Clooney and Keibler at the Oscars.
The year is 2002. Stacy Keibler, wearing black Daisy Dukes and a black baby tee, walks on tan spindly legs down what looks like a smokey driveway into an arena of screaming fans. She climbs the steps to a wrestling ring, and slips her right leg between the second and third ropes. Maneuvering from the outside of the ropes to the inside is not the quickest process, and so, in a move that has become her signature provocation, she slowly bends over, giving the audience a good look at her butt, as she slips her torso under the top rope before swinging her famously 42-inch long left leg in after her. She raises her arms and receives her applause as her opponent, Trish Stratus, enters the arena. Stratus — more conservatively dressed in black stretch pants and a long black coat — enters the ring without excessive fanfare, jumping grasshopper-like between the first and second ropes to face Stacy.
“We all realize Stacy isn’t an accomplished in-ring wrestler like Trish Stratus is, so what does Mr. McMahon do for his personal assistant?” growls one of the male announcers, reminding viewers of a key plot point in Stacy’s wrestling character’s storyline: She gets special treatment because she was “hired” as WWE head Vince McMahon’s “assistant” after performing a striptease in the ring for him. “Well, he puts her into a bra and panties match-up!”
As Keibler whacks Stratus in the back and she falls to the floor, the announcers keep the “plot” going: “All Stacy has to do to win the ‘title’ is take off Trish’s pants and shirt.” Keibler repeatedly picks up Stratus, who is shorter but more ripped, and slams her back-down onto the floor. Eventually she strips Stratus of her shirt, Stratus strips Keibler of hers, and the two are leg-locked on the floor trying to rip each other’s bottoms off. Just when Keibler seems to have the match in the bag, Stratus flips Keibler onto the floor so that she’s doing a near-headstand between Stratus’s legs, and pulls her shorts skyward, revealing Keibler’s matching panties. The loser is left face-down on the floor wearing just her matching underwear set and her tan, writhing in fake despair as Stratus skips away — with both her pants and her title.
Ten years later, Keibler is walking the red carpet at the Academy Awards on the arm of one of the world’s most famous and lusted-after actors, wearing a shimmering gold gown by Marchesa that debuted on a New York Fashion Week runway just a few days before. She is widely praised as one of the best-dressed women of the night — laurels that normally go to movie stars like Angelina Jolie and Cameron Diaz over a Best Actor nominee’s girlfriend-slash-former wrestling star.
“I was at Fashion Week, saw it on the runway, and was like I need to have that, and that was it!” she tells a reporter on the red carpet from Clooney’s side when asked about her outfit. “It was the only dress I tried on.” She’s finally getting attention for wearing clothes instead of taking them off, for winning one of the world’s most-watched evening gown-wearing competitions instead of losing a pretend strip fight.
The gold dress is the latest in a series of flawless, if somewhat vanilla, things she’s worn while making media appearances with Clooney as he promotes his Oscar-nominated film, “The Descendants.” For much of their courtship, which began last summer, she managed to be memorable without being risky, handling all the inane red carpet questions that came her way like a pro. And while their relationship seems to benefit both of their careers — Clooney upholds his image as a sexy bachelor, Keibler enjoys Academy Awards-level exposure — she faces much harsher scrutiny for the matchup. Not only because she’s not Clooney’s equal, career-wise, but because her fame is of a certain flavor. She’s the former Baltimore Ravens cheerleader who became a star in the horrifically sexist WWE, who placed third in the second season of “Dancing With the Stars” (goodbye wrestling fan sites, hello Us Weekly!), who now dates an A-list movie star and looks awesome in evening gowns.
So now, having made the exceptionally rare transition from wrestling star to mainstream celebrity, her biggest career hurdle may be maintaining her fame if and when her relationship with Clooney comes to an untimely end.
You could interpret women wrestlers’ motivations in a number of ways. Some could be using it to leverage their careers as entertainers to the mainstream (the job of a WWE performer is to act on a stage, after all). You could also see them as strong women of the unusual breed that bridges the gap between athleticism and sex appeal, something Stratus prides herself on. Or you could look at them as the fans and Vince McMahon’s marginalized, hypersexualized playthings, some of whom used their role as leverage to land Playboy spreads.
“I think she’s easily the best known mainstream female to come from the world of professional wrestling, and probably in the top five best-known wrestlers — including men — over the past, I would say 40, 50 years,” says Dave Skolnick, the co-editor and publisher of Wrestling Perspective (which calls itself “the thinking fan’s newsletter”). “She can’t wrestle [well], but she always had very good presence in the ring.” Plus, she’s hot and danced well, which is just what WWE’s adolescent male fans wanted.
Keibler, 32, was born in Baltimore, where she started dance classes by the time she was five. She went to an all-girls Catholic high school, and later Towson University, where she studied mass communication. She became a Baltimore Ravens cheerleader at the age of 18, but her big break came almost two years later, in 1999, when she won a contest to become a “Nitro Girl” in World Championship Wrestling — basically one of a troupe of fly girls who danced around the ring and looked hot when the cameras panned to them before commercial breaks. Winning the much-hyped contest maximized her nascent exposure, and 4.4 million viewers watched the victory dance she got to perform as part of her prize (which also included $10,000).
Keibler’s star continued to rise when the World Wrestling Federation bought the WCW in 2001, and her contract was retained. (The organization became the WWE after a legal battle with the World Wildlife Fund over exclusive rights to the WWF acronym.) The company recognized Keibler’s popularity, and elevated her character from a sideline dancer to a valet who “assisted” the male wrestlers. Eventually, in large part due to audience demand, she started wrestling — though fans agree she never had a particularly talent for it.
“She was an anomaly,” says Skolnick, who also covers politics for Youngstown, Ohio’s daily paper, the Vindicator. The WWE often casts fitness models, “because while they may not have wrestling training — and most of them don’t — they have a very nice healthy body so they can maybe eventually move them into wrestling. And there are women who are trained wrestlers who are exceptionally good professional wrestlers, but most of them don’t look like Stacy Keibler — they’re attractive, but they’re not as beautiful as she is.”
While Skolnick is probably not the only wrestling fan to suspect Keibler was using the WWE as a stepping stone to mainstream celebrity, Stratus says “that won’t get you far” in the organization. “There have been a few girls that have come along and said, oh, well, I can do Playboy. I really believe the fans can pick up on these things. To sign up for this job, you’ve got to love it because it takes up every moment of your life.” (While some female wrestlers in Keibler’s heyday went on to appear in Playboy, which had partnerships with the WCW, Keibler turned down two invitations to pose for it.)
Stratus says that she was on the road around 300 days out of the year, doing matches four nights a week. When wrestlers aren’t performing or traveling, they’re working out and rehearsing their scenes. When they have time off, they go home to do their laundry. The women often did photo shoots between shows, which they’d prep for by going on even more strict low-carb diets.
The most significant time off wrestlers were likely to get was to recover from injuries. “As a performer you are literally taking the falls — the physicality is real. I have a missing knuckle, I’ve broken teeth, couple of broken bones, a herniated disk,” Stratus says. “I think it’s so grueling because there’s no recovery, there’s no down season, there’s no off season. When I retired in 2006 one of the reasons was because my body just needed the break.” And, for the record, she confirms that yes, being slammed on a table to break it in half “hurts.”
Stratus, who performed many matches with Keibler, describes her as a “great performer.” Stratus, Keibler, and Torrie Wilson were amongst a group of women known as the “modern Divas” (the WWE refers to its female talent as Divas). Before them, Chyna had become a female champion, but there was no real women’s division within the company; they were among the first to not only showcase brute strength in matches, but also be seen as hot babes who made great bikini models.
When Keibler got the opportunity to do “Dancing With the Stars” in 2006 (the show’s second season), the end of her wrestling career seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Stratus sees that show as “a big turning point for her.” “When you’re in wrestling it does take up so much of your every day that you can’t explore other options.” After placing third on the show, Keibler left the WWE.
She had moved to L.A. in 2004 (and roomed with Wilson, a good friend), and continued modeling for magazines like Maxim and FHM, appearing on their “hot” lists and generally getting attention for being … well, hot. She also took acting parts in TV shows — a couple of episodes of George Lopez here, and a few of “What About Brian” there. She wasn’t quite making it in Hollywood, but her persistence was paying off more than that of most aspiring actresses.
Meanwhile the WWE underwent a transformation to aid Vince McMahon’s wife Linda McMahon’s Connecticut Senate seat campaign in 2009. The company toned things down by cutting out bra-and-panty matches and male-on-female violence (so: no more whacking women on wooden tables to break them in half). A former WWE employee tells Shift that the McMahon family, which comprises the board of directors, realized that this was a profitable move: appealing to children instead of adolescent boys meant selling tickets to kids and their parents. But one thing remained constant: the difficulty of working for Vince McMahon. This former employee, who describes him as “impossible,” explains, “Most of the decisions that have ever been made by Vince McMahon are very rarely about values — they’re always about business.”
McMahon has a hand in every casting decision and every storyline for every performer, which gets especially strange when he’s a character in the plot lines. “If you’re the boss and there’s a hot girl who is on your payroll, and you’re in charge of writing the storyline — I don’t want to say it’s a casting couch situation, but it’s similar to that because it’s, ‘I’m the director, I’m the writer, and I’m the star, so I’m going to cast you as my girlfriend and we’re going to make out in front of my wife and people are going to boo us,’” says this source. “You can say he’s trying to get people to boo him [for the sake of the show], and you can also say he’s taking advantage of the situation.” (In addition to the strip tease, Keibler did really make out with McMahon on stage in front of his wife, per the script.)
But being a woman in the WWE — on stage or behind the scenes — is especially difficult even without the awkwardness of McMahon’s personal involvement in the shows. “It’s a man’s world in that space,” says the source. “The energy is very masculine, the writing is incredibly masculine.” And Keibler thrived in it, on the outside anyway, for more than half a decade.
According to Us Weekly senior editor Justin Ravitz, details on how Keibler and Clooney became a couple are fuzzy, but they share mutual friends and “apparently knew each other for years.” Prior to Keibler, Clooney dated Italian model and TV presenter Elisabetta Canalis, and before her, Las Vegas cocktail waitress Sarah Larson. “Stacy was not really who you would expect George Clooney to rebound with,” Ravitz says. “Everyone always wanted George to date another A-list actress. Like, he should date Jennifer Aniston or Sandra Bullock.”
But why bother when his dating habits only seem only to bolster his career? Rather than begrudging Clooney for the manner in which he goes through women, fans end up inexplicably hating the women, and joyfully forgetting about her when the relationship ends, as if we’re all telling her “I told you so” and are in on some joke with George. (Canalis has hung onto the spotlight longer than many, thanks to medium-high profile flings with True Blood star Mehcad Brooks and Jackass star Steve O. Oh, and a stint on “Dancing With the Stars.”)
But thanks to Clooney, Keibler’s enjoying an unprecedented level of fame — and of scrutiny. Avoiding missteps, let alone truly owning the role, as a very famous man’s significant other — as Kate Middleton could surely tell you — is a full-time job. The first paparazzi photos that emerged of her and Clooney as a couple leaving a Toronto Film Festival depict a cluelessly styled Keibler in a tiered ruffle mini-dress with a wispy and evidently dyed blond bun atop her head. These days, when they’re not on the red-carpet circuit, you might see Keibler pulling up to his house in a black SUV, riding a jet ski with him in Mexico, or making solo appearances shopping for watches or holding pom poms in a Vegas nightclub at a Super Bowl party.
But if Keibler wants to hang onto her fame when her relationship with Clooney ends (as it invariably will — he’s gone on record several times as saying he’ll never get married again), she’ll have to figure out how to make women everywhere like her, too (Angelina Jolie is, hilariously, rumored not to). But how? “I’m still kind of fuzzy on what it is she does now,” says Ravitz. “I know she tweets a lot, I know she’s a spokeswoman for a lot of random little brands.” She’s also played her cards well enough to sign with William Morris Endeavor talent agency . And rumors just emerged that she’s in talks to join “X Factor,” “but her lack of experience in the music business may make her more appropriate as a host,” a source told the New York Post, adding, “She looks fantastic and has bags of charisma.”
And if a role on that show doesn’t pan out, she’s at least getting paid for showing up to things solo. “I was reading a file about her where she was the celebrity presence at some Audi event,” Ravitz continues. “She wore a dress and had red wine and she was the star.” Bags of charisma and her looks alone might not make her a female George Clooney, but there’s always a new reality show that needs a host. Or car that needs a babe to lean on it.