It's not often we’re afforded the opportunity to get to know WWE superstars—outside the ring, that is. Vince McMahon, the chairman of the global traveling circus enterprise that is World Wrestling Entertainment, likes to keep perceptions of his characters alive at all times (especially the up-and-coming guys and gals).
But every now and then, the metaphorical curtain is pulled back and we’re exposed to the human beings behind the larger-than-life personalities. Complex had the opportunity to sit down with one of WWE's hottest—literally and figuratively—superstars, Lana (a.k.a. CJ Perry) in New York. Other than a Wikipedia page detailing her eclectic talents and vaguely outlining her rise to fame, Perry is somewhat of a mystery.
Of course, we do know (and have fallen in love with) the manager/valet character she's created and portrayed on television since debuting in 2014, the Ravishing Russian—a nickname conceived by McMahon, says Perry. Lana is your stereotypical Soviet figure from a distant eye: stern, stiff, and anti-American, with a thick Russian accent, abundance of red hued blazer jackets, and blonde hair pulled into a tight bun. Perry, by contrast, is affable, bubbly, and on this day, wearing her hair down and rocking a maroon, wool sweater. Basically, she’s chill AF.
Where Lana and Perry's dispositions intersect is in their passion, stunning (and swoon-inducing) beauty, and empowering female voices. Oh, and there's also their love for Rusev, CJ's on- and off-screen hubby.
We spoke with Perry about an array of topics: from her unique path to the WWE and itch to get in the ring, to her roles in the Pitch Perfect movies and the hit E! Network show Total Divas, and even a new comic book series she's working on. She also offers her two cents on whether or not Ronda Rousey would find success in the WWE.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
I noticed, just speaking to you right now, that you don’t have a Russian accent. Where did you learn to do such a good one?
Well, I grew up in Russia. I grew up in Latvia, to be exact. But most Americans don’t know where Latvia is. They think it’s Lafayette, and so they’re like, “Oh, I can drive over to Louisiana.” I’m like, “Um, no. We’re talking about across the ocean.” Really far. But Latvia was part of the former Soviet Union, so 50 percent of the country is Russian. I grew up over there. I lived there for 13 years, I went to Russian school.
Did they have WWE on TV in Latvia?
Well, a little bit as I started getting older. So when we first moved there, it was right after the former Soviet Union, right after the walls fell. There was a lot of prejudice towards Russians in Latvia. When I went to school, often Latvians didn’t like me, and Russians and Latvians didn’t like Americans, so that was a whole other prejudice. And I like that I draw from for my character because those were the things that were said to me. “Stupid Americans,” and they think Americans are not hard workers. They think Americans are arrogant, don’t take life seriously. They think Americans smile too much. If you are on the trolley buses or trams or the trains (they didn’t have cars when I lived there—everyone took public transportation), no one smiles. There are no hellos. There’s no like, “Hi, hello! How are you?” No. When I moved to America, I was like, “Wow. Why are people saying ‘hello’ to me? I don’t understand.” People don’t smile if they don’t know you. But they are some of the most loving and warm people once they meet you. So I consider myself Russian-American because I’m American by ethnicity and by passport, but I spent all my forming years over in the former Soviet Union, in a Russian school. I never went to an American school. There was a lot of culture shock when I moved back to the States when I was 17.
You said you draw from a lot of your experiences in Latvia, and you use that to help with you character and promos.
Oh yeah. I speak fluent Russian, and so I had an accent when I first moved here, and there were so many American words I fully didn’t know because I only spoke English at home. So I yell at Rusev a lot of times when he’s not doing well, versus the American mentality if someone doesn’t do well, it’s like, “Get back up. Just try harder. You can do it. When you fall, get back up.” Whereas the Russian mentality is like, “You’re stupid. What’s wrong with you? You’re a failure.” And that’s how I was brought up—not by my family, my dad’s like “The sky’s the limit. Get back up.” But in the Russian ballet school I went to, my teacher would throw shoes at me. And she would come in with a paddle and spank me, and be like, “Your butt’s too big. You’re stupid, you fat cow!”
Oh my gosh.
Yeah. Like she would take off her shoes and throw them at me, like “You idiot!!!” So that’s where I draw so much of my inspiration from—my crazy, nutty, ballet teachers. That’s where the mentality of not encouraging people when they do well comes from. No, it’s, “You’re a failure. How fat and stupid are you?” So the world is different. I recently asked Rusev, because he was a rower growing up (and he comes from a rowing family—like his mom was champion of the entire country)… That segment we did on Raw with all of the photos of Rusev’s family, those were real pictures.
"I think people are going to cheer for me when I come out. A lot of guys watch the show. I’m hot. Why are people not gonna cheer for me, you know?"
You mentioned your background in dance, and I know you also have an extensive background in acting. You were also in the girl band No Means Yes (signed to Ne-Yo’s record label). You’ve done so many things. What led you to the WWE?
Honestly I was in L.A. going from audition to audition, being an actor and a dancer, and I got a WWE audition. The Diva Search audition. They had this huge worldwide Diva search that went for like six months. That’s where Eva Marie came from and Jojo.
Where did the Ravishing Russian character (a.k.a. Rusev’s manager) come from? Did WWE come to you and pitch that idea? Or was it them hearing your accent? What do you think it was?
Well, there was a lot of different factors. My first day in developmental, Dusty Rhodes was in charge of creative. I would come up with literally about 15 different ideas because I’m an actor, I’m a storyteller. I have a creative mind. So I come in and start speaking Russian on my first promo ever. This is my first week in NXT. Eva Marie was put on the show, Jojo was put on the show, and then me and Alexa were sent to developmental, which I’m thankful for because I learned so much from Dusty Rhodes and Triple H. I started speaking Russian, switched over to English, and then Dusty Rhodes was like, “Baby, I want you to work with Rusenov.” And I was like, “Who’s Rusenov? Who’s that?” And then I figured he was the Bulgarian. We just started doing different promos, especially comedy promos. But I would come in every single day and would have meetings with Dusty, pitching different characters like nine-page character scripts and elaborate storyboards, everything. Using different people, putting on scenes. When Adam Rose shot all of his vignettes, he made me his first AD/PA because he was just like, “Your mind is so creative.” But Triple H was the person. They were already in talks about bringing Rusev up. Triple H had seen a lot of our stuff, but it was more comedy stuff that we were doing, and he was like, “I want you to try to do something serious.” Triple H told me to watch Rocky IV. He told me to try different hair things. So I showed him, I was in Pitch Perfect. And I was trying all these different things, and he told me to try an accent. I showed him a picture of me in Pitch Perfect as a Barden Bella where we were all buttoned up with our hair in a bun. And he said, “That’s the look.” And so that’s where I started creating the suits and the buns. At first, he said I should just do Russian, and then I started playing around with a Russian accent because I had never really done much of that in English. But then in two weeks, like that, I was put on NXT TV. Three months later, we debuted at the Rumble.
Your character is booked as a heel, but you tend to get a lot of cheers. And I know this a common occurrence in today’s WWE. But being this sort of “bad person” character, how do you interpret getting cheers like that? Is it good, is it bad?
I think people are going to cheer for me when I come out. A lot of guys watch the show. I’m hot. Why are people not gonna cheer for me, you know [Laughs]? But I know I can turn the crowd around. Give me that mic, and I’m gonna turn that entire crowd around. I always look at it as the hot girl in school or the cheerleader, where people are like, “Oh my god, you’re so hot, and I hate you.” So I kind approach it that way, but every time I have a mic, I’m going to turn the crowd around. There’s never been a time where I haven’t been able to turn it around.
The Women’s Revolution has been going on in WWE for a year-plus now. The main folks who get credited for that are Charlotte, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, Paige, and now Bayley. But I think your name should be brought up more when we’re talking about the Women’s Revolution. We don’t see you competing in the ring yet, but I think the character you play is this really strong, powerful female figure. So I guess my question is, why aren’t you in those discussions?
Well, I appreciate that. That means a lot to me, and I probably would start crying but…[Laughs.] I’m for happy for the women in our company as a whole. I’m so happy for Charlotte, Sasha, Bayley, and Becky. The Four Horsewomen. They inspire me because at one point, I didn’t know if we would get that sort of time, match-wise. I have really big dreams, and I sometimes am like, “Man, maybe my dreams are too big.” Then I see what they’ve done when it comes to actual time in the ring, and I’m like, “No, no, no. You inspire me. I’m not gonna lower my dreams. I’m gonna keep on going. I’m gonna make literally the stars my limit.” So that’s really cool, and I’m really, really happy for them.
Two years ago, I went to WrestleMania (and that was when Rusev and I were in the John Cena feud), and there were no women on the poster. I remember my heart was broken. I was like, “We’re humans! I don’t care if it’s me or someone else. We’re human beings. I want us to be repped.” I’m a big person on manifestation and prayer and spirituality, and I would always be putting it out there. Then in a year seeing how there were three women in the middle of the poster! I’m so excited. And I know I’ve had a big part in the [Women’s Revolution].
"I’m QUIRk-ier than Lana—as in my Ravishing Russian. I’m QUIRK-ier than the Ravishing Russian that I play on TV, but I’m able to show this American side of not being perfect, versus the Ravishing Russian who’s perfect at everything."
So you do have that itch to be in the ring, competing?
Oh yeah. Of course. Absolutely. I love my job, and I love that I can work with Rusev. He’s my husband, and I’m happy I can support him. He’s so an extension of me, and I’m so thankful. But yeah, I will go after that championship when the time is right. And I will become champion when the time is right. But those things don’t happen overnight. When I step in that ring, I will be great. Just like when I’m on the mic, I know I can turn that whole crowd, that’s how I’m gonna be in the ring. I’m training, and I got to NXT so I get my fix, but I’m the slow and the steady. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
So you’re now a cast member on the show Total Divas, and I really like the segments that you and Rusev are in because I feel like we’re seeing these totally different personalities from the people you play in the WWE. Like Rusev is this really funny and silly guy.
He’s so funny.
He’s usually like, “Crush,” “Machka,” like all this stuff in the ring. Do you appreciate having this other platform to show the audience, to show the WWE Universe who Lana and Rusev are?
Oh yes. I’m so excited. I come from a storytelling, acting background, and Total Divas has given me the opportunity to take these types of interviews where I can really be like, “This is who I am.” That first year I was in WWE, it needed to be that way. It needed to be that you bought we were these cold, mean, Russians and Soviets. So I’m really thankful because you’re seeing who I am and what has made me, and you see Rusev, and I mean he’s hysterical. He’s one of the funniest guys, and I think why people will understand why I’ve fallen in love with him. And I’m also really happy because I’m quirk-ier than Lana—as in my Ravishing Russian. I’m quirk-ier than the Ravishing Russian that I play on TV, but I’m able to show this American side of not being perfect, versus the Ravishing Russian who’s perfect at everything. But as Lana, the Russian-American that I am on Total Divas, I’m able to show how the Ravishing Russian is still an extension of myself. You see how I’m a Russian-American, and I grew up over in Russia, along with the discipline. And my whole thing is, “No matter what, be resilient.” And that’s what the Ravishing Russian is. She’s resilient and she stands up for truth, and that’s how I am. We’re storytellers. We’re no different than if you go watch Scandal or House of Cards. We’re storytellers, and so to be able to show people that we have real lives, I think people will better appreciate that we’re talented performers and actors and athletes. There’s nothing like that in the world, where you have people who are athletic and actors and entertainers, and we’re here to put smiles on peoples’ faces. I’m excited people get to see that.
That’s awesome. It’s awesome for the WWE fans.
And I’m excited also because you get to see my in-ring journey. I’m not always perfect and I don’t always succeed, but I think that what I want to share with my squad and followers and the people that watch the show is that it is about getting back up. That’s how you succeed in life. It’s not about, “Oh, be perfect.” But it’s like, what do you do when you fall down? That’s what gonna define you and shape your destiny.
Shifting gears a little bit, Ronda Rousey, who has a bit of history with WWE—she was at Mania a couple years ago, she was in the ring with The Rock, Stephanie, and Triple H—came off another loss in UFC. There’s been speculation that maybe she’d want to try to come to WWE, and start a new path there. Is that something you think could be realistic for her?
I mean, if she wants to do it, she’ll definitely have a place in WWE. For sure. We (professional women wrestlers) are where we are because of her. She influenced so much. She main evented UFC. She made women’s fighting a headline. She was one of the big people who changed the game, and Vince is brilliant. Vince is one of the most brilliant businessmen, so he sees the way the world is changing. So I think Ronda’s a huge part of changing the way WWE is now. Of course she always has a place in WWE. She’s an amazing athlete and would bring a huge mainstream draw. Obviously, my bosses love her. I mean, who wouldn’t love her? I would be scared to fight her [Laughs]. I better practice my Holy Holm kicks.
On Twitter, Rusev posted a photo of a really cool Jordan shoe. So I was wondering, is he really into shoes?
Oh my God, yes.
Does he have more shoes than you?
Oh yeah. I mean, he definitely has way more Jordans, Nikes, sneakers than me. So many. And he wears them like one time.
And he used to wrestle barefoot too. For a while, there wasn’t anything on his feet.
Every time there’s a new Jordan that comes out, he gets them. He’s on it. Anytime a new, special sneaker comes out, he’s on it. He’s a simple person. He likes to eat his food, he likes to play his video games, he likes to work out, he likes his cars, and likes his sneakers. And obviously he loves me. That’s about it. He’s a big animal lover too. He came home with a lizard the other day. I’m like, “Why? Why do you have a lizard?” He’s like, “He fell in love with me when he was looking at me.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me?”
Do you have any projects that you’re working on right now?
For sure. Actually I just produced an independent film called Other Versions of You, and I star in it too. Rusev also stars in it. It’s actually his first movie role because he only did a small cameo in Countdown, so this is his first movie role. It’s a sci-fi/comedy, and it’s great. It has to do with alternate universes. I’m the supporting actress. Rusev is actually also one of the executive producers, but it’s the first movie that we’ve executive produced, and I’m really excited. It’s in edit-post, so I definitely want all the fans to be into watching that. I think they’ll really, really like it. It’s great stuff. And Rusev is hysterical in it.
I’m gonna be launching a YouTube channel soon, which will feature me doing makeup (because I’m great at makeup and I do it all the time), hair, and fashion. I love fashion. My YouTube channel will follow things related to me and Rusev and our travels. Basically my everyday life and giving editorials on how I do my makeup on TV, how I do makeup on the shows, my hair, my buns, my braids, my curls, Rusev’s curls, Rusev’s beard. A lot of that will be on there, so you have to follow me on that and also on Instagram. I’m also working on a comic book that eventually will be a series. So I’m in the process of that right now. And Rusev is obviously going to be in it, so I’m really stoked about that. I’m a big comic book fan. And then of course, working towards my first big singles match!