Rhea Ripley was only 20 when she signed her WWE contract in 2017.
Later that year, she took part in the inaugural Mae Young Classic, a tournament that featured 32 female wrestlers. While the young Aussie didn’t win, her future star power was already apparent.
Ripley is almost unrecognisable compared to how she looked at her WWE debut — fresh-faced with long, blonde hair — something she links to how she felt about things at the time.
“I moved to America when I was 20, I was very shy and very scared. And I just wanted to do a good job. I was scared of getting fired and I just wanted to, like, please everyone,” she tells The National.
“I had the long, blonde hair and I think I used that as a hiding mechanism sort of thing. When I got shy or I didn't feel comfortable, I would hide behind my hair.”
She says that between the first Mae Young Classic and the second one in 2018, she went through a lot of things in her personal and professional life.
“I got picked on, I got bullied, I didn't feel like I was worth anything. And I was just sick of everything. I was so homesick and I didn't want to be in America anymore. I was just done with everything,” she says.
Even though she felt like giving up on her dream of being a professional wrestler, she decided to try and change her outlook.
“I sat down with myself one day and I was like, ‘toughen up, you've been through so much and you've come so far don't throw it all away now. You can you can keep going. I know you can'. I just had to sort of believe in myself, in a way.”
One day, someone in the locker room suggested that shorter hair look would suit her and she decided to cut it. The haircut wasn't only a physical change — it was also a much-needed boost of confidence.
“I've always been scared of cutting my hair but that's a little bit of confidence that I need, so I just went and cut it,” she says. “I got new gear I didn't tell anyone and I walked up the second Mae Young for the photos in my new stuff. And everyone's like, 'what is this?' I'm like, ‘the new me, get used to it right now.'”
Her new look included more black, more studs and wearing darker make-up. It's been a definite change from the basic ring gear she once wore. After NXT UK was created in October 2018, she would become the first NXT UK Women’s Champion — a role that proved she was more than enough.
Soon, the short, blonde hair would get darker and Ripley added more tattoos to her arms and legs, matching the darker tone of her new wrestling persona, “The Nightmare”.
She credited American heavy metal band Motionless in White for inspiring her, especially their song Untouchable.
“I love being creepy and being dark and I love Motionless in White. So I was like, ‘Nightmare is perfect’. I love supernatural stuff. That's me as a human outside of work. That’s just stuff that I like. So why don't I bring it into work as well?”
Ripley says this is a truer representation of herself, despite her former looks.
She also credits WWE Hall of Famer Beth Phoenix as an inspiration. Watching Phoenix in the ring helped her realise that not every female wrestler needs to be slender and petite but that beauty has many shapes and sizes.
This is a message she also wants to spread to any other aspiring wrestlers. She wants them to know that while people may doubt them like they once did her, they can persevere.
“Don't stop, because there's going to be people that doubt you. There's going to be people that say that you can't do it and you're never going make it. But they did that to me, too, and look at me now.
“So just stay determined and stay on track and do whatever you want. Whether that's wrestling, whether that's soccer, football, basketball, anything, any sport, even outside of sports, anything else you like, you can do it. Just stay determined.”