Queen of the Ring: Enter the World of Drag Wrestling
A Showdown Between Truth and Illusion
- Text: Chloé Cooper Jones
- Photography: Thomas Northcut, Katelyn Mooney
SSENSE and Victory Journal team up on five stories related to style in sport.
“So, what you’re telling me is not necessarily the truth,” I say to Rick Cataldo, founder of A Matter of Pride, a Brooklyn-based wrestling organization that describes itself as “Rupaul’s Drag Race meets WWE Wrestle Mania.” Cataldo sits in front of me in a café in Bay Ridge, the Brooklyn neighborhood where he has lived his entire life. His skin is slick with sweat, he gleams; he’s hairless—his head, face, and eyebrows shaved clean; his arms are covered in bruises. He nods his head in response to my question and takes a bite of the sandwich he’s been trying to finish for the past hour. Behind him, sirens from a passing ambulance blare.
“You’re telling me a lie. A story?” I ask.
“Always,” he says. A few days before we meet, I stand ringside in a back room of a bar in Bushwick, waiting. The wrestling ring takes up the majority of the room, leaving space for a single-file line of people to stand at its edge. The wrestlers are hidden in a corner behind a curtain, which is held aloft precariously by slouching poles. A piece of curtain falls, revealing the performers sitting in clumps, looking at their phones. There are murmurs about the low turnout. It’s true, the crowd seems thin, but they are invested and antsy for the show to start; they roar to life when, minutes later, the lights dim and the first notes of Fergie’s “Hungry” trickle from the speakers.
The curtain parts, revealing a backlit figure, glowing pink. A hand fan pops open with a snap and the figure fans himself, soaking in the adulation of the crowd. The whole room is awash in the pink light emanating from this figure: Rick Cataldo, The Boy Diva. A pink wig sits atop his head like two extra heads. He whisks the hem of his long brocade gown back and forth as he glides down the steps and enters the ring. The crowd shouts his name, but their cheers wither as Cataldo begins to speak.
“Where the fuck was that 15 years ago?” he shouts at his audience, a clear indictment. “You aren’t really smart, are you? You don’t know who the fuck I am and what the fuck I’ve done for this industry? You’re all like, ‘Oh, queer wresting, where’s Sonny Kiss?’ Fuck Sonny Kiss.” The crowd is uncomfortably quiet for a beat, then hisses and jeers. “Fuck the pride you have for each other! Fuck AEW! Fuck Sonny Kiss!”
All Elite Wrestling (AEW) is a brand-new professional wrestling organization that will begin airing a live, weekly TV show on TNT in October. AEW’s stated mission has been to convince the public that “wrestling is for everyone.” They quickly signed Sonny Kiss, an openly gay, gender-neutral wrestler who, alongside Cataldo, helped establish A Matter of Pride wresting three years prior. Cataldo and Kiss are now estranged.
“Without me,” continues Cataldo, “there’d be no queer representation in wrestling. This is the only queen of the ring. Take a good, hard, long look, Brooklyn.”
Later, in the café, I ask Cataldo if the personas wrestlers adopt are mostly reflections of their true selves.
“Definitely,” he tells me. “Great heels—the villains in the wrestling world—are often sociopaths.”
“Sonny Kiss is the most condescending, contradicting person,” Cataldo says. He contemplates his sandwich. The music in the café grows louder, somehow synching itself with Cataldo’s swelling irritation. “He’s not a great wrestler, not a great performer. He can’t for the life of him cut a promo, he can’t engage with the audience. He wouldn’t say I was his mentor, but I mentored him. But I worry he’ll fall flat on his face getting caught up in being this queer representation in wrestling.”
I ask Cataldo if he resents Kiss’s sudden rise in the wrestling world.
“Not at all,” he says, “Queer wrestlers are desperate.”
He does, however, resent companies, like AEW, that he feels pander to LGBTQ audiences for profit. “Companies want to use gay identities. Did you see this year’s gay pride parade? It was like a commercial for T-Mobile and the Gap! You’ve got drag queens at the mall in New York to Miami to LA and every small town in between. That’s great if a queer needs a job, but it isn’t a genuine integration into culture. They’ll put a rainbow flag on their flyers and say, ‘OK, queers, see you next week!’ That’s straight up pandering.”
For A Matter of Pride, wrestling is simply a vessel for the larger aim of the telling queer stories by a queer roster of performers for queer audiences. Wrestling, as the vehicle drag/queer performance, puts athletic skill front and center. “Our events are like seeing a very gay, very drag-tastic Marvel movie,” Cataldo tells me.
At 14, Rick Cataldo was in trouble. He was doing drugs, getting into fights, sneaking into clubs; he lived life fast, grew up fast, and was about to be left behind to repeat the eigth grade. Instead, he dropped out of school and began training to wrestle professionally. Soon he was on the road, performing nightly as the Boy Diva, an openly gay, femme, “Paris Hilton-esque” heel, who wore a long, blonde wig and presented as catty and self-obsessed. He was not always well-received on tour. Promoters barred him from the men’s locker rooms, throwing his bags out, leaving him to change in public bathrooms with the fans. Some guys in the ring went out of their way to hurt him, deliberately trying to knock his teeth out or kicking him in the head so hard that he now has scars.
“I never said anything, never complained,” he says. “It was tough, brutal, but those two-to-ten minutes when you’re out there in the ring performing... it’s better than any drug, it’s better than any other adrenaline rush. It’s almost as good as love itself.”
When Cataldo tells me stories about the pain, rejection, and trauma he’s faced in pursuit of his life’s calling— “I’ve seen so many people die, overdosing on painkillers, mixing muscle relaxers with alcohol just to take the edge off”—his anger toward Sonny Kiss and AEW takes on a tragic shape.
“We’re told as wrestlers that everyone is a mark, which is what we call the fans. You’re always working people. It’s something you learn over and over. Wrestling’s roots come from circus carnies. That legacy remains. We’re all working each other. In this conversation alone, I’ve hidden things.”
“Because I’m a mark too?” It occurs to me then that the feud with Kiss and AEW could be manufactured, nothing more than a juicy story.
“Of course you’re a mark,” he says, “Everyone is. Everything you do or say is part of the work. You’re always lying, most importantly to yourself. This business will break your heart in more ways than one. It will break your body. It shaves years off your life. I’m not even 30 yet and most mornings I can’t walk, I can’t get out of bed. I can’t function as a human being.”
“One fall in wrestling—and this is scientifically proven,” Cataldo says, “is the equivalent of a 38 mile-per-hour car crash. We train for a long time, so before we even get out there to do a show, we’ve been through thousands of car crashes. I’ve been wrestling for 15 years. I’ve been in over a million car crashes.”
So why put yourself through all of this? I ask him.
“Because being in the ring is the closest thing to feeling like myself. For a moment, I’m godlike. A superhero. Wrestlers outside of the ring will do anything to get inside the ring. It’s why people do horrible things to others, why gay workers will do desperate things. They’ll work for free, drive for hours, take abuse, just to stand in the ring. Behind the scenes, people do a lot of shady, grimy stuff. AEW—to put it plainly—some of their top guys are the most heinous people I’ve ever met and yet they’re the ones on the forefront saying, ‘Wrestling’s about love and change and anyone could be a wrestler and…’” Cataldo stops speaking, shakes his head.
There are limits, though, to what these wrestlers will tolerate. Under the condition of anonymity, a performer formerly associated with A Matter of Pride tells me that he and others have chosen to distance themselves from Cataldo. Allegedly, after a highly successful event in April, several participants weren’t paid what they’d been promised or were paid months late after threatening to post negative things about Cataldo on Twitter. In both the drag world and the wrestling world, my source tells me, performers are constantly getting ripped off and face few avenues for recourse. It’s a cash business and not always a strictly legal one. As a result, both worlds are filled with exploiters and opportunists.
Cataldo insists he’s always transparent with performers as to how they’ll get paid. But he does admit that his self-described hyphenate role—as mentor, mother, promoter, performer, and storywriter—can sometimes get complicated.
“Some people don’t like me, and I’m not talking about homophobes, I mean gays who think I am the person in life that I am in the ring who’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s just a fat queen, he doesn’t represent me.’ Also, I was an original, so I never had someone like me to mentor me, and that’s how I’ve made a lot of mistakes. This is not a team sport.”
When the show is over, I see Cataldo whiz past me, gown unbuttoned, shoeless, a cigarette stuck between his red lips. The other wrestlers were out on the dance floor, drinks in hand, laughing, wigs off. Cataldo does not join them. After his cigarette, he returns to the ring and begins cleaning, organizing, packing up. He takes a few deep breaths. Alone in the ring, looking around the empty room, standing amidst the glitter and beer cans he says to himself, “I was just here doing it.” And it is almost like a little prayer.
“It looks like a joke sometimes, says Cataldo, “but in reality, I’m in power. Queers can have power, queers can be villains.”
“There’s so much you can do with an evil heel character,” he says, “I want people to feel sympathy for a character like mine. To have the crowd say, ‘Thank you, Cataldo’ and minutes later yell, ‘Fuck you, Cataldo,’ then I’m like, Ah, I got you. I want you to hate me, I want you to think I’m the vilest creature, because that’s a good story. And if that makes me the devil, that’s fine, because I know I can be a beautiful devil.”
Chloé Cooper Jones is a philosophy professor, writer, and journalist. She lives in Brooklyn.
- Text: Chloé Cooper Jones
- Photography: Thomas Northcut, Katelyn Mooney
- Collaborators: Victory Journal / Aaron Amaro, Chris Isenberg, Kate Perkins, Nathaniel Friedman, Shane Lyons, Tim Young
- Date: November 14, 2019