CJ “Lana” Perry is a professional dancer, actor, singer, and she is most known for being a WWE superstar. In the WWE, Perry is not only the manager of her real-life husband, Rusev (real name Miroslav Barnyashev), but she is also an in-ring competitor. In addition to her impressive WWE career, CJ Perry also has a movie coming out, a comic book in the works, and she is also a co-star on the hit E! series Total Divas, and Season 8 is set to debut on Wednesday, September 19, at 9 p.m. EST.
This reporter recently had the pleasure of speaking with CJ Perry, and we discussed what fans can look forward to in the latest season of Total Divas, the dynamics of her marriage, the upcoming WWE all-women’s pay-per-view, Evolution, Sunday’s Hell in a Cell, her new comic book and movie, and much more. Three things were very clear to me while I talked with the WWE superstar: CJ is very grateful, she loves to inspire others to go for their dreams, and she loves to interject humor as much as she can.
CJ Perry: Hello Carter. How are you?
Carter Lee: I’m doing very well. How are you?
CJP: I am good. Thank you. I just landed in New York.
CL: How exciting.
CJP: It’s very exciting.
CL: What brings you to New York this week?
CJP: I’m actually here for a big Total Divas press tour to promote Season 8 that premiers next Wednesday at 9 p.m., so it’s really exciting. I’m also going to the Nylon Magazine fashion party, which I’m also very excited about.
CL: Oh, very cool! That should be a blast.
CL: Well, this is a treat for me. I am a retired professional wrestler, and I also did some acting. So, all the things that you’ve done, just no one knew of me and I didn’t make any money [laughs].
CL: You just mentioned Total Divas, so let’s roll with that for a second. I’ll be completely honest with you, I’m not into reality TV. I don’t have anything against it or anything, it’s just there’s so much content out there and I can’t watch all of it.
CL: I plan on watching Season 8. What can fans look forward to in Total DivasSeason 8, and what can a newcomer, like me, expect to see? Do I need to binge-watch the prior seasons?
CJP: Well, I would definitely binge-watch everything that has myself and my husband because, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Lana is the best, Lana’s number one, clap-clap [Laughing].
CL: I actually did hear that [laughing].
CJP: Word on the street says [laughing]. For real, my husband wrote that song for me, so it’s really funny. Everything with us [on the show] is great, partly because he makes everything great. He’s really, really funny. This season specifically, I would say that even if you’re not a reality fan, it’s going to be incredible. I think it’s our best season yet.
If you’re a wrestling fan definitely tune in because you’re going to see Paige come back, her return. You’re going to see her retire. You’re going to see what she’s going through. She really opens up, and her story is really, really powerful. I think that if you’re a Paige fan or a wrestling fan you’re going to be crying your eyes out. Even if you know nothing about wrestling, she has a powerful story and I think that people should definitely tune in. It can inspire a lot of people’s lives.
You’re also going to see me take a lot of Fireball shots, per usual, on my days off, which is always entertaining to watch. It’s a little wild. I mean, someone has to bring the entertainment, and apparently, I do a lot of that, for better or for worse. But you’re also going to see how I’m so happy about wrestling. I love wrestling. There’s nothing like it in the world. I love storytelling and entertaining people, but there’s no better adrenaline rush and high that you get than wrestling and being an in-ring competitor. You’re going to see me have setbacks and disappointments, and what I do with them. That’s something I’m excited about sharing to the world because we all have setbacks.
We’re all gonna have failures. We’re gonna have disappointments, and what we do with our disappointments and what we do with our setbacks are going to define our future, and it’s going to define our destiny. I think that this will hopefully inspire people and also be relatable. I’m not the strongest or the fastest or the best in-ring competitor, but no one will stop me from achieving my dreams. You’ve got to get back up.
CL: That’s awesome! Now I definitely want to tune in. You’re definitely an inspiration. You had an impressive career in entertainment before sports entertainment and the WWE. You were a former singer and member of the group No Means Yes. Correct me if I’m wrong, I believe you joined the comedy troupe or famed improv group The Groundlings.
CJP: Yes, I studied at Groundlings.
CL: That’s incredible. They have members like Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow, Kristen Wiig, and Phil Hartman. What have you learned from being a part of the Groundlings, and what has that experience been like to step into an amazing group with such a rich history?
CJP: Oh gosh. I learned so much from Groundlings and also UCB [Uptight Citizen’s Brigade], and just acting classes in general. But with improv, you’ve got to be fearless, and you’ve got to be brave and really put yourself out there and know that you might not be funny, and it’s okay. That was one of the biggest things.
They’re always like, ‘Don’t try to be funny. Just go and put yourself out there.’ I quickly learned that I wasn’t always going to be the person that people are gonna—you know, I wasn’t going to have the funny lines, but I’m going to be the person that people will laugh at. And I’m okay with that.
If you watch sitcoms, you have a person with the punchline, the witty person, and then you have the person you’re laughing at. You have the Chandlers, and then you have the Phoebes. I’m a Phoebe. I’m okay with that because someone has to do it. At the end of the day, if I’m putting smiles on people’s faces and I’m making people laugh, then I’m doing my job. Even if you’re laughing at me. My whole life I’ve kind of been laughed at, and I’ve laughed at myself for doing some ridiculous things [laughing]. And it’s great because guess what? We’re still laughing, and I love laughing.
So, it taught me a lot. That is a big lesson that I learned there, and it carried over to the WWE. To walk out there and believe in yourself. If no one else believes in you, you have to believe in yourself. That’s what one teacher told us about Will Ferrell. Will Ferrell always believed in himself when no one else believed in him. I mean, look at him now.
It really helped me go out there and dedicate my matches to Vladimir Putin. You can boo me or cheer me, I don’t care because I was standing up for my beliefs, and that was that Russia was the greatest nation in the world. The same people who booed us are cheering us now [laughing].
CL: Well, for the record I always cheered you both, from the get-go.
CJP: Thank you.
CL: I’m probably looking at it from a different pair of lenses.
CL: I loved it when you both debuted because it was a classic heel gimmick, and 90 percent of what you were saying was true, which is the best way to get under anyone’s skin, and the best villains are the ones who are convinced that what they are doing is the right thing to do.
CJP: Yup! Right!
CL: So, what led you into sports entertainment? I mean, you have a strong foundation in dancing and singing. You have a very impressive background, and we obviously can’t cover it all in this amount of time, but you seem talented enough to do whatever you want to do. What led you to sports entertainment? Did you always want to get into that industry?
CJP: Yes, I was always a fan. Growing up, I remember watching when I was really little, like 3-years-old, I clearly remember Hulk Hogan and Jake “The Snake” Roberts. I was so terrified of him [Roberts] because I hate snakes. All my friends watched it, and all my brothers’ friends. I would always try to figure out, especially as I got older, how are they going through these tables? How are they landing on ladders? Like, how is this happening? It was so fascinating.
I grew up in the former Soviet Union and I was a ballerina, a professional ballet dancer, and I never thought that was going to be a reality for me. I was a skinny little girl that would get made fun of for being so skinny, and I never thought that I would ever get an opportunity to be a professional wrestler. It just shows you if you follow your dreams and you’re resilient, you can make the impossible possible.
CL: That’s awesome. I believe you debuted in 2013?
CJP: I debuted in 2013 in NXT, and then in 2014 on the main roster with Rusev.
CL: Right. So, how long was it until the romance sparked between the two of you?
CJP: He says he met me on our first day [at the WWE performance center]. I don’t remember, he remembers.
CJP: [Laughing] He’s really upset that I don’t remember. I remember meeting him the second day at a tanning bed. He told me he was from Bulgaria, and I spent time in Bulgaria, so we immediately connected. Then on the third day, I had a promo with Dusty Rhodes—he was the artistic director of NXT, and he ran all the promo classes and character development—and I had about five different pitches. My first one, I just started speaking Russian, and then I switched to perfect English. Dusty pulled me aside afterwards and he’s like, ‘I want you to work with Rusev.’ [Laughing] I’m like, ‘Rusev? Who is that? Oh, the tanning Bulgarian!’
I’m so passionate about the business, and I’m so passionate about storytelling, and I made him come to my house every day and practice promos and vignettes. We would shoot vignettes on my phone. I was a nut. A complete nut. Within two months we were packaged together and on TV. I would say probably a month in, I sort of had a crush on him, but I wanted to really make sure I liked him. I didn’t want to just start dating someone in the business, so I just stayed friends with him. I tried not to flirt with him because if I flirt it’s a wrap and he would fall in love, because Lana is the best, Lana’s number one [laughs].
CJP: But I knew he always liked me, and we would go to church together. Spirituality is very important to me. I grew up as a Christian missionary kid, and we connected, honestly, through our faith. Our spirituality was a very big core of our relationship. He’s a very good man and has really great character. So, it was off from there.
CL: That’s awesome. I’m recently engaged, and I can only get my fiancé to watch wrestling if it involves Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey, or you and Rusev. She loves the romantic connection between the two of you.
CJP: [Laughs] I love it. I love it.
CL: How do the two of you create the balance needed for a healthy relationship? Obviously, you spend a lot of time traveling together, so how do you create the balance by getting the individual time you need so that the relationship can breathe and thrive?
CJP: Well, thank God we’re best friends, and thank God that we really do love each other’s company because we are on the road 300 days a year, and Saturday through Wednesday we are with each other 24/7. We work together, drive together, and we’re very yin and yang. So, there’s a lot of me talking and him listening. When I get tired of having a monologue with myself, it’s quiet time [laughs].
CJP: The funny thing is that sometimes he gets mad when I don’t talk because sometimes I get tired of literally hearing my own voice, and I just get quiet because I want quiet time. And he goes, ‘I’m bored. Talk.’ [Laughing] And I’m like, ‘Okay, here we go.’
When we go home, we live in a really big house, and he plays about 10 hours of video games a day when we’re home, and I binge-watch all my Marvel TV shows. When we’re home, that’s when we have our, kind of, individual things. I think sometimes our biggest challenge is on the days off, he doesn’t want to talk about wrestling. He wants to take time off from work, and workout and play video games, but my mind never turns off. I’m always wanting to study wrestling, and I’m always thinking of creative ideas.
I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and be like, ‘Oh my God! I have a promo and a pitch. Wow! It just came to me!’ And it drives him a little bit nuts. He’s genuinely the super athlete, and I think he’s one of the best athletes on all the rosters. He’s agile, strong, and fast, and I’m the brains of the operation. I am full of ravishing ambition. I think that’s why us as a package works so uniquely. He teaches me how to wrestle, and my mind never turns off.
CL: I hear ya. I have the same problem slash gift, depending on what time of night it is and if I can actually get sleep.
CJP: [Laughs] Yes.
CL: Switching gears for a moment. Evolution is coming up, which is groundbreaking for the WWE. What does Evolution mean to you? I know that sounds cliche, but I’m genuinely curious. You’re obviously very passionate about this business.
CJP: I am beyond grateful that we have this opportunity. I’ve seen this business completely change since even 2014. In 2014, I was one of the only girls that was given mic time, besides maybe Stephanie McMahon, of course. The girls were kind of having three-minute matches, and I remember in the beginning of 2015 when The Bellas versus Emma and Paige. They had a minute and a half match, and so they decided to just do it in 30 seconds. It was a choice that these women made, and it was a brilliant choice because then Give Divas a Chance trended for three days straight. And Vince [McMahon] does listen to what the WWE universe has to say, and he’s brilliant. He’s a self-made billionaire for a reason. He was like, ‘Okay, the fans are ready for this.’ And maybe 15 years ago the fans weren’t ready for it, but thank God times are changing, and women deserve opportunities.
To see women main-event Royal Rumble with having a Royal Rumble match, and being a part of that, I can’t even tell you how beyond grateful I am because at times, we were told that would never happen. Now, to have out first-ever all-women’s pay-per-view is just a real reflection of how far we’ve come, and how many firsts we’re accomplishing. The exciting thing is that we’re going to accomplish all the firsts.
We’re gonna continue breaking glass ceilings and breaking doors down, and we’re going to at one point accomplish all the firsts. I can’t wait for us to main-event WrestleMania, and I can’t wait for us to have a tag team division. That’s my dream, to be here when women get the tag team division, and you know, I plan on being the tag team champion at one point [Laughs].
CJP: I’m so thankful to be a part of history because at the beginning of my career, all these things started to change. I was very lucky and grateful to be managing Rusev, but it was kind of like I was watching it from the sidelines. It’s like you’re at prom and watching everyone dance, and no one wants to invite you to the dance.
I was so grateful for all the women and happy for them because they’re doing this for all the women, and for the future girls that are going to come up, but I wanted to be a part of it. I would always tell Rusev and I would cry, ‘I want to be in the women’s division. I want to be making history with the women.’ So, to be a part of the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble, the first-ever women’s battle royal at WrestleMania, and now to be a part of Evolution, I am so, so thankful because I can say that I’m making history with the women of WWE, and that means the world to me.
CL: That’s so awesome. It’s such an incredible time in our sport, even as a viewer, to watch all of this history in the making is so cool.
CL: Going back to you becoming tag champion, who would your partner be?
CJP: Right now, I would say Naomi.
CL: That’s rad. I think the two of you together would be very entertaining.
CJP: We want to call ourselves The Ravishing Glow [laughs].
CL: I love that!
CJP: We talk about it all the time. We talked about it for years. She’s an incredible dancer. She’s actually the best dancer, I just tell her that I’m better because that’s my gimmick. She’s like a million times better than me. I just love her. I have such a good time with her, and we’ve been best friends for so long.
You might actually like this fact because I haven’t told anyone this fact, and I just recently told her, all my firsts were with her. She recently popped my cherry in everything. My very first match—period—in front of people, was at WrestleMania in Dallas in front of 101,000 people, and she was my one of my teammates. I was having a panic attack, and she helped me get through that. Then my very first singles match on TV was at ‘Money in the Bank’ for the title against Naomi, which thank God for her because she’s just so amazing. I was also freaking out.
Then my first Royal Rumble match was with her, and then my first battle royal at WrestleMania was with her. Then both of our first Money in the Bank matches were with each other, so we shared that moment together. Then both of our first dance battles were with each other. I told her, ‘All my firsts have been with you, so we have to be tag team champions together.’
CL: That’s great! I hope you accomplish that, and I would love to see the two of you team together. In closing, I would like to ask you about a movie you did. I believe it’s making the rounds at some film festivals now, Other Versions of You. I believe you play Gwyneth, correct?
CL: What can you tell me about the film and when can we watch it? I’ve heard amazing things about it, and I’m also a movie critic.
CL: So, I’m very interested in seeing this. When can we all see it?
CJP: It was actually just sold to a distributor, and we are going to have a theatrical release in some bigger cities, and it will eventually hit all the VODs, Comcast, Redbox, iTunes, and eventually get to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. It’s going to be on all the platforms, which is really exciting.
CJP: I don’t have a release date yet, but I’m sure I’ll get that soon. People can follow me on all my socials, @thelanawwe on Instagram and @lanawwe on Twitter, and you will be able to stay tuned to when all those release dates are revealed.
It was my first movie where I was an executive producer. I’m getting a lot more into that. I really want to tell stories for the rest of my life, and I think it’s very important to tell stories that haven’t been heard. I’m very passionate on telling women stories that haven’t been told and haven’t been in our history books, and there’s a lot of them out there. So, I’m really excited that this is the first feature film that I’ve produced.
I play the role of Gwyneth, and it’s a supporting role. The lead actor falls in love with me, which surprise, surprise, Lana’s the best, Lana’s number one, even when she plays Gwyneth [Laughing]. The movie is about parallel universes, and a man on a search. He’s in love with this one girl, and he is so consumed with this idea and the fantasy of finding this girl in different parallel universes. In this search for this girl, he realizes that he needs to find himself.
I think it’s a beautiful story of understanding that we have to find ourselves before we can ever really truly find love, and also to be happy and grateful and live in the moment. If you’re always searching for something else out there, you’re going to miss what’s right in front of you.
CL: Beautifully said. I love anything that has to do with parallel universes. The comic book geek in me loves that.
CL: I also actually like romantic movies, so I’m really looking forward to this.
CJP: Oh, perfect!
CL: Well this is all very exciting. I’ll stop chatting your ear off now. Is there anything I missed that I should have asked? Speaking of Fireball, the last decade was very hard on me, so I can sometimes miss the obvious.
CJP: [Laughing] I am actually working on my comic book right now.
CL: Oh, wow!
CJP: I’m very excited about it. I can’t disclose yet who is going to be the comic book writer-illustrator, but they’re both very big in the comic book world of Marvel. Rusev has a big part of kind of creating the story as well. It’s gonna be great, and wrestling fans are going to love it. I’m really, really excited about it. You know, anything that Rusev has his hands on is going to be great comedic timing. So, there’s a lot of really good stuff. I’ve been working on it for a little while now.
CL: That is really exciting. I know you can’t reveal too much about it now, but is it going to be a Marvel comic?
CJP: No. I’m working with a Marvel comic book writer.
CL: Gotcha! How cool. Is the comic book centered on your character of Lana or something completely different?
CJP: No. I’m creating my own character. CJ Perry and Miroslav Barnyashev, we are creating characters that are extensions of ourselves.
CL: That’s so rad.
CJP: Yeah, it’s gonna be really, really cool.
CL: Such exciting stuff going on.
CJP: Yes. We also have Hell in a Cell on Sunday. We have the tag team match with the newly reformed Rusev Day. Aiden [English] is back. [Laughing] Aiden got it together. We have a tag team championship opportunity against The New Day.
CL: That should be a great one. I look forward to watching it, as well as the premiere of Total Divas.
CJP: Total Divas premieres on Lana Day, by the way. Just in case you didn’t know that.
CL: [Laughing] Then it’s destined to be great. How could it not be?
CJP: [Laughing] Yup. Yes, yes. Rusev and I have been talking about how we might be changing our last name to officially Day. We are last-nameless in WWE, so we’re like let’s make our last name Day and have a ceremony. I’ll be Lana Day, and Rusev will be Rusev Day. [Laughing] You’re gonna have a Happy Lana Day and Rusev Day.
CL: [Laughing] That’s great. Very clever. Well, thank you so much. You’re the best!
CJP: Awesome. Thank you so much!