It’s Friday night, I’m in Bethnal Green walking down a long, dark, brick-lined alleyway. London’s overground trains are chugging away above me. I’m feeling like I know something others don’t. Like I’m ‘in’, on a secret. That ‘here we go’ feeling when you’re not sure what life is about to throw at you is creeping up inside of me.
We arrive at our destination. By ‘we’, I mean me and Claire, who is taking me by the hand and showing me this highly-anticipated thing that awaits at the end of this alleyway. You will get to know Claire soon. I promise.
We arrive at the entrance of a very unassuming building, which, during the day I’m sure it looks like a storage unit or chiropractor’s office. But tonight, there’s a man in a black suit and bowler hat taking names. He’s also wearing a mask with vertical black and white stripes. A zipper runs up the middle of it. He looks like a fetish gimp enigma.
Claire knows him, she says a cool “She’s with me” type of thing and then we’re in.
I walk through a black curtain. Then almost on cue, Bang your head by Quite Riot drops on the speakers and now I’m really ‘in.’ I’ve entered the intoxicating world of Lucha Britannia.
Lucha Libre is Mexican wrestling, a variant of the sport where those who participate wear a mask that conceals their true identity, one that famously features high flying moves and flashy personas.
Lucha Britannia is that too but injected with cabaret intervals and a British sense of humour. The guy who runs it has described the scene as “Monty Python meets Benny Hill meets wrestling.”
A monthly extravaganza where wrestlers and those training to be wrestlers get to showcase their moves and well-crafted personas to an audience that is pretty much down for anything. There is a slight whiff of fetish about this scene too, which is a touch on the money, as this space doubles as a fetish club on other nights.
So let’s rewind about an hour or so, when Claire Heafford and I sat down for tea at a bar around the corner. Claire is a wrestler for Lucha Britannia and has been for the last two years, but tonight, she won’t be performing as she’s heavily pregnant.
I wanted to know what brought her to the world of lucha. Claire tells me that she was a gifted gymnast for most of her childhood. This meant she’d had to endure gruelling training sessions with a Russian gymnastics teacher, but then gave it up when she was 15 to concentrate on athletics.
By the time she was an adult, she’d left behind her competitive sports background for a career in the arts. However, she missed using her body, missed the chance to express herself and to compete. She was soon looking for activities to fill this void. She tried adult gymnastics class and circus school, none of which really fit.
By chance, she met a woman during circus training who told her about a school where you can learn to wrestle. Claire was intrigued: “I looked it up, I came to see the show and it was just, I felt like my whole life had come to this point, and was like, ‘OK, I don’t know what this is, but I have to learn wrestling and get on this show.”
Claire doesn’t exactly know what it is about wrestling that she loves: “I had never watched WWE, I have no desire to be in the WWE, but there’s something about wrestling that I was immediately like, ‘OK, I love it’, because it’s this weird mixture of gymnastics, martial arts; It’s kind of like rugby, it’s about collision, it’s bodies colliding, I really liked the Mexican style because it was masked.”
I asked her about her first performance, which was by chance at the famous York Hall venue around the corner. “I guess I just inhabited the ten-year-old gymnast inside of me who loved doing dance routines and performing.” She tells me about her wrestling character and how that ties into her performance.
“Weirdly the character I do is a doll. When I immediately went out, the movements that I made were very like a Russian doll, like I had been taught to do as a ten-year-old kid,” she laughs. “So I did this weird entrance as a doll, walked down the stairs, and there was this big mental carpet in the run-up to the ring, I was like ‘OK, I better do something’, so I did a cartwheel, backflip, summersault and just kept doing that around the ring; the crowd went crazy.”
Claire met her partner, Tom, at Lucha Britannia, he is also a wrestler. She remembers the first live wrestling show she watched was Tom vs Will Ospreay (a now famous wrestler who works in Japan.) She found the show inspiring as Will is known as a high flyer, a person who can do flashy, acrobatic moves.
It reminded Claire of her own gymnastic training, “I watched what he was doing and was like ‘I can do that, I can summersault like that, I’m going to get in the ring and learn to do it.” But she realised wrestling entailed a lot more than flashy acrobatics. “I then quickly found out that wrestling is fucking hard, so while I can summersault, learning to wrestle and make it look real, that’s a whole other thing, that’s going to take another six years”
Back to the present, and an MC in a black suit covered in diamanté flames stalks around the ring. The word ‘Louche’ is spelled across his jacket. Three women flank him, they are dressed in skin-tight latex, one has the persona of a crazed nurse, the other two are slightly milder, in the sense that their latex is just branded with the Lucha Britannia logo.
I look around the venue, the room is small and dark. A wrestling ring is erected in one corner, and a cash-only bar at the other. The place is full, a lot of energy, a lot of heat, but the vibe is friendly. The crowd is a mix of hipsters, wrestling geeks (and I say that with love) and people just down to have a good time.
Claire and I are standing halfway up the stairs. She tells me this is the place for the best view. She warns me that the wrestlers regularly spill out onto the crowd, you stand by the ring at your own risk.
The first match is a chaos match, Claire explains: “In dance you would use the word ‘canon’. There is action, someone else does something mad and someone else does something mad, it kind of works like that.”
The array of characters that come out from behind the curtain are crazy, colourful and wonderful. There is Monito Alludo, a monkey character who swings off the beams of the building’s foundations and walks on all fours. There is El Piranha, a ‘heel’ (a wrestling term for a bad guy). He comes out with an aggressive stride while the audience is screaming, ‘fuck you’ and giving him the finger. And he’s giving it right back to them. Next, there’s Disco Diablo. Wearing a white fur jacket covered in colourful fairy lights, wild curly hair tumbling over his silver mask. He’s doing the whole Saturday Night Fever dance. The crowd loves him.
Then there is Miguel Jackson. In case the name didn’t give it away, he’s a Michael Jackson impersonator. I’m not sure if this is a one-off, special Halloween theme, but he is owning it. He is wearing the red leather Thriller costume with ghoulish make-up. When he comes out, the whole room is bathed in red light. Everyone in the ring gets zombified. Miguel leads the way, hypnotising the other wrestlers to join him in the Thriller dance. Soon, all the wrestlers are doing the zombie shuffle behind Miguel. He finishes the dance with some flashy moonwalk attempts. The audience is screaming ‘shamone motherfucker’. The song ends. The lights come up. The chaos begins.
The match is exactly how Claire describes, people jumping around, skillfully executing crazy high flying moves. Crashing out into the audience, landing and toppling over crowd members, creating a knot of limbs and sweaty faces. The commentators are adding colour to the fray, “I think you would agree with me, that was a side order of fucking hell.”
Miguel Jackson is the winner of this match. His finishing move is standing on top of one of the ring corners. He puts on a fedora hat, and does the Smooth Criminal lean, falling in a perfect diagonal line onto the stomach of one the bodies lying on the ring canvas. The bell rings and he twists, turns, and moonwalks out of there.
I assume most people know that wrestling is sort of fake, as in the moves or ‘spots’ in wrestling talk (planned action in the ring) are discussed beforehand. It’s choreographed. A performance.
“The way that it works is that there are promotions, which is like the equivalent of theatre companies. A person runs the promotion and then they book the wrestlers. I see them as artists. They turn up with their own agenda, their own ideas, things they’ve been thinking of all week that they want to do, or storylines they want to perform. And then they collaborate together, they will be told what match they’re in, but then it’s up to the individual wrestlers to come up with the story they are going to tell on the stage,” Claire explains.
Lucha libre is a type of freestyle wrestling, which dates back to the 1800s. At that time, Mexican wrestler Enrique Ugartechea developed lucha style wrestling by adding to and tweaking the traditional Greco-Roman style of wrestling. In the decades that followed Ugartechea’s experiment with traditional-style wrestling, Lucha libre grew in popularity. With the arrival of television and the emergence of a lucha wrestling icon, El Santo, it entered the mainstream consciousness and was cemented as a popular form of entertainment.
The art of Lucha libre is based on tradition. The storyline the wrestlers follow is one of good trying to overcome evil. Técnicos (good guys) and rudos (bad guys) fight it out to win the attention of the audience. It is black and white, técnicos elicit cheers and rudos boos.
Lucha libre differs from other forms of professional wrestling such as British wrestling, which is seen as more technical and has a strong focus on grappling; or Puroresu, a Japanese style of wrestling which features mixed martial arts moves, such as realistic-looking and sounding strikes. Lucha libre is flashy and high-flying, with exaggerated gestures. One will find lucha wrestlers routinely climbing on top of the ring turnbuckles, back-flipping on their opponents.
The masks used in lucha wrestling are more than just a tool to conceal the identities of practitioners. The mask is also more than just a character. The mask represents the warrior spirit of the wrestler, almost like a mythical identity. In some high-profile matches, a wrestler will bet his mask for a win, with the loser having to forfeit their mask, thus revealing their true identity. In lucha-verse this is a big deal, as no-one in the business reveals a luchadore’s true identity.
Now for a cabaret act, a woman in a thong, heels and striking make-up saunters into the ring. Her name is Mynxie Monroe. She announces that she is going to sing some punk rock for us. The opening bars of Hole’s Celebrity Skin start. She proceeds to do a karaoke version of the song. A bad karaoke version of the song.
Claire looks at me, shocked. She promises me the cabaret acts are usually very good. I tell her it’s fine, I’m actually quite enjoying the bizarreness of it all. Claire is not impressed, and muses on ways in which this act could be saved, and comes to the conclusion that it would be cool if she had a penis, “If she doesn’t have a dick, I’m going to be so disappointed.” Mynxie Monroe doesn’t have a dick, to our knowledge, and Claire was left disappointed.
The next wrestler out is Pavo Real. His persona is that of a Russian ballet dancer. He comes out to the Swan Lake theme. White and black paint covers his face. He wraps himself up in a metallic cape, almost channeling a Phantom of the Opera feel of a mad, reclusive, genius.
He tenderly reaches his hand to members of the audience, to caress their faces, but pulls away at the last minute. Until he finds a man whose face fits what he’s looking for. He grabs it, shaking it as if he’s electrified by the energy within this man’s skull. Pavo then runs to the corner, ready for the final crescendo of Tchaikovsky’s theme.
The musical climax comes, and he opens his metallic wings, patterned with a peacock design, balancing on the tip of his toes like a ballerina on pointe. The crowd hates him by the way. Or I should say they love to hate him. Pavo Real is graced with the chants ‘Swan prick’ and ‘ugly duckling.’ But he doesn’t care, because at this moment he is Pavo Real and Pavo Real has no time for haters.
Pavo Real is in a tag team partnership with Santeria, a voodoo Priest character. They are facing Team Horny, who are made up of a man called Cassius and a woman called La Diablesa Rosa. Team Horny enter the ring dancing to the Mousse T song I’m Horny, it’s clear they are a fan favourite. Cassius is deliciously camp, wearing devil horns and little shiny red wings, woo-hooing and fist-pumping the air as if he is a club rep on a night out in Ibiza.
The energy they radiate is contagious, but Santeria sucker punches them during his entrance and the match begins. This match was one of the many highlights of the night. All wrestlers involved are amazingly skilled. In one instance La Diablesa Rosa picks up Santeria (who is a very big man) and body slams him in the middle of the ring. The crowd roar. Unfortunately for Team Horny, Santeria soon gets the pin for the three counts. And Pavo Real and Santeria win the match.
Claire and I step outside for some air. It’s chilly outside but refreshing. Some of the wrestlers who performed are already there, hanging around with their friends. Disco Diablo is casually talking to a group of people, topless underneath his white fur jacket and still wearing his silver lucha mask.
Another guy with long sweaty hair and an athletic build approaches Claire to say hey. He’s a nice guy, with a bright smile, good energy. It’s clear he is one of the wrestlers who performed earlier. But there is an unspoken rule not to identify a lucha wrestler’s persona to their real-life identity. So I do not know who this man is, and no-one was going to tell me. But I have to say I enjoyed the mystery of it all.
We talk about Pavo Real’s performance, I mention that I found his performance amazing and hilarious, it was clear he was very committed to his character. Earlier on in the night, Claire gave me a very interesting account of the idea of masculinity in wrestling, she generously expanded this idea: “The reasons I enjoy going around the country and watching wrestling is that it’s a community of working-class men predominantly and it’s a kind of truly working-class art form in which men perform masculinity.”
Claire pinpoints Pavo Real’s experience, “For him, he is really exploring the idea that from the working-class male background that he comes from, it was not OK for him to be interested in dance as a teenager. His Dad didn’t approve. He got picked on at school for being gay, he’s not gay, only because he liked to dance.
“For him, this character is very meaningful, he gets to perform as someone who is being theatrical and is borrowing from these elements of opera and ballet. He gets to mix it with violence and all of the stuff he loves in wrestling and make it masculine and sexy. The brutality and beauty next to each other.
“It’s just so funny how each of the wrestlers chooses to develop a character, and depict it on stage, it’s usually very autobiographical. It is expressing something they are not able to express in their masculinity in daily life.”
On my way to catch the night tube home, I realised that I’m smiling to myself, I’ve been completely charmed by this weird and wonderful world of Lucha Britannia. I think of Claire’s journey to the ring, Pavo’s Real’s quest for true expression and the amount to joy the audience had whilst watching the show.
It feels like everyone involved in this wrestling promotion have found a place where they can show off the things that set them apart from their friends or backgrounds and be embraced for it.
I have to say it was intoxicating, on my way out I grabbed what I thought was a flyer for the show, the enigma gimp guy stops me and enthusiastically says, “It’s every Monday, oh and Wednesdays too.” I don’t really understand what he is referring to, I assume it’s the next show. I said, “yes, yes for sure I will be there.” I walked out and looked down at what was in my hands. I realised I was holding a flyer for the Lucha wrestling school, a sick thrill filled my body.
“Maybe,” I think, “maybe.”
All images by Lucy Arup