August 7, 2008
A visit to Luna's 'little land of lunacy'
By FRED JOHNS - SLAM! Wrestling
LAS VEGAS - On a better day, perhaps in the time directly after Wrestlemania XIV, the man at the airport would never have bothered Luna Vachon. He would probably have said something embarrassing, maybe asked for her autograph and waved her through to the plane. He would not have cared that she had three carry-on bags, two over the limit -- he just would have been happy to tell his friends and family that he met that crazy woman wrestler named Luna.
But this was not the time directly after Wrestlemania XIV -- it was a full nine years later and Luna's name and face were no longer instantly recognizable and in fact, had been forgotten by most. On this particular day, just one day removed from the annual Cauliflower Alley Club reunion in Las Vegas, the man at McCarran International Airport did not recognize Luna at all and treated her just like everyone else, telling her tersely that she could only board with one carry-on bag. "You can try to put them all together, but that's the best I can do." Luna blinked, astonished that her other two small bags were even an issue but then quietly went about seeing what she could do.
It was only one of many moments Gertrude Vachon has had to endure in the years following her success in the WWF. She doesn't wrestle anymore and in fact announced her retirement from the sport in November 2007. She is content these days to work as a tow truck operator and when she is not working, often spends her time in her studio apartment. Despite the solitude, in an interview with SLAM! Wrestling, she admitted she kind of likes it.
"People around here don't know me, they only know me as the woman who leaves early in the morning and comes home dirty and dragging her butt at the end of the day," Vachon said. When she comes home, she walks past a garden full of sunflowers, watermelons, corn, tomatoes, jalapeños and green and white flowers that she has grown in a small little area, a landscaping trick she learned from all her trips to Japan. From there, she walks to her room and to her "favourite place in the world" -- her bed, surrounded my dozens of candles and strewn with kids' pillows.
She likes to play Lenny Kravitz when she comes home and just relax in this place she called her "little land of lunacy." It sounds cute, considering her gimmick during her wrestling days was that of a crazed woman who cut her hair into half a Mohawk, but the truth is somewhat different. "It's not just a gimmick," she chuckled. "And I have the papers to prove it."
Gertrude Vachon is bi-polar and medically diagnosed as being manic depressive. Her condition was not known to everyone she worked with in the wrestling industry, but those close to her knew full well that when she said her catchphrase, "Lunacy has its privileges," she wasn't just trying to entertain -- she was being honest.
One of those "privileges", as she put it, was growing up in Canada as part of Montreal's First Family of Wrestling -- The Vachons. Her stepfather, Paul "Butcher" Vachon, and his brother Maurice "Mad Dog" Vachon headed this family, along with Vivian, Luna's aunt. Though they all tried to keep her from becoming a wrestler, she pressed on anyway as it was something she felt she was born to do.
She recalled a trip to Paris as a 12-year-old girl that her "unofficial" godfather, the great Andre the Giant, took her on. Like the others, Andre tried to dissuade her from pursuing a career in wrestling, saying, "It's not good for ladies." But Vachon disregarded the advice.
"I'm going to make it different for women," she told him and, in some ways, she did. Before Luna Vachon appeared in the WWF, the women wrestlers were all at least somewhat normal. Attractive and spirited, but normal. Luna changed it all when she appeared to be a complete lunatic and seemed to go out of her way to look as unattractive as possible.
Getting into wrestling, she had a singular goal, something her father and uncle had taught her. "I just did what they did," she recalled. "I got attention on myself." A young Gertrude paid attention to the reaction the fans gave the Vachon Brothers at wrestling events. Many times, fans would approach the Vachon car and rock it back and forth in an attempt to get them to come out so the fans could assault them. "I remember they even had a gun in the glovebox," Luna recollected. She also remembered a man that would sell eggs in the arena parking lot in Chicago for the sole purpose of throwing them at the Vachons.
"In this world of butterflies, it took balls to be a caterpillar," is how Luna described the uphill battle she fought to win respect as someone who did not have the ideal diva physique or the mindset of one, either. But if she was to succeed, she knew she would have to get noticed somehow and this is why she shaved her head and worked hard to get noticed by as many people as possible.
The strategy paid off. Not only was she featured in many wrestling magazines, but she also got the attention of some adult magazine editors. "I was in Playboy because I was a weirdo and Hustler because I was a nutcase," she revealed. Since she did back-up vocals for a band known as Nasty Savage, she was also featured in a bunch of music magazines.
"I didn't just want to get attention in the wrestling industry, I wanted to get attention in all industries," she explained. (She was even asked to be part of Nintendo's first WWF wrestling game, but that idea was kyboshed when the WWF office decided it wasn't appropriate to have a game where "girls could beat up guys.")
Her career went up and down and despite many shots at it, she never became the Women's Champion. She had varying degrees of success as a solo competitor, enjoying some high-profile matches with Sensational Sherri Martel and Alundra Blaze. She left the WWF and joined ECW and then WCW before returning to the WWF in 1997, in the midst of the "Attitude" era. This was when she began a feud with Sable, a beautiful newcomer to the sport that was a big hit with fans -- and Playboy magazine. Just prior to their match at Wrestlemania XIV, where she would team with Goldust to face Mark Mero and Sable, Luna was told that due to Sable's upcoming photo shoot with Playboy, she was under no circumstances to scar or hurt pretty Sable.
"Can you imagine going to the Super Bowl and being told not to tackle your opponent and that if you catch the ball, you're going to get fired?" Luna asked incredulously. Luna did what she was told, and the match was a success. But Luna wasn't happy with it. "It was my only choreographed match in my 23 years in wrestling."
It was Owen Hart that would listen to Luna's complaints, a man that Luna was quite fond of. She was tight with many of the Harts and as a fellow Canadian, it made sense. "Some of the greatest wrestlers in the world come from Canada and some of the best human beings in wrestling come from Canada too. There's no doubt about that."
Calling Owen Hart a "true teacher," Luna explained that it was he would sit with her and go over her matches, helping her become a better wrestler and complimenting her when she had done well. "He would always say to me, ‘You're such a great little coward' after one of my matches. He was just a wonderful human being."
It was Owen and his brother Bret, she said, that understood her medical condition and did not hold it against her. "The only people that really understood me where the Canadians," she remarked. She spoke warmly about Bret, Owen, Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart and Chris Benoit, a man she called "a main-eventer in and out of the ring." She said Benoit's wife, Nancy, was the first person to cut her hair in wrestling and recalled that Benoit was a "proud Canadian and an awesome human being."
On the tragedy that befell the Benoit family, Luna said simply, "There are a lot of people that have passed on that I wish were still here. Men like Benoit and Owen, who were great men who only did what this industry demands of them. And I guess, in my own way, I did that too."
Luna continues to have great affection for her fellow Canadians in the sport of wrestling and is currently monitoring the career of Natalya "Nattie" Neidhart, the Anvil's daughter. "I am so proud of her because it couldn't have been easy being a Hart and then being a Neidhart," she joked. "That's double trouble."
But in some ways, Luna feels a kinship with Nattie, a woman who has managed to overcome the obstacles to make it to the big show and has found a level of success. "I think there's a lot more room for women like Nattie," she offered. "She can wrestle in the air, on the mat and around the ring and I both appreciate and respect that. We need more of that in this sport, not just bimbos and bimbettes."
She acknowledged that retiring was not easy. "You never really retire from wrestling," she said, adding, "The high you get from wrestling is part of the reason why." She recalled receiving a letter from the WWE offering to send her or anyone in her family to rehab because of her association with wrestling.
"I appreciate that [WWE boss] Vince [McMahon] did that because there is no drug, no amount of alcohol, no amount of shopping or driving fast that can compete with the high you get in the ring. When you have 50 or 5,000 or 50,000 people booing you or cheering you or whatever -- when you are doing your job right, there is no better high. How can you ever quit something like that?"
But quit she did, and left wrestling for time spent in her quiet studio apartment with her garden, candles and bed covered in children's pillows. What she has left is her memories of a time spent in a sport of "kings and queens" and of time spent with fans. Her fondest memories are of times spent with sick kids she got to visit as part of her work with the Make a Wish Foundation, work she says she was "blessed" to be able to do.
"Anytime I had a chance to do that, I did," she recalled, her voice wavering with emotion. "Those kids were so happy to meet someone who was a lady wrestler and they didn't care how my makeup looked or that I didn't have hair like them. I was so thankful that Vince McMahon gave me that platform even if the kids didn't know who I was. I am so blessed to have been able to make those kids smile before they died. And for that, I am one of the luckiest girls alive. I got to be someone who was paid to live their dream."
It's that fact that allows her to deal with people like the man in the airport who sent her away because she had more carry-on bags that she was allowed. This, despite the fact the man in front of Luna was allowed on with three bags himself. The incident was embarrassing and humiliating, but Luna simply stuffed her belongings into one giant bag and then boarded the plane.
She reflected on that moment in the airport and its larger implications. "So many people turn their back on you when you aren't in the ring anymore," she said thoughtfully. "And that's why I wish I could more for some of the people currently in the business who are so deserving."
And maybe she will. Although she spends her time as a tow-truck operator these days, her thoughts continue to flow back to her life as a wrestler and all the people that filled her life then and in many ways, still do. It's those people -- and that passion for a sport she truly loved -- that explains the children's pillows strewn all over her bed.
"I sleep in a bed covered with kids pillows because there's still a little girl left inside of me," she said shamelessly. "At 46 years of age, I still have a lot of living left to do."
Fred Johns is the West Coast Correspondent for SLAM! Wrestling. You can email him at email@example.com.