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Wrestling Mon Mar 21 2011
Probably the best story you'll hear about the Mud Queens of Chicago comes from a show about a year ago at Reggie's, the South State Street club that was the first venue to allow the dirtiest, rowdiest girl wrestlers in town back a second time.
The crowd at Reggie's had seen this before, or at least many of them had, at one makeshift art space or another since Meg Bell first gathered her ragtag bunch of punk/feminist wrestlers in 2004. They were ready, or at least many of them were, for brawling babes and loud rock and roll and a wall-to-wall mess of mud and beer that would make you instantly regret bringing any piece of clothing you wanted to wear again.
But nobody was ready for that night's incarnation of Gladys Nightmare, Jen Anderson's zombie prom queen character. This time she was a pregnant zombie prom queen, carrying underneath her dress a baby doll wrapped in pantyhose, covered in spaghetti sauce.
And yet, that wasn't the crazy part. That came when Gladys' opponent, Betty Rage, made a similarly spectacular entrance, ripping the "baby" out and swinging it over her head a few times before flinging it into the crowd.
She might, one wrestler recalled, have chewed on the "umbilical cord" a bit first.
Some audience members loved it. Some hated it -- including a few of the other Mud Queens. But it's a safe bet that no one forgot it.
That kind of unforgettable show was what Meg Bell (a.k.a., The Folsom Prison Manhandler) was seeking and struggling to find after moving to Chicago in 2002. Tiring of indie rock shows and their casual-nod patrons, she found inspiration after seeing a theater company jello-wrestle as characters from the plays they'd performed that season.
"It was the first show I'd seen in Chicago where people just let loose," she said.
The Mud Queens achieve that effect, as their declaration of purpose explains, by creating:
... an event that smacks all the pretentious "hipness" across the face and brings back the true nature of fun: DIRT. This is not the stoic, introspective form of Chicago culture. This is the mud-slinging, hootin' and hollerin' kind of culture that is the Mud Queens of Chicago.
As such, live music has been a key part of the experience since the early shows in warehouses and loading docks and friends' lofts. Local bands precede the wrestlers on stage, and a riff-raff collective known as the Mud Queens Band improvises during the bouts.
Rock and roll, they've found, gets people excited and dancing. Anything harder just gets them angry and aggressive.
Grappling in a few inches of mud inside a foam-noodle ring, the wrestlers aren't allowed to stand up and typically can't deliver enough force to really hurt an opponent. Bell also takes into account the competitors' size, experience and bloodthirstiness when she sets the pairs for each show. But it's not scripted; they're really slugging it out.
"You're only up there for a couple minutes and the next day it just feels like you've been body slammed," said Ingrid Hansen, the cowgirl known as Calamity Pain.
The sexual aspect is unavoidable, what with a card girl in a bikini and a stage manager in a bikini and 20 slippery girls wrestling, most often, in bikinis or other skimpy outfits. But it's the usual push-pull of third-wave feminism, the fine balance between sexual empowerment and exploitation.
Thus, the Mud Queens welcome any wrestler, regardless of body type. They've changed venues when they felt the "bro" factor was getting too high. And they donate regularly to charities that benefit causes such as women's health, battered women, sex workers, young women's empowerment and childhood obesity.
"There's a huge sexual element to it, because there's half-naked girls wrestling, but that's not the sole attraction. ... It's not a wet T-shirt contest," said Kim Kozak, who wears a toilet seat around her neck and wrestles as El Bano.
The full roster of about two dozen wrestlers is an impressive catalog of depraved creativity, with characters such as Twisted Fister, Jackie Daniels, Annibal Lector, Annie Anthrax, Pippi Jawstomping, Brownie Bruiser, Rainbow Bite, Resident Eva, Smother Theresa and Mean Jean the STD Queen.
The irrepressible Simone Rawski -- variously described as "larger than life" and "off the wall all the time" by her comrades -- wrestles as Andy Kaufmann's Cancer, a play on the anti-comic's stint wrestling women and the disease that killed him. (Her motto: "You can fight cancer, but you can't beat it!")
A few of them are wallflowers who like to cut loose every few months on stage. A lot of them, Bell said, "are attention whores."
"I love all the ladies of the group," Rawski said. "They accept me for who I am with my weird sense of humor and manly charms as I accept each one of them for their own individual uniqueness."
"All the girls are totally different," Hansen said, "but everybody seems to have this common bond."
There is something of a cultural overlap with roller derby -- a few girls do both, and both have a certain PBR aesthetic -- but that's a real sport with regular practices and committed athletes. Mud Queens wrestling is more of an informal, occasional burst of raucous performance art.
Plus, when was the last time a roller derby skater spent weeks pulling mud out of her ears? The Mud Queens wrestled in fake blood last Halloween and are working on slime for a Ghostbusters-themed show this summer, but at most shows it's good old fashioned mud.
Or actually, it's not mud at all. It's watered-down artist's clay, 40 gallons per show.
"Most mud is too gritty," Bell said, "and I don't know where I would find mud in the city of Chicago that didn't have cigarette butts and glass in it."
And it gets everywhere: all over both wrestlers, the referee, the emcee, the band and all their equipment and any audience member who happens to be within splashing -- or throwing -- distance. (Mouth off at a Mud Queen and you might get a handful thrown in your face.)
"It just gets pretty wet and sloppy everywhere," Kozak said.
Cleanup, then, is something of a project after a bout, requiring several showers before you start to make headway. Tights can keep your legs cleaner. Earplugs can help, too, though some truly devoted competitors don't want their senses dulled.
Backstage, Reggie's has a shower and the Viaduct Theatre has an oversized watering trough. And in the summer, you can stand outside and hose off a little.
Filth is unavoidable -- "in every hole and crevice," Hansen said -- but the Mud Queens would have it no other way. Small price for a night-long adrenaline rush.
"It's exhilarating. It's absolutely exhilarating," Bell said. "It's kind of hard to describe."