Leading with Humanity: An Interview with Willow Nightingale

Leading with Humanity: An Interview with Willow Nightingale

Race, Gender, and Power in Professional Wrestling

There are a couple of hot-button topics in wrestling that all overlap with one another. We have continual conversations about gender and race in wrestling. Then you tie in the recent Speaking Out movement that shed light on the abuse that is happening—and has been happening for a long time—in wrestling. So, what are some of the ways your journey in wrestling has been more difficult because of these uphill battles that we’re fighting?

“So personally, I feel very, very fortunate because I started in New York, [and] I had trainers that believed in me and backed me from the get. I never was treated any differently for being a woman, or for being a black woman at that. I think there were some odd comments here and there. I was learning how to do a body slam and somebody was like, ‘Get that ghetto booty on up there.’ And I was like, ‘First of all, I’m from the suburbs!” Obviously that’s [racially] charged because I’m a black woman, like why else would you say that?'”

“There’s all these little things that I’ve always brushed off because they seem very small and minute and not worth picking a fight over because in wrestling, there kind of is this hierarchy, whether you acknowledge it or not. The culture of this is your vet, you respect your vet; that’s always in the back of your head. And some things, I’m like, do I question this because I’m new, I’m the green person or do I speak up for myself as an individual? Am I taking this because I’m a woman? Am I taking this because I’m black? Am I taking this just because I’m new? Again, there’s so many ways that everything mixes in together; where is this coming from?” 

“As I’ve grown, I’ve been wrestling for 5, almost 6 years since I started training, I definitely think I’ve been fortunate enough to be put in situations to succeed. I’ve had the opportunity to work with companies like the Let’s Hang Out shows with LVAC, I get to wrestle for Beyond wrestling, and I know Drew Cordeiro who runs Beyond is a strong advocate for women’s wrestling and intergender wrestling. He’s never held back a female performer because of their gender or their sexuality or anything like that. He just views you like a wrestler, and whatever your ability is, whether that be your athletic ability or your ability to connect with a crowd or to tell a story, whatever that is, whatever he sees in you, it’s in your heart. And that’s what he sees when he pushes you forward.”

Willow Nightingale
Photo credit: Jennifer Dowd

So how does that impact the morale in the locker room, then, to have that kind of advocacy behind you? 

“I think any time that somebody does push their promotion that way based on those kinds of morals, usually the people who are there feel more like a family because they don’t feel like they’re pitted against each other for petty things or just straight out biased reasons. So I think there is a little bit more mutual respect and togetherness through that, which is good for a locker room cause at the end of the day there are a lot of egos. We’re all egomaniacs just running around in spandex! But if you can actually see ok, this person is being pushed because of their talent or whatever, you can’t deny that.”

It becomes less political.

“Exactly.”

I also have to imagine it helps with incidences of abuse of power. What is the overlap of a locker room environment of inclusivity and these incidents of abuse?

“Like I said, for me personally, any situation I have been in like that has been so small in comparison to what I’ve heard from my friends or my peers who I might not even necessarily be close to, which really hurts a lot to be like, oh wow you’ve been through this experience, and I wasn’t there for you because I didn’t know. Obviously I know that these things happen but like that’s another big hit to everyone who is involved. It’s like, what can I do—what could I have done? And I think that that’s a question we need to ask personally to ourselves. How do we speak up when things are happening and not just after? Because, again, there are all those things in your head where you’re like ‘well, I’m just a newbie’ with those abuses of power.”

“I wish I had an answer because honestly, it’s hard to worry about your own career and the people who do have that power. I think everyone should reflect on [how] being a human is more important than being a professional wrestler. At the end of the day, I’m a human being; I’m gonna have to put my head on my pillow and go to sleep and be ok with the events that conspired on that day. Whereas professional wrestling will obviously not always be there for me. Even if I become a hugely successful wrestler, there’s an expiration date for that.”

Absolutely. Your body can only take so much.

“Yeah. And your heart can hold out a lot more for people, you know? So that’s what I’ve been thinking to myself recently. And of course, this is only my second show back. So I have to put my money where my mouth is. And I try to think back on instances where I’m like, ‘Could I have spoken up about that or could I have done this then?’ And I’m sure there were little things that I just let go, but that’s the foot I’m trying to lead with now is be a person before being a wrestler. Stop thinking about the hierarchy of it.”

Lead with the humanity.

“Yes! That’s really what we need.”

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