WWE superstar Carmella has been on the forefront of firsts since she joined the professional wrestling company’s developmental program NXT in 2013. There, she was part of the roster that changed women’s wrestling and later led to Monday Night RAW‘s “Women’s Revolution” in mid-2015. Last summer, Carmella – a smack talking New Yorker who does everything with “fabulous” style – not only participated in the first women’s Money in the Bank match, but she won it.
Carmella (real name Leah Van Dale) was also part of the last tag team announced for the WWE’s upcoming Mixed Match Challenge, which will air Tuesdays at 10 pm ET, live on Facebook, starting this week. The Mixed Match Challenge pairs “unlikely male-female WWE superstar pairings” in a 12-team tournament, with the winner receiving $100,000 to donate to the charity of their choice.
The self-proclaimed “Princess of Staten Island” spoke with Rolling Stone over the phone to discuss teaming with fellow WWE star Big E in the upcoming mixed-tag tournament, joining the cast of Total Divas, and how this revolutionary era of women’s wrestling can inspire the next generation of young fans.
You’ve paired with male wrestlers before, whether it was Enzo and Cass or James Ellsworth, but does the Mixed Match Challenge feel new to you given that you’re fighting side-by-side with your partner?
It’s super new. I think everything about this Mixed Match Challenge is going to be different and super fresh and exciting. The fact that I get to be paired with Big E, too. I’ve never been with anyone like him before, that’s for sure. I’ve been with some characters, but this is different.
You’ve been wrestling on your own for a few months now. Are you excited to be paired up with someone again or do you feel more comfortable alone now?
I like doing my own thing and I like being partnered with somebody. Anytime you’re partnered with a guy in wrestling, it’s exciting and different. Having James Ellsworth by my side for a while, that got people talking. Being a manager for Enzo and Cass in NXT was great. I got a lot of experience with doing that. And now this is something different as well, so I’m excited to be a part of it.
A lot of the WWE’s audience are kids. What kind of message do you think can be taken away from seeing male and female superstars fighting in the same match?
It’s super important for little girls to see what the women have done with the “Women’s Revolution” and now being able to be a part of this Mixed Match Challenge. It’s different, it’s fun and it’s exciting. Nowadays, women are looked at as equal to the men when it comes to competing and I think that’s a really cool message to send to little girls and show them that whatever they want to do, they can set their mind to it and make it happen. And right now, this is a super exciting time for women in the WWE with all the firsts. We have the first women’s Royal Rumble match coming up and we had the first women’s Money in the Bank ladder match [in July 2017], so the sky is really the limit for the women right now.
You grew up with wrestling, with your father Paul in the business, and you’ve seen the different eras come and go. What does it mean for you to be a part of this specific era of women’s wrestling right now?
Right now it’s so… gosh, if you told me a few years ago that I would be involved in this “Women’s Revolution,” of course I would want to believe you, but I would have to pinch myself to know that I’m able to make history and be a part of all this. All I ever wanted was to make history when I first got signed to NXT. Seeing girls like Charlotte, Bayley, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks – and of course the girls on the main roster like Natalya, the Bella Twins, Naomi – seeing all these girls starting this revolution and the fact that I am a part of it as well is such a surreal feeling. I’m just excited for where it’s heading.
What was it like to be a part of NXT at that time with that group of people?
I saw it all change. When I first got into NXT, there was one girls match even on the shows, and it was usually the same two girls working every single weekend. Everyone else was just backstage wanting that opportunity. I was lucky enough because I was at least still managing Enzo and Cass, so I was still part of the shows. But along with the other girls, I was training five, six, seven days a week trying to get booked on the NXT Live events. To see that shift with all the girls’ hard work, and of course crediting Sara Amato and all the coaches down at the Performance Center… to see it shift to what it is now and see all these “first ever” matches for all the women, and now myself being a two-time “Ms. Money in the Bank,” it’s so surreal. I keep saying it because I still don’t believe it.
What was that like when you first held the briefcase after you won MITB?
It was surreal. Still now, I’ll see it on my kitchen counter when I’m at home and I’m like, “Wait a minute, this is mine? I won this?” When I first found out about the ladder match, I remember – honestly – I was scared. I’m one of the smaller girls in the division. I don’t really do any crazy moves off the top rope or anything like that. I moonwalk, and I trash talk – that’s what I do. So, to know that I was going to be jumping off ladders and I was going to be getting hit with these things, I was scared. But I knew it was something that I had to do and wanted to do to prove to everyone that I’m here too and I want to make a name for myself, and that’s exactly what I did.
Do you have to carry that briefcase with you everywhere?
Everywhere! I mean, everywhere with me. I’ll be at the airport and people will ask if I’m in the banking business. It’s hilarious, but I carry it with pride.
You also joined Total Divas this year, which adds a lot to your plate. What has that transition been like?
It’s super exciting to be a part of a reality show in the midst of this “Women’s Revolution.” One of the things documented on the show was the Money in the Bank ladder match, so it’s been exciting and different. It’s not something I ever thought I would do, being a part of a reality show. It was a super fun experience and being able to see it all play out on TV and for fans to be able to get to know me a little bit more has been cool.
The WWE schedule is a pretty consuming one. What has it been like taking on an additional project like Total Divas?
It was definitely a lot at first to be on the road. Being a part of Smackdown Live and then having this reality show at the same time, it was a lot. I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it, but luckily, I have a lot of great friends in the locker room and on Total Divas they all kind of help you with that. It was a little bit of a learning curve, but we made it through (laughs).
What is the learning curve from going from performing with the WWE and then going on Total Divas?
The adjustment was trying to be yourself in front of all these cameras. You’ve got all these cameras following you around. For me, it’s easy to play Carmella on Smackdown because it’s a character. But to just be Carmella in real life on this reality show was a little bit different. Getting used to all those cameras being around and letting loose was a little bit different, but I got used to it.