With the Royal Rumble on the horizon, WWE’s emphasis on the women has never been more demonstrable. While there is something to be said for the criticisms of the execution in some aspects, it can’t be denied that in the last two years, the female superstars inside the company have been given a far greater spotlight. They’ve been headlining Raw and SmackDown more regularly, Charlotte defeated Sasha Banks in a women’s Hell in a Cell that closed out the annual pay-per-view, and of course, WWE crowned Carmella as the first ever Ms. Money in the Bank last July.

For Carmella, it’s one more step in a professional evolution that has blossomed as rapidly as the division itself. When putting pen to WWE paper in June 2013, the real-life Leah Van Dale, who grew up a wrestling fan in Spencer, Massachusetts and was a cheerleader for the New England Patriots, was hardly the type signed in with a lot of fanfare stemming from a built-in reputation.

Surprisingly, during the early stages on NXT blossoming into what it’s become today, Carmella emerged from obscurity as a sidekick for Enzo Amore and Big Cass, with her obvious strength of personality shining through and adding an extra layer to the popular act. Even with the Performance Center in Orlando providing a wealth of wisdom to pull from, as with most cases, the natural charisma that helped her stand out early was drawn from within.

“To be honest, I came up with the Carmella character completely on my own,” she tells us. “I will say that I always credit Byron Saxton for helping me sort of spark the Carmella that I am now, back when I first started in NXT. But she’s just somebody that I’ve kind of evolved myself.”

As the moonwalking, trash-talking Princess of Staten Island, Carmella had made the first successful step – finding a spot to call her own amidst a crowded environment filled with hungry, talented performers. It was surely a bitter pill to swallow when Enzo and Cass were called to the main roster without her, but as things fell into place with the 2016 Draft, Carmella was brought to SmackDown Live, her look and character paying off dividends in accelerating her towards the USA Network.

As to be expected, there were some growing pains. Even in NXT, there were traces of underlying resentment with Carmella being attached to the already popular duo, and on SmackDown the brash, cocky, divisive attitude made for a tough time trying to get over.

With personalities and people being shuffled as SmackDown Live began to take shape, Carmella was given the golden ticket, the key that would swing the door of opportunity wide-open – she was turned heel. The more annoying, self-important elements of the persona that were difficult to love suddenly fell into place. For this gimmick, it was ultimately clear from day one that being a heel was her true calling.

“I just love the Carmella character. It’s so over the top. It’s so extra,” she offers. “She’s not afraid to be herself and say what’s on her mind, and I think a lot of people can relate to that. I, in my real life, wish I could be like Carmella a little bit more. Being a babyface is fun and everything, but I think everyone prefers what I am now. It’s more fun to be bad.”

SmackDown’s writing has offered her a greater depth of character than Raw’s female Superstars have had a chance to show, and Carmella’s pairing with James Ellsworth immediately brought attention to her viability. At the same time, the WWE began to get more daring with their actions to elevate the women, and the announcement of an all-women’s Money In The Bank match was viewed in many circles as, funnily enough, a major step up. Timing being everything, the call was made to place the briefcase in Carmella’s hands, a perfect choice that harkened back to the previous holders that were able to get the most out of the gimmick, such as Edge and Seth Rollins – the obnoxious heel with a twinge of overmatched cowardice in an even fight, waiting to pounce like a jackal. As big as a moment as it was for her career, the circumstances made it hard to fully absorb.

“I’ll be completely honest, I was scared,” begins Carmella. “My body isn’t made to be thrown on or get hit with ladders. At the time, you know how big it is, but when you look back on it…sometimes I’ll be at home and have the Money In The Bank briefcase on my kitchen table and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I won it’. It’s just unreal.”

Indeed it is. And as Stephanie McMahon took to the ring to announce the first ever Women’s Royal Rumble match on December 18th, surrounded by Raw’s female talent, the unlikely SmackDown star that seemingly came from nowhere was watching on in her hotel room, her mind racing with the possibilities.

“Of course, I would love to see a Trish Stratus or a Lita,” states Carmella, when asked about the tendency for the men’s Rumble to bring back stars from the past. “Anyone from that time I would love, just because you grow up watching them. To be able to potentially share the ring with them would be a dream come true. It would be so cool.”

As well as images of nostalgia flashing before her eyes, Carmella’s voice picks up talking about the chances of crossing paths with Superstars of the future. “I would love to see Peyton Royce and Billie Kay, I think they’re amazing. They’re iconic. I think they’re doing great things down in NXT. Also, Ember Moon, I think she’s a great champion. So I hope to see them in the Rumble.”

It’s a curious, interesting time, as the company takes further self-aware steps to break the male/female boundaries, begging the question of what could possibly be next after giving women their own 30 person Royal Rumble. “The sky is really the limit,” Carmella says with boundless optimism in her voice. “I think that all the women can agree that to main event WrestleMania would be huge. Or to main event one of the big four pay-per-views of the year would be the next step, I would think. But I have no doubt we will main event WrestleMania one day.”

As ambitious as it sounds, it no longer seems as far-fetched as it may have done once upon a time. With all the eyes and all the pressure on this Sunday, it bears repeating that not only is the match itself an indicator of WWE’s dedication to the initiative, but a testament to the personalities involved that the intrigue has followed right behind. And with arguably no bigger personality on SmackDown than Carmella, she’s been every bit as pivotal to the process as the more publicised players, such as Sasha Banks, Bayley and Charlotte. But even in talking to her, she’s keen to project not only her own interests, but that of a division that clearly felt hamstrung for so long.

“It’s real cool to be a part of, it’s just such an exciting time for the women.”