By Moonah Ellison
Photographer: Robert Ascroft
“Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamed of entertaining stadiums,” says CJ “Lana” Perry, professional wrestler, performer, model, singer, actress, well, everything really! I caught up with Perry via Zoom before her Wrestlemania appearance in April where she was fighting for the Women’s Tag Titles. Her life has taken her down so many different paths: professional ballet, to acting, to commercial dancing, to wrestling.
Perry still can’t wrap her head around it. Here she is, a ballerina that was dainty and elegant, and now in this space of professional wrestling for the biggest and brightest wrestling ring there is, the WWE, which is very masculine. But being an advocate for feminism in a male-dominated sport, Perry highlights the diversity in professional wrestling and how the athletes – especially female – come from all walks of life.
“The people come here from all different types of backgrounds,” gushes Perry. “We are professional athletes, some of the best athletes in the world like Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair. These crazy athletes that have been in the Olympics, but we also have people like me that are former ballerinas, mod-els, really athletic and we’re able to learn how to wrestle. I think that being a WWE superstar, you can find your own path.”
To be selected to wrestle for the WWE is a process. One can only imagine how many try out and are lucky enough to get picked, signed, and perform regularly. It’s a grueling sport but the rewards are endless. It was a six-month process for Perry to be picked that started in 2012. There was a Diva search (now called Superstars) and having this huge try out all over the world looking for dancers, models, actresses, professional athletes that they could turn into professional wrestlers. They took 12 out of thousands of girls and put them through a month-long camp teaching the basic 101 of professional wrestling. Five were signed and Perry was one of them, getting the call that she made it on her birthday. What a gift.
Like when she’s in the ring, Perry strives to empower women to fight and grab that opportunity when it presents itself. “I encourage women all over the world that feel like their voice might not be heard and even if they feel like they’re not being heard, I hear you. Many of us hear you and we have to encourage one another to not give up. Because man, it is a marathon. A lot of times we’ll [women] take five steps forward, and then we take four back. But we’re still moving forward and we have to find a silver lining. Because if we don’t find the silver lining then we just give up and will never make change.
“And I think that’s what it’s all about. Fighting for inclusion, fighting for diversity, fighting for more representation. Every single gender, race, sexual orientation, religion. We just have to come together and be more loving and be more kind to each other and understand that we really, really need more representation in everything.”
Perry was born in Florida and spent years of her childhood in Latvia, her father was a missionary. Her love for ballet would be evident, attending the Riga Choreography School (the ballet school of the Latvian National Opera) and dancing with the Latvian National Ballet when she was 14. Three years later, Perry would return to the United States and dance in New York City at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ballet Hispanico, Broadway Dance Center, and Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance. College at Florida State and modeling would follow and then a relocation to LA to break into show business.Perry credits her time in Latvia with shaping her into the woman she is today. She has not been back in ten years. “Latvia is really what defined me to be honest. It taught me discipline, it taught me resiliency, it taught me the importance of inclusion. I grew up as American in the former Soviet Union and so I was the minority. I was bullied a lot and discriminated a lot because I was American. They did not like Americans so I have a very different point of view on life because of that. And I think that’s partly why I do fight so much for equality because of probably not feeling included while growing up in those defining years.”
Given Perry’s fast-paced lifestyle, the pandemic has brought mental health to the forefront. Covid has given many of us a time to reflect on ourselves and Perry is no exception. The emotional toll quarantine has produced is paramount. “I felt like before the pandemic I was just go, go, go, go, go, nonstop, nonstop, nonstop. And I never had a moment to reflect on my own health. My own mental health, my own emotional health. And then all of a sudden, I had all this time to do that. And it’s been a lot of work. It’s been hard but I just encourage everyone to do that. I encourage everyone to focus on their mental and emotional health as much as their physical health because you know that is vital.”
Perry stars in the recently-released sci-fi film Cosmic Sin with Bruce Willis. The film is set in 2524, four hundred years after humans started colonizing outer planets. Perry is part of a team of soldiers sent to thwart an alien attack on a remote planet. Frank Grillo also stars. Her role was originally cast for a man but was changed to female after Perry’s audition. “My character is a badass. She is a sniper. She’s the best sniper in the galaxy. Coming from a ballerina to play the best sniper in the galaxy? That’s pretty awesome.”
But seeing women in many different roles that would otherwise be predominantly men? Yes, absolutely. If the media and society show a woman as president then little girls will see that image and think it’s normal. We need more of that. “Oh it’s normal for me to become a CEO. Oh it’s normal for me to be a Prime Minister, a director, a producer, anything, a sniper! You could do it all just like men do it. Like why can’t we do it all?!? And I think more and more if we have these roles for women that represent different areas of life, it’s going to show women that they can do anything. I think that’s the importance of inclusion and the importance of representation for everyone.”
So if you happen to be interested in professional wrestling, Perry has some sure-fire advice. “It’s like a marathon. Do not lose hope. Keep running it. Also, train. Train as much as possible in the ring. Train, go work out, take acting classes. I can’t emphasize how important acting classes are for your training. Even speech classes! Be prepared to speak to people. Because it’s all about confidence as well. And so those are a couple, just a couple, of the things that would really help. Take some gymnastics so you can flip.”With a new budding acting career, stardom in the WWE, and a platform to encourage other women to reach for the stars, Perry credits her parents as the people who played the biggest role in her life. “They are so inspiring. My father has taught me to always chase my dreams. My mother has taught me to always be kind and loving, and first and foremost is to be kind to people and love people. That’s the most important thing over career accolades. Over any accolades is to be kind and love one another and to give. And my father has always encouraged me to chase my dreams and what it means to be a woman. My biggest advocate for what it means to redefine what it means to be a woman was my father. He always encouraged me that I could do it all. I could be a mother if I want, I could be a wife, I could be president, I could go to Mars. He always taught me the sky’s the limit. My dad is getting his Masters right now and my mom just got her PhD and they’re both 64 years old.”
It’s never too late.