Hundreds of superstars have come through WWE over the years, but a select few got their feet in the door through the competitive avenue of reality television. The concept of WWE reality TV began over twenty years ago through a partnership with MTV, to see who would be dubbed “Tough Enough” to become the latest WWE superstar.
It was the year 2001 and the Attitude Era had ended, meaning the World Wrestling Federation was the only place to be for aspiring fans and athletes. If you wanted to make it big in the world of wrestling, you had to impress management in to giving you the opportunity. With that said, I’ll be splitting this in to two halves starting with the women, because there’s so much that can be said and to include everyone would make it considerably bloated.
Tough Enough (2001)
The winner of Tough Enough season 1 was Nidia, but most fans who weren’t watching before 2004 will know of her existence. This is because Nidia was released after enjoying a three-year career in WWE; so she impressed enough to be kept on past her initial 1-year contract. Nidia is best known for her time managing Cruiserweight Champion Jamie Noble, as they adopted a “trailer trash” gimmick.
She wrestled in the women’s division in 2004, but never got close to winning the title. The biggest angle she partook in, involved taking Tajiri’s Black Mist to the face. This form of mist was special because it was supposed to permanently render the victim blind. Noble garnered heel heat by using her as a human shield, but after this died down it spelled the end for her.
The issue was that WWE had so much talent and she became expendable. However, this was a big win compared to the runner-up Taylor Matheny. Despite getting so close to winning the competition, WWE chose not to sign her (she was the only winner/runner up to be left out) to a deal and the exposure didn’t translate to success elsewhere. She got married to Brian Kendrick to 2008. It’s safe to say that Nidia was the true winner here, but 2001 didn’t produce anyone who would stick around for the long term.
Tough Enough 2 (2002)
The second season didn’t do much better than the first, although it’s the only competition where two women won while two men were runner-ups. One WWE star was made though, as Jackie Gayda proved her worth and spent much of her career as a manager for her husband Charlie Haas. She wrestled occassionally, but never gained the skills needed to impress management enough to push her toward the title. Nine years in the business is a success story, and now she runs a nutrition & smoothie shop in Texas.
Other talent in this season include Shelly Martinez, who became known as ECW alumni Kevin Thorn’s manager Ariel, and as a member of LAX in TNA Wrestling.We could say that the true winner of this season was Awesome Kong. She didn’t get anywhere near the finishing line (apparently Jim Ross said she was “too fat”), but the loss motivated her to go to Japan to train. Kong became an incredible force in establishing the TNA Knockouts Division several years later.
The other winner however… former basketball player Linda Miles AKA Shaniqua, didn’t fair as well. Shaniqua played the “dominatrix” of The Basham Brothers, and was paired with Shelton Benjamin as his girlfriend for a short time. She had all the attributes to make it, but wrestling wasn’t for her. She explains why in the shared video below.
Tough Enough III (2002)
WWE became so high on Tough Enough they had two seasons in the same year. This time however, no women earned the right to be called a winner or a runner-up. It produced one of the most successful women’s champions in WWE history though, Melina Perez. She made it to the last 25, but was cut before they made it to the finalists. She joined the winner and boyfriend Johnny Nitro (Morrison) as part of the tag team MnM.
After enjoying great success as their manager, she transitioned in to wrestling and claimed the Women’s Championship, doing a hard job of following Trish Stratus, Lita, Mickie James and Molly Holly. Melina went on to claim the Women’s Championship three times and the Divas Championship twice. How many can say they are a five-time women’s champion in WWE? Very few. She’s still wrestling to this day as part of the NWA roster. The rumor of a WWE return turned out to be completely false.
Diva Search (2004)
Instead of having Tough Enough for everyone, WWE split the genders by having female prospects compete in the Diva Search. This became the default for the next few years. Christy Hemme won the competition, but became more of an announcer than a wrestler. Candice Michelle didn’t reach the final, but still found success as the Women’s Champion and for a short time, Mr. McMahon’s bit on the side.
I would say the two most successful divas from the list of finalists were Michelle McCool and Maria Kanellis. McCool won more titles than anyone, and Maria is still part of the business today. Let’s face it, only McCool enjoyed any reasonable success, but injuries mounted and she was forced to retire before her time. The success of the Diva Search was such that WWE took on more potential stars than they would’ve had they kept to the original Tough Enough format.
Diva Search (2005)
It is safe to say the Diva Search of 2005 was the least successful reality competition ever produced. The only superstar to come out of it was Ashley Massaro, who noticeably struggled to get over and improve her skills in the ring.
The only other divas WWE signed up include Kristal Marshall (Lashley’s wife for a while) and Trenesha Biggers; better known as Rhaka Khan to anyone who knew her from TNA. All I can say is it was possibly the biggest moment of Ashley Massaro’s life, which makes her the only winner from this contest. She was found dead last year in her home. No official cause of death was given, but it was believed to be suicide. RIP.
Diva Search (2006)
This year was extroadinary. Not only did we see the first British winner in Layla El, but many others succeeded too. In fact, The Bella Twins and Brooke Adams (Tessmacher) didn’t make it to the final 8! Maryse was eliminated in 7th place. Rosa Mendes bowed out in 4th place. It was perhaps best known for the way The Miz completely bombed as the Diva Search host.
2006 produced five future women’s champions (if you include Brooke’s Knockouts title reign), which is a far cry from the previous year. The biggest winners are The Bella Twins, as they achieved monumental success with Total Divas; and now Total Bellas. Maryse might be enjoying more exposure now on the Miz & Mrs than she ever did as WWE Divas Champion. Of course, it helps that she spent a lot of time on Total Divas and is partnered with her reality TV star husband.
Diva Search (2007)
The last Diva search was fitting because again, like those which came before (minus 2006), not much came from it. For a change, the winner Eve Torres found incredible success as a three-time Divas Champion before disappearing entirely in 2013. Taryn Terrell (AKA Tiffany) ended the competition in 4th place, and is better known as the ECW General Manager and former TNA Knockouts Champion; she has since moved on to acting and being a stunt double in action movies.
The only other major success includes Savannah. She spent her time in WWE as a valet and ECW interviewer, before moving on to the indie scene in 2010. A few years later, she joined Lucha Underground as a wrestler called Black Lotus, featuring in several storylines. As far as I know, no one from Diva Search 2007 is still working in wrestling.
Tough Enough 5 (2010)
Six years separate Tough Enough’s fifth season from its fourth, and three years from the last Divas Search. But this time was extra special, because Stone Cold Steve Austin was the main host and they represented both genders. Pushing for equality, there’d be only one winner who could earn a contract. What is particularly strange about this season though, is that the only contestant who ended up on the main roster is also the first to be eliminated.
The only other contestant making a name for herself is Ivelisse Velez, who is probably best known for her work in Lucha Underground before making her recent debut in AEW. There are no true winners from this season, other than Austin 3:16 fans. To find some real winners, we have to turn to the former incarnation of NXT. Watch Stone Cold Steve Austin rip these three potential superstars in to the ground.
The original NXT was nothing like it is today. It was some kind of hybrid of a regularly occurring Tough Enough; with rankings, mentors, and rarely slotted in wrestling matches. Overtime it transformed and dropped its reality TV show roots, becoming its own brand by turning in to a full-blown wrestling show by 2012.
Out of the first four seasons however, only season 3 included women’s wrestlers. Crazily enough, Kaitlyn was the winner over future women’s champions Naomi and AJ Lee. This was decided after Michael Cole brutally buried Kaitlyn and Maxine’s match; going as far to ring his Mother on his cellphone. You can watch the match in the video below, but you have been warned! Naomi is the only original female member of NXT to still be with the company.
Tough Enough 6 (2015)
The last version of Tough Enough was hosted by Chris Jericho and co-hosted by Renee Young. It reverted to the old school format where there would be one male, and one female winner; with Runner-ups announced for each gender. Again, this was another solid year for bringing in new talent, but the actual winners didn’t get anywhere.
After impressing and winning the competition, Sara Lee was assigned to NXT. But she lasted little over a year, as it was determined she hadn’t improved enough in the ring. She later married Wesley Blake, who is a member of The Forgotten Sons stable. The real winners here include: Runner-Up Mandy Rose, 11th placed Sonya Deville, and 7th placed NXT (former Knockouts Champion) superstar Chelsea Green. None of these women have yet to win championships in WWE, but I believe it’s only a matter of time. If Chelsea doesn’t get past NXT, she’s already proven herself in the Impact Knockouts Divison as Laurel Van Ness.
I feel like the biggest reason WWE ceased producing reality competitions is because they were rarely lucrative. After NXT became its own brand, WWE had a better way of bringing in new talent to see if they could adapt to the style. The Performance Center is a proving ground, and if you can’t impress enough in training then there’s no way you’re getting airtime.
There’s also the fact that too many winners either weren’t good enough, or used WWE as a stepping stone. Considering all these contests, only Mandy Rose, Sonya Deville and Naomi remain under contract as wrestlers. Tough Enough, Diva Search and NXT were supposed to find the next Trish Stratus, the next Lita; but it never lived up to what WWE hoped for. The Bella Twins and Maryse are probably WWE’s biggest success stories, just because they have their own TV shows and have a platform to market wrestling to a casual audience.
The true stars in WWE are the wrestlers: Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, Asuka, Bayley, Sasha Banks etc. Women who didn’t need to win a game to prove they are the best in the world. And with that said, you can draw your own conclusions on the first of two pieces highlighting the polarizing nature of the WWE reality TV show. I shall return soon with the male equivalent. Thanks for reading!