Welcome to GLAM, a Wild, Weird Night of Women's Wrestling in Oakland

Nurse Ratchet and Desi DeRata face off at GLAM.  (Christine Butler)

It’s not everyday that Desi DeRata fights a zombie nurse who gets dragged out to the ring in a body bag. But then again, GLAM is one place where wrestlers can get weird.

At independent professional matches like these, contestants often don’t know what’s coming their way until they set foot in the venue. DeRata is used to surprises, but she’s not used to… this. "It’s just like, 'Oh, great. How am I gonna work with this?'" she says, looking back on the moment she heard she was going to be duking it out with a "reanimated medical professional" named Nurse Ratchet at Guilty Lethal Action Mayhem, or GLAM, a new women’s wrestling offshoot of Hoodslam at Oakland Metro Operahouse.

Fortunately, DeRata has theatrical experience in addition to athletic training, so she knows what to do when Nurse Ratchet holds her down and shoves a fake severed finger in her mouth. DeRata reads the crowd, and puts her acting background to fine use. She broadens her facial expressions and darts cautiously away from Nurse Ratchet a few times, eventually working up the nerve to snatch a prop arm away from her and slap her around with it. She plays along with the horror-movie shtick all the way to a win.

Challenging wrestling norms—sometimes to the point of making people uncomfortable—is the Hoodslam way. Even in the chaotic world of independent pro wrestling, where fighters lob folding chairs and smash foreheads into community center gym walls, Hoodslam is an outlier. At any given Hoodslam show, beer cans fly haphazardly into the crowd, commentators swear freely and referees smoke weed on stage. It’s a formula that's worked for them for almost a decade, and this year they expanded their operation with a women's division.

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"Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves," DeRata tells me over the phone from her home in Nevada. "And that’s what makes it for me, of course, is the crowds." She's used to performing for all-ages audiences, but Hoodslam, with its rowdy bar atmosphere, is 21 and up.

Sam Khandaghabadi founded Hoodslam in 2010, and GLAM showrunner and host Anton Voorhees says the women's edition has been in the works for several years. "Sam has always been about including everyone," Voorhees says.

For Hoodslam's 10th year of programming, Oakland Metro Operahouse offered to expand their residency from once a month to once a week. For Khandaghabadi, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take the idea for a women-only roster from the back burner to the front. "I don't believe that now is a better time than it would have been a couple years ago," Voorhees admits when I ask why this didn’t happen sooner. "I think that, at least in our local scene, people have been ready to watch women wrestle."

DeRata is relatively new to wrestling, but she's never been far from the ring. Growing up in a rural town in the Yosemite National Forest, there wasn’t much for her to to do outside of sports. "I was a competitive swimmer every summer since age five, and [did] Junior Olympics a couple years as a preteen," she says. Wrestling was the one sport she never got around to as a teen "'cause it was during volleyball season."

Eventually, DeRata got some training in mixed martial arts and jiu-jitsu, but she always liked acting more than athletics. As an adult, she got involved in circus arts such as stilt-walking and aerial dance, and worked on some small film projects.

One day in 2010, she went to check out a venue where she was slated to perform. There happened to be a wrestling match in progress when she arrived. "I walked in and I heard the crowd screaming and cheering and booing, and I could feel this excitement and energy," she says. In the ring, she saw characters similar to the ones she portrayed as an actor. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I know this is wrestling, but I didn’t know this is wrestling. I gotta do this.'"

After a few years of dabbling, she committed to reinventing herself as a wrestler in 2014, seizing the opportunity to combine her passions for sport and the stage.

The Bay Area's wrestling community generally views Hoodslam as performance art rather than professional sport. DeRata explains that, for many, it's an escape from the prescribed feel of other matches. "A lot of other wrestlers are critical [of Hoodslam], which is understandable 'cause this is their craft and they don't want someone to mess it up for them," says DeRata. "I think it’s a little more relaxed. You can have more fun."

At GLAM’s opening night, a pre-show video playlist of girl-power anthems by Natalie Imbruglia, Spice Girls and TLC plays on a screen behind the ring. Audience members mostly in their 20s and 30s sing along and order beer. Once the lights go down, Voorhees emerges from the wings and splashes vodka into the open mouths of willing participants in the crowd. There's a house band, Oinga Boinga, who open the night's proceedings with a garage-punk version of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme.

Female wrestlers face pressure to prove themselves as serious athletes, which might explain why they're not quite as silly and carefree as the Hoodslam guys. At a recent match elsewhere, for instance, one booker told DeRata, "Girl's shows are novelties anyway."

While Hoodslam prioritizes performance over athleticism, GLAM seems relatively par for the course for indie wrestling. It's got the devil-may-care Hoodslam spirit, but once the show gets going, an element of seriousness emerges. There's one match between costumed mascots after intermission, but GLAM seems to be less about gleeful anarchy and more of a demonstration of skill in the ring.

Rest assured, though: These competitors are worthy. Opener Trish Adora executes a series of technical moves on Hoodslam favorite Brittany Wonder ("She went to wrestling school," teases Voorhees during her match). Lady K, a fierce athlete dressed in witchy velvet, has a history with the WWE under the name Katie Lea Burchill. Even wrestlers with more outlandish characters have serious fighting chops: Holidead, for example, fashions herself as a mysterious demon, and skulks into her first match of the night on her hands and knees. She defeats fallen-from-grace pop star Shakira Spears and goes up against DeRata in the semifinals.

"Holidead’s awesome. I think she’s completely underrated as a wrestler," vouches DeRata a few weeks before the show. The title they’re fighting for has yet to be determined. ("I don’t know, like a belt? Maybe we’ll have a belt. Maybe there’ll be a trophy. Maybe there’ll be a pizza," jokes Voorhees as he introduces them.) Either way, the fighters are giving it their all. A missed somersault off the top rope lands DeRata in Holidead’s signature move called the Demon's Wing, and DeRata loses this one.

Over all, though, the night feels triumphant. GLAM is ushering in a new era for Hoodslam, and nudging the local wrestling scene closer to gender equality. "It has changed a lot since the bra-and-panty matches that WWE used to have," says DeRata. Still, the WWE, the most visible arm of the sport, only added a women's match to the Royal Rumble in 2018.

Combat sports are getting better for women, though: Ronda Rousey is a household name. Calls for gender equality across all professional settings dominate national discourse in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. GLOW, a comedy-drama about an early women’s league in Los Angeles, is coming back for a third season on Netflix this summer. And the WWE finally stopped calling female talent "divas" in 2016. They’re now "superstars" just like the men.

"Female everything—regarding combat sports—has been on the rise steadily," says DeRata. "Fans are starting to realize how cool it is."

GLAM is now a monthly event, and DeRata has already been invited to wrestle again on Mar. 8. The show provides a welcome respite from playing the ferocious bruiser she usually portrays in the ring. And really, why shouldn't she be allowed to take her sport a little less seriously? Sometimes, letting an undead nurse give you a wet willy is a step toward equality too.

"I’ve always wanted to condone women doing anything that men do," says DeRata. "And that we are able to do anything that men do. We just do it differently."

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The next GLAM takes place Feb. 8. Details here

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