When did Diva become a dirty word? The Bella Twins – former champions, reality stars, entrepreneurs, executive producers, podcasters, authors, and soon-to-be Hall of Famers – are and always will be Divas through and through.
You know what Beyonce says about Divas. That describes maybe no one better than Nikki and Brie Bella, who built their careers playing and winning the game designed by someone else. They were beloved for it, hated for it, built up and ripped right on down for it. Now that they’re truly recognized for it, let’s take a look at who and what the Bella Twins really were.
2006: Discovering Nicole and Brianna
You can tell it’s the early 2000s by Brie and Nikki’s outfits in their WWE Diva’s Search video – long (real!) hair, and matching cropped camis. The sisters watched back the tape on a recent episode of their YouTube channel. Together, they laugh at their 22-year-old selves answering questions in their “tiny voices.”
Brie – who by all accounts talked Nikki into doing the competition – teases that Nikki would be her assistant. Later, in her flower child gimmick, she flips on that, saying “my sister is a tough ass,” and that she’d have what it takes to be a wrestler. Brie turned out to be right on both accounts.
There was a period where it seemed like she was the star and Nikki the second fiddle, until Nikki built an entire character around rising to the challenges in front of her. What’s evident from the start is the Bellas (or Garcia Twins in this early stage) are a unit. It will define their careers, something they will embrace and try to defy throughout the next decade.
2008: The Bella Twins are Born
Brie Bella debuted on SmackDown, feuding with Victoria and the twins’ behind-the-scenes friend and trainer, Natalya. She would very suspiciously disappear under the ring in the middle of matches to apparently take cat naps and restore her energy levels.
In what is honestly one of the most underrated great reveals, Victoria and Natalya both pulled a Bella out from different sides of the ring. Twin Magic was born, and yes, it’s dumb, and yes, I don’t care. There is something so simplistically delightful about a wrestling angle where twins switch places to gain an advantage.
During the early years, Brie and Nikki found a moderate amount of success by being exactly what WWE was looking for at the time. They were charismatic and beautiful, and they didn’t seem to particularly mind doing whatever was asked of them. Whether it be a storyline where they thought Daniel Bryan was a virgin, valeting celebrities, or posing for photoshoots in any number of ridiculous matching outfits of the early 2000’s, the Bellas were game.
They were good at it, too. I don’t think anyone would call them the greatest wrestlers of a generation, but they could work just fine in the ring and had a definite sense of athleticism. Their mic work was over-the-top, but it was effective.
Above all, they had that intangible type of charisma that made people pay attention one way or another. If the Bellas minded the box that WWE put them in, they did a good job of hiding it. Maybe they did, but ambition won out. Or maybe they didn’t, because they knew something bigger was on the horizon. Either way, they did nothing less than exactly what was asked of them.
There is nothing the wrestling community at large hates more than a company man, much less company women like the Bellas. They were rewarded with a Diva’s Championship run each and a fair amount of press time and limelight.
Not long after returning to WWE from a year off, their payday came, as I suspect they always knew it would. Say what you will about the Bellas’ ability at Trivia, those girls are not dumb. They have business savvy for days, and when Total Divas came around, they didn’t just stumble into the center of it. Nikki and Brie knew how to make themselves stars.
2013: Total Divas Breaks Out
Let’s make a blanket disclaimer: you can’t believe everything you see on TV. We’ll take everything on Total Divas and Total Bellas with a nice heaping of salt. It’s worth noting, however, that while WWE was convinced the Bella Twins were best served as mean girls, Total Divas did not present them as villains. Maybe a little ridiculous or self-absorbed, occasionally gossipy and out of touch, but never malicious.
The success of the show, which quickly became the Bella show, propelled them into the top babyface position. Partially, WWE wants us to root for the people that star in the things they are promoting. For many of us Bella converts, Total Divas showed us their hearts. It showed us how much they cared about the work they were doing, no matter what that was.
Like most reality TV shows, cast members came and went, but the Bellas stayed constant. They are front and center of every season. I don’t really care for the show myself, but it’s impossible to deny the impact of it in pushing WWE into the mainstream pop-culture consciousness.
People tell me all the time that they don’t watch wrestling, but they like Total Divas and keeping up with the Bellas. There are a lot of factors that lead to the evolution of the women’s division in WWE, but let’s give credit where credit is due. WWE needed a push to give the women more air time and attention. Total Divas was a big one.
The Bellas were always a love em or hate em kind of talent, but Total Divas polarized the audience like nothing else. It gave them both a huge following – a Bella Army as it were – and a host of critics. So let’s talk about the Pipe Bomb.
AJ’s Lee’s promo on the Bellas and the rest of the Total Divas cast members has not aged particularly well. Truth is, it was never funny, it was never cute, and it was never okay. AJ is a great wrestler in her own right and important to the development of the division. She also fed into and capitalized on the misogyny in the community. She dug into the notion that the only reason the Bellas had anything was because of John Cena and Daniel Bryan.
I can’t imagine how much it would hurt to be told that your accomplishments actually belong to a man. We’re still treading this same tired ground. A few months ago I wrote about how Ronda Rousey was once again pulling out this argument and how I was just done buying Nikki Bella as the villain of this story.
Both the Bellas, but Nikki in particular, have worked hard at this. They may never have the world’s greatest workrate wrestlers, but there is more than one way to be a great wrestler. When we toss women like the Bellas to the side in favor of “real” athletes, all we’re doing is taking them out of the “Diva” box and putting them into a slightly different box.
2015: Longest Reigning Diva’s Champion
It feels appropriate that since the retirement of the Diva’s Championship in 2016, Nikki Bella will forever be the longest reigning Diva’s Champion. The reign, 301 days in total, cemented her as the centerpiece of the division. Even when she was playing heel, winning through dastardly methods like the good old fashioned Twin Magic, it’s hard not to see how much this meant to her. She put her all into being the champion.
Like the Bellas did their entire careers, whatever was put in front of them, they committed fully. Some of it was great, like Nikki’s feud with Charlotte Flair. Some of it was bad, like the been-there-done-that mean girls routine. And some of it was really bad, like Brie distracting AJ Lee by kissing her (I’m sorry, what?) No matter what, Bellas gonna ball.
2016: Divas Are Done
WrestleMania 31, a night that changed the conversation around women’s wrestling for good. Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch, and Sasha Banks put on a barn burner of a match. The term “Diva” was officially retired, as is the Diva’s Championship. The Bellas were backstage and from what we see on Total Divas, nothing but supportive and excited about the new era of their division. WWE played up this idea that they were the old guards, but Nikki even says her new goal is to be the longest reigning Women’s Champion. What ends up being clear is that there is less and less of a spot for the Bellas now.
Brie retires and has her first baby while Nikki sticks around and becomes the subject of the community’s ire. She’s positioned differently now, as a sort of gatekeeper for others to prove themselves against. In the first Women’s Royal Rumble, she comes in second but ultimately does not win. The same is true of the first Women’s Money in the Bank, where she did well, but not well enough to capture the briefcase.
Against Ronda Rousey, she puts up a good fight but doesn’t get the job done. In fact, Nikki has never held that title or any title since losing the Diva’s Championship. So how is she spoiled with opportunities? How is she failing to get out of the way of the talent of the future? Nikki Bella still is and will always be a draw. That’s why they put her in big matches like Evolution’s main event. She’s earned it.
People often forget that the Bellas were in the match that started the #GiveDivasAChance movement. Maybe the Bellas were and are “divas,” maybe they don’t mind using their model good looks, and maybe they don’t mind Jerry Springer segments. Do we actually believe that they liked getting cut from WrestleMania 29 minutes before the show? I sincerely doubt it. They endured that time just like everyone else.
The Bellas are bashed for fitting that particular box, but there’s nothing wrong with being a Diva. Our community needs to stop separating out “good” women from the “bad” ones. A woman should be exactly who she wants to be, not who we think she should be.
2020: What’s the Future of the Bella Brand?
Between their clothing line, wine label, and beauty company, not to mention their media arm including Total Bellas, a podcast and YouTube channel, the Bellas are not taking retirement lightly. It’s become increasingly clear in the past couple of years how savvy they truly are when it comes to business. They’ve built their brand into nothing short of an empire.
This week they revealed their memoir “Incomparable.” Nikki describes the book as “how we became the heroes of our own story.” That’s what it comes down to with the Bellas, they were always positioned as the princesses in the high castle.
On more than one occasion they were literally cast as the damsels in distress in storylines. We bought into that idea so much that it became easy to dismiss their own talents and assume that they needed someone to do everything for them. Not anymore. They’ve proven that what they have belongs to them and them alone. If that’s not inspiring and empowering, I don’t know what is.
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Writing our memoir with @eliseloehnen has been a project in the making for over two years. Elise didn’t realize (or may have lol) that it was very deep therapy sessions fro @thebriebella and I. She help bring out so much pain and victory that we held deep down and never knew how to express it. In this memoir we share stories that we never have told before and how we became the heroes of our own stories. This book is very deep, honest, funny and loving. Pre order it today! Click link in bio. Can’t wait for you all to read it! And a huge thank you to @simonandschuster for the faith in my sister and I as well as Jennifer Joel and her team at ICM, thank you for your motivation to tell our story so we can inspire others and help others become heroes of their own stories too! ❤️ #incomparable
This is why it’s important that someone of the new generation of women’s wrestling inducts them into the Hall of Fame. Sure, you could have Daniel Bryan do it and it would be cute. Or you could have their former trainer and great friend in Natalya.
The answer, however, is clear to me: It’s Paige. Paige, is the perfect person to put this all into perspective. Her and the Bellas couldn’t be more different, but we have room, in the WWE and the world, for both. After all, she may be the “Anti-Diva,” but the Bellas are proof that Diva isn’t a dirty word.