"You always want to try to make things better”: Bianca Belair is bringing Black pride to the WWE

The wrestling entertainment company has a history of bigotry, but Belair — and her ponytail Destiny — are set on changing perceptions.

Dewey Saunders
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Like a Black pro-wrestling Spider-Woman, Bianca Belair understands that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Standing at the intersection of gender and race in a male-dominated sport, she knows people look to her as a role model. “It just comes with the territory,” Belair says via Zoom. She’s the first Black woman to win the WWE Royal Rumble, and along with Sasha Banks, headlined WrestleMania in 2021 — the first time two Black women have done so. “I take that responsibility very seriously. It's a huge part of who I am and what I do.”

Professional wrestling has never been the most culturally sensitive art form. Historically, it's thrived on stereotypes — Barry Horowitz, who donned a Star of David on his trunks, entered the ring to the Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila” and lost every match; the Wild Samoans, Afa and Sika, patriarchs of the legendary Samoan wrestling dynasty the Anoa’is, were portrayed as savages who ate raw flesh; and Kamala was "The Ugandan Giant" who came out rockin' a loincloth while doing some weird belly clapping dance. During the late-90s Attitude Era peak, when Stone Cold Steve Austin was stomping mudholes into the competition and setting TV ratings ablaze, most women’s wrestling matches consisted of superstars tearing each others’ clothes off. Federations and bookers used sexism and stereotypes to market and profit off performers. These superstars were spectacular athletes and artists, but they were saddled with problematic gimmicks.

Belair recognizes the importance of representation. She grew up idolizing Black female track superstars. When she entered the WWE, her hero was Florida-bred wrestler Naomi. Belair’s excited to be able to be a part of a new class of diverse women superstars inspiring others. “Representation really shows other people their place in the world,” she says. “It gives them an example of how they're viewed in the world. It gives an example [of] where they fit in the world.”

Wrestling history “is never going to go away,” Belair says. “But the important thing is to build off of that history. And you always want to try to make things better.” When Belair started her run in NXT (WWE’s developmental property) in 2016, there were only two Black women, but she’s positive and upbeat when speaking about how quickly that number of Black female superstars has multiplied in the current WWE lineup. By 2020, she says she looked around the locker room and saw “so many” Black female performers — some who liked anime, who liked Love and Hip Hop, who played piano, who each “represented being Black in our own way,” Belair says. That’s part of why she chooses not to dwell on past struggles and instead focuses on the progress, saying that today’s WWE “transcends across all religions, races, genders, ethnicities. It doesn't matter. Anybody can watch WWE and relate to it.”

Today, women wrestlers regularly appear as the main event on WWE’s weekly nationally-televised programs like Raw and Smackdown, along with Premium Live Events. Until 2019, female wrestlers were banned from performing in Saudi Arabia, where WWE holds regular mega-events, but Belair has performed there twice since. Belair was the first Black woman to win a Royal Rumble, which is wrestling’s version of the All-Star Game and the playoffs combined, and became the Smackdown Women’s Champ after winning her WrestleMania match with Sasha Banks. The WrestleMania moment earned her an ESPY Award.

Still, Belair knows she doesn’t “have the privilege to just go out there and perform. … I'm representing my people. I'm representing my culture. I'm representing my community. I'm representing where I come from," she said in her WWE Chronicle documentary. That pressure could very well destroy others, but Belair’s superpower is being herself. Not perfect, but authentic.

Belair calls herself “the EST of WWE,” a term she came up with because she’s “the strongEST, the fastEST, the roughEST, the toughEST, the greatEST, the bEST.” But, at 32 years old, she isn’t an overnight superstar. The Knoxville, Tennessee native didn’t grow up with much, but her parents scraped by to enroll her in gymnastics before she turned five and send her to private school until third grade. Entertainment and athletics are in her genes — Her father performed in a band named the Blair Brothers, and her brother played football — and it showed when she took up track and field at the age of four, going on to win numerous state titles. Her hero was Florence Griffith Joyner, a.k.a. Flo-Jo, the former Olympian who zipped past multiple track and field world records. “She wasn't just an athlete,” Belair says. “She was a fashionista. She was unapologetically herself. She was loud. She was bold. And you could tell she loved doing what she was doing.”

But replicating that success wasn’t so easy. Belair stumbled before finding herself, struggling with binge eating disorder, bulimia, and depression — things performers have never traditionally acknowledged in pro-wrestling, a once toxic industry where bodies piled up from untreated addiction and mental illness. In high school, she dieted to lose weight in an attempt to run faster and earn a college track scholarship but when her weight plateaued, she turned to bulimia. She believed it was working, and she even scored that scholarship, but was taken out with an injury, which she claims was caused by her body’s lack of proper nutrients, during her high school senior year. In college, Belair began binging, then purging, spurred on by a coach who encouraged her to lose weight so she could get “back to the girl you were in high school.” During her college career, she transferred schools three times, always scoring another scholarship, hoping each new setting would spark the change she needed to get herself together. She blamed others for her problems: “It’s the coach’s fault. It’s the program’s fault. I’m not running fast because of this,” she said on the Chasing Glory with Lilian Garcia podcast. She went on antidepressant medication, then abandoned it cold turkey, diving deeper into her depression. She kept her battles hidden, with fear of feeling embarrassed, alone, or judged. “I was already beaten because I already beat myself in my brain,” she says.

After surviving a suicide attempt during her sophomore year at Texas A&M – the second college she enrolled in – Belair found herself in a mental hospital. When she returned to school after about a week, she says her coach, Vince Anderson, benched her until she learned to care for her mental health. “Until you're right up here, you can't be right on the track,” she recalls him telling her, with “up here” referring to her head. “Until you’re right up here, you can't be your best at what you're doing anywhere else.” Her healing came after she finished out her sophomore year and moved back home, opened up to her parents, took accountability for her actions, and threw herself into therapy.

WWE

Still, it took Belair years to find her way to the WWE. After graduating an All-American and All-SEC selection at the University of Tennessee in 2012, she shifted her focus from track to CrossFit and powerlifting competitions. But an injury led to her being diagnosed with slipping rib syndrome — a condition where a rib shifts out of place, causing crippling pain — sidelining her and concluding her CrossFit career. She was working phone sales for a flavoring company in Atlanta when WWE Hall of Famer Mark Henry slid into her DMs after discovering clips of her performing CrossFit. He asked Belair if she had ever considered becoming a WWE superstar. "I can get you a tryout,” he wrote in his message, “but you have to do the rest of the work.”

Seven years later, when her music hits, Belair beams as she skips to the ring. She makes all her own ring gear, often dressing as a modern-day Black superhero paying homage to those who paved the way. She wears clothes collaged with Black historical icons or emblazoned with the saying “Black History in the Making.” And she’s not just an athlete. Rockin’ a knee-length ponytail braid (and secret weapon) named Destiny, she’s also a style icon. She’s unapologetically herself. She’s loud. She’s bold. And it’s clear she loves doing what she’s doing.

Belair’s theme song, created by WWE’s former in-house music producers the CFO$, takes shots at those who put her down to lift themselves up. The chorus: “I never needed you at all/Think I'd fall down/I'ma watch you fall down.” When she was at her lowest, she listened to people telling her she was “too loud, too bold, too bright.” She was self-conscious, second-guessing herself. “I would dim my light,” she says. It was only when she realized “this isn't about me. This is about you,” that she discovered her “EST.” Now she knows there’s no such thing as too much shine.

Because Belair is vulnerable, she hopes other people can be, too. “It's a never-ending journey. It's a marathon. I still deal with it now,” she says. “But I know my triggers a little bit better. And I know how to manage it more.”

It’s all about how you talk to yourself. “Sometimes you fake it till you make it. … If somebody asks you if they’ll see you at WrestleMania in a year, you better say ‘Yes,’ because if you say ‘No,’ you ain't got no business being there,” she says.

She’s learned to surround herself with the right support group and to prioritize her mental health. “I think a lot of people think self-care has to be like you're meditating,” Belair tells me, but for her, “It's just knowing when to stop and being okay with not being productive… My self-care doesn't look pretty all the time, even if that's me laying in the bed and eating and watching Netflix for the day.” Belair enjoys going to her favorite restaurants, baking cakes, and reading Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.

Belair believes fans play a part in supporting a healthy industry where performers tend to their mental health – just by being fans. Cheer for your favorites, but don’t attack their opponents below the belt, especially on social media. Lift your heroes up. Performers are “more than just wrestlers,” she says. “We're humans. And sometimes we need breaks, and sometimes we need encouragement. Sometimes we need love.”

WWE

For Belair, love means caring for herself and for her community. During Black History Month in 2020, she gathered all the NXT Black female superstars and put together the Melanin Magic photoshoot to showcase how multifaceted they were, each creating their own definition of what it meant to be Black. After George Floyd’s murder later that year, she wanted to do “more than just put out a tweet.” She knew that if she, a Black woman, was so stuck not knowing how to help, others likely also needed guidance. So she talked to friends who gave her suggestions for events to attend and organizations to support — which led her to create The Culture Connection, a website listing recommendations for books, documentaries, and Black businesses to support, with her husband and fellow WWE superstar Montez Ford. She personally programmed the site to be a resource for people of all backgrounds to get connected, educate themselves, and help out.

Throughout our conversation, Belair seamlessly shifts between topics and issues she cares about. One minute, she’s talking about social justice and books; the next, she’s boasting about her plan to whoop Becky Lynch at this year’s WrestleMania on April 2 and reclaim her Women’s Championship title. It’s all the same to her: part of a larger mission to move and inspire people.

“I think a big part of my audience is people that look like me and little girls that look like me or women that look like me. But that's not my only audience,” she says. This past February, while doing interviews to promote the Saudi Arabian event Elimination Chamber, she discussed the importance of Saudi Arabian women seeing female superstars killing it in the ring. Then she realized, “It's not just important for women to see it. It was just as important for little boys to see [women performers] in this light and for men to see women in this light and have this example.”

To Belair, being the “EST” means striving “to be the absolute best version of yourself,” and that’s the example she hopes fans take from her. She loves seeing fans push themselves to enroll in school, to apply for jobs they thought were out of their reach, to be their bEST.