There are few who would argue that WWE’s AJ Lee wasn’t a tremendous influence on women’s wrestling. At a time when the company’s women were still struggling to get away from the eye candy “diva” image, her genuine athletic ability and unquestionable in-ring talents wowed audiences wherever she went. Her excellent microphone skills and innate charisma made her promo work shine with the industry’s brightest beacons, especially since she was able to take any gimmick the company straddled her with and make it her own. Whether she was a geeky nerd girl, a ruthless femme fatale, or an unhinged leader figure, she owned the ring whenever she stepped in it.
Alas, that’s all in the past, and it’s been years since AJ Lee graced our screens with her presence. Still, that doesn’t mean she’s retired on a ranch or anything. While it’s true that she’s dropped off the radar of most wrestling fans, she’s still doing all sorts of cool stuff under her real name, AJ Mendez Brooks (the AJ stands for April Jeanette). In many ways, the things she’s doing these days are even more awesome than her in-ring career was. Let’s take a look at precisely what AJ Lee has been up to since you stopped hearing from her.
A lawsuit made AJ Lee's exit from the WWE inevitable
One possible reason for Lee’s comparatively early WWE exit is her real-life relationship with one Phil Brooks, who wrestling fans know better as CM Punk. Bleacher Report says that their personal situation (they married in 2014) created a strange dilemma when Punk and the WWE fell from each other’s good graces. The feud between Lee’s employer and her husband reached heights that would’ve been comical if they weren’t so deathly serious. Punk accused the WWE (and particularly the company’s doctor, Chris Amann) of failing to diagnose a potentially life-threatening staph infection and treating his concussion symptoms with Z-Pak antibiotics. Amann responded to the accusations with a lawsuit, which according to Bleacher Report, Punk believes is bankrolled by none other than the WWE chairman, Vince McMahon.
While it’s no surprise that the WWE eventually decided to fire their most vocal dissident, they ultimately did so on the day it hurt the most. Punk received his “walking papers” from the company on the day he married Lee. McMahon insists that this was merely an unfortunate accident, and he even apologized to Punk in an on-air interview, but the ex-wrestler doesn’t believe in coincidences and refuses to accept an apology unless McMahon delivers it in person.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, it’s no surprise that Lee eventually decided to call it quits with the WWE. However, even leaving the company came with a plot twist. As Wrestling Inc. tells us, insiders say Lee likely had to retire from wrestling and forfeit the opportunity to perform elsewhere since she was still bound by her WWE contract.
She may have suffered a career-ending injury
According to Pop Culture, AJ Lee stated in her memoir, Crazy Is My Superpower, that she was also suffering from some pretty pressing health issues near the end of her career. Though she has admitted that the drama between the WWE and Punk influenced her decision to leave the squared circle, Lee also noted that her wrestling years left a lasting memory in the shape of “permanent damage to her cervical spine.”
Lee’s in-ring career certainly didn’t leave her unscathed. Apart from the spinal damage she incurred over the course of her wrestling career, Bleacher Report informs us that she has struggled with concussions, and a particularly nasty whiplash neck injury in 2014 forced the medical staff to put the unresponsive Lee in a neck brace and carry her from the ring on a stretcher. These certainly seem like moments that might make one reconsider their long-term career (and, for that matter, health) prospects.
Her alleged problems with other women
Another thing that might have played into her decision to leave the company? Interpersonal issues. According to Bleacher Report, Lee was easily one of the most outspoken WWE stars during her tenure with the company, which reportedly put her at odds with several other WWE Divas. Lee wasn’t even shy about calling out the WWE itself, which may have put her at odds with none other than owner Vince McMahon’s daughter, WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon (pictured). In 2015, she took part in Twitter’s #GiveDivasAChance movement by publicly and rather bluntly calling Stephanie out about female WWE performers’ comparatively low wages despite their soaring popularity, merchandise sales, and highly rated matches. While the McMahons (at least publicly) took the barrage in stride, Lee was the only Diva to speak out publicly. Though her outspokenness is unlikely to have been the reason behind her departure, it’s easy to imagine that being the only person to speak against your employer might not do wonders to your standing within the company.
Her struggles with mental health issues
For a good chunk of her career, AJ Lee had a secret. Sports Illustrated writes that she — much like her mother — has bipolar disorder, which was diagnosed when she was 19 or 20. Then, the gimmick that made her famous ended up being that of a “crazy chick.” Outlets like Bleacher Report expressed some criticism toward the character’s arc, but “crazy” AJ still propelled Lee to main event status. However, the character was probably not an intentional dig on the WWE’s part. In fact, Lee had kept the WWE in the dark about her personal struggles with mental health, which eventually got awkward when the company started trying to make her perform skits that made light of mental health.
In 2012, the New York Post wrote that the WWE wanted Lee to up the “craziness” ante in comedic sketches that would see her make out with leprechauns, as well as hallucinate and dance with “dinosaurs from outer space.” This didn’t sit well with Lee, who was still in the closet with her own mental health issues but had already spoken about those of her mother’s. While she realized that the company was attempting to make a joke, she couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing disrespected both her and her mom. In the end, Lee refused to take part in the skit, and the WWE punished her by taking her off TV for two months.
AJ Lee has focused her energy on worthy issues
After wrestling, AJ Lee has devoted a considerable amount of her time to less high-profile but arguably far more important endeavors. Sports Illustrated writes that Lee, who’s now quite open about her own bipolar disorder, is a “proud mental health advocate” and works together with the Child Mind Institute to promote healthier attitudes toward mental health issues. She also finds the time to act as a spokeswoman for American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which also comes from a place of personal passion. When she was young, her impoverished family lived in areas where there was a lot of dog fighting, and her father would regularly rescue and foster pit bulls from the “sport.” Lee has been working for rescue dogs ever since, and she’s teamed up with ASPCA for an anti-dog fighting campaign called Get Tough.
Lee’s activism isn’t limited to just the occasional inspirational YouTube video, either. In 2018, The Sportster reported that Lee was raising money for mental health awareness charity NAMI. As Wrestling Inc. tells us, in 2015, she worked together with the Beautiful Disaster clothing company to launch a clothing line called “AJ’s Animal Avenger,” with all proceeds going to PAWS Chicago. Oh, and of course, she’s a rescue dog mom herself.
AJ Lee became a successful author
AJ Lee may not be around as much as she used to, but AJ Mendez Brooks is very much still with us. Operating under her real name, Lee has transitioned from a successful in-ring performer to an equally successful author with her memoir, Crazy Is My Superpower. The 2017 book turned out to be so triumphant that after one week, Lee’s official website could proudly announce it was a New York Times bestseller, having reached #10 on the “Hardcover Nonfiction” list and #7 on the “Sports and Fitness” list.
When you think about it, it’s not a huge surprise that Lee struck gold with her book. After all, she was one of the most popular female wrestlers around, and the book was released just a couple of years after she exited the WWE at the peak of her powers. What’s more, she certainly has a story to tell. She comes from an extremely poor family that had to move around a lot because they couldn’t afford the rent, and the mental health issues she (and her mother) lived with proved difficult to treat in the macho environment of the culture she was living in. Cageside Seats says the book has a “great message,” and notes its significant openness about an outsider’s climb to the top of her profession while struggling with her personal issues.
Her attempts at acting
AJ Lee may be a magnificent wrestler, writer, and activist, but there’s one gate she’s yet to throw wide open: acting. Like many other former and current professional wrestlers, she’s tried her hand at acting a good few times. However, while outlets such as Bleacher Report praised the considerable acting skills she used to portray her character during her WWE tenure, it appears that Hollywood hasn’t come calling quite yet. Lee’s IMDb page is mostly filled with WWE-related appearances that more or less came with her Diva job, and her most prolific non-WWE appearances seem to be a commercial for Madden NFL 16 and a cameo in a science fiction-themed adult movie.
But who knows? All of this might change soon. After all, both Lee and CM Punk are playing in the horror flick Rabid, a remake of the 1977 David Cronenberg horror movie. Sure, it’s not Citizen Kane, but hey, even the Rock had to start somewhere.
She writes comics
Though AJ Lee seems to be largely done with pro wrestling, there is one way she’s still involved with the “sport.” As The Hollywood Reporter tells us, in 2019, the former wrestling star got involved with one of the hottest wrestling-teamed franchises around. Yeah, we’re talking about GLOW, the popular Netflix show that’s loosely based on a real-life, all-women promotion from the 1980s called the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Wrestling fans shouldn’t get too excited, though, as it looks like Lee isn’t about to join the show’s cast. Instead, she’s joining forces with actor Aimee Garcia to write a comic book series based on the show.
With a four-part series called GLOW vs. the Babyface, Lee and Garcia are both making their debut as comic book writers. However, they’re both huge fans of the show, and they believe that their collective talents and attitudes make them perfect for the job. As Lee puts it, “Aimee’s experience in acting and my experience in pro-wrestling makes us a formidable tag team with a unique perspective to truly channel the voices of these hilarious heroines. Our mission as writing partners is to represent diverse, complex, and unbreakable female characters, which is why GLOW feels like the perfect fit.”
AJ Lee is a popular keynote speaker
AJ Lee’s significant microphone skills were always part of her allure as a pro wrestler, so it’s not exactly a surprise that she’s carved out a bit of a reputation as a speaker. Like many other current and former athletes, websites such as Athlete Speakers and NOPAC Talent advertise that she can be booked for a variety of speaking gigs, though it’s unclear just how many store grand openings she’d be willing to appear at given her busy schedule as a NY Times bestselling author and animal rights activist. If the cause is right, however, Lee certainly seems to finds the time to rise to the podium. On multiple occasions, she has acted as a keynote speaker for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an endeavor Still Real to Us tells us has drawn compliments from several of her former WWE colleagues.
It’s actually quite amazing that Lee has chosen to express herself through public speaking at all because, according to the New York Post, she freely admits that she used to suffer from severe, borderline crippling anxiety issues that made her feel like “a Chihuahua during a thunderstorm.” Looks like this is another hurdle she’s learned to cross.
AJ Lee's exile from wrestling is ultimately self-imposed
One of the biggest reasons wrestling fans don’t really hear from AJ Lee anymore is simple. She’s chosen to stay away from the squared circle. Apart from the myriad of reasons for her leaving the WWE, Lee is still one of the most popular female wrestlers around and easily young enough for a comeback, should she so desire and should her health permit.
And the fans certainly want her. In 2018, Sportskeeda reported that Lee “dominated” the polls when fans were asked who they’d like to make a comeback for the female-driven Evolution pay-per-view. According to Sportskeeda, even Vince McMahon himself allegedly reached out to ask if Lee would like to re-emerge in the WWE Universe. (She ultimately didn’t.) There have been rumors of her signing with the WWE’s emergent competitor, All Elite Wrestling, though Ringside News notes that these appear to be incorrect. Oh, and as Forbes points out, it doesn’t exactly hurt the rumor mill that Lee isn’t just a major player in her own right. She’s also connected to arguably the biggest free agent in the business, CM Punk.
Though Lee seems perfectly happy pursuing her other interests for now, it’s clear that her comeback would be most welcome. As for Lee herself, she hasn’t entirely ruled out a return in the ring, explaining, “I say that I don’t know what the future holds — to not hold your breath. But never say never.”
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