There was a time during the early stages of Mickie James’ wrestling career when she was unable to pay rent.
So James moved in with her grandmother on a horse farm in the southern part of Caroline County and picked up a job as a waitress at All-American Travel Plaza, a truck stop in Doswell. James worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and often asked for double shifts during the week so she could have weekends free to pursue her goal of becoming a professional wrestler.
“People are like, ‘You must’ve hated that job,’ ” James said. “But I loved it. A lot of people who came through were truckers and they’re on the road so much and I knew that was the life I was kind of living. So there was relatability.”
James, 38, still spends plenty of time on the road, but she’s no longer scraping to get by. She’s now a veteran World Wrestling Entertainment superstar and country music and southern rock recording artist.
James is the only woman to hold WWE Women’s, WWE Divas and TNA (Total Nonstop Action) Knockout championships in wrestling history. She holds the national record as a nine-time champion.
James, whose father is a lifelong Caroline resident, will compete in a WWE event Monday night at the Richmond Coliseum, with 25 friends and family members on hand.
She has one of professional wrestling’s largest fan bases with more than 850,000 Twitter followers, 657,000 Instagram followers and 1.2 million likes of her professional Facebook page.
“It’s incredible and it’s also very humbling,” James said. “I try to remember who I am and what I come from, because I didn’t come from super means. I had to work and pray and try really hard to succeed and get everything that I wanted out of life. I’m still not satisfied.”
James recalls attending Bowling Green Elementary School before she and her sister moved to Hanover County with their mother, Sandra Knuckles. She graduated from Patrick Henry High School in Ashland, and spent every summer in Caroline on her maternal grandmother’s farm.
Irene Hines showed horses professionally and James initially thought that would be her future.
“I was good at it and I loved it,” she said. “I still love it. I have horses. They’re a massive passion of mine, but obviously this lifestyle is not conducive to running a horse farm.”
Horses were forced to take a backseat to James’ other passion growing up—wrestling.
When she visited her father in Caroline on weekends, they’d watch wrestling together and then practice the moves they just witnessed in the family’s living room. James’ favorites were Ric Flair and Macho Man Randy Savage.
“I liked all the bad guys, apparently,” she said.
After graduating high school, James had no definitive plans. But ever since those days in her father’s living room, she was interested in becoming a professional wrestler.
She started out at a training school in Manassas in 1998 at age 18. She performed in her first match the following year. She labored in that organization for years, competing at several smaller venues in Virginia, including the Fredericksburg Armory.
“I often compare it to the music scene,” James said. “You work all these little gigs and you keep trying to build a name for yourself and you hopefully get bigger and bigger.”
James’ career eventually flourished. She transferred to a training school in Baltimore and commuted from her home in Richmond twice a week, while still working shows on the independent circuit.
She joined TNA Wrestling in 2002 before she was signed to a developmental deal with WWE’s Ohio Valley Wrestling, based in Louisville. Using a baseball analogy, James said that stint was like Double-A as she was molded into a future WWE superstar.
“I spent two and a half years in Louisville and I loved it,” James said. “But I wanted to be home.”
James made her WWE début in 2005. She’s had multiple stints with WWE and TNA. She returned to WWE most recently in 2016.
Her autographed picture hangs in Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria in Ladysmith and her father noted that she’s done several career-day programs at Lewis & Clark Elementary School in Ladysmith, leaving students awestruck.
“She just proves that with hard work and determination you can do anything you want to do,” Stuart James said. “When she goes to the schools, they’re amazed. When you think of a wrestler, you think of somebody with big, big muscles and that’s not her. She shows them that with determination and drive they can do anything they put their minds to.”
A TRIPLE THREAT
James played violin during her middle school and high school years and she was also in the school chorus.
But she never envisioned a career as a recording artist.
Last fall, James, whose mother is Native American, was inducted into the Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame. She was awarded Native American Music Song of the Year for her recording of “Shooting Blanks.”
She’s set to perform on June 2 in Chesterfield County. On June 29 at Richmond Harley–Davidson in Glen Allen, she’ll put on a benefit concert for childhelp.org, which benefits victims of child abuse.
James recently released a single with rap group Ying Yang Twins titled “Left Right Left.” She’s also recorded a song with rock star Lita Ford that will be released in July.
“I’ve always wanted to sing so badly, but I didn’t think it was something that was possible for me,” James said. “Plus, I didn’t think I was good at it.”
Her first producer, Kent Wells, disagreed. Wells, who has worked with country music veteran Dolly Parton, told James she has a unique sound, a unique story and that the songs she penned were genuine.
James signed with Wells and released the 11-track album “Strangers & Angels” in 2010. She had different producers for her second album, “Somebody’s Going to Pay,” in 2013. She was allowed to record her own entrance theme music with TNA.
James once struggled to balance her two careers.
“It was: Do I want music or do I want wrestling?” she said. “I wanted both. I’m good at wrestling and I love it with all my heart. I’ve devoted so much of my life and career to it that I wasn’t ready to let it go.
“I didn’t want to let music go, either, because I felt like it allowed me to express a different side of me that people don’t know. Music is so soulful and you’re a bit more vulnerable.”
James has also dabbled in acting. She appeared on the USA Network show “Psych” as a villainous roller-derby girl and she made an appearance on “Lethal Weapon” in an episode titled “Talk Derby to Me.”
A TRUE TRAILBLAZER
After moving to Florida, having a son, Donovan, and getting married to National Wrestling Alliance heavyweight champion Nick Aldis (Magnus), James moved back to Virginia last year.
She owns a home in King William County that she rents out, and the family lives in the Short Pump area of Richmond. She said she moved home to be closer to her family, which lives primarily in Caroline and Hanover counties.
James said she’s always eager to wrestle in Richmond to put on a show for her friends and family, but she rarely wins there. She estimates she’s won twice out of numerous appearances in her hometown.
Still, she wants to be an inspiration to young women in the Richmond area—and elsewhere—who are aiming to break into the field.
Wrestling was once male-dominated. When women were introduced as a novelty act, they mainly performed in lingerie pillow fights, gravy bowl matches and other sideshows.
James said when she entered the business, she prayed women would one day be on more equal footing. She said she’s grateful for the women who preceded her and hopes she can make a similar impact before she retires.
“I wanted to be one of the best in the business, whether it was male or female,” James said. “I recognized it was looked upon differently, but at the same time I wanted that line to be blurred.
“To see how far female wrestling has come is just inspiring and incredible. I’m just grateful to be a part of it and throw a little Virginia sass on it.”