Ready to pin down a career in Tinseltown

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She exchanged body slams and dropkicks with some of the toughest men in the World Wrestling Federation as Chyna. Now the raven-haired Amazon is hoping to put a headlock on Hollywood under her real name, Joanie Laurer.

Since leaving the WWF last May, the brawny former pro wrestling vixen has tackled an acting career as intensely as she tackled her foes in the ring."[The WWF] made me an offer I could refuse," says Laurer, who is scheduled to appear at the World of Wheels auto show at the Baltimore Convention Center today.

"I started having some other opportunities," she said, "and I took advantage of them."

But though she disappeared abruptly from the wrestling scene after more than four years in the WWF, Laurer certainly hasn't been hard to find. She's had guest roles on television series such as WB's Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and the syndicated Relic Hunter and Tracker. In April, she makes her movie debut with a supporting role in Frank McKlusky, C.I.

In addition to her acting gigs, Laurer was featured on NBC's Celebrity Fear Factor and MTV's Cribs and has made the rounds on the talk-show circuit, including The Tonight Show and Larry King Live. Laurer also is the host of TNN's Robot Wars, and says she is in negotiations to become a broadcaster with "a very popular sports network."

Perhaps Laurer's greatest exposure, though, has been on the newsstands. Last month, she posed nude for Playboy and appeared on the cover of the magazine for the second time. (Fans can see even more of her in a new Playboy video released this week.)

"I've got about 100 projects on the table," says 30-year-old Laurer, who also has launched a Web site, www.bodybyjoanie.com. "I've been able to keep my face out there and be very successful. I always have to call my manager and say, 'OK, where am I supposed to be tomorrow?' I'm one of the only people who has ever moved on from the WWF, and it really lit a fire under my butt."

Before Laurer, the last female wrestling star to leave the WWF in pursuit of an acting career was Rena "Sable" Mero, the statuesque blonde who quickly found out that winning over Hollywood was much tougher than winning the WWF women's championship. Mero's lack of success, however, hasn't deterred Laurer.

"I don't compare myself to her or anyone else," she says. "I believe there was a reason I conquered the world of wrestling. I didn't do it by being the pretty poster girl. I did it by being an athlete. I think there are millions of people out there who relate to me from what I did as Chyna, and now would like to see the same type of action and physicality in a different venue.

"Leaving the WWF was scary from a professional standpoint, but I never wanted to be Chyna in my personal life. That's where we started butting heads. From a company standpoint, they preferred that I live my life as the character, and I didn't. It's much more rewarding for me to do TV shows and Playboy and all these other things as Joanie Laurer rather than as a character."

Laurer says her decision to leave wrestling behind had nothing to do with her publicized breakup with WWF star Triple H (nee Paul Levesque), whom she began dating in 1997.

In a real-life love triangle on par with the raciest WWF story lines, Levesque began seeing WWF chairman Vince McMahon's daughter, Stephanie - who portrays Levesque's wife on the show - behind Laurer's back. Laurer and Levesque terminated their relationship after she confronted him about the affair and he admitted to it.

"I think we just started to grow in different directions," she says. "But I have to look at my leaving as a business decision. Otherwise, I'd drive myself insane."

It would seem that acting roles for a woman standing 5-foot-10 and weighing 165 pounds would be somewhat limited, but Laurer says she's fine with that.

"I don't mind being typecast at all," she says. "My objective is not to win an Academy Award. Since the age of 15, I've been developing my body. I want to use my physicality. I plan on being the female Arnold Schwarzenegger, but that will take time because I'm a woman before my time. A lot of Hollywood is political, and I'll have to break down barriers and boundaries just as I did in the wrestling world."

If her track record in the WWF is any indication, one shouldn't bet against Laurer. She wasn't the first woman in pro wrestling to compete against - and defeat - men, but she was by far the most successful.

"Vince didn't even want to hire me at first," Laurer says, "because he thought, 'Well, what's this girl going to do, come in and beat up the guys? The crowd will never buy that, and it will never be believable.'"

After persuading McMahon to sign her to a contract, Laurer then had to gain acceptance with the male wrestlers, who weren't exactly eager to stand toe-to-toe in the ring with a woman, regardless of how big or muscular she was.

"When I first started it was horrible, because I was really the first woman to travel on the road with them," she says. "Beyond that, here was a woman who could bruise a male ego by fighting them on TV, fake or not. I'm a very intimidating person when I can go and lift 300 pounds just like the rest of the guys.

"But once they got to know me, it was an incredible respect that they had for me, and I became part of their fraternity. That's what set me apart from any other woman in wrestling, and that's probably what I miss most about not being there - the friendships I've built."

The highlight of her stint as Chyna, Laurer says, was winning the WWF Intercontinental title, the same championship belt that has been worn by heavy hitters such as The Rock, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Randy "Macho Man" Savage.

"I always knew I was going to be a star," says Laurer, whose 2001 autobiography, If They Only Knew, was a New York Times best seller, "but I didn't think it would be in wrestling. Playing a character on television was something I had wanted to do since I was a little girl, because I love to entertain people. Wrestling was my way to get on TV, and I ended up falling in love with it and being very good at it."

Her ascent in wrestling coincided with a boom period for the industry. Almost overnight, Laurer went from obscurity to the covers of Newsweek and TV Guide. It was her November 2000 Playboy cover and accompanying nude pictorial, however, that brought the most attention. That magazine sold nearly 4 million copies, making it the best-selling issue of Playboy in 11 years.

Even Laurer herself was surprised at how well the magazine sold, considering she doesn't have the stereotypical "Playboy look."

"If it had sold one copy I would have been happy, because it sent an incredible message," she says. "I think it was really important in this day and age when everyone is sticking their finger down their throats trying to get as skinny as they can, to have someone come along like Joanie Laurer, who has lived fitness as a lifestyle and can display strength and beauty at the same time."

While the public may have a perception of her based on her sculpted physique and dominatrix-style outfits, Laurer says she wants people to know that she also has a sensitive side.

"I want to get married, have children, grow old and experience the good things in my life with somebody else," she says. "But I live a very odd lifestyle, and I'm not the typical kind of domestic woman that most men can handle, so I worry sometimes that those things are going to pass me by.

"On the other hand," she adds, "I think you just have to go with your heart and do your own thing."

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