The past and the present collided for 27-year-old Ashley Leckwold two weeks ago. Now an Amazon customer services associate who lives in Atlanta, the Woodland High graduate ran into one of her old English teachers at a rather unexpected place: a live World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) broadcast at Philips Arena.
"I hadn't seen her in a while and apparently I mortified her kid, because she can't go anywhere without running into a student," Leckwold said. "Including 'Monday Night Raw.'"
Leckwold, who grew up in White and spent about two decades residing in Bartow, wasn't really a fan of professional wrestling back in the day. She remembers her father telling her the "sport" was fake when she was five, but outside of some of her wrestling-fanatic classmates harassing her, that was about the extent of its influence on her formative years.
"I can definitely tell you a lot of the boys that bullied me were super into Stone Cold Steve Austin," she said, "which I feel like is a common factor with a lot of women I talk to about their wrestling fandom."
Instead, Leckwold was into the performing arts. She did a lot of work with the ACT I youth theater company and usually participated in the Grand Theatre's summer musical theater camps. She was also a member of Woodland's mock trial team; her freshman year, they made it all the way to state.
Still, her experiences growing up weren't all positive. An anime fan into unconventional music who came out as bisexual when she was 16, Leckwold was no stranger to being made fun of and teased.
"I definitely carry that small-town kind of background with me everywhere I go," she said. "But I always felt like I wasn't going to be there very long."
About five years ago, Leckwold got into comics — not just as a reader, but as a writer for several titles via publisher Red Stylo Media. Upon learning that several big-time wrestlers were fans of some of her favorite books, she decided to give WrestleMania — the pro wrestling world's equivalent of the Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 and the Kentucky Derby — a look.
"From there, I was pretty much hooked," she said. "It's my opinion that wrestling is kind of like a big, live-action comic. You have over-the-top characters in spandex, having their own weird, quirky adventures, a lot of it involving fighting."
Having graduated from Georgia State University with a bachelor's degree in journalism, Leckwold quickly plied her trade to a number of niche-interest websites, including online publications like Nerdophiles, PopOptiq and Graphic Policy. It was only a matter of time before she started writing for more pro-wrestling-centric sites, too, such as Pro Wrestling Sheet and Paste Magazine.
"There's definitely a wave of new fans coming in that are young women, you have people that identify as 'queer,' people of color," she said. "You do have people that are realizing that now that you have more people than besides just the 'dude-bros' in the audience who are wanting to change the community for the better."
Enter Leckwold's latest project, Enzuigirli.
"The whole idea behind it was to have a feminist-based wrestling source for editorial articles and, hopefully, news in the future," she said.
The website is designed to give a platform to fans who, historically, haven't had their voices heard in larger, mainstream pro wrestling publications, with articles touching upon such topics as wrestling's long history of "body-shaming" story lines and the growing acceptance of "queer" individuals in the fan community.
"It kind of brings it to a head in confronting the dirty, 'carny' past, because there's been a lot of racism and sexism in the wrestling community," she said. "You're happy when the WWE does something that is positive towards the women, but also, you're like 'OK, don't pat yourself on the back too hard, because you were also propagating all the 'bra and panties' matches for years and not really letting women have a story."
The old stereotype of gruff, beer-swilling, blue-collar "rasslin'" fans doesn't seem to apply in this, the post-globalization era of professional wrestling. Thanks to the advent of the World Wide Web, Leckwold said today's fans have access to a wealth of diverse products from all over the globe.
"Now that you're living in the age of the internet, where everybody has their own streaming service, you're not just limited to WWE anymore," she said. "You have all these various styles and all these various promotions ... the borders between companies are getting thinner and thinner as each year goes on."
And nowhere is that diversity more apparent than WrestleMania itself — an annual event that draws more than 100,000 fans from all over the world.
"It is wild," she said. "There is just sort of an electric air in there. It is a sea of people, all there for this giant wrestling event that is basically the end and the beginning of WWE's year."
Leckwold has attended the last two WrestleMania events, including last week's big show in New Orleans.
"We stayed at a hostel, and by the end of the week I had made friends with a wrestling fan from Egypt," she said. "I can't think of anywhere else I could've been able to do that outside the internet."
While Leckwold's visit to the Big Easy had plenty of highlights — watching some of the biggest stars from the Japanese circuit make a rare stateside appearance and getting a glimpse at some of England's hottest up-and-coming indie talents among them — nothing topped getting a chance to meet her grappling hero, Finn Balor.
The Irish wrestler is a strong proponent of LGBTQ inclusion, having recently partnered with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for a new T-shirt, with 20 percent of the proceeds going to the advocacy organization.
"I got to tell him how much that meant to me as a fan," she said. "And I also got to cosplay in front of him and he gave me a hug as soon as I got up there."
Alas, despite her adulation of pro wrestling, Leckwold said she's never considered becoming a wrestler herself. That said, she has given thought to someday becoming a ring announcer or a manager. In fact, she already has a "gimmick" in mind — a manipulative villainess who gives science lectures to conspiracy theorists in the audience.
"We're still amused by the mental image of cutting angry promos about how the Earth is round and you need to vaccinate your kids," she said with a chuckle.
Leckwold's musings on the squared circle can be found online at www.enzuigirli.wordpress.com. She can also be followed at http://twitter.com/misskittyf.
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