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.
Natalya grew up in one of the most famous families in professional wrestling history — the Hart family from Calgary — and has become a mainstay in WWE after plying her craft in the famous Hart Dungeon, in Japan and in Europe.
During her nearly 10-year run since signing with the company, she has seen the business change in terms of how women are perceived and the roles they are expected to play.
Natalya challenges for the Smackdown women’s championship on Sunday at WrestleMania in Orlando. Champion Alexa Bliss defends against Natalya, Becky Lynch, Mickie James, Carmella, Naomi and possibly others during the 5 p.m. hour on WWE Network.
Natalya spoke with USA TODAY Sports about the evolution of women’s wrestling, her background, Total Divas and her induction of longtime friend Beth Phoenix at WWE Hall of Fame.
Q: You will induct your former “Divas of Doom” tag team partner Beth Phoenix into the WWE Hall of Fame on Friday. She has said one of her favorite matches was against Eve Torres at WrestleMania in Madison Square Garden. What are your memories of that night and the impact Beth had on the business?
A: Now we have this surge in our divisions where you see multiple segments and a few women’s matches on RAW and Smackdown. I was working with Beth during a time that sometimes there would be only one woman’s match on the show and so Beth was front and center. She took great responsibility in really wanting to push the boundaries and really wanting to do things that made women stand out in our division.
She was one of those women that just colored outside of the lines. She just wasn’t your quintessential cookie cutter-type female in the WWE. At the time, there were a lot of girls that maybe had come from a dancing background or a modeling background, and in some ways Beth and I felt like we were kind of the odd ones. We were more rough around the edges, and we didn’t always know if that was the status quo at the time.
Looking back at that match with Beth at Madison Square Garden, being in her corner I was watching history being made and I knew it at the time. It’s not like I look back on it and reflect and say “Wow, I didn’t even know I was watching Beth making history,” I knew right then and there that Beth was making history. She was blazing this incredible trail and really helping shape the landscape of Women’s wrestling.
For both Beth and I, wrestling was our forte. That was our strength. I didn’t know how to dance. I wasn’t a model. I mean, when your dad is Jim “The Anvil” Neinhart, you know, modeling’s not really your thing (laughs).
Q: Your background suggests that you would be more comfortable in the current more physical style. True?
It’s absolutely more physical now. That’s just the evolution of where we are right now. It’s just see how the division has evolved. I was trained in the Hart Family Dungeon – that’s where I learned how to wrestle. I wrestled with men, because there wasn’t really anyone else for me to learn with, so I’ve always had this different style … I went over to Japan and I went to Europe before I ever came to WWE because I knew that when I got to WWE that I wanted to have a very physical style. Not all the women in WWE had access to a Dungeon, or grew up in the Hart family, or had these amazing resources and tools like I did. My sort of gritty style wasn’t the norm.
Now everyone is upping their game. It’s hard not to point out NXT. The women started to do their own thing. Everything started to catch fire. It started with Triple H. He allowed the girls to do what the guys did – “we’re going to give the girls the same opportunity,” and you saw this evolution with Charlotte and Sasha and Bayley and Nia Jax and Becky Lynch.
One of the biggest breaks of my career was at NXT when I had that monumental match against Charlotte at NXT TakeOver. It was like a WrestleMania moment for me even though it was in front of 200 people. It was a pivotal moment in women’s wrestling.
Q: Recently, you and Becky Lynch were the first match on Smackdown Live after a promo by A.J. Styles. We are seeing more women’s matches on some shows, but the placement has also been more prominent at times.
A: That’s a great point. You know it’s funny because I never take any of it for granted. When I see my placement on the show, I look at it like it’s amazing to be on the show – to be featured on a live show on primetime TV — but it’s great be on the show in such a special way. The girls are main-eventing Raw and Smackdown. We’ve main-evented a WWE pay-per-views and we are now becoming like a huge part of the success of our respective brands. When I had that match with Becky, we’re setting the tone for the rest of the show.
Q: The brand split has allowed more women – and men – to get opportunities because there are two distinct shows with distinct rosters for five hours of live TV. How has that helped the women’s division specifically?
A: It’s been amazing to see the growth on RAW and Smackdown and the divisions gaining momentum. I’m incredibly grateful that WWE did the brand split and that they’re separate. Having two women’s divisions and two women’s championships, it gives everybody more focus. …
One of the main reasons Mr. McMahon decided to do the brand split – and I’m just going to jump to this conclusion – is that he knows better than anyone that competition breeds excellence. When people are competing, they do their best work. What better way to bring that out of our Superstars than to have this friendly, healthy, robust competition between each other. It brought out the best in all of us.
Q: You and Nikki Bella had a feud that ran for several months and got intensely personal. You have switched from fan favorite to heel. Take us behind that feud.
A: It was one of the best rivalries of my career, but we only had two matches. It helped turn the corner from being the babyface Nattie that is the underdog to the Nattie that is mean. I couldn’t have done that without Nicole.
At one point, I said that if I wasn’t married, John Cena would be with me instead of her. It made her jaw drop. Even my mom was like, “Nattie, that was terrible for you to say.” My parents were like, “That’s a little stiff.”
You can see we are taking an edgier approach and I think the audience is eating that up. Numbers don’t lie. People are tuning in more than ever. I’m sure there are times it does hit a little bit close to home with my arch-emeny Nikki Bella (laughs) or any of the girls. Nikki said some things to me that actually didn’t feel too good, either.
Q: You’ve been a big part of Total Divas. What effect has that exposure had on the WWE product?
A: Total Divas has helped bring a different audience to WWE. A lot of our audience on the E! Network have never watched WWE. They weren’t educated in the product. This is a different demographic. I’ve been on since the very beginning, so I’ve seen this evolve. We get these women – and some men – coming to our live events who say, “I never watched WWE until I watched Total Divas. I was so captivated and interested and entertained by Total Divas that all of a sudden, I fell in love WWE.
We know women made a lot of decisions within the household and see it was a great fit with the E! Network and WWE and to have that demographic carry over to our world in the WWE. We have so many kids come to our shows. They can’t come unless their moms bring them — and some of their dads too — but women make a lot of the decisions and make up a huge part of audience.
Q: How has being on the show helped you personally in terms of a connection with the fans?
A: People had never seen the curtain peeled back so much. In WWE, we really don’t let people backstage. I don’t even let my parents backstage because it’s very, very private to the magic happening behind the curtain. All of a sudden, we’re letting a TV crew back there and to film our lives.
To be on the show, you have to be willing to open up your life, to show the things that make you smile that make you cry that make you vulnerable. I think that level of vulnerability helped me so much in my wrestling career. I never wanted to show anyone I was weak. I always wanted to look strong and look powerful and come across as being perfect. Everybody wants to be perfect Total Divas allowed me to surrender. It’s OK not to be perfect; it’s OK be vulnerable; it’s OK to be weak at times. I’m going to fall down and get back up and keep going.
It helped me advance in my career with WWE, because when I’m in the ring performing, I’m not afraid to open myself up more than I ever have. It’s allowed me to go to this whole I am, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it. I’m not going to be afraid of who I am and of what I stand for. You’re going to see a different layer of Nattie and that’s what Total Divas has helped with. Plus, you speak so much on Total Divas that even in our promos we get comfortable with talking and smack talking.