Melina Perez knows more about bullying than most might expect. During her red-hot World Wrestling Entertainment career, fans saw “Melina,” a confident, conniving superstar. Behind-the-scenes, though, gossip and innuendo undermined the five-time champion’s self-esteem and made her question her pro wrestling dreams.
“I wanted to be a role model, and a series of events took it away from me,” the iconic grappler told Party Foul Radio with Pollo & Pearl during an emotional interview promoting her upcoming April 29-30 appearance at RuPaul’s DragCon.
Prior to speaking with Podomatic’s No. 1 LGBT Podcast, Perez watched the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. According to the Diva, the drama tracing factors including online bullying and sexual assault which lead to a teen girl’s suicide brought back “painful” memories.
“That was my experience as an adult, that’s the sad thing,” she confessed. “Now that I’m reaching 40, I have better awareness and ways of coping. In my 20s, I couldn’t see things as clearly, be as articulate and process as much.
“I can only imagine what it would be like to go through that in my teens, how much more insane the emotions,” Perez said.
For more than a half decade, Perez was one of WWE’s most bankable personalities. In 2004, she managed multiple-time WWE tag team champs “MNM,” which included then real-life boyfriend Johnny Nitro (nee, Hennigan -- now “Johnny Mundo,” a global superstar).
After the team separated, the Mexican-American beauty went on to solo success. Ultimately, she claimed three Women’s championships, wore the company’s Divas title twice and feuded with legends like WWE Hall of Famers Trish Stratus and Beth Phoenix.
“I talk to people now, and they thought I was so confident,” Melina expressed. “I was doing all this awesome stuff onstage, and they didn’t realize I was going through so much loneliness and hurt backstage. It was like high school.”
Unfortunately, Perez admits fame and fortune came with an unexpected price. Whereas she was portraying a scripted role, fans accepted what they saw on television as fact. She “didn’t know how to cope” with being called “a slut” by the masses.
“I’m proud of that character, then and now, because it was just a character – and she was great at being a bitch – but when it came to my personal life, it felt like everyone around me thought that’s who I was,” Perez said. “I just felt so invisible.”
With the internet already a haven for haters, Perez implied matters got worse after her relationship with Hennigan ended. She was soon the focus of vicious professional gossip and innuendo about off-screen activities.
Perez declined to give specifics, stating she is not prepared to discuss those “traumas” publicly. However, saying “people’s sexual relationships are nobody’s business,” it seemed clear she faced excessive scrutiny within the business once she began dating again.
“I had actual relationships -- I got shamed for getting another boyfriend, and I was just trying to find love,” she pointed out.
“People shame women, but then you see all these guys, and they can do whatever they want,” she continued. “That isn’t just in wrestling, that is life. This is the way women are seen now in general.”
The Latina emphatically refused to place blame on WWE or specific individuals, instead describing the scenario as “a perfect storm.” However, she emphasized those experiences often eclipsed her ability to appreciate success.
“At the time, it felt like, ‘What did I do [in wrestling]?’ – especially since it felt like the whole world hated me. I was this big villain [on TV],” she shared. “I’m such a tender-hearted person, it all did effect me.
“People would put me down and say how ‘worthless’ I am,” she continued. “Then I would get people hating me because of the character, and it felt like I was worthless.”
Trying to cope while continuing to work the grueling WWE schedule was a juggling act. That many around her did not understand made matters worse. “Everyone kept telling me, ‘You just need a thicker skin,” she said.
“When it comes to acknowledging true feelings, no one should ever tell you to hide that and ‘Oh, just get over it!’” she said seemingly as much to herself as anyone else dealing with a similar situation.
“To muffle stuff and put it on the backburner…at some point it is probably going to come up,” Perez declared, “And the emotions are going to be worse than ever.”
WATCH: Melina has returned to pro wrestling
Feeling “unprepared” for that element of WWE, Perez chose to “go off the grid.” Leaving in 2011, she “dropped off the face of the earth in pro wrestling.” It was a dark time, she suggested. However, the LGBTQ community, some knowingly and others without realizing how meaningful their voices were, helped.
“In my mind, if it wasn’t for my friends in the [LGBTQ] community, I would have fallen into a bigger ‘depression’ than I did before,” she acknowledged. “They were very supportive. They accepted me when nobody else did.”
A number of years away from the industry and wisdom which comes with age gave the superstar a new perspective. Plus, Perez noted, hindsight offered fans a greater appreciation for her.
“After I left, people started watching YouTube videos and telling me how much I meant to them,” she said. “That changed me.”
Still, Perez attributes nationally syndicated Lucha Underground for reigniting her old love for sports entertainment. When approached about a one-off 2015 reunion with Mundo, she concedes holding out until the day of tapings to make a decision.
“That’s how much I did not want to go back into wrestling,” she stated. It proved to be the right choice though.
“The audience was so amazing, and I remembered how much I loved wrestling and being a character only I can be,” Melina said. “I know I hold onto bad stuff, and I was trying to recover from traumas, but I missed it.”
Now she regularly makes appearances at independent wrestling events, gatherings like ComiCon, WrestleCon and DragCon, basically any opportunity to interact with the fans she loves. By reclaiming her dreams, Melina has a new outlook on her professional achievements.
“I’m very happy with what I did get to do, because I can only imagine what would have happened if I didn’t get to follow my dreams,” she said, “Some people, they didn’t even get that, so I’m grateful.”
And as for those LGBTQ friends and fans who loved her through the toughest days of her life? They have her undying gratitude as well.
“I have really high regards for the [LGBTQ] community,” Perez concluded. “I have their back forever.”
LISTEN: Melina Perez discusses current WWE women’s division, being bullied, her love for TV “Wonder Woman” Lynda Carter & more on Party Foul Radio.