think I’ve always just felt connected to these animals that are kind of down on their luck and are looking for someone to reach out a helping hand. They don’t have a voice to fight for themselves and I’ve wanted to become that voice. As I get older and had the opportunity to bring them into my home, it was important to start sharing that with fans. It takes a little bit of your time to open your home to a stray because it means so much to them. I’ve had five or six rescues and I plan to have so many more.
If I have this platform where people are listening to what I have to say, it’s my responsibility to champion the causes that near and dear to my heart. We’ll be teaming up with the ASPCA next month for another campaign. Animals are the love of my life.