By Moina Arcee, June 28, 2014 Edited July 2 2018
Any fan of today’s professional wrestling knows who divas are. They are young, beautiful, athletic women with a flair for the dramatic. Divas are well compensated for their talents. Some are even millionaires. They all owe their livelihood to the first diva of professional wrestling: Mary Lillian Ellison, better known as the “Fabulous Moolah.”
Ellison was the last child and only daughter born to a rural family who lived outside of Columbia, South Carolina. Growing up with twelve brothers made it perhaps inevitable Ellison would become a wrestler; she probably needed some wrestling holds to get food at the supper table.
Although her first name was Mary, she went by Lillian. Her dad took her to a wrestling match in Columbia when Lillian was ten. The lady’s champion, Mildred Burke, was on the card. Later Ellison credited Burke as being her inspiration to become a professional wrestler.
Professional wrestling is a unique career. Being a female wrestler in the 1950’s was very unique, and not respectable. Although female wrestling was banned in New York state when Ellison broke into the business, professional wrestling in America was starting to reach a wider audience than the carnivals and traveling circus shows it began in.
The business evolved into a form of athletic entertainment that looked spontaneous but had a predetermined outcome. The wrestlers used their athleticism and entertainment skills to “work the marks,” that is, to fool the audience into believing everything was real. Fostering the illusion that wrestling is unscripted is called “keeping kayfabe.” Much wrestling jargon even today is a holdover from the carny days of the early twentieth century.
Lillian Ellison’s wrestling world was ruled by regional promoters who could make or break a wrestler’s career. The promoters were not regulated by any governing bodies and could be either fair or unscrupulous. Most of them wanted to make as big a profit as they could. So did the wrestlers.
The love-hate relationship between wrestlers and promoters had interesting outcomes. When Lillian Ellison was a rookie wrestler in the early 1950’s, a promoter named Jack Pfeffer told her she would have to change her name: Lillian Ellison wasn’t “flashy” enough. He challenged her: Why do you want to wrestle? She snapped back, “For the money. I want to wrestle for the moolah.” This conversation resulted in Ellison creating her career name: the Fabulous Moolah.
Her first break was as a valet for soon to be heavyweight champion “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. Ellison wore a leopard skin wrestling outfit and billed herself as Slave Girl Moolah. Her character was a foil for Rogers, who was a heel.
(The “heel” is the bad guy, the wrestler who behaves in ways to make fans boo. The babyface, or “face”, behaves in ways that make fans cheer. The usual scenario has the face demonstrating his superior wrestling skills to start the match. This frustrates the unscrupulous heel, who resorts to fouling to gain the advantage. The rest of the match is a see-saw battle between good and evil. The outcome appears in doubt but is predetermined).
Ellison moved into singles wrestling and won her first title belt in 1956 as the “Fabulous Moolah.” She stood five feet four inches and weighed about 115 pounds. She was not beautiful and did not have an intimidating physique. Her strength was a brutal offense that included punches, kicks, and flying drop kicks. Flying what? In a radio interview Ellison explained:
“A flying drop kick is when you jump flat-footed from the floor up as high as the person you’re looking at and kick them in the face or in the chest…the flying head scissors is where you jump up, put both legs around their head and throw them forward as you come down. And a flying mare is when you get a girl by the hair of the head and pull her over your shoulder, then slam her to the mat as hard you can. I love doing that.”
Moolah was always a heel. Heels usually control a wrestling match by directing the action, and using timing and showmanship to “get heat”, that is, to elicit the most negative responses from the audience. The more hated Moolah was, the more people would pay money to see someone beat her up. It was all part of doing business. “I loved when they got mad at me,” Moolah declared. ”They called me all kinds of names. I said: ‘Call me anything you want. You don’t write my check.’”
For the next several decades Moolah was champion more often than not. In the 1980’s wrestling changed from numerous independent regional promoters to one large wrestling organization, the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) run by Vince McMahon. Moolah hitched her wagon to McMahon’s ambitious endeavor and never looked back.
Moolah’s most notable feud was in the 1980’s with WWF ladies champion Wendy Richter, and Richter’s friend, singer Cindy Lauper. In an incredibly hyped (even for wrestling) storyline, the cathartic event was a match between Moolah and Richter at Wrestlemania which brought in mucho ka-ching for all involved. Moolah “lost” and laughed all the way to the bank.
Often the line between reality and wrestling storylines gets blurred. Behind the scenes there was heat between Moolah and Richter. Moolah trained Richter, but Richter claimed Moolah financially exploited her and other women who went through Moolah’s school.
Richter (and others) alleged Moolah forced the trainees to sign contracts giving Moolah a percentage of their winnings for every match they had and ever would have.
It got worse. Some women alleged that Moolah acted as a pimp with some of her female wrestlers, setting them up to be sexually exploited by regional promoters during the 1960’s. So in addition to the “scripted heat,” there was real bad blood between Moolah and Richter. Moolah avenged her loss to Richter by donning a mask and winning back the title from Richter thanks to a fast count by the referee, who was in on the fix. Shortly afterward Richter left the business for good.
Moolah never really left wrestling. She continued to train wrestlers and act as a promoter from time to time. She wrestled into her seventies. Ellison was married and divorced five times, and ended up moving back to Columbia. In 2004 a documentary called “Lipstick & Dynamite” aired. It recounted the history of female professional wrestling, and Moolah was featured.
In 2007, at age 84, the Fabulous Moolah died of a heart attack. She was buried in a family plot near her home in Columbia, South Carolina. Ellison was as controversial in her private life as she was in her wrestling career. But like her or not, she paved the way for today’s wrestling divas. And that is no mean feat.
Lillian Ellison, with Larry Platt, “The Fabulous Moolah: First Goddess of the Squared Circle” (Regan Books, 2002).
WWE.com The Fabulous Moolah. WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) is the former WWF (World Wrestling Federation). WWF was sued by another WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, for rights to the initials, and won. Vince McMahon used the name change as an opportunity to bury “kayfabe” forever.
http://www.stephenmalkus.com The Fabulous Moolah is Dead.
grantlandl.com Wrestlings Legendary Shoots: Moolah v. Richter.
New York Times Obituary, Lillian Ellison, The Fabulous Moolah.
National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” program in 2005.