Wrestling with Demons: The Story of Chyna's Final Days
Since the WWE icon died of a drug and alcohol overdose on the same day as Prince, a battle has emerged over whether America will remember her as a groundbreaking feminist athlete or a reality TV tragedy.
Image by Official Sean Penn
In June, the night before Joanie "Chyna" Laurer's memorial, her friends gathered at a Thai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Porn star Ron Jeremy showed up in Crocs and slurped soup next to an elderly man in a Hawaiian shirt, and Bunny Ranch owner Dennis Hof wrapped his arm around his sometime-girlfriend, working girl Caressa Kisses. In between bites of pad Thai and curry, they were hypothesizing what had caused their friend's death.
Medically speaking, Chyna died of an overdose of alcohol and prescription drugs. Her body was found on April 20. News broke the next day, 12 hours before TMZ reported the death of Prince, one of several icons, from David Bowie to Muhammad Ali to Fidel Castro, whose memorials overshadowed Chyna's in the last year. Her afterlife has lacked the obituaries and lengthy journalistic inquiries into her legacy that typically follow a celebrity's passing. In death, Chyna was not remembered as a groundbreaking female athlete, although she was the first woman to compete against men in the WWF (now known as the WWE); became the number-one contender, or runner-up, in the Heavyweight Championship; and twice won the league's second-most prestigious title, the Intercontinental Championship, a feat she shares with icons like Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson and Stone Cold Steve Austin. No other woman has won it to this day. She did for wrestling what Joan Rivers did for comedy.
Despite all this, she has been remembered as a funny D-list footnote, Anna Nicole Smith's co-star in her final movie, Illegal Aliens. Kisses cried throughout dinner. She had chained a Chyna doll, a tacky toy venture Chyna entered into for money during her later years, to her handbag. "I keep it with me," Kisses explained of the doll. She pressed Chyna's belly, and the doll began spouting off a slew of dirty sayings, like "I shaved my pussy!" in a high-pitched, squeaky voice.
Kisses met Chyna when the latter first visited the Bunny Ranch, where she often sought refuge. "One of my fondest memories was Chyna reciting poetry while high on downers," Hof told me in a phone interview. "It was funny, but very sad." Hof had initially invited Chyna to his brothel following her 2002 Celebrity Boxing Match to teach his girls how to wrestle, "a very popular fetish." The hookers would meet Chyna at the Bunny Ranch gym, where she taught them that the most important lesson was to oil up. That way, the men couldn't latch onto them, and the girls could slither away before coming back to grab their clients' cocks (and win the match). Chyna learned the trick as a wrestler, regularly leaning below tall men and punching their testicles in a move fans referred to as "Chyna's low blows."
Chyna began staying at the Ranch for days, spending afternoons sprawled on red velvet couches gossiping with everyone. "She was an empowering woman," Kisses said through tears. "She's the opposite of everything I am. I'm a very gentle, careful person. Her strength magnetized me."
Hof, though, believes Chyna's interior was the opposite of her warrior image. "[She was] more sensitive than anybody I ever knew," Hof says. "I've seen her crying over things that people would say about her: that she was manly, that she was a transvestite—just terrible things that they would say about her, because she was a bigger girl and was in such good shape," Hof said, also tearing up. "She would break down over that. She's not as tough on the inside as she was on the outside."
To her friends and fans, Chyna had once seemed immortal, idolized by everyone from good ol' boy wrestling aficionados to trans teenagers in awe of her dual identities. As a made-up sex symbol and broad-shouldered fighter, Chyna dominated the wrestling world from the mid-1990s to early 2000s. After she trained under Walter "Killer" Kowalski, a legendary WWF wrestler who spent his years training future wrestling stars, she soon began beating men in the ring. After Paul Levesque, a WWF wrestler known as Triple H, saw Chyna fight, he introduced her to WWF CEO Vince McMahon.
McMahon hired her in 1997, and Chyna became the first woman to battle male wrestlers in the WWF ring, much to the chagrin of many fans, who protested Chyna's presence by throwing batteries at her and spreading nasty rumors. (One was that she had the world's largest clit; another, that she had a penis.) But the abuse didn't seem to stop her. During one 1999 fight, Triple H kicked Chyna in the breasts. The announcer said nothing; when Chyna retaliated by socking Triple H in the balls, he gulped: "I still don't know if I'm comfortable with this." After Chyna beat Triple H a few minutes later, retired wrestler Mick Foley, in character as Mankind, hit on her. She hit him in the balls, too, and said, "In case you don't get it, that means, 'no.'"
"I let the boys do their thing," Chyna said in a 2015 interview with Vince Russo. "My job was to keep my mouth shut." Most the time, she beat her male opponents and became known as the "Ninth Wonder of the World."
"She was in there not only wrestling guys but beating guys," says former WWE announcer Justin Roberts. "She was doing stuff that only guys were doing at the time, and that I don't believe any female has done since. What she did was incredible. She was really revolutionary in the wrestling business."
Chyna's personal life, though, was already laying the groundwork for her demise. Soon after Chyna joined the WWF in 1997, she had began dating Levesque, who brought her into the WWF and whom Chyna occasionally fought when he donned his wrestling persona, Triple H. Chyna told Russo she had dreamed about marrying him and moving into a big house together. "I was so proud of him," she recalled. They kept their relationship a secret.
In the interview with Russo, she describes Levesque having to defend her against the WWF guard: She pissed off the league when she posed nude in the November 2000 issue of Playboy. "WWE is a decidedly PG-oriented product today, which means a porn actor working for them could be perceived as a public relations issue," explains Guardian journalist Dave Schilling. In her 2001 memoir, If They Only Knew, Chyna presented the WWF as her "family" who she loved but occasionally tussled with. "Vincent K. McMahon is my father," she wrote. "Vince, like me, knows the meaning of dysfunction... But Vince, unlike me, doesn't take it seriously."
Chyna didn't know the biggest dysfunction in her WWF family: Levesque was also sleeping with a more family-friendly, but very mediocre female wrestler, Stephanie McMahon. Chyna had disregarded Stephanie as "the boss's daughter" because she was the heiress to the McMahons' billion-dollar WWF fortune. (Her mother, Linda McMahon, was recently named the new head of the Small Business Administration by President Donald Trump.) In 2001, Chyna learned of the affair. Levesque's WWF career was languishing, and he pined for Stephanie's power; he had decided to choose Stephanie. A fighter, Chyna called Stephanie's father, her boss, Vince McMahon. He told her to come in to see him in his office on Monday. After their meeting, Chyna told Russo, he sent her a fax telling her the WWF would not renew her contract. Levesque would go on to marry Stephanie and become the executive vice president of the WWE.
Levesque and Vince and Stephanie McMahon declined comment through WWE representative Matthew Altman. In a statement, Altman said, "The passing of Joanie Laurer (Chyna) was tragic and our condolences are with her family, friends, and fans. Nearly 15 years ago, after her contract expired, Joanie and WWE were unable to reach an agreement on a new contract for her to continue playing the character Chyna."
"She and I talked about [Levesque and Stephanie] several times," says Chyna's mother, Jan LaQue. "There were several things in her life that really bothered her. Number one was that [Levesque] dumped her for Stephanie. She never did get over that."
But Chyna would also never recover from getting fired—she viewed her dismissal as a personal betrayal. She did not save her WWF earnings, and she struggled to make a living for the rest of her life. She had to legally change her name to Chyna to use it, since the WWF, now known as the WWE, owned the copyright. ("WWE has consistently paid royalties to Joanie since her contract expired in 2001," Altman said in a statement. "The rights to the character Chyna are owned by WWE.")
She was doing stuff that only guys were doing at the time, and that I don't believe any female has done since.
Chyna's only safety net was that her WWF departure coincided with the rise of reality TV and celebrity porn. In 2002, she modeled for Playboy a second time and appeared on an episode of Celebrity Boxing, fighting Joey Buttafucco, the Long Island car repairman whose teenage mistress shot his wife in the 1990s. From 2003 to 2005, she dated—and, according to him, abused drugs with—former WWF wrestler Sean Waltman, who performed under the name X-Pac. In a 2015 interview with Jim Norton, Chyna described their relationship as tumultuous (though she denied using drugs with him). She accused Waltman of raping her and selling a homemade porn tape called 1 Night in Chyna to Vivid Entertainment, the company that released Paris Hilton's 1 Night in Paris, without her permission in 2004. (Waltman did not return Broadly's request for comment; he has repeatedly denied Chyna's accusations and claimed he has proof Chyna consented to the release of the porn video.) On January 1, 2005, authorities arrested her on domestic violence charges after she allegedly beat him. "She [sic] assualted me struck me in the head and face countless times after getting back from the Playboy Mansion," Waltman wrote on his website at the time. "There were several witnesses to her behavior, including Jeff Meacham from The Extreme Mayhem Show, and unfortunately my two children witnessed and heard all of this. She was released today once again having to suffer no consequences for her behavior."
Later that year, she starred on VH1's reality show The Surreal Life alongside Waltman, by then her ex-boyfriend, and Verne Troyer, the actor who played Mini-Me in the Austin Powers franchise, and she followed up the program with a stint on the 2008 season of Celebrity Rehab and a role in the 2008 B-list movie Illegal Aliens with Anna Nicole Smith. Between 2009 and 2011, Chyna stripped for cash and starred in five porn movies, which Vivid would release between 2009 and 2013.
"It was like I was a monster," she told Norton of her problems during the 2000s. "There was no way out of it for me."
By 2011, Chyna knew she needed to do a complete 180, so she decided to move to Tokyo. Chyna spoke Japanese, French, German, and Spanish (she held a degree in Spanish literature), and she assumed she could obtain a job as an English teacher. "Of course they're gonna hire me. I'm Chyna!" she recalls thinking in the interview with Russo. She soon realized that being Chyna was not an asset in this case; she struggled until finally landing a low-paying job teaching English. "What would happen if Hulk Hogan wanted to work at one of the major [English teaching chains]?" she said in the interview with Russo. "It was awkward because people know who I am."
Many friends believed Chyna had sobered up in Japan. In February 2013, she began an email relationship with her mother, Jan LaQue, whom she had not spoken to in 27 years. LaQue raised Chyna in a turbulent household with Chyna's two siblings, Sonny and Kathy. "You want a snapshot, it went like this," Chyna writes in If They Only Knew. "From 1973 to 1983 (I call it the Mommy Dearest decade), we moved a lot and most of the time my mother was angry, in love, or both." She then accuses her mom of verbal abuse, portraying LaQue as Chyna's first battle in a lifelong war. "Whenever I went up against her, which was almost never, I could feel her gaining on me, and it was always just a matter of time before she'd catch or overcome me," she writes. Chyna claims her mom kicked her out of the house at age 16, and that she had to go live with her dad.
Whether all this is true has been debated. A source close to Chyna describes Chyna as erratic during the writing of the book, and LaQue has denied some of Chyna's accusations. "When it first came out, I thought she was crazy," LaQue says. "I didn't throw her out. She left of her own accord. There were a lot of other things in there that she said, or whoever wrote it said, that weren't true."
But the book also contained things that were true, according to LaQue. Their home was "dysfunctional," and a passage that describes Chyna's father, who was an alcoholic, stabbing LaQue is also accurate.
When LaQue reached out to Chyna in 2013, she believed her daughter was trying to escape the Chyna persona and return to being Joanie Laurer, the woman she was before wrestling, before drugs. LaQue did not know Chyna was also sending emails to Steven Hirsch, the porn mogul whose company, Vivid Entertainment, produced Chyna's porn videos. "I'm a little cray-cray, yes, but I am a woman hear me roar," Chyna writes in one of several emails to Hirsch. "It's not going so well lol. It's so weird in Japan. I really get it, but I don't get it at the same time. They are very forward and strange... On the other hand, I feel like my skin is beautiful, my figure is feminine and pretty, [and] I look good right now, OK? I do. Let's talk: What's the next step? Can we talk money? I need to know. I want to be a beautiful porn star."
For every 40 nice comments, there was that person who would say something like, 'You have a penis.' That would really bother her.
Chyna's friends believe she wanted to perform in porn both for the cash and because she craved men's acceptance. WWF fans' verbal abuse had convinced her she looked like a monster, something closer to King Kong than a wonder of the world. "People were very mean," says the porn star Mary Carey, a close friend. "For every 40 nice comments, there was that person who would say something like, 'You have a penis.' That would really bother her."
Chyna did not grasp how her look had influenced pop culture. In a deleted scene from Amy, the Oscar-winning documentary about Amy Winehouse, the late singer begs her manager to let her eat at the WWE-themed restaurant The World because she loved Chyna. "The superstars get there, and they get drunk, and they buy people drinks," Winehouse says in the scene. "Chyna's been there!"
"I would say that she was the first person I ever saw that made me think that bodies are not all the same," Lilyana, a trans woman who idolized Chyna as a teenager, says. "I think that was influential in terms of my sexuality, in terms of realizing that different body types could be sexy, could be powerful."
Carey believes Chyna didn't understand the power of her appearance—she thought she needed to look like a porn star to be beautiful and feminine. "She liked that I was kind of a sex symbol in a way, because I think that's something she wanted," Carey says. "She wanted to be considered sexy, and she just didn't see it sometimes." Hof also wishes Chyna had accepted that her athletic body turned men on. "She was sexy!" he says. "Her wrestling persona turned people on. She had a level of celebrity."
Last year, Chyna reconnected with Anthony Anzaldo. Once a successful record promoter, Anzaldo spent the 2000s getting former athletes and classic TV actors—like Brady Brunch actor Barry Williams and Jeff Conaway, who played Kenickie in Grease—on reality TV shows. "I was in the room with [Conaway] when he died!" Anzaldo bragged the first time we met. The closest he's ever gotten to the A-list was in the 1990s while working at Maverick, Madonna's record label, where his brother was an executive.
According to Anzaldo, Chyna and Anzaldo met in 2002, at the Celebrity Boxing Match where Chyna fought Joey Buttafucco, and he started working with her soon after. Anzaldo booked Chyna on The Surreal Life and Celebrity Rehab, but sometime after 2008, Chyna parted ways with him for reasons still unclear to Anzaldo. Carey recalls Chyna changing managers multiple times. "We were at the erotica convention in New Jersey, and we were doing an appearance together, and then all of a sudden there was some guy there," Carey remembers. "[Chyna] was like, 'You're going to be my manager.' Then this guy was her manager. There were always different guys that she would tell me about. There was literally [another] guy she met at a bar who was living with her for the next 12 months."
In 2015, Chyna reached out to Anzaldo. The exact nature of their professional relationship is a little murky: Anzaldo says he didn't work for her but rather that she was his "partner." He says she was a member of his family and that he never worked as her manager. Nevertheless, he began plotting a comeback that would end with Chyna wrestling at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. "People who are high up, like Chyna was, [are] making millions, [and then lose it]," says Chyna's friend Tasha Bardon. "It's frustrating." Anzaldo wanted to change that.
Anzaldo quickly received a business idea via email from a former fan, the 40-year-old Boston comedian Rob Potylo, who had found Anzaldo's contact online. Potylo had grown up watching the WWF, and he idolized Chyna. Curious about what had happened to her, he searched online. "All I saw were these hilarious videos of her in Japan where she was, like, making a smoothie and being like, 'I'm gonna try and put pumpkin in the smoothie now,'" he says. He hit up Anzaldo about producing comedic videos featuring Chyna. Anzaldo offered a counter proposal: creating a documentary about Chyna's comeback.
"The Reconstruction of Chyna is about the reformation of mind, body, and soul," Anzaldo says. "The goal in life is to be happy, and ironically it's the only thing you have the power over."
She invented a new kind of thing for men to be attracted to, or at least made it acceptable to be attracted to a muscular, strong woman.
Potylo had no documentary experience, but he recommended his friend Erik Angra, an up-and-coming documentarian who had directed a number of shorts as well as edited a Ken Burns movie. (Angra also served as a cinematographer for two episodes of VICE, an HBO program produced by VICE Media, which also owns Broadly.) In person, Angra comes off as a serious filmmaker, not exactly the type who would hang out with internet comedians and washed-up former professional wrestlers. He keeps a trimmed brown beard and will often tilt conversations towards international politics. He says he didn't "give a shit about wrestling," but he knew about Chyna because he grew up in New Hampshire, near where Chyna had lived with Levesque.
"She was this town's celebrity," Angra recalls. "She invented a new kind of thing for men to be attracted to, or at least made it acceptable to be attracted to a muscular, strong woman. There would be no Ronda Rousey, there would be no a lot of people, [without her]."
Anzaldo pitched Angra on making a movie exploring Chyna's rise, fall, and accomplishments as a female athlete. Angra agreed. Anzaldo and Chyna would have executive producing credits, while Angra would own the film. With Chyna still living in Japan at this point, Angra purchased her a ticket to fly to New York. Chyna sent emails letting her friends know her plans to return to America in the late spring of 2015.
Hof begged her to avoid LA, even inviting her to move into the Bunny Ranch and promising to pay for a psychiatrist, counselors, and addiction specialists. "She looked at me, in a strange way, as a dad," Hof recalls. "I was very happy [to consider her a daughter], because, you know I'm a lot of things to a lot of people."
"I just knew that as much as she loved California, it wasn't a good place for her," Chyna's friend Tasha Bardon recalls. "That's where she was drinking a lot."
"She kind of just blew [her friends' and family's concerns] off," LaQue says. "I sent her one email and I said, 'Get away from this Chyna persona—just be Joanie. If you're just Joanie, you're gonna be OK. Don't go back to Los Angeles. You're gonna get back in with these same people again and go downhill.' And that's exactly what happened."
Chyna arrived in New York in June of 2015. Angra, Potylo, and Anzaldo met her at the airport. All three men recall Chyna appearing sober. They drove to New Jersey, where they were staying at the home of Anzaldo's friend. Chyna would spend a few days on the media circuit, doing interviews with blogs and radio stations to announce her comeback and sobriety, and then the group would embark on a road trip to California. Chyna presented herself as sober to the group and to journalists. She ate vegan meals and drank smoothies.
"There's a misconception out there, in the media, about everything that I've done, that I've become some monster," she said in a June 2015 interview with VICE Sports. "I'm a different person now... I'm doing yoga."
On her fifth day in America, Chyna went out for a night alone, and Angra recalls she came back smelling like booze. "Anthony is doing his best to try to get her together because she's got to be on this radio show, and he doesn't want them to realize that she's relapsing because the whole story is [about] the fact that she's better now. That was my first instance of seeing her and thinking, Oh shit."
After a few days, the group embarked on their road trip, and Angra noticed Chyna carried around Japanese pill bottles. He had assumed they contained Ambien or sleeping medication. One night, she offered Potylo a pill. (This was not unusual; Carey recalls Chyna carrying around an Altoids tin filled with different pills.) Potylo decided to take Chyna up on her offer. "I'm an insomniac," he explains. "The next day we were trying to ask her what it was, and it was like some Japanese roofie—it was just insane."
"She was like, oh, [it's] Rohypnol," Angra says. "She was also on Valium and on Ambien—that's a lot. Nobody needs to be on that many drugs."
When the road trip stopped in Las Vegas, Chyna insisted on partying at the Palms, a hotel and casino off the strip. More than a decade earlier, when Chyna still competed in the WWF, the Palms had been considered the hottest nightspot in Vegas. The Real World: Las Vegas cast lived in the hotel, Britney Spears performed a failed comeback performance at the 2007 MTV VMAs in the hotel's theater, and Hugh Hefner and Holly Madison partied in a Palms penthouse on episodes of The Girls Next Door. Now, though, Madison is married to the founder of Electric Daisy Carnival, and young people drink on the strip at the Cosmopolitan. The Palms is a relic of the early 2000s—and Chyna loved it.
"The was such a terrible place," Angra recalls. "She was talking about how it used to be, and I think, in her mind, she was in that used-to-be place."
She asked Angra to party with her, and he agreed. "This was all off camera, and I'm prescribed Klonopin myself," Angra says. "I ended up taking some pills with her, I guess, and then we went out and partied." Chyna bragged to him that a decade earlier at the Palms, she'd had five bodyguards. He says she ran around the hotel telling people, "I'm Chyna—don't you know who I am?"
"It was borderline embarrassing," Angra says. "I still grapple with some of the feelings of guilt. I wish I hadn't had that drink with her."
"There was a part of her that became that diva," Potylo says. "She wanted to be a star. It was intoxicating for her."
After the trip to Las Vegas at the end of summer, Angra returned to Boston, and Chyna flew to Los Angeles, where she moved into Anzaldo's Redondo Beach condo. When I visited Anzaldo there a few weeks after Chyna passed, a Brady Bunch poster signed by Barry Williams hung in the hallway, and a black Yorkie ran around the apartment. In his living room, he displayed copies of The Secret, The Power, and The Art of Happiness.
"We were in the process of [healing Chyna's] mind, body, and soul," Anzaldo says. "[She had] a lot of emotional stress going on."
According to Anzaldo, Chyna started attending a domestic violence survivors' group and going to hot yoga. In a YouTube video from September 2015, she stands outside the city's Hot Yoga Center with a towel around her neck and a yoga mat in her hand. "Seven days completion in a row," she says. "I'm going to continue on for 30... I feel like I'm in the best shape ever in my life, in a different way... Go green!"
Potylo decided to stay in Los Angeles, and he began sleeping on Anzaldo's couch, where he watched as Anzaldo tried to rehabilitate Chyna's career. "They tried to get her to do porn," he says, "so one day we'd be going to meet with Steven Hirsch over at Vivid." Hirsch wanted Chyna to star in more videos for his company. "People really talked about [her previous movies]," Hirsch says. "[They] sold exceptionally well." A source close to Vivid says the deal fell through because of Anzaldo, but he denies it.
In the fall of 2015, Chyna made most of her income through autograph signings, and she moved into a condo down the road from Anzaldo. Potylo secured his own home in Los Angeles, but he continued seeing Chyna most weeks. She called Angra nearly every day. "Super clean, everything is great, and I'm going to yoga every day, and not doing drugs," Angra recalls her telling him one week. The next week she called and said, "I'm back on drugs."
Angra's vision for a real-life version of The Wrestler, a comeback film about a professional wrestler who refuses to retire despite his age, had descended into the latest mess on Chyna's long resume of personal disasters. Concerned about his documentary subject's health, Angra decided to seek help for her. He called Waltman, the wrestler known as X-Pac who had a turbulent relationship with Chyna in the 2000s, and he spoke to Levesque. According to Angra, Levesque got the WWE together to figure out a plan.
There was a part of her that became that diva. She wanted to be a star. It was intoxicating for her.
In October of 2015, Angra says the WWE contacted him, offering to pay for Chyna's rehab. He pitched the idea to Anzaldo, making clear he would not film her time in a clinic. Anzaldo turned him down. "He said she would never go, which might have been true because she was very paranoid about the WWE," Angra says. "She thought they would kidnap her and put her in the woods, and she would never come back. I don't know if [Anzaldo] told her about [the offer from the WWE], but he basically told me there wasn't time on the schedule for it and they had to do [a filming of an episode of the reality TV show] Botched."
On Botched, Chyna underwent new procedures to correct plastic surgery errors made years earlier, and it was rumored that she would be part of the show's season three premiere. "It seems like they chose to do Botched instead [of going to rehab]," Angra says. "There was 80 grand worth of plastic surgery which she really wanted and she got."
Following Chyna's death, TMZ reported that Chyna had appeared sober to Dr. Terry Dubrow, the doctor on Botched, who said there were no drugs in her system that could have caused problems during surgery. But shortly after, several weeks before her death, Anzaldo delayed intervening in Chyna's drug problems because he said he was negotiating a deal for her to appear on the reality show Intervention, generating criticism that his desire to wait for the television spot wasted precious time in getting Chyna the help she needed.
"She wouldn't have taken [the WWE's] help," Anzaldo says. "Everybody goes, 'Well you should've just gone to the WWE.' TMZ wrote a story about me that was brutal—that I was basically waiting to make a deal with a reality show instead of getting her help."
Anzaldo argues that Intervention would have provided Chyna with secure, free, premium rehab in exchange for appearing on the show—the best health care she could have received. But no intervention, filmed or otherwise, ever took place. Throughout the winter and spring of 2016, Chyna continued signing autographs for money. At one of her final events, at the Westin Hotel near LAX, Chyna showed up wearing a horse's head reminiscent of Bojack Horseman, the title character on the Netflix cartoon satirizing Hollywood has-beens who use drugs and alcohol to cope. "Chyna really loved that show," Angra says. "I saw that last season of it, [in which a character] dies [from an] overdose, and I [thought] about Chyna."
In March of 2016, she flew with Angra to Miami to see her father's grave. They had planned to see LaQue afterwards—the first time Chyna would have seen her mom in 30 years—but LaQue canceled on Chyna, concerned about emails she seemed to have sent while intoxicated. Chyna would never see her mother again.
A few weeks before her death—exact dates differ—Chyna parted with Anzaldo. According to Anzaldo, they got into a screaming match over her drug use. He says he told her, "You're going to die. You're next, and we have got to do something about it right fucking now." Chyna sent her mother several incoherent emails on April 10 offering different explanations for their split. "Anthony and I are taking a little break for the moment... Anthony took chargers and money." LaQue was unsure what Chyna meant by "chargers"; Anzaldo denies stealing from Chyna.
A week before Chyna died, Anzaldo contacted the producers of Intervention. He wanted her to go to rehab for 90 days at the Betty Ford Clinic, which Intervention would have provided for free. He spoke to lawyers and producers, and he says he realized they could start shooting in eight or nine days.
On Sunday, April 17, Chyna left Angra a rambling voicemail. "Hey, babe, it's me. I'm sorry that you're feeling sick," she said. "Beautiful day outside. Wish you were here. Really just enjoying by the way. You're welcome to come here and crash. So just enjoy the view. That's a $5 milkshake, see? Anyway all the sailboats are out today. It's a beautiful day. I love you, and I am doing much better, and my Filipino family now knows where I live. So they're over here. Gonna be food getting... Have to go through the two taxes thing all over again." Three days later, on April 20, Chyna was found dead.
"It was Shakespearean, like fucking four hours [before] Prince died," says Potylo. "She couldn't get a fucking day for herself, to have people say, 'Oh my God, Chyna died? Wasn't that that lady who [competed in] wrestling and [was] on the cover of TV Guide and Playboy?' This is gonna sound like 'Candle in the Wind,' but even when she [received a memorial] on WWE Raw, [the wrestling league's Monday night program], they buried her tribute in the second hour of it."
Don't ever be famous if you're a woman.
Anzaldo was filming when he barged into Chyna's apartment and found her dead in her bedroom. Although he called her famous friends, he did not call her mother, which upset LaQue. She learned of Chyna's death from her son, Sonny, and called Anzaldo herself.
He asked her to attend an elaborate memorial. LaQue told him she would not go because of the cameras she assumed he would invite, and because she believed she would be too emotional.
LaQue signed a document allowing Anzaldo to collect Chyna's belongings and use some of Chyna's remaining money to pay for the memorial. "I am not a woman of considerable means," LaQue writes. "I request that Anthony and any party [whom] he may be contracting for these services bear cost in mind in making these decisions so there will be no undue financial burden on me." Afterwards, LaQue claims, he was to send LaQue all that remained of Chyna's belongings and money; since Chyna didn't have a will, under California law LaQue should have been her benefactor. Anzaldo says he has refused to ship the items, claiming LaQue needs to come and get her daughter's possessions herself.
To LaQue and others close to Chyna, it was clear Anzaldo had prioritized her celebrity over her career, and her memory. Anzaldo waited until June to host the memorial, because it was the anniversary of Chyna's return to America, and Anzaldo said he thought that would seem more symbolic in Angra's documentary. At the event, Anzaldo stood on stage at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, holding a bedazzled urn emblazoned with the wrestler's name. Like Rafiki raising Simba over Pride Rock in The Lion King, Anzaldo held the urn in the air. "The bitch is in the house!" he yelled. "Sup, girl?" He then encouraged the audience to take selfies with the urn.
Backstage looked like a D-list version of the Met Gala. Hof sat at a plastic white table with Kisses and the same old man in a Hawaiian shirt from dinner. He pointed at a very short man in a black suit: "That's the kid who got his tongue stuck in A Christmas Story!" Hof then brought over a guy with huge silver rings shining on his fingers—it was Joey Buttafucco. These men loved Chyna; some of them even teared up as a Mormon choir honored her with renditions of popular songs: "What's Going On," "Drops of Jupiter," and "All Star."
Throughout the evening, Anzaldo encouraged the crowd to buy a limited-edition "Chyna memorial" T-shirt. Anzaldo claimed all proceeds would go towards a new nonprofit called the Ninth Wonder of the World Association, which will allegedly raise funds for animal rights and children's education. The IRS shows no organization 501(c) existing in Redondo Beach, California, where Anzaldo lives and works. "If they would just have let me do what I was doing, that foundation would be up and running," he says. "There would be money now coming into it, but now mom's getting it all." He gave away Chyna's cello and concluded the evening by singing a song as a slideshow of photos of him and Chyna together played on a giant screen. He never mentioned that Chyna had stopped conducting business with him a few weeks before her death.
Read more: Inside Chyna's Beautiful, Surreal Memorial
A few weeks after the memorial, LaQue says she received a cardboard box in the mail. "I got a box of her ashes," LaQue says. "I mean, c'mon!" Later, she watched a video of the memorial and learned that Anzaldo was auctioning off Chyna's belongings online for his alleged charity. LaQue never gave him permission to sell Chyna's possessions, so in October, after crowd-sourcing legal funds, she took Anzaldo to court. He did not show up. A judge granted LaQue the right to be the executor of Chyna's estate.
"I have requested that Anthony turn over Chyna's/Joanie's personal affects and clothing (which Anthony sent me pictures of) and her papers and records through my attorney, but Anthony has not complied," LaQue says in an email. "So I am now forced to pursue my legal remedies in court due to Anthony's lack of compliance."
When I asked LaQue if she wishes Chyna had never pursued a wrestling career, she said yes. "I admire her for being as strong as she was, but from what I've been able to determine, I think that she might've gotten the shaft. I think that when you become a celebrity like that and get into a world like that, it makes it harder and harder for you to not get stressed out." In retrospect, Chyna's athletic glory looks like a short calm during a lifetime of chaos, a brief downpour in the middle of a decades-long drought. She changed the world, but her trailblazing career came with a deep personal price that, so far, has erased her accomplishments.
It seems Chyna would have agreed with her mom. A few weeks before Chyna died, she met with Angra one last time. He asked her about her life: her relationship with her mother, her time in the WWF, her last 15 years. At the end of the interview, Angra asked if she would do it all over again. Chyna began to cry.
"Don't ever be famous if you're a woman," Angra says she told him. "Go be a doctor or a lawyer, go marry a rich guy. Just don't get famous, because they will destroy you."