As announced this week on NXT, Candice LeRae will join Bianca Belair, Nikki Cross and Kairi Sane in a No. 1 Contender’s Fatal 4-Way Match next week to determine who will challenge Shayna Baszler for the NXT Women’s Championship at TakeOver: Brooklyn. With the potentially career-altering opportunity on the horizon, LeRae spoke with WWE.com about her in-ring goals, her journey to NXT and her marriage to fellow NXT Superstar Johnny Gargano.
WWE.COM: Candice, we first saw you in NXT a little over a year ago. What’s the difference between that Candice and the one we see here today?
CANDICE LERAE: My childhood dream was to be a WWE Superstar. Now that I am living that dream, I am discovering there is a whole new world of opportunity here in NXT. I have pushed myself to do things in the ring and in the gym that I used to be afraid to do or was uncomfortable with. I want to seize every opportunity NXT has to offer me, and when I do, I want to be ready for them. Being here has sparked something special in me to push me to the next level.
WWE.COM: You've got an opportunity to possibly challenge for the NXT Women's Championship coming up. How poetic would it be to challenge Shayna Baszler, the same woman who eliminated you from the Mae Young Classic last year?
LERAE: I haven’t forgotten that match against Shayna in the Mae Young Classic. More importantly, I haven’t forgotten about how disrespectful Shayna was toward me and my husband after the match. Earning an NXT Women’s Championship opportunity is a reward, but to face Shayna, knowing that I could potentially be the one to dethrone her? it would be the cherry and sprinkles on top!
WWE.COM: Since we are on the topic of last year, you've obviously been through a lot with your husband, Johnny Gargano. To someone not familiar with sports-entertainment, what are the benefits and challenges of working alongside Johnny in the same company?
LERAE: A massive positive is that we can travel together! There were times before I got here where I would be wrestling in Japan or the United Kingdom for weeks at a time. Trying to talk to each other when I was basically a day into the future was challenging.
I half joke with him that my biggest challenge is trying to keep up with him. He’s just so talented. It puts this added pressure on me because I don’t want to be an embarrassment to Johnny. Plus, my husband worked so hard for his name, and I absolutely refuse to ride his coattails. I know I have a challenge in proving to the fans and my peers that I belong here too. I want to make a name for myself here in NXT because of my own work and not because of who my husband is.
WWE.COM: I have to ask, how did you two initially meet?
LERAE: We met at a wrestling promotion in SoCal. He was talking to my cousin in an attempt to get my attention, but I didn’t take the hint. As I became a little more successful on the independent circuit, we kept running into each other. He for sure played hard to get. I had to be the one to strike up conversation with him. I sent him my number first, but instead of messaging me, he chose to send me his instead. (Laughs) After a while, I just found it very easy to talk to him, and we had tons in common. I used to have to commute an hour-and-a-half to work as a baker at 10 p.m. and he would call me and stay on the phone with me until I arrived safely. So even though he was stubborn at first, he ended up being pretty amazing.
WWE.COM: I’m sure he’s been very supportive with your career aspirations?
LERAE: I am extremely hard on myself, to a fault. I’ve always struggled with my self-confidence. To be completely honest, I believed I would never be here. It was heartbreaking for me. I didn’t think there was an ounce of me that was good enough. When I met Johnny, he taught me how to believe in myself. He believes in me like I never knew someone other than my mom could. Just watching his work ethic alone was life-changing for me. I mean, if someone like him could believe in me, I had no excuse to not believe in myself.
WWE.COM: One thing you’ve always had is a passion for sports-entertainment, which started when you were just 6 years old. What attracted you to this world?
LERAE: I know this is going to sound super silly, but do you know how in movies there’s that stereotypical scene where the girl or guy sees the “love of their life”? Time slows down and nothing else in the room exists? That is exactly how I remember seeing wrestling for the first time. There was just something about it that I felt drawn to. I loved everything about it. I tell people it is my first love.
WWE.COM: What was your childhood like?
LERAE: I was born and raised in Riverside, Calif. My parents worked extremely hard to give my two brothers and I everything they could. Their work ethic was certainly something that stuck out to me. My family — including aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc. — has always been extremely close. I grew up constantly outnumbered by boys in my family.
On the plus side, I grew up playing sports with very competitive brothers and cousins. They toughened me up quickly and always treated me like “one of the boys.” I never got special treatment playing sports just because I was a girl.
My two brothers and I loved wrestling. In high school, my brothers and I befriended a guy through wrestling who we managed to convince my parents to adopt. Aside from sports and wrestling, I was in marching band and played flute and piccolo. After high school, I earned my degree in Culinary Arts and worked at Universal Studios Hollywood as a baker for a few years.
WWE.COM: Where did your travels take you throughout your 16-year career?
LERAE: This career has taken me to some wonderful places I never thought I’d get to explore. Because of wrestling, I have gotten to visit Canada, Japan, England, Wales, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, France, Belgium and so many U.S. states I’d never thought I’d ever go to. I’ve been super lucky, and my travels have also taken me places where I could experience other passions of mine. My Disney parks bucket list is now down to just Hong Kong and Shanghai!
WWE.COM: Lastly, why is it important for you to prove to the world that a young lady like you, who never expected to make it to WWE or NXT, has what it takes to become a champion?
LERAE: It’s become bigger than not disappointing the 6-year-old girl inside of me. I have four nieces, and it is extremely important to me to be a good example for them. That isn’t limited to just making good life choices, but to also teaching them the importance of dreams. When I started to believe in myself and worked harder than ever before, I achieved my dream. I don’t ever want my nieces to doubt themselves. I never want them to think they can’t live their dreams. This quest for the NXT Women’s Championship is an absolute fairytale for me, and I will stop at nothing until I have my happily ever after.