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Still from the original GLOW 1
Still from the original G.L.O.W.

How a cult 80s women wrestling show inspired a Netflix hit

Writers Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch discuss G.L.O.W – the 80s wrestling phenomena that inspired them and how important it was to tell the stories of this ‘sisterhood of misfits’

Last weekend saw the launch of Netflix’s latest series – the 80s-tastic, all-female wrestling drama G.L.O.W. (an acronym for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling). The show was inspired by the real prime-time wrestling series of the same name, which ran from 1985 to 1990. The original G.LO.W. was founded by David McClane, an announcer for the World Wrestling Association, who had noticed a trending interest in female fighters. He posted calls for open auditions in various Hollywood publications to people his vision for a women-only spectacle of sex, violence and comedy.

As a result, those who responded turned out to be a motley crew of actresses, models, dancers, and stunt women, all looking for their big break. McClane brought in B-movie director Matt Cimber to take the helm and help his chosen protagonists – most of whom had no prior wrestling experience – to develop their in-the-ring characters, to be divided into “good” guys and “bad” guys. Stereotypes abounded: from Mountain Fiji, the kindly American-Samoa giant, and Babe the Farmer’s Daughter to Matilda the Hun, a conniving German with a penchant for raw meat, and Colonel Ninotchka, the cold-hearted Soviet.

“A wrestling ring is so vaudevillian somehow.”  The duo were also enticed by the plethora of real women, of all shapes and sizes, that G.L.O.W. comprised.”

The women were flown to Las Vegas for filming, and were put up in the so-called G.L.O.W. House where they were prescribed an intense training regime. They burst onto US TV screens in December of 1985, decked in elaborate costumes, performing skits and slap-stick, personalised raps and, most importantly, fighting with an unique, melodramatic energy that proved contagious. G.L.O.W. was an overnight sensation, drawing in thousands of devoted viewers nationwide, and soon its wrestlers were household names.

In 1990, however, the show was suddenly cancelled, at the peak of its popularity, without any warning. Its bereft stars were left in the lurch without any sense of closure, only reunited in 2012 when documentary maker Brett Whitcomb opted to make a movie about the short-lived phenomenon. The film tells the G.L.O.W. story through the eyes these remarkable women, who recount their tales of exploitation, empowerment and adventure in vivid detail.

For writers Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, this proved the entry point into the gloriously hyperbolic sphere of women’s wrestling, and the catalyst for the Netflix dramatisation – produced by Orange is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan – that currently has everyone talking. “Carly and I were working together on Nurse Jackie when we saw the documentary, and we instantly fell in love with the whole G.L.O.W. world,” Flahive tells Dazed over the phone. “As theatre people we immediately responded to the theatricality of wrestling, which is something we hadn’t really considered before,” Mensch chips in. “A wrestling ring is so vaudevillian somehow.” The duo were also enticed by the plethora of real women, of all shapes and sizes, that G.L.O.W. comprised. “We’d both written for a lot of strong, weird female characters in the past and this felt like a rich opportunity to create a huge cast of lady characters,” says Mensch.

For their take on G.L.O.W., however, Mensch and Flahive opted to start from scratch, crafting a new set of protagonists, with their own idiosyncratic backstories, rather than elaborating upon the personalities proffered by the original wrestlers. “We wanted to build our own characters from the inside out, in terms of what drives them,” Mensch explains. “But we very much wanted to hold onto in the idea of this sisterhood of misfits,” Flahive adds. “They were a real grabbag of women, and yet it felt like there was a real connection between them, which was something we really wanted to honour.” And that’s exactly what they’ve done, the show’s characters a vibrant melting pot of eccentrics that complement each other perfectly.

First there’s Ruth, an overzealous thespian, played to a T by Mad Men’s Alison Brie, who auditions for G.L.O.W. as if she were going in for the role of Lady Macbeth. Then there’s Cherry Bang, the former B-movie actress; Carmen, the towering, sweet-natured scion of a wrestling dynasty; Debbie, the blonde bombshell; Sheila, a self-proclaimed she-wolf and Arthie, an Indian-American medical student – to name but a few. With the help of their coke-snorting, cult-script-writing director Sam Sylvia (a brilliantly louche Marc Maron), each woman adopts a specific stereotype to embody, as per the original G.L.O.W. story. Tamme, a larger black woman, is given the role of “Welfare Queen”, Arthie is forced into the guise of “Beirut the Mad Bomber”, while Jenny Chey, a Cambodian-American must become “Fortune Cookie”, a Chinese martial artist.

“That’s something that’s in wrestling at large,” Mensch explains of G.L.O.W.’s exploitation of such cringe-worthy cultural clichés. “Some of the biggest wrestlers in the 80s were people like the Iron Sheik. It was something that we were required to tackle in order to tell a wrestling story at all, not just the story of G.L.O.W., which was super freeing because it’s something you would feel uncomfortable taking on in any other context.” Flahive agrees: “It’s so much a part of that world. We have Kia Stevens in our cast [as Tamme AKA Welfare Queen] who’s a wrestler in real life, and Chavo Guerrero Jr. came in as a wrestling coach. They were both very honest about the characters they’ve had to play and scenarios they’ve been put in in their careers – what they felt, and how they responded – which was incredibly helpful.

Stevens was in fact the only member of the G.L.O.W. cast who had any wrestling experience; all the other actors were complete novices (much like the original women of G.L.O.W.), which, Flahive notes, was the show’s creators’ most gargantuan challenge – after the lengthy casting process, that is. “Our casting director, Jen Euston, turned over every single rock for these parts: we wanted people who could do grounded, naturalistic performances as well as big, comedic ones in the ring,” she says. “We were also looking for relative unknowns, women you hadn’t seen on every other show yet. Then there was that fact that they had to be willing to train in wrestling – to do their own stunts.” This was an extremely daunting task for all involved, the final cast given only three weeks of training before shooting commenced. “It was a huge roll of the dice,” Flahive laughs, “but it was miraculous to see how well they all took to it! During the first week of filming, we broke the wrestling ring, but nothing else really went wrong; it was the most thrilling thing to pull off.”

“That’s what was so empowered about the original G.L.O.W. – these women coming together to do something totally new with their bodies” – Carly Mensch

The energy that the actors bring, not only to the ring, but to the entire series, boasts a similar magic to that of the original series. Each of the ten episodes is half an hour long, and focusses in on individual characters in turn – revealing the paths that have defined them and delivered them into the G.L.O.W. universe in all its camp, synth-heavy splendour. To conjure this spandexed, hairsprayed-filled sphere, Mensch and Flahive spent hours poring over newspaper headlines from the 1980s, plumbing historical sources such as Reagan’s diaries and, of course, watching countless back episodes of the real G.L.O.W., alongside a wide range of 80s classics, from Desperately Seeking Susan and Rocky Balboa and Body Double and Working Girl. Just as Stranger Things revisits the 80s sci-fi and horror heyday, G.L.O.W. rolls the John Hughes, John Waters, Footloose and Fame elements of the era into one, invigorating ball – and it proves just as irresistible. “People have said they watched the show and then went and dusted off their old roller skates, which is just what we wanted,” says Mensch. “That’s what was so empowered about the original G.L.O.W. – these women coming together to do something totally new with their bodies – and it’d be amazing if our series inspires people in a similar way.”

G.L.O.W. is on Netflix now.