Everything is new for Charlotte Flair as she prepares for her seventh WrestleMania, her second as a headliner and champion. Even something as simple as walking that aisle, a task she’s done in inimitable style for a decade, can find a way to surprise a 14-time world champion who’s recently undergone the kind of bold shift Flair has since her return to WWE in late 2022.
Against Rhea Ripley, the domineering partner of the despicable Dominik Mysterio, Charlotte is, for once, the white hat, her return after an extended absence greeted with cheers and chants from a suddenly appreciative crowd.
And, for her, that is a little bit weird.
Where is the line between confident and haughty? How can she look magical and royal while also being, gulp, likable?
These are questions Flair has rarely grappled with as a lifelong heel. Now she’s slapping fives and, frankly, not 100 percent sure how to do it. The established performer’s routine has been thrown into disarray, and she has become the living embodiment of “I don’t know what to do with my hands?”
“If you ever have watched a match of mine or an entrance or a promo, I mean, I walk very stoic to the ring,” Charlotte told The Ringer. “I’ve never touched the fans. Or I give them a smirk. It’s very much, I’m untouchable. And [on a recent SmackDown] there were six little kids just reaching and just screaming my name. And I was like, ‘Just go touch them.’ Go shake their hand.
“And if you’d seen this little girl’s reaction when I touched her hand, I was like, ‘I’m so glad I did that.’ I can still keep that demeanor but be what those kids see me as. They don’t see me as bad right now.”
There’s almost a hint of awe as she talks about this new chapter in her life. Because being a babyface doesn’t come easy for Charlotte, whether it’s backstage or in front of the camera. If you’re in the crowd, there’s nothing cool or underground about being a Charlotte Flair fan. She’s the company favorite, a legacy hire whose dad (Ric Flair) is in the WWE Hall of Fame multiple times, a 5-foot-10 Amazon who seemingly emerged whole from a mold marked “WWE Superstar.” She’s perfect, in a way that can be hard for a mortal to relate to.
“I have never preferred to be a babyface,” she states. “I think as the years went by and the more accolades that I received, it’s very hard to get behind someone that you think has it all, right?”
Her name, even if it’s a work of fiction (real name: Ashley Fliehr), carries a lot of weight. Sometimes that weight bolsters her, providing the momentum to slam through glass ceilings and doors that might otherwise have remained closed. It doesn’t hurt, after all, that your boss grew up idolizing your dad and your mentor was his greatest rival. But it can also feel like an anchor at times, taking relationships with her peers and drowning them, that name prompting jealousy, bitterness, and distance, especially when what was at stake shifted from mere pride to six and seven figures’ worth of yearly revenue.
Even if a face turn feels like starting anew, Charlotte is no newcomer. Long gone is the young woman who launched the Women’s Revolution with her frenemies Mercedes Moné (the former Sasha Banks), Bayley, and Becky Lynch. Back then they were establishing women as wrestlers and not Divas, normalizing a feminine presence not just on the cards but at the very top of them. In 2004 she saw Lita and Trish Stratus tear the house down in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. With her peers, she’d taken that template and perfected it. An outstanding women’s match isn’t a generational event anymore—it’s the norm. Flair deserves a lot of the credit for that, shouldering the pressure that comes with an insistence on greatness at any cost.
“I think if I go back to when I first made a splash on Raw,” Charlotte said, “what made people gravitate toward me was, ‘Oh wow, she’s not a good female. She’s a good wrestler.’ I brought that different style of wrestling. I went in with the mindset that I don’t think I’m just good for a woman … [so] they didn’t say, ‘Oh, she’s a Diva.’
“What my dad has always said is, ‘Honey, you want to be able to have a great match with every performer, not just one.’ So being able to have good chemistry with all different types of performers, big, small, athletic, not athletic.”
His best advice?
“‘Go out there and look your best,’” Charlotte said. “When I first started, he’s like, ‘You need to go have fun. You’re not having enough fun.’”
That thing inside her, whatever was driving an incessant desire to be the best, didn’t have fun as one of its goals. Fun wasn’t the point. Fun didn’t make you better. Fun didn’t silence the haters, whether they were sitting beside her wearing a fake smile or in the audience wearing a bored expression. Charlotte was going to prove she belonged, prove further she belonged at the top, and finally, prove she was worthy of the same promotional emphasis as her male peers. Others could worry about fun. She would worry about being the hardest worker in the room.
“I worked with Charlotte very closely right when she came from NXT to the main roster,” WWE Hall of Famer Lita said. “She’s such a competitive athlete at heart. While she did not decide until she was a little bit older to make the switch over to professional wrestling, of course, it was in her blood from the day she was born, and she used that competitive spirit to her advantage.
“She is an over-preparer. She wants to exceed expectations. She’s a perfectionist. I have not seen many matches where she walks back through the curtain like, ‘Hell yeah, I nailed that.’ Because she focuses on what she could have done better. Which I hate for her personally. Because I want her to enjoy how much ass she kicks. But that’s the competitive spirit that’s going to make her keep raising her own bar.”
Last year, Charlotte Flair needed a break from all that. She hadn’t really had one. Ever. Even after the death of her brother Reid, she went right back into the breach, work serving as a distraction from her pain. Reid’s mission to follow in their father’s footsteps became her mission. There was work to be done, a legacy to build, and that meant a life on the road, doing whatever it took to win that top spot. But wrestling comes at a cost, physical and mental, and at some point, even the hardest people break. And Charlotte needed one.
Her vacation “was just so eye-opening and amazing,” Charlotte said, still relishing her time off the radar. “Every year I developed and got better and they added more to my plate and I just kept going. When I first started, I was single. I really didn’t have that need to go home or that responsibility at home. I didn’t have a husband at home. I didn’t have kids at home. My dad knows what road life is. So there was no, ‘Hey, you’re missing a family holiday.’ After my brother passed away, it was like I kind of just threw myself into work and forgot about the rest, to be honest.”
But when you’re Charlotte Flair, is there really such a thing as a break from the wrestling business? Even if she wanted one more than anything, even if she wanted nothing more than to explore Italy with AEW wrestler Andrade. There was her father’s final fight, her husband’s battles in a competing promotion, her brother-in-law’s podcasting empire. Flair’s life is wrestling. Thanks to her famous last name, perhaps it always will be. But thanks to her new husband’s insistence that they don’t talk shop at the house, perhaps there’s hope yet.
“What’s hard about this job is always being on, and how do you turn off? How do you relax?” Charlotte said. “My mind wasn’t [on wrestling] when I got married. My mind wasn’t there on the honeymoon. But the months after that, I felt a little lost because I was like, ‘Wait, I’m not on the road and I’m not wrestling. What if they forget about me?’
“It took a little time to adjust. But I do think having this break definitely added probably years to my career. … Learning to turn off and not be Charlotte and [think about] what’s the next step in life after this. Whether it’s movies, whether it’s opening my own school. I really love fitness and nutrition. It’s definitely a passion of mine. I don’t know my life without wrestling.”
While Ripley is the titular opponent at WrestleMania 39, the real competition remains, as ever, both the women she built all this with and everyone else on the card. It used to be that women were lucky to get five minutes on a pay-per-view card. Now they’re routinely pushed as among the company’s top attractions.
Charlotte debuted at the perfect moment to make this kind of impact, which she’s well aware of. Timing, as much as talent, is often the key to a wrestler’s success or failure. Not only was a group of era-defining talent coalescing in WWE’s Performance Center, but Ronda Rousey had helped open the doors for everyone, her success as a drawing card in UFC creating opportunities where none had previously existed.
“The demeanor, the attitude. No one had ever seen that,” Charlotte said. “And then she went off to do Fast & Furious, Entourage, Sports Illustrated. She definitely paved the way, 100 percent. Serena and Venus [Williams, the tennis stars so famous you likely don’t need me to tell you their surname] obviously, as well. And I also think the U.S. women’s soccer team that won the Olympics. I think it was a combination of those things. But Ronda definitely opened doors.”
Charlotte and her fellow Horsewomen were all too eager to step into the spotlight, their energetic matches and dynamic presence forever relegating the Attitude Era of “puppies” and bra-and-panties matches to the dustbin of wrestling history, a sordid past best forgotten.
A decade in, the women’s wrestling of that era looks basically unrecognizable, at its best the bones on which the current schematics were constructed. In the interim between then and now, Flair has done it all.
NXT champion? Check. Raw Women’s champion? Check. SmackDown Women’s champion? Check. WrestleMania headliner? Check.
It’s the résumé not just of a Hall of Famer but of a living legend, a role she’s settled into with, if not ease, then the comfort of inevitability. She’s become something that hasn’t existed for women in her business for decades—a respected veteran presence and standard-bearer. She’s Bret Hart in ’97. She’s 2015 John Cena. She’s, yes, ’89 Ric Flair, styling and profiling on the top of the card even as the grim specter of age loomed.
It’s mostly untread ground. While male wrestlers can work on top well into their 40s and beyond, women tend to disappear the moment the first number in their age turns from a two to a three. Trish Stratus was 30 when she walked away as a full-time performer. Lita? 31. Beth Phoenix? 32. Mickie James? 30.
It’s a common problem in all entertainment spaces, women disappearing from film for years as they make the awkward transition from leading lady to someone’s mom. In wrestling, women performers also have to shoulder the burden of the sport’s intense physical nature, raising the level of difficulty significantly. Days after WrestleMania 39, Charlotte will turn 37. And you better believe she’s aware of it.
“Is it something that I actively think about? Yes, every day. I think about the number because I want to have a family,” Charlotte said. “Maybe I’m a little overly confident. But there’s not one girl in that locker room or down at NXT [better] athletically conditioned as an in-ring performer. I don’t feel like I miss a beat athletically in the ring. That doesn’t make me think about my age. What makes me think about my age is, well, I want one or two or three kids. But that has to take a back seat.”
Beyond the loud ticking of her biological clock, there’s also the siren song of Hollywood. She’s seen the success of Banks (now known as Mercedes Moné, current IWGP Women’s champion and cast member on The Mandalorian) and Lynch, and has kept a close eye on her male counterparts as well.
“When I look at what Cena’s doing, what Dwayne [Johnson is] doing, what [Dave] Batista’s doing, even the Miz. What does that look like for me? And I don’t necessarily say it has to be a movie. If I’m so successful here with the dedication I have, what would it look like if I put my dedication elsewhere?”
The future, no matter how much we obsess over it, is never in sharp focus. But the present can be, and that’s where Charlotte is firmly grounded heading into yet another big match. In the past few years a new generation has emerged to walk the path that Charlotte and Co. have built. Bianca Belair and Ripley are the brightest of these new shining lights, and it’s Flair’s job to take them by the hand and help them navigate a tricky business the way Nattie Neidhart and Nikki Bella once helped her establish a solid footing on the mountaintop.
“When I came back, I was like, ‘OK, my legacy is cemented,’” Charlotte said. “My résumé speaks for itself. And I’m not saying just because I’m the 14-time champion. In order to accomplish what I have accomplished, I never slowed down. I kept pushing and I was consistent and I kept delivering over and over and over.
“That’s why I kept getting opportunity after opportunity after opportunity. They trusted me. Now I’m, I guess you could say, quote unquote, ‘the veteran.’ The expectation to perform at that level and to help the up-and-comers means I have to be on point. You can’t have an off night.”
Women’s wrestling is here now in part because Flair refused any answer other than yes. Perhaps accomplishing the mission of legitimizing women’s wrestling has allowed some reflection and a softening of hard walls that had built up over time. Banks has moved on and is eyeing Hollywood, among other new frontiers. Lynch has become an icon in her own right, fashion and otherwise, the kind of enduringly popular wrestler whom young girls will be referencing as their inspiration for years to come. But Charlotte is in a place where those accomplishments don’t necessarily bring out her competitive side. She knows who she is and what she’s done and can enjoy others’ success without envy making a mess of things.
“I think there’s competitiveness, but at the same time if one woman in our group is doing well, that means that there’s hope for others,” she said. “So doors open. When I think of Becky, it’s great that she’s had a TV role. But I think what I admire the most is that she has a family on the road. I love that her and Seth and Roux are on the road.
“When I look at Sasha following her passion, wherever her path takes her, I’m happy. Because success is so different for everybody. I’m proud of what Mercedes [Sasha’s real name] has done. And I’m proud of what Becky’s done.”
Some might call that growth. But she wouldn’t be Charlotte Flair without getting in the final word.
“But,” she said, one word putting all those niceties firmly in the backseat, “I wouldn’t trade my career for theirs.”
Now that’s the Queen we’ve come to love. Rhea Ripley will come for her at WrestleMania 39. Best not miss.
Jonathan Snowden (@JESnowden) is the author of Shamrock: The World’s Most Dangerous Man, Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting, The MMA Encyclopedia and Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. He works for the Department of Defense and lives in Alabama with his wife and two children. He thinks about professional wrestling. A lot.