Olivia Rodrigo is a professional wrestler

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Professional wrestling is a fake sport, but god is it fun to watch. I was never into WWE as a kid, but recently I sank an absurd number of hours listening to a podcast about the history of professional wrestling, and it's just so damn compelling.

Modern professional wrestling can be largely credited to a single man, Vince McMahon. The name may not mean anything to you, but you almost certainly would recognize him (he's the guy smelling money in that gif you've seen).

Before getting into wrestling, let's define some terms; "Kayfabe" is the practice of acting like the staged in-ring matches are legitimate competition. Part of this requires that the wrestlers, promoters, and referees refuse to break character. In wrestling, a character who is meant to be liked by the audience is a "face" (short for "babyface"), and a character we're meant to hate is a "heel." When a heel becomes a face (or vice-versa), it's called a "turn." Upholding Kayfabe was key to the industry for decades.

The WWE was founded in 1953 as the Capitol Wrestling Corporation by Vincent J. McMahon, father to the Vince we know. When the junior Vince bought the company from his father in 1982, he had a single vision — to dominate the pro-wrestling industry. Through the mid 20th century, there had been many regional groups overseen by a governing body known as the National Wrestling Association, but in 1983, Vince began his path to dominance by splitting off from the NWA.

Through slow and ruthless acquisitions, the WWF (which, in 2002, changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment due to legal action by the World Wildlife Fund) became the premier pro-wrestling organization in the country. Today, WWE is synonymous with the genre.

But to achieve this national dominance, Vince made a decision that fundamentally changed professional wrestling. Through a concerted legal effort by Vince McMahon, his wife Linda, and their legal team (led by, of all people, a young Rick Santorum), the McMahons lobbied state governments to classify pro-wrestling as "sports entertainment," rather than sports. The reason is that "sports" (i.e, an unscripted match with legitimate competition) has to abide by a bunch of annoying health and safety requirements, which eat into the profits that could instead go into the pockets of Vince McMahon's absurdly large suit coat. In 1989, the two testified under oath before the New Jersey state legislature that professional wrestling was scripted, and that no legitimate competition took place — it was the first time in history that a wrestling promoter had ever officially broken Kayfabe.

This led to a new era, dominated by a new practice sometimes called "neokayfabe." Vince's WWE began to create storylines that mirrored reality a little too closely. Gone were the days of pure fiction character portrayals, when an Italian-american actor could play an indigenous wrestling character. When everybody gets that it's fake, how do you keep it interesting?

The answer is, make the line between kayfabe and reality blurry by injecting real drama into the scripted matches. The characters shouldn't be completely fictitious, they should be exaggerations of their performers.

Vince often played the in-ring character of "Mr. McMahon" while also being the legitimate, actual CEO of WWE (which, I reluctantly give him props for because I can't think of another CEO who actually takes part in the labor that makes their business profitable). Mr. Mahon was a ruthless capitalist, hated by his employees and the ultimate heel. But this was also true of the real Vince, who mercilessly broke the kneecaps of smaller wrestling companies to take over the national market.

There's one plotline in the McMahon era that I think is particularly revealing. After one of the matches during Raw 1997, Mr. McMahon attempted to conduct a post-match interview with Bret "the Hitman" Hart, one of the more popular faces in the WWF at the time. In a fit of adrenaline-fueled rage, the Hitman grabs the mic, shoves his boss to the ground, and goes on a tirade about how the corrupt WWF management is colluding to prevent him from remaining champion. Later that year, in a scandal so great that it got its own nickname, Hart lost a wrestling match and his championship title because Vince McMahon swung a match in favor of Shawn Michaels, Hart's in-ring opponent (and actual real-life enemy). The match was originally supposed to be a draw, but Vince instructed the referee to call it for Michaels without telling Hart. Life imitates art imitates life.

To change the subject (but not really), I was thinking about "Vampire" by Olivia Rodrigo recently. I wondered, who is it about? I assumed the blood-sucking villain of that song was some ex of hers — lord knows there are plenty of predatory men in the music industry it could be about. But some theorize it's actually about Taylor Swift, referring to Swift's accusation Olivia stole the opening melody of "New Year's Day" in her song "1 step forward, 3 steps back" (which resulted in Swift receiving co-credits on the song, and which many have speculated SOUR-ed relations between the two). Olivia never confirmed who it was about, and her only statement on the question was an ironically delivered TikTok comment. If it's not about Swift, she certainly doesn't seem eager to dismiss that rumor.

The line is incredibly blurry between Olivia Rodrigo, the person, the pop star, and the actress. Joshua Bassett was, briefly, Rodrigo's actual boyfriend and also the actor for Ricky Bowen, the on-screen love interest of Olivia Rodrigo's character, Nini Salazar-Roberts, in the show "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" (god help me). Allegedly, during a climactic monologue in which Ricky confesses his love to Nini, we are watching Joshua improvise and deliver a legitimate monologue to his actual real-life girlfriend, Olivia. It's almost too perfect to be true. It's eerily reminiscent of Bret Hart's potentially legitimate monologue about the WWF two decades earlier. It's almost enough to make you wonder how much of SOUR is about real things done by Bassett and how much was played-up by her producers and managers?

A cynic might say that it's all fake and that Rodrigo is an industry plant; someone who buys into the lore might believe it all. I have enough faith in people to believe that it's not totally fake (partly because I don't want to be yet another man who dismisses a woman's story of being mistreated), but I also think that some of the lore is just too well-made for the algorithms. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Olivia Rodrigo, the human being, is playing an elaborate Kayfabe act where she is simultaneously writing real songs about real experiences, while also making things a touch more interesting for the cameras. It doesn't make her music or stories "fake" per se, but it's certainly a few shades different than reality.

The same honestly goes for any other pop star who makes music about their supposedly "real" life. There is always a distinction between someone's true self and their stage persona, and our ability to know so much about the lives of celebrities puts them in a weird, Kayfabe-adjacent position where things are partly real and fiction at the same time.