WrestleMania Diary: AJ Lee, Day 1
UP AND AT ’EM, 9:02 a.m.
Shaking off the last remnants of sleep as Washington does the same, AJ Lee hurriedly navigates her bustling hotel lobby, pausing only briefly to snap a photo with a Dolph Ziggler fan donning the teal-and-yellow tee of her favorite Showoff. She tosses her bags into the cavernous trunk of a rented Ford Edge, all-too-aware that her four-hour New Jersey odyssey was missing an essential ingredient.
“Never trust anyone who doesn’t drink coffee,” AJ quips en route to one of D.C.’s all-too-numerous Starbucks locations, dispensaries of what AJ fondly calls her “comfort blanket” while she’s traveling. This java journey gives the WrestleMania-ready Diva a rare opportunity to explore the District of Columbia, which she still fondly remembers for playing host to one of her first-ever WWE television appearances on the Sept. 9 edition of “WWE Superstars” in 2010.
Caffeinated, AJ then locks in some familiar GPS coordinates, peering through dark-rimmed glasses at the road ahead.
“Sorry in advance, guys,” are never reassuring words, especially coming from a driver. But amid talk of her aspirations to one day write a book and what it was really like to try on her Raw 1,000 wedding dress (it gave her “goosebumps”), AJ offers fair warning to the WWE.com crew as her GPS drones that her old Union City stomping grounds were drawing near — streets she never had the privilege to drive upon even as a teenager.
“I started driving two years ago, technically,” explains AJ, whose family could not afford to get her a car when she reached the legal driving age of 16. “I don’t know how to drive in my hometown, since I either walked everywhere or took public transportation.” Pulled over at a rest area, AJ opts to relinquish the steering wheel for this final portion of the ride, content with re-entering her past, at least for now, from the passenger’s seat.
CITY LIMITS, 1:14 p.m.
Bounding between states of silent awe and giddy restlessness, AJ Lee is awash in emotions of all kinds as she reunites with Union City, a place the enigmatic Diva still calls home despite the muddled meaning of the word during much of her hardscrabble childhood.
In a span of less than 10 minutes, AJ points out no less than four of her family’s former residences nearby, which included a grand total of than 30 different apartments. Eviction was a fact of life when money wasn’t.
Despite the memories that bubble up to the surface as AJ glides past the boarded-up buildings and vacant lots that pockmark the landscape of her youth, she harbors no resentment for the city — and in turn, the state — that birthed her desire to follow a dream.
“Every bad thing [growing up] I ever went through was in Jersey, but every awesome lesson I learned was in Jersey,” AJ said, a black hooded sweatshirt pulled tightly over her head to brace against the biting wind. “For me, Jersey represents going through what you can go through and still surviving. That’s the cool thing about people from the Tri-State area. We’re fighters. We’re survivors, and we’re edgier than anyone else on Earth. I could be anywhere in the country and people will ask, ‘Are you from Jersey? ’ I’m proud of that. We’re a weird breed.”
AJ Lee isn’t a fan of walking … in fact, one might say she has an intense hatred of the act that dates back more than a decade. Without a family car and with bus fare even being unattainable on certain days, a young AJ Lee would find herself trekking miles to school or work.
“I’ve tallied a lot of miles in these Converses,” AJ says with laugh, drawing attention to her signature canvas footwear that’s more associated with anarchic skipping than arduous schlepping these days.
AJ’s distaste for walking didn’t stop her from taking a WrestleMania Week saunter across a Summit Avenue overpass — the very same overpass that AJ traversed to attend her very first wrestling school mere blocks away.
BACK TO SCHOOL, 2:30 p.m.
While actual living accommodations weren’t always “home” for her, AJ Lee once found solace in the ring at a now-defunct wrestling school, which provided the Jersey native with essential stability and, perhaps more importantly, a path when she needed it most.
Approaching the building for the first time in more than two years, AJ is instantly taken aback by its state of disrepair.
“It’s sad,” AJ says, wistfully peering up at the building where she learned the key in-ring fundamentals that would one day bring her to WWE. “This is where I was reborn in a way, so seeing [the school] like this is kind of like closing a chapter for me. But that’s OK, because I feel like I’m starting a new chapter this week.”
On and off for three years, AJ Lee, her family and their massive pitbull named Mugsy took up residence at Union City’s less-than-palatial Hilltop Motel, a locale that lived up to its moniker by requiring its residents —many of whom were also living there long-term out of necessity — to trudge up a steep incline to their cramped accommodations.
“This is why I have quads,” AJ jokes, allowing herself a brief laugh before tugging at some of the deepest roots of her childhood. Plagued by break-ins at the time, the since-renamed Hilltop Motel conjured up memories of a “scary” time for AJ as she fought back unexpected tears.
Her battle was ultimately a losing one, as watery eyes looked out across a desolate courtyard.
“I’m surprised how raw the memory of that motel is for me,” AJ later says in the car. “I thought I would be sort of over it, but I was transported more than a decade in the past, and I felt exactly how I felt back then — wanting to get out. But I’m actually glad I had those feelings. It’s nice to remember you’re still a human being.”
Gazing out on the sprawling metropolis of New York City, Lady Liberty serving in silent vigil over New York Harbor in the distance, AJ Lee seems lost in thought, deeply contemplating the transformative experiences of the day. Or just as likely, she’s thinking of an appropriately salacious response to Dolph Ziggler’s latest text message. After a long day of laying her life bare, this mystifying young woman takes a moment all to herself at Jersey City’s Liberty State Park. She’s earned it.
In a quick motion, as if snapped out of a trance, AJ leaps up, pulls out her smart phone and snaps a picture of the skyline. She’s clearly enjoying the opportunity to play tourist.
“You never do this stuff when you actually live here,” says AJ, who left Union City two years ago for sunny Tampa, Fla. “When you leave and come back, you realize it’s iconic, and it’s something people come from around the world to see. This is the first time I’ve actually taken pictures of New York City, which is so bizarre.”
“Bizarre” seems to be an adequate descriptor for AJ’s WrestleMania Week, which has simultaneously forced her out of her comfort zone while reintroducing her to the all-too-familiar.
“You never forget where you come from, but it’s nice to remind yourself how real it is, and throw it in your face like that,” AJ adds. “I feel like I’ve done what I left here to do. It kind of makes me think, ‘What’s next?’ We’ll find out, I guess.”