Even at age 12, April Mendez wanted to be a superhero. It was an unlikely goal for a petite preteen, growing up rail-thin and poor in Hudson County.
Today Mendez, 25, is living her dream through an alter ego, A.J. Lee, a comic book-like character who has vamped, leg locked and lip smacked her way to superstardom as a professional wrestler.
“From a young age, I felt like I was supposed to be the sort of female who is doing something strong,” says Mendez, who in 2009 joined the roster of the multimedia conglomerate known as World Wrestling Entertainment. With more than 700,000 Twitter followers, her A.J. character is among the most popular on WWE’s Monday Night Raw, a 20-year-old cable-television staple currently airing on the USA Network.
Mendez/A.J. will be one of the main attractions April 7 when the 29th edition of WWE’s biggest annual event, WrestleMania, rolls into MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. Organizers predict 70,000 fans will attend the event; some also will flock to WWE Axxess, a four-day pre-event convention featuring autograph signings, paraphernalia sales and wrestling matches. The economic impact on the New York-New Jersey area is expected to exceed $100 million, according to Enigma Research Corporation, an event-research firm.
For Mendez, a native of North Bergen, the road from rags to WrestleMania wasn’t easy. “I’ve lived in so many different towns—Guttenberg, Union City, West New York, Jersey City,” she says of her childhood. “We didn’t have a lot of money and we’d get kicked out of places a lot. We just kind of moved to wherever we could find somewhere [to go].” The family even lived in a low-budget motel room for several years.
“It was my birthday, actually, and everything good happened that day,” Mendez says. “My first paycheck went to a down payment on the training.”
Wrestling proved to be a great escape, but the rigors of the training for the petite Mendez—she’s only 5 foot 2 inches—came as a shock.
“I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was,” she says. “It was incredibly painful. I had no body fat on me and no muscle, and my body freaked out. I thought maybe I couldn’t do this…maybe I’m not strong enough, but I just kept going.”
Professional wrestling is very different from the scholastic or Olympic version. It’s more scripted soap opera than sport, with story lines and larger-than-life characters representing good and evil. The athletes don’t fight, they perform. Their success is measured in TV ratings and merchandise sales. Wins and losses, all scripted, don’t factor into the equation.
Although fights are staged, professional wrestling can be painful and potentially dangerous, especially when trainees are learning how to absorb the impact of being slammed in unforgivingly firm wrestling rings.
Despite the rigors, Mendez continued to train for several years, building strength and toughness. At the same time, she began performing at local wrestling events to gain experience.
“She always showed great potential,” says Sean McCaffrey, former promoter of Women Superstars Uncensored, a female-only wrestling promotion that ran small events in Hudson County. “However, I don’t think anyone saw her busting out of her shell and becoming the biggest female star in the business.”
In 2009, Mendez learned that Florida Championship Wrestling—the WWE’s official minor league—was holding a tryout camp in Tampa. Candidates had to pay $1,500 to take part. “I began saving my money. I just thought, whether I get signed or not, they just need to see me,” she says.
The gamble paid off, and in May 2009 she was given a spot on the WWE roster of more than 100 performers and trainees. “Fate must’ve taken over, because I was so skinny and didn’t know how to do my hair and makeup,” says Mendez, who at that time was only 96 pounds. “I was just a blank canvas, and they took a chance on me.”
Dan Murphy, senior writer for Pro Wrestling Illustrated, says Mendez has the charisma to stand out from other women wrestlers. “She’s very attractive, but she also exudes a girl-next-door quality that makes her seem approachable.”
After two years on the training circuit, Mendez made her nationally televised debut in May 2011 on WWE Smackdown. With that, the organization began to plot her path to stardom.
It didn’t take long for Mendez’s character to become involved in an on screen courtship with then World Champion Daniel Bryan. She accompanied him ringside for his matches, and their simulated behind-the-scenes encounters gave viewers a chance to watch their relationship develop—a common WWE storytelling device.
In time, A.J. morphed from girl next door to vengeful vixen. Her fictional relationship began to unravel, and she developed a mentally unstable edge. Similarly outrageous relationships followed with popular WWE stars like John Cena and C.M. Punk, and A.J. became the most prominent female on WWE programming.
Despite her over-the-top wrestling persona, Mendez remains grounded in the family values she learned as a child. “To this day, I like the version of movies that don’t have the curse words,” she says. “I’m very reserved that way.”
Her true nature seems to shine through the fictional facade. “The fact that she’s so relatable to the fans is a big part of her success,” says Brady Hicks, writer for Pro Wrestling Illustrated. “She’s not some supermodel trying to wrestle. She’s one of us out there each and every week on TV.”
These days Mendez is mostly on the road, performing Monday and Tuesday for televised WWE shows and Friday through Sunday at non-televised events. She calls Tampa home, but is excited about coming back to New Jersey for WrestleMania.
“To have people coming from all around the world every year is an amazing thing,” says Mendez. “But to have people that probably first saw me at these little high school gym shows see me at this level will be the most rewarding thing ever.”
Gerry Strauss wrote about the film The Wrestler in the February 2009 issue of New Jersey Monthly.
WrestleMania Comes to the Meadowlands
April 4-7: Axxess Fan Fest, Izod Center, various times; general admission $45.
April 7: WrestleMania XXIX, 6:30 pm, MetLife Stadium; tickets $35-$2,000.
April 8: Monday Night Raw, 6:30 pm, Izod Center; tickets $20-$95.
Some events were sold out at press time. Tickets are available through TicketMaster. Wrestlemania also is available on pay-per-view for $54.95 (additional fees for HD). For information, visit wwe.com.