Mountain Fiji, Colonel Ninotchka, Debbie Debutante, Susie Spirit, Spike, Chainsaw and their colleages were underestimated from the start. They were the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (or G.L.O.W.) and for four years that started in 1986 they were a day-glo staple of Saturday morning programming. No one expected them to catch on ("It was almost an infomercial!" recalls one of the wrestlers on the show's rampant product placement) or last as long as they did, but then when it was clear that they had (after 104 episodes), the show's primary backer Meshulam Riklis stopped funding it supposedly because his then-wife, camp icon Pia Zadora, forced him to.
Real life is almost as absurd at what played out on the small screen, which is described by one of its participants as "a vaudevillian show mixed with Saturday Night Live mixed with female wrestling." It's all lovingly documented in Brett Whitcomb and Bradford Thomason's G.L.O.W.: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which airs tonight on Logo. Several of the original Ladies participated in the documentary, which gives it voyeuristic before-and-after appeal (what does a female professional wrestler of the '80s look like almost 30 years later?). But the doc also exudes a humanity that the conscious camp of the show glossed over.
Though it came off as little more than sensory junk food, G.L.O.W. mattered to so many of the women involved — many were cast based on their appearance over their athletic prowess and hoped to use G.L.O.W. as an entry into high-profile show business. For most of them, G.L.O.W. would prove to be the height of their careers in entertainment, and now they're looking back on their legacy. It's easy to see parallels to the used-and-discarded participants of reality TV, which has to some audiences replaced professional wrestling as the low-culture performance art of its time. The Ladies performed at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas and were housed in basically a giant dorm nearby. They worked as they lived, to a sometimes detrimental extent. In the film, Lori Palmer (Colonel Ninotchka) explains, "We were constantly in character. I became Ninotchka because I was Ninotchka 24/7." A man fell in love with that character, proposed to her and then left her when he realized Lori couldn't live up to the brutal strength of her character.
G.L.O.W. was a blip on the pop culture radar that meant a lot to a few people who carry it with them today (in sustained injuries and fond recollections, alike). It's particularly interesting to watch co-founder Matt Cimber specifically refer to the show as "camp" on old Donahue footage — that sort of self-awareness is usually only found in retrospect. It accordingly abounds elsewhere in G.L.O.W.: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which manages to be heartfelt about a ridiculous subject. Also in that Donahue clip, Cimber describes G.L.O.W. as "a great image for young girls...They show women as independents." It sounds like spin, especially from its male guiding hand. Indeed, by the end of the doc, what emerges as most important is shared experience.