In 2015, WWE underwent a dramatic overhaul when it came to women’s wrestling. Sparked by a 30-second match on an episode of “Monday Night Raw,” the #GiveDivasAChance movement took over social media and with it the “Women’s Evolution” began.
In the months and years that followed, female stars have had their fair share of historic firsts: WrestleMania main events, Royal Rumbles, ladder matches, championships, etc.
While the “Women’s Evolution” has been heralded for its trailblazing moments, another groundbreaking moment somewhat unknowingly took place four years ago, when WWE executive vice president of talent, live events and creative, Paul “Triple H” Levesque, asked Daria Berenato a question on “Tough Enough.”
“When that organic moment played out on television where Triple H asked if I was in a relationship, I literally didn’t know what to say, I wasn’t prepared for it,” Berenato told Yahoo Sports.
“At that point in my life sometimes when people would ask me if I had a boyfriend, I would just say ‘oh, no,’ but never say that I had a girlfriend. I wasn’t that comfortable with talking about it at that point. I couldn’t lie on national television and I couldn’t face my girlfriend and say ‘Oh, I lied about you and pretended like I didn’t have a significant other,’ so I was just honest.”
Berenato’s answer, “I have a girlfriend, but she’s not my wife yet,” marked the second time the then 21-year-old came out and served as the first step in her becoming the first openly gay female performer in WWE.
“What was interesting about coming out to my family and friends is that prior to ‘Tough Enough,’ it was never ‘I’m gay,’ it was more casual and subtle,” Berenato said. “With my mom it was ‘Oh, mom, you know the girl who has been sitting in your house for the past year, she’s actually my girlfriend.’ My mom was just like ‘Oh, ok, that’s fine.’ I never verbalized it, I never vocalized it in my life really until ‘Tough Enough.’”
Despite not winning her season of the WWE reality competition, Berenato signed later in 2015 with NXT, the company’s developmental brand, and now, four years after enduring a moment she describes as “super awkward and cringeworthy,” her Sonya Deville character is one of the rising stars on “SmackDown Live” and a powerful voice in the LGBTQ community.
“It obviously wasn’t planned, but I’m honored and privileged to be given the opportunity to be that person and voice,” Berenato said. “It has given me a whole new inspiration for my job and what I do here in WWE. Obviously wrestling and my in-ring work were my original focus and where my heart was at, but now I have this whole other passion and desire to do something else with this company and that is to change the world and change public perception on the LGBTQ community as a whole.”
In many ways, Berenato faces a more difficult challenge than other WWE stars. While the men and women in WWE identify as role models for many different communities and use their platforms to support causes, Berenato faces the added pressure of championing the often under-represented LGBTQ community, among which many of whom are struggling with their own sexual identities.
“I [still] don’t think of myself as a role model, but obviously being in the business that I’m in and having the platform that I’m blessed to have, guys and girls do look up to us,” Berenato said. “I do feel pressure, but I put it on myself because I want to represent the LGBTQ community in a place where they’ve never really been represented that much, being the WWE and professional wrestling in general. I take that personal responsibility to be the voice for them because I remember being the kid that didn’t have a voice or platform to speak.”
While Berenato is the first openly gay female wrestler in WWE, she is not the first openly gay performer in WWE. In 2013, Fred Rosser, known as Darren Young at the time, came out in an interview with TMZ. Shortly after coming out, WWE released a statement in support of Rosser and he continued to play an integral part on WWE programming and in their anti-bullying initiatives.
Decades before Rosser and Berenato, WWE Hall of Famer Pat Patterson came out, but his sexuality was not publicly acknowledged until 2014. Chris Kanyon, who wrestled with WCW and WWE during the 1990s and 2000s acknowledged his struggles as a closeted gay man in a book that was released after his death in 2010.
During her time in WWE, Berenato has partnered with GLAAD and has attempted to further incorporate LGBTQ themes into several aspects of her job. She says she has encountered nothing but positivity in these efforts.
“Everyone from the locker room to the staff to the producers to the writers, they are all super supportive,” Berenato said. “We did something super cool for Pride the other day and I was told to ask whoever I thought was an ally and rally them to participate in this event and not one person said no. It’s a super supportive environment, and I know it wasn’t always this way. I’m super excited to see the progress, support and positivity, because it’s contagious. I want to be that kind of light in my profession and locker room.”
Happy Pride everyone! Tonight I will be attending @glaad concert for Love and Acceptance in Nashville for the second year in a row! It so important for me to stand up for what I believe in and to spread the message of love and acceptance as far and wide as I possibly can! pic.twitter.com/FUCGBqUv5c
— Daria Berenato (@SonyaDevilleWWE) June 6, 2019
Although Berenato’s sexuality hasn’t been directly referenced or mentioned, her Sonya Deville character has represented the LGBTQ community on WWE programming, including on its biggest stage.
“It was going to be hard for me to top WrestleMania 34 [when I wore the white and rainbow gear], but I always want to represent because it’s the biggest stage we have, it’s our Super Bowl. It was really important for me to use that platform to represent my community and that I’m proud, they should be too. For those still at home hiding and those living their secrets, that it’s OK to be who you are, no matter who that is.”
This year, Berenato decided to go with something a little more subtle.
“I decided to go with the rainbow shoelaces this year and the hankey in my back pocket because I was in the midst of a character wardrobe change,” Berenato said. “I went from the Muay Thai, MMA skirt and top to ripped jeans and my boots and that kind of look. I’m transitioning as a character and evolving in my real life, so I thought it was an evolution of Sonya Deville.”
‘I don’t want it to be Sonya Deville, the gay wrestler.’
Since WrestleMania, Deville has been involved in one of the more intriguing storylines on “SmackDown Live.”
Deville and Mandy Rose (real name Amanda Saccomanno) initially met on “Tough Enough” and have been together for the entirety of their WWE careers. The pair has teamed together since initially being called up to the main roster in 2017. Most recently though, the duo have been part of an ongoing “will they or won’t they” breakup angle.
Deville’s defining moment of 2019 so far came last month at the “Money in the Bank” pay-per-view event when she carried Rose up a ladder, nearly securing a championship opportunity for her “Fire and Desire” teammate.
— WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) May 19, 2019
“I was incredibly excited going into that night and having that moment,” Berenato said. “Mandy and I have been through it all over the past four years. She’s my best friend, she’s like my sister. You see a lot of short-lived friendships in this industry — inside and outside of the ring. Me and Mandy, we really represent a true friendship on both fronts.”
During a match that featured several major spots, Deville was able to have arguably the biggest — and most well-received — one of all.
“It was cool for us to show it to the fans,” Berenato said. “I was shocked by the reaction, everyone was super hyped up for that moment and we got crazy feedback. It was art imitating life moment. I would do anything for her and vice versa, it was really cool.”
Outside of WWE, Berenato and Rose, host a YouTube series where they eat and review doughnuts while traveling. The series “#DAMANDYZDONUTZ,” has garnered nearly 400,000 views in 10 months and opened the world up to a side of Berenato and Saccomanno that isn’t seen on WWE programming.
“Mandy and I, to be honest ... we’re savages,” Berenato said. “Balance is our motto. We train hard so we can eat big and that’s always been our lifestyle. It’s so fun for us because it’s a way for us to relate to an all-new fan base. We had people come to our signings at WrestleMania who knew us for the doughnuts and not for our wrestling. People love the doughnuts.”
Berenato won’t ever stop leading the charge for the LGBTQ community — just last week she was part of GLAAD’s Concert for Love and Acceptance in Nashville, Tennessee — but getting these bigger and better opportunities in WWE and running a popular YouTube channel are helping to prevent her from being boxed in and pigeonholed as a professional wrestler.
“It’s important to not have my sexuality define me. I don’t want it to be Sonya Deville, the gay wrestler. I want it to be Sonya Deville, the awesome performer who happens to be gay.”
More from Yahoo Sports: