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Twenty-eight years after the inaugural event took place at Madison Square Garden, WrestleMania returns to the New York Metro area this Sunday. But for nobody in WWE is WrestleMania 29 more of a homecoming than for AJ Lee.
“It’s possibly the most surreal feeling that I’ve ever experienced,” Lee, 26, said about being part of WrestleMania at MetLife Stadium — just 15 minutes away from the Union City, N.J., neighborhood where she grew up. “It makes you feel like, ‘Hey, I actually made it.’ ”
Nine years ago, a 17-year-old Lee waited on line at the Madison Square Garden box office for seven hours to score the worst seats in the house for WrestleMania XX.
This Sunday, Lee will have the best view in the house when she stands at ringside as her two charges, Dolph Ziggler and Big E. Langston, challenge for the WWE tag team championship against Daniel Bryan and Kane.
For Lee, the match is almost “too good to be true,” as it ties together a year’s worth of storylines involving her romantic exploits with Bryan, Kane and Ziggler.
“I feel like I’ve been part of one of the best-told story arcs,” said Lee, who noted that, in a year, she went from loving Bryan and Kane to “trying to ruin their lives. I think that’s really cool storytelling.”
The match will cap off a year where Lee became one of WWE’s biggest, and most unlikely, breakout stars in 2012. A year ago, Lee was playing the part of Bryan’s meek girlfriend. In the months that followed, Lee became one of WWE’s most influential and prominent acts — getting involved in storylines involving John Cena and CM Punk, and briefly acting as general manager of “Monday Night Raw.”
Lee said attributes her big break to a number of “happy accidents.” But, she said, her success has been no fluke.
“Being somebody that knew she wanted to do this since she was 11, I was prepared mentally for over a decade. So when the opportunities came, I stole them. I made the best that I possibly could, because I had been waiting for so long.”
Also helping Lee’s career, she said, is the fact that she doesn’t fit the mold of the typical Diva. Lee said her nerdy, boyish style connected with fans — especially young girls. And, Lee said, WWE responded in kind, realizing, “This is cool. This works.”
But Lee’s rise as a WWE personality has been somewhat bittersweet. Since her days cheering on Mickie James and Lita, Lee has loved women’s wrestling. But these days her job involved delivering interviews more than it does delivering drop kicks. The adjustment took some getting used to.
“I used to be naive. I didn’t realize the value of being a whole performer . . . People start to care about you when they know more about you and see different aspects of your personality,” said Lee, who noted that cutting down on her wrestling could also prolong her career. “What I’ve always wanted is longevity. I want to be able to do this for a really long time. I have this goal of being Diva of the Decade.”
But, Lee acknowledges, she’ll have stiff competition for that title, including from several talented prospects in WWE’s developmental system, NXT. Lee said the female rookies are “very respectful,” and have approached her for advice.
And although Lee cut her teeth in the New Jersey independent wrestling scene, she doesn’t think that having wrestling experience needs to be a prerequisite for working for WWE. She said WWE’s developmental system “can make” a Diva out of someone who has never stepped in a ring before.
“They’re definitely further ahead than my generation was,” Lee said. “I would bring a lot of them up right now. We need the girls to work with.
“That’s the really cool thing about getting into social media. Before, we didn’t have the instant connection with fans. You could say that it’s like a guy’s sport, but now I have whatever many Twitter followers, and it’s mostly young girls,” Lee said. “It’s the most gratifying thing to have young girls telling me, ‘I love that you do a photo shoot in a pants and a button up shirt, and you still look cool.’ ”
It’s not hard for Lee to connect with WWE fans, considering it hasn’t been that long since she was one. She said she still marvels over the opportunity to work side by side with many of the stars she grew up admiring, including Stephanie McMahon and The Undertaker. She even had a “huge obsession” with Kane.
“When I was like 12 or 13, I had this poster of him above my bed,” Lee said. “I actually told him this. I don’t think he enjoyed it that much.”
While AJ Lee made her first WrestleMania appearance a year ago — accompanying Daniel Bryan for what turned out to be an infamous 18-second match — she returns at WrestleMania 29 this Sunday with a very different status within the company. In the past year, AJ’s star has risen in a huge way, and she’s been at the center of an incredible amount of major storylines in WWE, involving the likes of Bryan, Kane, CM Punk and John Cena. These days though, she’s firmly in the heel world, aligned with Dolph Ziggler and Big E Langston, and will be in their corner as they face Team Hell No (Bryan and Kane) at ‘Mania.
I sat down with AJ to talk about WrestleMania 29, her current WWE companions, her friend turned in-ring competitor Kaitlyn and more, including her love of comic books.
IGN TV: I was at WrestleMania last year, and I feel like things were already on the rise for you, but I think that that was the starting point for so much that followed. What’s it like for you to be back at WrestleMania a year later with so much having changed?
AJ Lee: It’s insane. Like you were saying, last year, honestly, everything that had happened to that point was kind of the be-all, end-all for me. I was like, “This is so amazing. This wasn’t supposed to happen.” Everything kind of happened by accident. I was so appreciative. I was like, “Cool, it’s ending at Mania. What a cool way to go out! I’ll go back to Superstars and have fun.” And Superstars was fun anyway — I’d do it right now. But I’m always mentally prepared for everything to end, and I was then. I was like, “Wow, this is so amazing. I’m so happy I got this opportunity.” Then another door opened, and then it closed. I thought, “Wow, that was awesome! All right, let’s see what happens.” And it just keeps going, and that’s probably the coolest thing for me, and I think that if at any second everything were to end, I would be so happy because I’d done pretty much everything I came to do, and then some. I feel super complete. I’m really lucky to be a year and a half into my official career and to feel complete, like I’ve done everything that I need to, so now everything’s kind of gravy. I’m just fighting for longevity, I guess.
IGN: You and Dolph have been a really enjoyable pairing.
AJ: Oh my gosh, yes! … read more »