Monday, December 5, 2022 Dec 5, 2022
52° F Dallas, TX
Sports

Q&A: Ahead of WrestleMania, Stephanie McMahon Steps Into Our Ring

Few people in WWE have held more job titles. And none of them had Andre The Giant as a childhood best friend.
By |
Stephanie McMahon
Courtesy of WWE

WWE is not a professional wrestling company so much as a global monolith, with 800 full-time employees, more than $1 billion in revenue last year, and subsidiaries on six continents. It’s a hell of a climb in the 40 years since Vince McMahon bought the company from his father, Vincent, and began to scale up the operation.

And, over the last two decades, few have been more instrumental in the company’s growth than McMahon’s daughter, Stephanie, the chief brand officer. Her WWE career began as a teenager modeling merchandise for catalogs. She has worked in sales, the writers’ room, running creative, and inside the ring.

I caught up with her in February to discuss this weekend’s WrestleMania at AT&T Stadium, her career in WWE, her famous family, whether she’ll ever step back into the ring, and more.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

It goes without saying that this is your flagship show. For someone who does not watch WWE, why is WrestleMania the show they have to see? 

I think WrestleMania should be on everyone’s bucket list because of the sheer spectacle of it all. It’s like part rock concert, part Broadway theatrical, part drama, part comedy, you name it. It has every aspect of entertainment all wrapped into one with some of the greatest athleticism you can see in sports or entertainment, all wrapped in a package of—hopefully—over 100,000 people with all kinds of pyrotechnics and augmented reality and video displays that you just can’t get or see anywhere else.

I think this the third year in a row WrestleMania has been two nights. Is it fair to say at this point that you’ll be sticking with the two-day format going forward?

It remains to be seen. The prior two nights were in the middle of the pandemic, so we shall see as we move forward into an endemic world.

What does spreading the wrestling over two days allow you to do besides the obvious drawing potential of selling two different shows over the weekend?

It allows us to tell more stories and feature more talent. In the non-pandemic era, we had fans who traveled from over 60 countries, all 50 states, all coming to share this passion. To give them two nights of WrestleMania versus one, we hope to overdeliver on their expectations and blow them away with our storytelling and athleticism in the ring.

I’m so glad to be talking to you because you have done I think everything there is to do in WWE, right? You’ve seen this business in so many ways. Which job among the many was the most challenging for you? 

By far stepping into the ring against Rowdy Ronda Rousey [laughs]. By far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

How about the most fulfilling?

Oh, gosh. They’re all fulfilling in different ways, Mike. When my father bought WWE from my grandfather, he had this vision of creating one global media company versus a regional wrestling promotion. And he kept going around buying up the other territories and really making his dream come true, and my grandfather, who was from Rockaway, Long Island, would say to him, “Vinnie, why ya gotta rock the boat? Why you gotta rock the boat?” My grandfather passed right before WrestleMania I took place, and every year, when I’m in the stadium, before the people start to come in, I swear I feel his presence. That alone is fulfilling to me. 

Then, when you see the smiles on the faces of our fans who pour into the building, when you hear that “Woooo!” as they’re getting ready for the show, and you have the chance to really see our fans, and see who they are, the joy that this brings? That’s the money right there. That’s the fulfillment.

There has to be one of those jobs, though, that stood out as a more memorable experience or a more difficult one? Something you can say, “Of all the things I’ve done in my career, that was really a unique time.”

I mean, probably for me, and this is not really a business answer, but Connor Michalek, he is an 8-year-old fan who lost his fight against cancer. I had fallen in love with him, and prior to losing his fight, he came to WrestleMania in New Orleans. Having the chance to have Connor sit ringside to watch his very favorite in the world at the time, Daniel Bryan, win the WWE championship and overcome all the odds, and Daniel Bryan going right over to Connor in the front row and showing him the championship and saying, “You did this. You helped me win this. And now you have to win your fight.” And my kids were right—my kids were sitting with him, and my oldest daughter became really good friends with Connor in the short period of time before he passed. I would say that’s probably one of the all-time highlights I could ever have.

There’s no way to discuss WWE without discussing that this is a family business. It’s your family business. What is the biggest misconception of being a McMahon? 

[laughs] The biggest misconception? They’re all true, Mike!

Oh, well, in that case….

[laughs] I’ll answer this way: it’s never boring. It’s always exciting. It’s always a wild ride. And we have the privilege of being part of this business.

I mean, sure. And it’s not like you know anything different, right? This has been your life, and your family has owned this company since before you were born. But let me put it in a different way. In February, it gets widely reported that your brother is let go by the company. It’s a national story with endless speculation and tabloid fodder about what’s happening. And this is your life. This is your family’s life. Do you ever sit back and go, “Man, this is a really weird way to live?”

Well, growing up a McMahon has definitely had its fair share of really incredible moments. But you’re right: I don’t know any different. Wasn’t everyone’s dad on TV you were growing up? Wasn’t everyone’s best friend Andre the Giant like mine was? So that’s just the world that I love, that I grew up in with all these amazing, flamboyant, larger-than-life personalities. It’s like the greatest world to grow up in ever. So I just love what we do, and I’ve loved the business since I can remember. So to me, it’s not necessarily tabloid fodder. But, for sure, everyone was always interested and asking me my family’s business at my friends’ dinner table. 

What’s it like now that you are the mom and your kids are getting raised in another generation of this?

I love it because I have the chance to explain to them what’s really happening and all of the storylines and good versus evil. I remember when they were little, and I was a pretty big villain on the show, trying to explain my character to them. And it’s so funny, I have this video of my youngest daughter, who was maybe about five, cutting an evil promo on our nanny [laughs]. It was so funny. And it makes no sense! But she has all the facials and the voice and pointing her finger. 

That’s fascinating, what they pick up on. Like you said, the content doesn’t make sense, but they’ve seen it, and they see you, and they see your husband [14-time world champion Triple H], and they almost get the broad packaging of what this should be even if they don’t understand the nuances yet.

Right? And I think even for your readers who aren’t necessarily familiar with the business, it’s akin to a Disney storyline. It’s heroes and villains, protagonists versus antagonists. There’s conflict resolution. The only difference is our conflicts are settled inside a 20-by-20-foot ring with some of the greatest action you can see in sports or entertainment.

It’s storytelling at its heart.

Exactly. You have to care about the people in the ring to care about wanting to see them win or lose. And the only way to do that is with backstory. 

Now that your kids are getting older, they understand this world more than your youngest did when she was five. Do any of them want to go into the business in the future?

Yes. My oldest daughter and my youngest daughter. Although I will say, my oldest daughter said to me—and she was young when she said it—“Mama, I don’t want your job. Daddy, I don’t want your job. I want Pop’s job!”

Big shoes to fill!

So we’ll see what happens. My oldest has trained a little bit in the ring, which is funny because I mentioned that one day and it, like, blew up. All of the wrestling media wanted to cover that. But she’s not to be interviewed just yet.

I think you’ve got a few years before you have to worry about that. You mentioned your dad. My father was someone who literally everyone pegged as the guy who would work until the day he died. He passed away three years ago, and that’s exactly what happened. I think people assume the same thing about your father. Do you think they’re right, or could you see a time when he looks at what he created and decides to kick his feet up and rest a bit?

I think you hit the nail on the head. He has said, I think, publicly that he will ‘die in the chair.’ We’ll see. Who knows? Life is long and unpredictable, but somehow, I don’t see him retiring any time soon. And all of that said: I’m really sorry to hear about your dad. 

Thank you very much for that. Going back to yours, there was talk of your father getting back into the ring at 76 years old How does Stephanie McMahon, WWE executive, feel about this idea? How does Stephanie McMahon, Vince’s daughter feel about this idea? And are those two different schools of thought? 

So I’m neither confirming nor denying anything, but in the hypothetical, if I were to see my father get into the ring, I would say probably the same thing I would as an employee working for the company: I feel bad for whoever he’s in there with! Vince McMahon doesn’t lose! Vince McMahon will pull every trick out of the book, and he’ll create some new ones along the way! I am not worried about Vince McMahon at all. I worry about everyone else in there with him.

Alright, fair enough. I’ll let you stick to the party line there [laughs]. What about you? It’s been a little bit since you’ve been in the ring. Are you leaving the door open to go back in there and do it again yourself, or are the boots officially hung up?

Well, no one’s boots are ever officially hung up. But that being said, Ronda put me in my place about four years ago, so I highly doubt I would make a return to the ring unless it were exactly the perfect right thing that everyone needed me to do.

You’re a great person to get perspective from on this because you’ve wrestled, but that’s only a sliver of your WWE career. Like you said, nobody’s boot are ever hung up. People love to come back. Even John Cena came back last year, and he’s about as big as it gets in Hollywood. What is it being in the ring that’s so addictive? And what’s the best part of being in the wrestling ring?

So there is nothing that comes close to the energy of our fans. You’ll hear The Rock talk about being electrified, and he’ll show you the goosebumps on his arm when he walks out. There is nothing that feels like that energy. It is a thousand percent addictive. It is like nothing else in the world. And it is the magic that is created between our fans and our superstars. I don’t think it exists anywhere else.

Yeah, that sounds about right. And that’s the case for you when you’ve been in the ring?

It feels like that—like magic. It’s a connection. You are feeding off of the same energy as the audience, and it’s like a dance in there. There is nothing like it, and I have to take my hat off to our talent who were there without fans for so long. In the ring, every night. The adrenaline helps a lot—it helps offset any of the physical punishment of being in the ring. But when they’re not there? I can’t imagine what that was like for our talent, and they did it, and they did it with smiles on their faces and gave it their all every single our night because that’s what we do for our audience. Our audience comes first. 

You hear people say it all the time, and I expect you’d be a great person to ask because you’ve done it so well: is it really more fun to play the bad guy than the good guy?

Unequivocally, yes. [laughs] But I suppose that depends on the person. I find it more fun playing the heel, hands down. I hate being a babyface. It’s terrible!

Have you met people in the real world outside of character and they’ve been jarred by gap between you in the ring and who you are in your day-to-day life?

Not so much. I think our audience is really savvy, and they get the difference between the character and the personality. So I haven’t that too much. Social media’s a little bit different, though. 

So as part of this package we’re running in the magazine, I have to do an essay on why I love professional wrestling—the pure art form of it. I have my reasons, but what are yours? Why do you love it? 

Um, gosh. And I have to say, WWE, I can’t just say professional wrestling—

I’m aware, I’m aware. “Sports entertainment.”

[laughs] I love it. I’ve loved it since I can remember, since I was a kid watching and seeing my dad do the announcing and, eventually, commentary. It really is a storybook come to life right in front of you. For me, it was a little different because I wasn’t exposed to it as itself first. I always had the sort of dichotomy of backstage and what the audience saw. So, for me, it was little bit different.

But it is like this storybook come to life with larger-than-life, colorful characters right in front of your face that tell a story not only with words and facial expressions but then the art form of professional wrestling, which does take place in the ring. It really is performance art. And not many people understand that. The ability to take the crowd on a ride, on an emotional roller coaster, to make them cheer or boo or stand up on their feet or throw their hands to their face in shock and awe—I mean, that’s the art form. To make people feel. And when you can make people feel, there is something intangible about that. It just draws you in.

Going back to your relationship with Andre, I’ve heard you talk about it before. He’s such a larger-than-life character, both literally and figuratively. Who was the person you knew, not just what people saw on television?

I knew my friend, and I didn’t like how people treated him differently just because of his size. And that was actually how we bonded, because I asked him one day if it bothered him. And I think he was surprised that such a little person would ask him such a big question. That was the genesis of our relationship. 

How old were you at that time?

Around 7 or 8? It was right around WrestleMania I.

That’s really powerful. And it started what sounds like a beautiful relationship

I was really lucky. I mean, my whole life is just a fairy tale. I’m very privileged.

Last one for you: what is your favorite WrestleMania memory? 

There are so many. One of my earliest ones—because of my relationship with Andre, I was obviously keyed in when he was involved with anything, and WrestleMania III at the Pontiac Silverdome, [when he wrestled] against Hulk Hogan. That may be one of most favorite WrestleMania moments not because of the moment that happened but because of the promotion, because of how big it all was when it went down. That’s when we broke the world indoor attendance record. The Pontiac Silverdome doesn’t even exist anymore, and to think that I was there that night is pretty powerful stuff.

Author

Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

View Profile
Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…