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COMMENT





Terri Runnels talks family, fame and heartbreak
By JASON CLEVETT - SLAM! Wrestling


Terri Runnels - Photo courtesy TheTerriRunnels.com


After eight years with the WWE, Terri Runnels asked for and received her release from the company in March 2004. After traveling the world, Runnels felt it was time to focus on another role in her life, as mom to daughter Dakota, with ex-husband Dustin Rhodes.

"I took a year or so off just to be Mommy and not get on an airplane. Dakota was with me on the road her first four years and it was awesome because she was with Mom 24/7 and with Dad a whole lot. I think that kind of contact with your child is so important, I wouldnít trade that for anything," Runnels told SLAM! Wrestling recently during an interview to promote her "Make The World Write" contest.

There came a time when Runnels had to step back and leave her daughter at home.

"When she got to school age I had to get a nanny and let her go to school and leave her at home those three days I was gone, but I had four days of quality time with my child when I came home," she explained. When she returned home it was time to switch roles with the nanny. "I would say, 'I donít want you to bathe or feed my child, do the opposite and go to the grocery store or dry cleaners for me so I can take care of her.' That was one thing that I really believed in, in terms of being a parent in the industry, when you get home you need to give your child quality one on one time. I had awesome nannies I remain in contact with to this day. I am the godmother to oneís child and was a bridesmaid for another. We had great relationships and it became a family over the years for several different nannies."

It can be difficult to raise a child in any type of entertainment industry, and having two famous parents adds to the challenges. Runnels spoke of her own experience as well as advice she would pass on to the current crop of wrestlers who are just now starting families.

"It is a tough thing to be a parent in this industry but if you care about your kid it is worth fighting hard and working hard to be a good parent. Because Dakota used to fly with me every week one of the challenges was that I had to pack not only for myself and her but also [my character] Marlena. I only did TV and pay per views, not house shows, because I was a mom. It was a challenge just to get us packed, to the airport and to the town that we were taping in. Guys used to come by my dressing room and ask if Dakota could come out and play in the ring or could they take her for cotton candy. Shawn Michaels would play Polly Pocket on the floor of my dressing room with her. She had a million uncles in the business and they would all want to take her," she recalled. "Being in the industry, if you have a weakness it will find it and prey upon it. The situation with Dustin and I was very difficult because there are not many parents where both of them were on the road for the business at the same time. You have to be able to go home and totally drop everything at the door. Speaking like a sailor in our industry is kind of the norm, and it would be easy to say expletives if you stubbed your toe or something happened while you were driving the rental car. When you get home to your child those ugly words turn into 'golly gee shucks shazimikans' -- all the silly things that you donít say on the road."


Terri and her daughter Dakota. - Photo courtesy TheTerriRunnels.com
The wrestling business seems to take its toll on relationships as well, as Terri and Dustinís name was added to the long list of wrestling divorces in 1999. The two remain close for the sake of their daughter, but Runnels doesnít blame wrestling for her divorce.

"Dustin could have been an employee of IBM and we probably would have divorced. After a certain amount of time I wouldnít have been able to handle what I was trying to handle. I donít necessarily know that it was wrestling at fault. I do know that it is difficult when two parents are very busy and gone for any amount of time from their children, and away from their spouse. There were long periods of time, especially back then, 18-day overseas tours and 11-day domestic tours and that was difficult. I guess [WWE owner] Vince [McMahon] has realized from all the other failures in the industry that people need to be there for their families. You canít kill yourself on the road because you have nothing left for their family. I think if people are conscious of this and really pay attention to it. Number one, give the kids the time first, and if there is time left over give it to yourself and your partner. Where there is a will there is a way, but you canít have the issues I was dealing with. If someone is willing to be honest, they will make it happen."

It seems, however, that wrestling is in the Rhodes family blood, as Terriís former brother-in-law Cody is now WWE Tag Team Champion.

"I think a lot of Cody, he is a gentleman and an incredible athlete. I was so proud of the way he announced his Dad Dusty at the [WWE] Hall of Fame (in 2006). He is a young guy but an old soul. That on top of his athleticism, knowledge of the business and family heritage, I think he is going to do great. I am very proud of him, and Dakota loves him -- he is the coolest uncle she could ask for."

While family has been her primary focus, she has kept busy with other projects as well in the past four years.

"I started work on some TV shows. It is ironic that literally today in one of the trade journals there is an announcement that The Knowledge is partnering with a production company to produce a show called 'I Do.' It is all about weddings, everything. I pitched this exact show with this exact name before I even left Vince. I am surprised it took this long to get the show on the air. I did work for a friend of mine as marketing manager for Rocky Patel Premium Cigar but the travel became as bad -- if not worse -- than WWE, so I pulled away from that and bought a Soccer Tots franchise, which is an awesome program that I am very passionate about. But I am not passionate about running a business in that respect, being behind a desk and making a business run, so I am selling that business."

She is also working on a pair of books, but will not be adding her name to the list of wrestler biographies.

"My books have nothing to do with wrestling and everything to do with being a mommy. One is very anecdotal and full of advice and pictures; the other is a coffee table book with pictures and very little text. Things like that is what I have been involved in. I have worked on my books for the last few months and also gotten back in to meeting fans and doing shows recently."

She also doesnít rule out a return to the national spotlight with either WWE or TNA, but is very specific in what role she would want to play, and it doesnít involve being an active competitor.


"I didnít have to have my clothes off."
"What I loved the most was hosting Exxess and interviewing. I didnít have to have my clothes off or be in a bikini and then show up at Dakotaís school for the PTA meeting and have the other mothers go, 'We saw you on TV in a thong.í So now I wouldnít do anything that would make my child feel uncomfortable. Would I host a show again or interview? Yes, absolutely. It was something that made me feel like I could actually use my brain. A lot of the stuff on RAW was scripted for me but Exxess was a lot of fun, fly by the seat of your pants stuff."

The conversation turned from the future to the past, as Runnels discussed some of her favorite memories from her time in the WWE. She, along with Tammy "Sunny" Sytch and Sable (Rena Mero) were the precursor to the current concept of WWE Diva.

"When I came up with the idea for Marlena, it was Sherri Martel and Tammy in WWE at the time. Sherri is that kind of harsh, aggressive female and Tammy was the cheerleader. I was lying in the tanning bed at home and it hit me. My sister had a [designer] Bob Mackie Barbie doll and I was looking at it and thought, 'That is what WWE is missing, that glamour and elegance.í I called Dustin and told him my idea, and he said I had to phone Vince. Pat Patterson called back and was very polite and said thank you for the idea but we arenít interested at this time. A month or so later Dustin called me at my grandparents' home in Branford, Florida and said, 'Pack your bags -- they want to do your idea.í I flew out the next day and we went forward from there. They gave me a list of names, I forget if Marlena was on that list or if I came up with it. But Marlena Dietrich from old Hollywood, Dustinís character was androgynous and Marlena Dietrich was the most androgynous female that I could think of in Hollywood, so that is the name I came up with. The cigar worked perfectly. In coming up with that character and becoming that, by the time I came in Sherri was gone so it was just Tammy and I for awhile."

The Goldust character generated a lot of controversy and legitimate heat from the audience.


Goldust and Marlena at a press event in 1997. SLAM! Wrestling file photo
"The Goldust/Marlena duo was an awesome time, we would go out and get incredible boos and the place would erupt. It was scary at times, but on those nights that is when you went backstage and went, 'Oh my gosh, this is awesome that we have created this kind of reaction.' Yeah, you were scared but we evoked an emotion. To work with my husband and be able to go home and talk about the business, you got to take work home in a fun away in that regard."

She said the characters didnít get heat backstage. "We were treated fine. Dustin was such a silly goose and people would look at me and go, 'How do you put up with this?í Most people laughed about it. Sometimes I didnít because of some of the crazy things he did, but people respected him. Not many people would have the cajones to do that character. The fact that he could do it, would do it, and do it so well earned him a lot of respect."

Runnels often found herself caught between the many disputes between Sytch and Mero.

"I have always loved Tammy, I know she has had difficulty with Sable and trouble with things along the way. I looked at myself as the mother of that dressing room because she and Sable would go at it and not talk to each other but talk to me. I would be standing there scratching my head as the go-between between these two human beings and it was crazy. Tammy is a sweet girl and has done a lot for the business and I have a lot of respect for her in terms of what she did for the business."

While Runnels may have been a major influence in the evolution of the Diva, she doesnít take credit for it.


Terri Runnels in Edmonton in May 2001. Edmonton Sun file photo
"I am proud to say at the time that they used the diva name I was called the original WWE diva but we canít stop at Miss Elizabeth, or Tammy or Chyna or me we have to go way back to The Fabulous Moolah. In terms of what has been established for the Divas now, I think they are stunning and beautiful and talented. What I donít like, and it isnít their fault, is there are way too many of them. What made us unique and stand out was that there were only a few of us. If you make a cake and you have a six-inch layer of icing, you go 'blahí and want to spit it out because it is too sweet and overwhelming. If you have a cake with no icing it is missing something. I look at the divas as icing, you donít want the same amount as you have cake, but you want some of it. I think that if they were to pull back on the numbers it would be much more impactful. The girls that I have seen are beautiful and there is not one thing you can say about them in terms of them not working hard for their jobs. Maybe they are green to the business and donít know a lot but they have worked hard to get where they are. I donít think I can take any credit for who they are, they are their own unique identity."

Runnels is current promoting the "Make The World Write" contest in which she is giving away her home and $100,000. The last time she gave away that money, in a storyline sense, it launched the careers of four wrestlers who today are on the top of the industry. The "Terri Invitational Tournament" in 1999 culminated in an incredible ladder match at No Mercy: Jeff and Matt Hardy versus Edge and Christian.

"I loved the Hardys like they were my own boys. Their mother had passed away, and I wasnít old enough to be their mother but felt very strongly and protective of them, they were just beginning to make a name. Edge and Christian I had worked one indy show ages before with them. I was great friends with all of them. I knew they were all incredible workers, but everyone sat in the back in wonderment thinking it was amazing. When I was out there it was incredible but when adrenaline is flowing you donít see and realize everything that is coming from what you are doing. Even though that tournament had my name on it and was the beginning of the ladder matches, I had absolutely nothing to do with their success and achievements. They just put on a show and busted their asses and I was just really proud of them. They used me in terms of creating the angle, but I had nothing to do with how they evolved as performers."

Teaming with the four also gave the young wrestlers a chance to learn some important little things.

"There was one match where Edge speared me. I was so excited for that bump, I was like, 'Edge, bring it. Please donít short change me give it to me all.í After the match the Hardys should come and check on their manager. Jeff was so used to going to his brother and celebrating that is what he did. I was laying there, and I donít remember if Matt said something first or I did, it was like, 'Dude, check on me, then your brother!" -- that was how green they were. I remember doing the same thing with Terry Taylor back in WCW; they got onto me one night because I got out of the ring right beside the opponent. I was a total greenhorn. They told me I could not get that close to the opponent because he should do something to you, and the fact that he didnít makes him look stupid. We all have to live and learn, and we do so by people either telling us before hand, or after the fact."

Another high profile angle during her tenure ended in tragedy. As Marlena, Runnels was "won" by Brian Pillman, who was embroiled in a bitter rivalry with Goldust. Pillman died on October 5, 1997, Terriís 31st birthday, before a scheduled match that was going to continue the angle.

"It is funny that you mention him because I literally just dreamt of Brian last night. We were so involved in that angle with Vince Russo, and had so much to say about how the angle was going. Dustin and I were going to be renewing our vows in the ring at the pay per view, and when it came time for the priest to ask if anyone had anything to say against the marriage, Brian was going to come out, they were going to start fighting, blood was going to flow. Bottom line was I was going to end up with blood all over me but protecting Brian and fall in love with him. I was going to do a long angle."

Runnels still gets emotional as she remembered what happened.


"We were in St. Louis for the pay per view. You are supposed to arrive at 1 p.m. on the day of the pay per views. I remember saying to Dustin something was wrong. The night before that I actually did a house show and I remember saying to Dustin that Brian had been really rough with me. When we came backstage I had asked if he was okay, and he said, 'I am fine but nobody will let me ride with them.í I remember going to Dustin and I asking if we should let him ride with us. Brian and I had dated so the angle was kind of touchy to begin with let alone letting him ride with us. Dustin said he would be fine. The next day as time was ticking I said, ĎDustin something is wrong we should call.í Dave Hebner called the hotel and the police said, ĎWhy do you want to know?í and then told him that they found him dead. Brian and I had known each other for many years, we had a relationship. We were in an angle that everyone was excited about. Forget the angle part of it -- a husband, a father is now no longer in existence, never mind a friend, son, all those important things. It was surreal. It was one of those things where you go, 'Surely this isnít happening.í It breaks my heart that we lost so many good people, Brian being one of them. Rick Rude was a friend of mine, Curt Hennig, Davey Smith ... there have been a ton of people that we have lost and what do you say? It hurts. You canít be everyoneís mother and father or boss. You canít tell a adult what to do with their life. It breaks my heart and makes me sad."

RELATED LINKS

  • June 26, 2008: Terri Runnels giving away home
  • November 7, 2001: Terri still having a blast
  • Terriís website
  • Make the world "write"

    Jason Clevett may have had a poster or two on his wall of Terri Runnels and Tammy Sytch on his wall as a teenager, and is thrilled he's gotten to speak to both of them this year. His teenage self would never believe it if he went back in time and told himself his future.