There could have been worse weeks for Nikki Bella to be voted off Dancing With the Stars’ ballroom floor. After lasting nearly two months into ABC stalwart’s 25th season, Nikki and her partner Artem Chigvintsev took their final bows the night before Halloween. But her fall was cushioned by, appropriately, twin accomplishments: the subsequent launch of her and sister Brie’s Birdiebee apparel brand and the season-seven premiere of Total Divas, on which she and Brie hold court as the show’s elder stateswomen.
Amid one of the more hectic few days of her professional career, the 33-year-old multi-time WWE Women’s champion (including a stint as longest-ever reigning Divas title holder) slowed down to discuss her multi-front pop-culture assault, supporting women who take a stand and all that IWC gossip about her taking over for brother-in-law Daniel Bryan as SmackDown GM.
Has this week been the most chaotic of your career?
It would have been if I was still on Dancing With the Stars, but even launching Birdiebee and promoting Total Divas and coming off of Total Bellas, it’s definitely one of the busiest weeks?
Was there measure of relief that you could pivot from DWTS and focus on everything else?
Actually, no. Because I’m so fortunate to have Brie and be in all these ventures with her, I really wanted to keep on dancing. I’m still a little bit in shock and sad, but I was having a lot of fun.
How does the fatigue of DWTS compare to that amount of time on a WWE tour?
I’ll admit: My body has not ever felt so sore and in so much pain. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever put my body through. Even last week, learning the jive, I felt like I was getting shin splints and needed knee replacements. I was like, “Oh my god, this is crazy.”
Where once the Miz was mocked for coming from reality TV, wrestlers’ recent reality appearances have legitimized sports entertainment. What changed?
Total Divas I feel like is the foundation of that, because it broke through that mainstream wall. When you appreciate that, people were like, “Oh, I wanna check out this show GLOW.” It opened up those doors more where mainstream people wanted to see what we were doing.
And I reality is also more mainstream, and wrestling fans are more pragmatic.
Yes, and in our world, we’ve evolved in breaking kayfabe. Because we’ve grown from that, it’s also been accepted that, “OK, we can see who they really are beyond the ring.”
You and Brie are so much more polished on-camera now than back in the days of the International Twins Search. Do you step back in awe of that arc?
Sometimes you need that journey. You have to go through things to know what you really want out of life, and that’s happened to Brie and I over the past 10 years. We fell in love with wrestling, and then we really wanted to break barriers, and we now get to do that because that’s evolved beyond the ring. When I leave this world, I don’t want to leave just having a well-known name but having made a difference. I never would have thought, when I was 23 and first stepped foot in that ring, that it would give me a platform to use my voice. It’s crazy what can happen in a decade and how much you can grow as a person and as a woman and truly find your voice.
I’m gathering a 10-year detour into wrestling wasn’t how you saw yourself breaking through as an entertainer.
Definitely. Even when reality TV came, it wasn’t like my sister and I jumped up and down immediately. It was something we had to think about, like, “I’m putting my whole life out there and my relationship out there.” We had to think about it for two weeks, which is even a quick decision. It’s been an incredible journey so far, but I hope to look back in 10 years at today and say, “Goodness, I can’t believe how much I’ve grown since then.”
Do you think you’re cemented as the defining woman wrestler of a generation?
Through my neck injury, a lot of people have said, “You’ve done all you can do.” But in my heart, I truly don’t [think I have]. There’s so much more to do, so many more women to empower and uplift. I never want to walk away and be like, “I did all I can.” Women have such a far way to go in WWE until we truly are where we could be. I’ve yet to hit the level of where my fiancée John [Cena] is at, or even the Rock, and I would love to be the first female to do that.
In the sense of their crossover success or iconic in-ring stature?
It’s kind of both. When you can be that character that comes in for WrestleMania knowing you are gonna headline, and when you are the guys that go out into this mainstream world and people automatically know, “Oh, the WWE person, they can host the ESPYs or Teen Choice,” and Brie and I are on our way there but not quite there. WWE will always be my home. I always want to come back, have fun in that ring and tell a story, but also — whatever venture I was out on — bring people back to that ring. I’ll never turn my back on WWE, and that’s something Rock had done and John, of course.
How do you walk the line of branding your own career while collaborating with Brie and being associated with John?
People can say, “Oh, she gets this or that with John,” but John wasn’t in my matches. Everything I did, I did on my own, and I did so much leading up to when we were together. Even with Birdiebee, John doesn’t do anything with it except be a typical man [and say], “I’m so proud of you, great job.” I know I’ve worked so hard to get to where I’m at, and I’m not close to where I want to be, and it’s because of me and my sister and amazing people. I couldn’t do this on my own, but when I hear, “Oh, you’re fiancé…” they weren’t on the floor of Dancing With the Stars doing ballroom with me. When you let those comments effect you, you don’t grow, and if anything, that negativity would fuel me even more…. Let me show what women can really do, and it doesn’t take a man to do it.
What has it been like to watch women in entertainment stand up to their harassers, and have you observed conduct like that?
In my world, I’ve only experienced having equality and trying to be where the men are at. I appreciate all the women who speak, because it’s hard to come out and use your voice. It makes me sad that women have gone through that, because I’ve been fortunate enough not to go through that. Wanting to be equal—that’s what I’ve gone through. I have to applaud [those women] and pray that one day it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, and I hope we get there sooner than later.
And per those rumors, might we see you as a female SmackDown GM soon?
[Laughs] I’m not gonna lie, I totally pitched hard to do that. The company thought it was a great idea, but creatively at the time it wasn’t going to work out because I did sign on with Dancing With the Stars and no one knew yet, so it was going to be too short of a run. But they were positive about it, so I’m hoping that door stays open. I would love to come back and be a bad guy. I feel like I’m where John stands — I’m better used as a good guy. But can you imagine me coming back as a bad girl and having some fun with Shane [McMahon]? It would just be amazing. So we’ll see.
You could always lead all the women in a battle of the sexes.
Oh, how amazing would that be, even have this showdown with Stephanie [McMahon], but then we’ll join forces and take the men down? I love it.