The wrestling world might recognize Kia Stevens as the larger-than-life character Awesome Kong but on the Netflix series GLOW, she's a single mom looking for a new start in life.
The story, which is inspired by the '80s all-women wrestling promotion also called "Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling," follows a struggling actress named Ruth (Alison Brie) desperately searching for an interesting role to play. She jumps at the chance to join D-list Hollywood producer Sam's (Marc Maron) newest project since it calls for unique personalities.
Among those colorful individuals is Tamee (Stevens), who finds herself saddled with the offensive, stereotypical Welfare Queen persona, which portrays her as lazy and proudly mooching off government funds. For Stevens, the gimmick hit close to home.
At the start of her wrestling career, she envisioned herself as a "sexy BBW kitten," and came up with the name Vixen. However, when she made her official debut at All Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling in 2002, she was given the moniker Amazing Kong--a name that also comes with a negative connotation for African Americans.
"I didn't know how to feel about that. Here's this big opportunity, just like Tamee has, but the price is she's gonna portray a welfare queen," she told TVGuide.com. "When you think of Kong, you usually think of this big ape running around New York City. And with apes and all of the things black people have gone through with that and being called that by racist antagonists, I struggled with that."
Despite those initial reservations, she stuck with the gimmick and made it her own. "I decided, and I believe Tamee would identify with what I did, [to] take that name and own it and make it mean something of respect. So when you heard the name Amazing Kong, you respected that name," she added.
On the series, Tamee attempts to earn that respect by flipping the stereotype on its head during one of her first matches. Teaming up with Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel), who is struggling with her Junk Chain persona, they convince their opponents, Ethel (Kimmy Gatewood) and Edna (Rebekka Johnson) a.k.a. the Beatdown Biddies, to dress up in KKK costumes so they'd look like the heroes. While the bold move worked for their on-screen characters, the actresses underneath the white sheets were apprehensive about the role.
"I felt so bad for Kimmy and Rebecca. They were very nervous about wearing [those] hoods and I'm saying 'Hey, this is the real deal,"' Stevens explained. "This is visceral. This is what wrestling really is. People are given gimmicks that they actually struggle with and are uncomfortable with and if you wanna make it in wrestling, sometimes you have to eat crow and fly with it."
Thankfully, Gatewood and Johnson had the sisterhood of their GLOW co-stars, who quickly bonded after a month-long wrestling bootcamp ahead of shooting. "It was like the best summer camp ever," Stevens recalled, adding that because of her professional background, she occasionally helped trainer Chavo Guerrerro Jr. demonstrate those jaw-dropping moves. "When you're in each other's crotches and armpits and seriously face-to-face just smelling what they ate that morning, you get close in the snap of a finger."
Though the show is centered around wrestling, she says it's still something everyone can enjoy. "The wrestling is the backdrop. It's set in a wrestling world to tell a story that every person can relate to."
GLOW, which was created by Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black), Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive, is now available to stream on Netflix.