Featuring Leva Bates | By John Silva
From dazzling mic skills and high-quality gear to legendary feuds and annoying smarks, Songs From The Squared Circle explores the similarities between the kindred subcultures of music and pro wrestling…
Leva Bates has a foothold in several different worlds. Most fans probably know her because of her wrestling career—from her WWE NXT run as Blue Pants to her popularity in the indies to, most recently, her signing with All Elite Wrestling—but outside of the ring, she is also heavily involved in the geek community as a cosplayer and a gamer, both of which she incorporates into her wrestling character.
Many wrestlers are fans of video games, from Xavier Woods and his massively popular YouTube channel, UpUpDownDown, to gaming superfan Kenny Omega, whose name and finisher were both inspired by Final Fantasy. There are plenty of similarities between the two forms of entertainment; both are often stigmatized as “childish,” yet, as any wrestling fan or gamer will tell you, both have immeasurable value as thoughtful, complex, and unconventional avenues for storytelling.
Bates also loves K-pop. Wrestling, geek culture, K-pop— these are all things that people on the outside are quick to judge, but if they took a closer look, they would find the value there, and maybe even a new obsession. Bates is an unabashed fan of these unique forms of entertainment, and that comes through in her wrestling. Whether she’s using the latest K-pop hit for her entrance music or wearing—and selling!—Fallout-inspired gear, her passion for pop culture shines just as brightly as that of her fans.
It’s why we love her so much—she’s one of us.
What are your top three favorite bands? Or, if you prefer, what have you been listening to lately?
I’m really bad with favorites, because one minute, something’s my favorite, and then legit, like, 10 minutes later, something else is my favorite [laughs]. Currently, I’m listening to a whole bunch of K-pop. Taemin, the singer from the band SHINee, came out with his new single—and I’ve actually been using [it] a lot for entrance music more recently—called “Want.” That whole album is pretty amazing. ATEEZ is another K-pop band I got big into. I actually just saw them on Wednesday in concert. They are a great new baby band; they just debuted in October, but they performed like they were 10-year vets.
Growing up, I remember, in high school, one of my all-time favorite bands was Smashing Pumpkins. They still have a place in my heart ’cause of that. College, I got more into nerdcore rap. MC Chris was my gateway into MC Frontalot, MC Lars, and all of those guys—and Mega Ran. MC Chris, for the longest time, was my entrance music. I actually had that picked out way before I even started wrestling. As a joke, before you ever knew you would ever wrestle or anything, you’re like, “Oh, if I ever become a wrestler, this is gonna be my entrance music!” Then, a whole several years later, I go into wrestling [laughs].
I’m kind of all over the place when it comes to music, honestly. I’ve seen the Misfits, like, six times—seven times?—but I’ve also seen Backstreet Boys, like, six or seven times.
How did you first start getting into K-Pop?
It was actually [through] a friend of mine. She was like, “This video makes me think of you,” and it was BIGBANG’s “Fantastic Baby.” I was like, “Oh my god! It’s like a Final Fantasy real-life music video!” It had a very “Final Fantasy” feel to it to me, and the outfits were just insane and wonderful! The music was catchy as heck. I was like, “What is this?! I love this!” So, I started looking up BIGBANG, and I discovered some of their other stuff, and from BIGBANG, it just snowballed. They were the rabbit hole I fell down into and have never been able to get back out of since. So, from BIGBANG, I discovered BTS and EXO, and, again, it just ended up becoming a huge snowball.
You mentioned you like the outfits—is the pageantry of K-pop something you’re drawn to? ’Cause that’s a big thing in wrestling, too.
Yeah! I love the fashion of it. Especially, like, the “Fantastic Baby” is a little more out-there fashion. It was like a sub-futuristic video game feel. So, of course that definitely got my attention. Their look, their style, definitely appeals to me. I don’t really know what the category is, ’cause the stuff that EXO would wear is completely different than something that BIGBANG would wear, but I love them both. Or like the crazy suits that BTS wore on “IDOL”—that’s cool! I don’t think I would ever wear that myself, but I love it. It’s so bright and colorful and just over-the-top at times. That’s one thing I really like about Taemin; his newest video—I’ve done two of those outfits now, ’cause I love it so much. It’s so chic and fashionable; it kind of makes me feel like a superstar. So, I guess that fashion, I kind of incorporated it into my own wrestling attire.
I usually ask if there is any music you’ve discovered because of wrestling, but since you’re also involved in the geek community, I’d like to broaden that question and ask if there’s any music you’ve discovered because of wrestling or video games?
Well, obviously, chiptunes stuff [laughs]. ’Cause that’s made out of video games. I discovered chiptunes via nerdcore music and style, so I thought that was really cool.
To give you an example, I interviewed EFFY for this column last month. He said he has discovered music when carpooling with other wrestlers, passing the aux cord around and stuff like that.
Aerial Monroe was the one who—like, we’ve been friends, but we really got close because of BIGBANG. She was the one who actually discovered BTS before I did, and she was like, “Girl! You gotta check this band out!” Another artist and song that I ended up learning more about [through Aerial Monroe] was L. That was her entrance music for a long time.
You know what’s funny, though? I’ve been that person to other people. I’m the one who got Adam Mayhem into the crazy rabbit hole of K-pop, ’cause he booked me last summer, and I was playing K-pop in the car, and he was like, “What is this?” I was like, “It’s K-pop!” and he was like, “Ah, OK, whatever.” Then, we went to a Korean taco fusion restaurant, and they had K-pop playing on the screen; I think it was Twice that popped up? I’m not sure if I was the one who really got him into it, but he was like, “What is this?! Who is that?!” From there, he discovered Twice and fell down a rabbit hole to the point that he now lives in Korea [laughs]. We even went to KCON together. I got him big into K-pop.
There’s kind of a stigma about wrestling, and it seems like there’s also kind of a stigma about K-pop. Is it similar in that way?
I can see the correlation between both, definitely. A lot of people are like, “Ugh, it’s just poppy. It’s probably cheesy.” They probably don’t look at the K-pop itself, they just see the generalization of Asian pop, and some of it is not the best-produced stuff, but when you actually turn it on and watch it, it’s like, “Wow, that music seems amazing!” or “Holy crap, that choreography’s insane!” or “That’s a really catchy song!” Then, you’re like, “Oh, wow, I’m actually kind of into it.” Especially in the western culture, we’re kind of like, “What is this?” especially because of—and I love him, because he’s the one who brought it over, but Psy. They just assume that’s all K-pop. I mean, it is and it isn’t.
It’s kind of the same thing with wrestling. They see one thing, maybe the hokey, over-the-top characters like “[growls] I’m gonna get you, brother!” and, like, that’s what everyone thinks all wrestling is. [Then], you actually watch it and see what it is nowadays, where there’s so many different flavors and styles and the highs and the lows, and it’s like, “Wow, there’s so many more layers than you would ever expect in pro wrestling.” [It’s] the same thing with K-pop.
Something the nerd, wrestling, and music communities have in common is we’re unabashed fans of the things we love. We wear merch that broadcasts the things we’re into, stuff like that. Can you speak a little bit to fandoms and the similarities between music fans and fans of other areas of pop culture?
Any superfans are nuts! I use the word “nuts” in the best way. You’ve got the wrestling fans who are kind of like—and again, without them, there wouldn’t be me, but sometimes, that’s all they talk about. Wrestling, wrestling, wrestling, wrestling. It’s like, “You guys know there’s other stuff besides wrestling?” [It’s the] same thing with the K-pop people, too. Then, you get the people who are so protective, and so, like, “No, this is the only band ever.” They get super like, “Oh, you can only like this band.” That happens in wrestling, too, where it’s like, “No, I can’t like her. She sucks, ’cause she’s wrestling my favorite person.” It’s OK to like both!
My thing is, everyone is like, “What band do you stan?” I stan them all! I love them all. I don’t know how you could choose one. Same with wrestling. But that’s like I was saying in the beginning: It’s hard for me to have a favorite anything. I’ve been like that my entire life. I love all things!
What are some of the ways that the DIY ethic exists in the world of pro wrestling?
All of pro wrestling is do-it-yourself. Unless you are working for the “Big Big Company,” you create you. Everything is do-it-yourself in wrestling, from the promoters who create their own shows—they’re the ones who are like, “This is the show I want.” Like FEST for instance, that’s all [The FEST founder] Tony [Weinbender]. Tony was like, “I’m going to bring wrestling into The FEST,” and then from there, he was like, “You know what? Let’s make this a thing.” It has its own style, its own voice, its own image, and that’s all Tony.
Same thing with pro wrestlers. Look at EFFY; everything EFFY is, that’s him. No one made him that. No one said, “This is what you have to do.” Same thing with me. When I first got into wrestling—I came from an acting background and came from regular jobs where you show up and here’s what you’re supposed to do. Even in acting, you get your script, you’re this character, “I’m the director. I’m going to tell you how to do this,” whereas wrestling, it’s so freeform.
So, you have complete control over your character.
Exactly! You have control over your character, control over your move set, control over your business, your merch, control over your publicity—everything is yourself unless you get to that level where you can hire people to do it for you, and I don’t know if I’m ever gonna get to that level [laughs]. So, you really are doing everything. When I talk about hustling, that’s ’cause I have to do everything myself. I make the costumes myself. Sure, I could buy the costume; I could do that too, and I’ve done that a couple times. But I’m the one who’s like, “I wanna do this outfit.”
It’s exhausting, ’cause sometimes, you don’t have someone like a bigger company—or even an actor who has a manager, has a promoter, has an agent getting them jobs. I think a few wrestlers have an agent, but that’s very rare. Most of the time, promoters just try to talk to you themselves. It’s very much like, “I’m the one who’s doing this business with these people,” and all of that.
I was talking to Mega Ran one time. We were talking about how the music industry and pro wrestling life, especially the tour life for the music industry, is so similar to each other. Like, it’s uncanny. How you live and how you go from day to day and how you get to the venue and the hustle and the exhaustion and the way it’s set up—I couldn’t get over how similar our lifestyles are. Even though they’re different, the life on the road is almost identical at times. Especially at the small events. If you’re, like, Justin Bieber, that’s a whole different level. You’re talking about WWE level there, but the punk rock bands, that lifestyle’s exactly the same: you hop in a bus; you hop in the van; you drive to the next city, you set up; you’re living off of gas station food, fast food, maybe get in the hotel to get a shower…
Do you listen to different music depending on who you’re cosplaying as?
Absolutely! I cosplayed as Taemin, so obviously, I’m playing that over and over. But yeah, it depends on what I’m making, how late it is, what kind of music I need to stay up. Especially with video game-related or movie or TV show characters, if they have a soundtrack, I’ll play that. Or sometimes, if it’s not music, I’ll just play the show or whatever in the background. But a lot of times, yeah, I’ll absolutely do that. If it’s not that, I’ll just have K-pop in the background, especially ’cause it’s like, “OK, it’s 2 in the morning and I can’t go to sleep, so I’m gonna play this, ’cause at least it’s upbeat and peppy.”
If you were going to cosplay as any musician, dead or alive, who would it be?
Well, I’ve done a few already! I’ve done David Bowie; I did a tribute to him right after he passed. I’ve also done Prince. I wanted to do Michael Jackson—now might not be the right time to do that. I’ve done two, or technically, almost three different K-pop bands. One was Tae from BIGBANG. The first time Aerial Monroe and I wrestled, we did a K-pop band also. I’ve done Taemin a couple times. I’ve done a lot of BTS-inspired stuff—not full-blown cosplay but inspired.
People I’d like to do? So many. I wanna do Cher. I don’t know if I can get away with her outfit, but the Cher outfit with the leather jacket. I might have to alter that a little bit, wear something under it or over it, ’cause it’s very sheer and small, but it’s a really cool look. The fact that it’s a leather jacket look, the fact that it’s a whole sheer body outfit, it was a very rocker look. She had big hair going on. It was the coolest shit.
I would love to do Boy George [from] “Karma Chameleon,” because A, that song is so fun, and B, I just think that look is so fun. I’ve done Olivia Newton John. I’d also like to do the Misfits, though I guess Vampiro already did that. I’ve done Peter Kris from KISS, as a group.
I would love to do Gaga. Her  Super Bowl outfit, I thought, looked really cool. She has lots of extravagant outfits—any of those would work really well. I’m surprised I haven’t done any American boy bands yet. I wonder if I could do an 80s version of New Kids [On The Block] or something—get the Joey [McIntyre] hat with the hair hanging out the top.
I’ve done Madonna, but I don’t think I’ve done Madonna for wrestling.