The delightful Netflix series GLOW features a cast of actors playing actors playing wrestling personae. On top of this already meta conceit, Kia Stevens adds an additional brain-bending wrinkle. Unlike her costars, Stevens—who plays single mother and Family Feud audience coordinator Tammé turned heel and stereotype Welfare Queen—has real experience in the ring: For more than a decade, Stevens competed under the name Amazing Kong, also known as Awesome Kong, in both Japan and the United States. Stevens’s trajectory has a great deal in common with Tammé’s, though it began years after the original Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling went off the air in 1990.
This season, Stevens’s character gets a spotlight in “Mother of All Matches,” in which Welfare Queen faces off against all-American heroine Liberty Belle (Betty Gilpin) while her Stanford-student son looks on. Written by New Girl alumna Kim Rosenstock, it’s a wrenching episode, and a poignant expression of one of GLOW’s core themes: how leaning into a caricature can be by turns empowering and dehumanizing, liberating and humiliating. Tammé’s son is horrified by the audience’s chants of “Get a job,” which drive Tammé off the stage in tears, but he’s also impressed by her physical accomplishments—and that she gets to beat up a white girl on stage. The complex mixture hinges on Stevens’s performance, a standout among even GLOW’s deep bench.
A week before the season’s release, The Ringer spoke with Stevens about taking inspiration from N.W.A, singing on set, and rocking an “urban mullet” during filming.
Let’s start with the important stuff: On a show filled with unfortunate ’80s hairdos, your character might have the most unfortunate ’80s hairdo of all.
It’s very specific to the time.
Yes, yes it is. I think it’s fantastic for the show, however. When I do roam around L.A., I find myself explaining it unnecessarily. If I go to a burger joint, I’m like, “My hair—it’s for a project I’m doing.” They don’t ask, but I just feel like I have to explain my hair everywhere I go.
So it’s not a wig you can just take off when you go home.
No, no. They weave it in, so it’s in for the whole season. So yeah, I walked around L.A. like that, with this weird mullet. When it’s not curled, the way Tammé wears it, it looks like a straight-up urban mullet! [Laughs] I’ll go around town like, “I didn’t do this on purpose. This is not one of those internet challenges. I’m doing a project.”
I saw your mom was a contestant coordinator on Family Feud, just like Tammé was. Is anything else in your character drawn from your personal experience?
The fact that she was interested in the art. My mom was also an actress; in fact, she starred in a movie called Provoked with Cindy [Ferda], who was Americana on [the original] G.L.O.W. So meeting her on that set was a life-changing experience for me. And growing up, my mom, whenever she’d come home late from being a background actor—they called them extras, back in the day—on a TV show or a movie, it was really exciting for not just me, but the whole neighborhood. Because my mom was the TV star of the neighborhood, even though she was a humble background actor. She never put on airs, but people fawned over her in the neighborhood.
Unlike most of the other the cast members, you have an actual background in wrestling. As a wrestler, have you also had to struggle with inhabiting stereotypes, as Tammé does?
For sure! Absolutely, for sure. When I first went to Japan, I didn’t get to choose my name, Amazing Kong. In fact, I was training in Santa Monica at the New Japan dojo and Shinsuke Nakamura, who’s now a WWE superstar, called me Kong. I didn’t know if he was just unaware of the connotation that Kong would have for a black person, because he was from Japan, but I got really upset. Then they had to explain to me that they’d recently had a press conference, and that the company that was bringing me over had named me Kong.
So I had to go home and really contemplate and really consider what I’d be getting myself into, and whether or not I should just ditch the job, even though it would be a great opportunity for me. I was at home, in Hollywood at the time, and an N.W.A song came on. I remember thinking, “Hey, N.W.A stands for what it stands for.” Since they can be N.W.A, I could be Kong, and I would make this name my own, and make anyone who sees it, hears it, and relates it to me understand that it’s about respect. And that I did. Anyone who sees Amazing or Awesome Kong respects that name first. I feel that that’s a goal that my people should always work towards, not a meaning of ridicule or put-down, but always respect. I owned it, and I own it today.
Did you ever have to deal with the kind of audience reactions and abuse that some of the GLOW characters do?
Not as often as one would think. In Japan, the fans take it extremely seriously. They report wrestling in the newspapers as if they were reporting on baseball. They really buy into the magic of wrestling. And since I was Kong, a definite monster heel, and was definitely the opponent in the ring, there were a few fans that were generally upset and scared for their hero. They would try to knock me down a peg before I would even get into the ring. But I found that to be hilarious, because I felt like if they hated me that much, I felt like I was doing my job. It had nothing to do with my name. It was all about commanding respect, and they hated me for the character, not because I was black or my name was Kong or anything like that. I didn’t go through any of that.
There were people who, when they found out I was a wrestler, they didn’t know anything about wrestling. So when they heard my name, they were like, “Oh my god, girl, why would you let them name you that?” Then I had to explain it to them—that if you’re a fan of wrestling and you hear the name Amazing or Awesome Kong, you sit up straighter.
When did you learn your character would be getting a spotlight episode?
About two weeks before. It was a surprise to me, because a lot of us had heard, “Oh, they’re having a special episode that goes in a different direction from a traditional episode,” and most of us girls wouldn’t be in it. And I just assumed that I wouldn’t be in it. I had actually planned a trip to Hearst Castle and Santa Barbara. [Laughs] I was like, “I’ll have the week off! It’ll be fine!” And we got the script and I was like, “OK, well this is very interesting.”
It was, I tell you, a treat. A real treat. Just preparing for it, I could get extremely serious. I got an acting coach specifically for that episode, since there was a lot of drama and a lot of emotion in that episode. It was a treat all the way around, to learn more about Tammé and meet her son.
Episode 4 also dives into Tammé’s relationship with Betty Gilpin’s character, Debbie, and the differences in privilege and class between them. Did that have any connection to your personal experience?
Thinking back, in retrospect, my mom did a lot of odd jobs to pursue her dream of acting and making it in show business, because it’s hard to maintain a regular 9 to 5 when you want to go to auditions, or you have to stop to do a project. I could relate and feel Tammé through that.
Did you have any input during the writing process? Do you talk to the writers about your wrestling experience, and do they draw from that?
They definitely asked me about my experiences as a wrestler, and specifically as an African American woman of nontraditional size in wrestling. I feel that they’ve heard me, and that they’ve incorporated parts of my story throughout GLOW, whether it’s through Tammé or someone else’s character. I feel heard through our overall story.
When you mentioned a special episode earlier, my first thought was “The Good Twin.”
I am so giddy about people watching [Episode] 8. It is such my favorite episode; it makes me feel like a little kid waking up on Saturday morning. I’m so excited for people to see it! It is so hilarious, Brittanica and her brain, oh my god …
Betty Gilpin leading the grief-ercize!
Oh, right. [Laughs] “Come on, girls!”
Yes, the whole episode is hilarious. Even her going up and you see the Observatory, come on. Just the creativity. You assume maybe [Alison Brie’s character] Ruth must have come up with that idea, to film the Observatory as the stronghold. It’s awesome.
There’s a palpable sense of everyone really enjoying themselves.
Well, I tell you, the song “Don’t Kidnap” is still an earworm in my ear today. I sing it around the house. But during filming, I couldn’t stop. And while it was filming, it was so much fun. I can’t even tell you how much fun it was. GLOW has an original soundtrack this year! Yay!