By Jon Lane
Go ahead. Stare. Gaze at a woman as close to perfection as humanly possible. Stand frozen with eyes fixated and mouth in a perfect circle with the words stuck in gridlock. You won’t be the first. Just know that there’s more that meets the eye.
Blessed with arresting beauty and eloquent diction, Trish Stratus holds her career, image, character and personal life precious and close to the heart, each rounded into shape by staring challenge after challenge square in the face. As a college student at York University, Stratus studied - and aced -- biology and kinesiology (the study of the body’s motion and movement). “It’s funny,” Stratus said. “When I say I studied biology/kinesiology, people are like, ‘Who? What? You do? You’re so intelligent!’ They’re shocked!”
Shortly after signing with the World Wrestling Federation, Stratus, a fitness model sensation at the time, walked into an old warehouse nestled in the inner-city section of West Toronto, Canada, an area not exactly as posh and chic as Yorkville (the city’s most upscale shopping district). Once used to film horror movies and gang scenes, Sully’s Gymnasium (which has since moved) is the place where Canadian Wrestling Hall of Fame member Ron Hutchinson transforms boys and girls into sports entertainers.
After Stratus introduced herself and said she wanted to enroll in his class, Hutchinson did a double take at the sight of this “petite, young, very pretty girl."
“The first question I had was, ‘Why do you want to do this?’” Hutchinson recalled asking Stratus, who decorated two covers of Muscle Mag International and was featured on “Inside Edition’s” Legends of Fitness Challenge coverage. “‘Exactly why do you want to subject yourself to getting thrown around and getting beat on?’ Why somebody that pretty would want to get thrown around in this business, I have no idea!”
“Preparedness meets opportunities” is Stratus’ motto. What if she were called upon to get physically involved and not simply stand there and look good? There was one particular session when Hutchinson taught his students how to fall from over the top or through the middle rope on to the outside. The ring in the gym was fairly high, higher than a standard wrestling ring. Stratus flew over the top rope, but misjudged it and landed squarely on her tailbone.
“I could tell by looking at her and just seeing the bump itself that, ‘My God, that had to hurt!’” Hutchinson recalled. “But she sucked it up and laughed it off. I thought, ‘You’re laughing on the outside but you’ve gotta be crying on the inside!’ From that day on, Trish was a little intimidated to take that, but she persevered to point where she allowed the guys to toss her around - and she tossed the guys around.”
In fact, Stratus was pre-med and planned on becoming a doctor to be until a professors’ strike temporarily halted her future. Approached with an opportunity to become a fitness model shortly after the strike, Stratus -- who had no modeling experience -- accepted the challenge and worked her way into shape. Her first Muscle Mag cover was in September of 1998. Two years later, Stratus debuted in the World Wrestling Federation. By the dawn of 2001, she was engaged in a hot storyline opposite none other than Vince McMahon.
“I like to be challenged - always,” Stratus said. “I like that. I see the obstacles, I see the challenge and I want to challenge it. This is certainly one of the biggest challenges I can probably encounter in this company. I’m just going to go out there and hopefully do my best. Working with the boss, that’s more reason to go out there and do your best.”
In just over one year with the Federation, Stratus has been a manager, a wrestler and -- of late -- the bitchy, gold-digging “other woman” opposite Vince’s “Mr. McMahon” character. The steamy role she portrays could have been played by anyone, but the Federation saw a little something extra in Stratus, who has responded to her latest challenge by spreading her wings and shouting, “Hey! This is the best I’ve got! What do you think?”
Her success rate is hardly a fluke. People associated with Stratus learned early that she’s more than meets the eye, and know why her career has rocketed into the Stratusphere.
“When people look at her, they automatically assume that she’s just a pretty face and she can’t do anything,” said Molly Holly (aka Nora Greenwald). “She is so physically beautiful and smart, and can get in the ring and wrestle. That’s a rare combination. She doesn’t look tough, but she is.”
“If you’re not only very pretty, but can work, you’re a bigger asset to the company,” Hutchinson said. “I think she realized that and took the ball and ran with it.”
Stratus ran with it and threw a perfect strike, rare in the Federation for someone with less than one year’s experience -- yet accomplished by another who also took mammoth steps up the ladder.
“I think that Trish is a female version of me,” said Kurt Angle, who in just over one year captured the Federation, Intercontinental and European Championship. “This girl’s been in the business only seven months. I think she’s taken those same steps that I did in my first seven months. The things she’s accomplished I don’t think any other woman in their first seven months has been able to do. She has been utilized that rapidly and for someone that young and that inexperienced, to be put in certain situations, she’s come out on top.
“Trish is one of the most naturally talented women the WWF has ever had, besides Stephanie (McMahon).”
Stratus might have very well been the most naturally talented doctor right now if not for the professors’ strike. With her immediate future on hold thanks to the strike, Stratus learned that Robert Kennedy -- publisher of Muscle Mag International -- wanted to meet with her and qualify her interest in doing a photo shoot with the publication. She had no modeling experience whatsoever. In fact, modeling was never on her mind while in college because, to her, it wasn’t feasible to pursue a career without longevity. “What’s the point?” Stratus had thought about modeling. “It’s just being prey.” Her thinking changed in that meeting with Kennedy, impressed off the bat when she arrived in full makeup and wearing a nice dress.
“She looked quite dynamic the first second I saw her,” said Kennedy, who set up an appointment with Stratus acting on a tip from someone who trained with her. “Very long, natural hair, beautiful skin and a very attractive face. On top of that was her outgoing, yet not brash, personality. She had a very nice way about her.”
After a series of test shots, Kennedy offered to do a location shoot in South Beach in six months. “I was like, ‘Well, school’s out, I have nothing to do,’” Stratus said. “So I ate, slept and trained for six months. For me it was just another challenge, like, ‘Hey, let’s give this a shot.’”
For the next six months, Stratus, in shape to begin with, transformed her body into the modeling type. Avoiding the temptations of Toronto’s alluring nightlife - a challenge for most college students - was second nature. A regimented college schedule -- 6 a.m. field hockey practice, classes, studying, volunteer work and her commitments to her town soccer team - were more than enough to keep her away from partying and drinking.
Before starting with Muscle Mag, Stratus posed for a 50-foot billboard advertising the Docks, a popular Toronto nightclub where she bartended. “I was like the local celebrity,” Stratus said. “I was always busy. I always had a full day and I couldn’t risk anything by going out. It wasn’t worth it to me.
“I’m not really into (a partying) lifestyle at all. I’m not really going out in the evening. I’m really into relaxing in my own time, my down time. With bartending, I got to experience it -- not directly -- and it didn’t hurt me as far as losing money and getting drunk and stuff. I got to make money getting others drunk!”
The hard work and discipline paid off. Stratus pulled off the South Beach shoot like a seasoned veteran. “Trish had it all down right,” Kennedy said. “She rolled into the poses and did everything perfectly.” And was what considered a short-term goal turned into a new career. Stratus and Kennedy came to a “gentlemen’s agreement,” meaning that Muscle Mag would promote her if she committed exclusively to the publication. “It was a very loose agreement,” Kennedy said. “I think she trusted me and I trusted her to both work hard at her promotion. She would always make herself available.”
Shortly after the shoot, the strike ended and Stratus went back to school, which led to the next challenge of balancing her classes and a fitness lifestyle - eating every three hours and training every day, sometimes twice a day. This challenge was unlike any she ever met. It proved not even Trish Stratus was Supergirl. “I really had a hard time focusing on both and doing really well at both,” Stratus said. “My school was either lacking or my training was lacking. So I decided to focus on the training. I put (school) on hold for now. I’m still young! We’ll see what happens.”
She rapidly got to the point where she was a top name in the fitness industry, but the challenge would soon wane. She felt that she had become so famous that she didn’t have to work hard for it anymore. “I was like, ‘Wow, I haven’t even trained this week, but yet I’m still on the cover of that [magazine],’” she said. “I wasn’t working for it, it was there already. For me, if you lose the challenge there’s no purpose anymore. I felt like I exhausted that industry a little bit.”
While still working as a fitness model, Stratus made a few appearances on “Off the Record,” a popular talk show in Canada, which also featured Federation Superstars on a regular basis. When fans saw her appearing alongside Federation Superstars, it began to generate Internet speculation about a future with the Federation. To Stratus, a lifelong Federation fan, the possibility intrigued her.
With opportunity in the balance, Stratus began to host a wrestling radio show in Toronto to get her name exposed in the industry. “Of course,” she said, “the Internet had a big impact on me getting known in the wrestling world. I just took advantage of that. I prepared for an opportunity that perhaps would come.”
The day eventually came. While backstage at a Toronto fitness show to promote a Muscle Mag appearance, Stratus was approached by former Federation agent Terry Taylor, who heard her on the radio shows and was impressed with her knowledge of the business. Suddenly, the Federation, as well as World Championship Wrestling and Extreme Championship Wrestling, all called her with offers. “There was obviously no question who I chose,” said Stratus. “I’ve just been a fan of the WWF forever and that was that.”
Initially, there were no set plans for Stratus to compete in the ring, but leave it to her to think three steps ahead. “She’s a woman who thinks about things and follows the basic format for success,” Kennedy said. “She’s a realist in the sense that she’s not going to kid herself. If she has a weakness, she’ll work on it. She won’t just go into something without studying it first.” Wanting to present the best available package, Stratus enrolled at Sully’s to train as a wrestler. “I was prepared to say, ‘Yeah, I’m willing to do it all,’” she said. “That’s what I’m about. I’m an all-out person. I do it all or don’t do it at all.”
The physical training, which lasted for six months, came easy for Stratus, a natural athlete who has played sports her entire life. Yet at first, she was actually intimidated with the class full of huge guys (for a while, she was the only girl in the class). Stratus was paired often with Jason Sensation, an impressionist who made a few appearances on camera for the Federation doing voices of various superstars (he’s currently working for Memphis Championship Wrestling, one of the Federation’s developmental leagues). “He was the closest I had in size to her,” Hutchinson said. By the time they got going, both Stratus and Sensation pulled off some decent matches in Hutchinson’s eyes. “I think that helped overcome the intimidation factor. She fit in just fine.”
Stratus made her Federation debut in March 2000 to form the team of Test and Albert, otherwise known as T & A. “Oh yeah, cute!” was her reaction to the concept, derived from the popular ditsy blonde, big boobs stereotype. “I always like that little play on words,” Stratus said, “and I like to go out there and prove people wrong so when they say ‘T & A,’ they think I’m all T & A. But then we brought the power and strength of Test and Albert. I liked that a lot.”
In leading T & A, Stratus took two singles wrestlers and fused them into a cohesive and top tag team until their breakup in January. She wasn’t just a manager or a hot valet, but a leader, which with accepting challenges is what she does best. Stratus has played soccer since age three, and took up field hockey at her soccer coach’s encouragement by the 11th grade. These days, a lot of Stratus the person is represented in Trish the character, in that she’s a very aggressive, goal-oriented individual. The fiery competitor she was playing sports transcends itself in the ring.
“I like that aggressiveness and the intensity is just in me,” she said. “I love the opportunity to bring it out and get away with it. It reflects on my natural, go-about skills. When I played sports and I wanted to score a goal or I was going to defend against a goal, I was very aggressive, very rough. That’s the way I’ve always played my games.”
Leave it to Stratus to experiment with insane ways to prove herself, like the day she felt compelled to prove it to her teacher. Shortly after she was put through a table by Buh Buh Ray Dudley at Backlash last April, Stratus phoned Hutchinson to tell him that she did that for him. “I thought, ‘Wow!’” Hutchinson recalled. “I asked, ‘Why would do that for me?’ She said, ‘Well I thought that you’d be proud of me.’ I did see that, it was probably the first bump I’ve seen her take (in the Federation) and I thought, ‘That’s pretty scary! Knowing the mentality of the wrestling business, that’s your first bump. What do we do to top that next week? Please don’t get yourself killed for me!’ You don’t want to see that as a wrestling trainer - a first bump through a table.”
A short time later, Hutchinson recalled seeing the Big Show pick Stratus up and toss her over the top rope into a waiting Test and Albert. “It was great,” Hutchinson said, “but, wow, one mistake you’re going to be seriously hurt.”
Stratus got up, and she’s gotten up again and again. Just like she did after riding the bench at York; after the professors strike; after taking that initial bump at Sully’s. And after continually checking her ego at the door to learn more and more. “She is a big star and I just started here,” said Greenwald, who experience-wise has Stratus licked by more than three years. “She could have said, ‘This is what we’re going to do and you’re going to like it.’ She never came across as the big superstar who’s going to tell me what to do.”
While training Stratus, Hutchinson helped her develop a finishing move, a double-leg grapevine submission hold that she named “the Stratusphere.” Though yet to debut that maneuver in the Federation, it’s clear where Stratus’ career is right now. “I’ve stopped saying what I expect next because I can never imagine what has happened in the last three years of my life,” she said. “I just want to keep getting better and better and being constantly challenged.”
Stratus then stopped to think for a minute about WrestleMania - her second appearance at the mega-event. With a devilish grin, she offered only a hope: “I hope to bring some Stratusfaction to WrestleMania!” From landing on her keister at Sully’s Gym to WrestleMania in just over two years -- pretty impressive. To Stratus, it was just another challenge. “I doubt there will ever come a day in this company where I won’t be challenged.”