Joanie “Chyna” Laurer’s side of her story is finally getting the chance to be told.
The new documentary about the WWE legend’s rise and fall, “VICE VERSA: Chyna,” will air Thursday at 9 p.m. on VICE TV — the same network known for its “Dark Side of the Ring” series. The film, directed by Marah Strauch of “Sunshine Superman,” gives a deep and emotional look into Laurer’s career, upbringing and the factors that led to her life spiraling out of control before her deadly 2016 overdose at the age of 46.
“A lot of things that have come out about her in the past were from other people’s point of view,” Strauch said in a phone interview. “So as much as possible we really tried to use her voice, which even in this doc within a doc, people are trying to take over her voice.”
The film revolves around the final year of Laurer’s life. The first woman to win WWE’s Intercontinental championship returns to the U.S. in 2015 after three quiet years in Japan — during which she was an English teacher — with the intent to make a documentary. She and her inner circle hope “The Resurrection of Chyna” will fuel a comeback and her induction into the WWE Hall of Fame.
“Chyna” executive producer Daisy Hamilton was able to acquire the footage from that unreleased documentary for VICE. Included in what they were given were interviews with Lauer’s manager Anthony Anzaldo and “The Resurrection of Chyna” director Erik Angra that were supposed to be used in the original film.
The VICE documentary uses it to put into context what Laurer was battling at the end of her life and it also shows members of her inner circle dealing with their own toxic issues while trying to help her.
“There’s a mix of emotions because the footage can be really difficult [to watch] as well,” Strauch said.
The VICE film leans heavily into the old clips along with interviews they did with Laurer’s family, close friends and wrestling colleagues, including ex-boyfriend Sean Waltman, Mick Foley and Billy Gunn.
At one point during the documentary Vince Russo, WWE’s head writer for most of Laurer’s time with the company, says, “I believe she would say, ‘I just wanted to be loved.’ That’s what she was always searching for. It was the love and the approval and the acceptance.” It was a quote Strauch fought to keep in because she felt it summed up one of Laurer’s lifelong struggles.
“That was a line that people kept wanting to take out of the film,” Strauch said. “I kept saying, ‘but it’s like the whole film.’ I think she was a person that was an entertainer and a people pleaser and a person that really wanted to be liked and she really wanted the love and approval of pretty much everybody.”
The groundwork for that was laid in Laurer’s family relationships, which the film explores through interviews with her mother, Jan LaQue, and her sister, Kathy Hamilton. LaQue talks about a time Laurer saw her father, Joseph, who LaQue says was an alcoholic and drug addict, stab LaQue with a butcher’s knife.
The two divorced early in Laurer’s life, she moved in with her dad at 16 and that was the last time her mom saw her. The two were supposed to meet again in person during the final year of Laurer’s life, but she died before it could happen. Hamilton believes all of it left a lasting impact on her sister because she was so young at the time. Family trauma can be an underlying factor in addiction.
“There is a lot of generational trauma that occurred and it can’t be denied that she didn’t have a stable foundation, and I think that’s really hard when you’re famous or getting all this stuff to kind of hold your own,” said Strauch, who noted she pursued Laurer’s family for months to get them on board.
Laurer, who was trained by Killer Kowalski, found a second family and a passion in professional wrestling. The documentary includes rare footage of her wrestling and cutting promos prior to joining WWE (then WWF) and talks about her love for entertaining. Strauch hopes it gives people a look into Laurer’s young, “scrappy” side.
“I don’t think it’s been shown since it was taken, so it’s really to me some of the most pure footage of this person that you can find,” she said.
Laurer debuted in WWE as Chyna in 1997. She was the bodyguard for eventual boyfriend Paul “Triple H” Levesque. She was known as “The Ninth Wonder of the World” and became a vital member of the legendary D-Generation X faction before making a name for herself as an in-ring performer unlike anything seen before in WWE as she often wrestled the male superstars. She became the first woman to enter the Royal Rumble, a WWE women’s champion and was one of a number of the company’s female performers to appear in Playboy.
“Wrestling her and wrestling guys was no different, she just hit a lot harder than guys,” Gunn says in the film. “She was the main thing. She was the ‘Stone Cold’ [Steve Austin]. It was Chyna, like that was a thing.”
Her contract was not renewed by WWE in 2001 after she is said to have had a meeting with Vince McMahon about Levesque’s romantic relationship with McMahon’s daughter Stephanie, whom he eventually married. Jim Ross, WWE’s head of talent relations at the time, has said Laurer refused to sign a contract with less than a $1 million downside guarantee – believing her popularity and crossover into the mainstream was as valuable as any of the company’s top male stars.
WWE distanced itself from Laurer for many years, especially after she got into the adult entertainment industry. She was eventually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2019 along with the rest of DX and appeared as a playable character in the WWE 2K20 video game.
Levesque was not interviewed for the documentary and Strauch said she did not reach out to WWE about the chance to talk to him or anyone else working for the company. In her eyes, it defeated some of the purpose of what she was trying to accomplish.
“It just didn’t feel like the right choice for this documentary,” she said. “Because we really wanted it to be more Joanie’s point of view. We would have been happy to speak to Hunter but I think more than anything it might have been difficult to get to speak to people in the WWE.”
She did little in wrestling after WWE – outside of short runs in New Japan in 2002 and Total Nonstop Action in 2011 — and no longer had the family of co-workers around her for support. Laurer, who also did some reality TV, began to spiral and battle the drug and alcohol addiction that ultimately led to her dying from a combination of muscle relaxers, painkillers and alcohol.
In Laurer’s final interview for the original documentary, two weeks before her death, she said if she had to go back and do it again she wouldn’t have wrestled. Strauch sees that as her being a contradiction because she loved wrestling, the wrestlers and her time in WWE. She had just lost the will to fight to get some of it back and needed help,
“So for her to say that, I think was said in a moment where she was done, if that makes sense,” she said. “She didn’t have the stamina to have a comeback one more time, to rise above one more time.”
The film potentially gives Laurer a chance to do that with what Strauch feels is “the truth.” It gives people a chance to see a new take on who Laurer is, what she accomplished and what led her down a toxic path.
“She’s this big, strong, amazing person in the ring and then she’s what people kind of portrayed as kind of a train wreck or this person that has all these demons,” Strauch said. “I’d say that she’s also just a person and a person that was super intelligent and really had a lot of strengths besides wrestling. I hope that people can kind of humanize her.”