TORONTO — Xandra Bale scowls at the crowd as she pushes through a velvet curtain and struts towards the wrestling ring.
It’s a Sunday afternoon at the Oshawa Curling Club, in a city just outside Toronto, and several dozen wrestling fans have gathered to watch the villainous Bale get knocked from her pedestal.
“I know you guys haven’t seen a girl who looks like me before,” she snarls after snatching the microphone from the announcer.
“But when a hot girl comes out — you’re supposed to cheer for her.”
A smatter of applause seeps from the crowd, but the room clearly sides with her opponent, Jessie Mack, who skips around practically taunting Bale. Within a few moments, they’re clashing in a choreographed bout of combat that rivals their male counterparts.
It’s the only female wrestling match during this small event put on by an independent promoter, but across the industry that’s slowly changing.
Nearly a decade after she started, Bale — whose real name is Alex Davidson — has seen women’s wrestling become legitimized, evolving from hyper-sexualized fantasy fights into serious butt-kicking action that isn’t merely filling an empty slot in the lineup.
Netflix recently hopped on the bandwagon with “GLOW,” a comedy series loosely based on a real-life ragtag group of wrestlers from the 1980s known as the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
And industry behemoth World Wrestling Entertainment plans to make history next week by holding its first all-female event in Orlando, Fla., where 32 women will battle it out.
“There’s never been a better moment to be an independent woman wrestler than today,” says Pat Laprade, the Montreal-based co-author of “Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling.”
“The WWE is signing so many of them.”
It’s a long way from the shimmers of progress led by pop singer Cyndi Lauper back in the 1980s. She joined what was then known as the World Wrestling Federation to play the manager to newcomer Wendi Richter.
Lauper made a point of emphasizing the role of strong women but when Richter publicly urged owner Vince McMahon to expand his ladies division, he stripped her of her title, according to the book “Sex, Lies and Headlocks” by Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham.
In the 1990s, the industry did little to advance women, betting on superstars like the Rock while leaving others such as Canadian-born Trish Stratus with storylines about affairs with their bosses.
Wrestler Tammy Sytch was known for distracting opponents by shaking her cleavage and the WWE’s ”bra and panties matches” sold themselves as a race for women to get their opponents stripped down to their undergarments.
Those moments stick with Jessica McQueen, the 26-year-old Toronto wrestler who portrays Mack in the ring.
Growing up she admired female wrestlers, but eventually found herself disenchanted by matches themed around degrading them.
“Anything in a pool — mud, Jell-O, all that stuff — and I’m like, ‘That’s not what I want to be,’” she remembers.
“They could get away with it then. But as a young girl growing up trying to figure herself out, that wasn’t something I wanted to emulate at all.”
Davidson felt the same years earlier when she couldn’t find a single female role model in wrestling.
When she was younger, her heroes were players on the women’s national hockey team, who were in the midst of their own winning streak.
Now working as a physiotherapist, Davidson tries to keep her love of wrestling separate from her day job, though occasionally the two will collide.
She once accidentally signed a patient’s chart with her “Xandra Bale” autograph before quickly correcting her mistake. When Davidson tells people she’s a wrestler, they often assume she’s chasing Olympic status.
After explaining that her type of wrestling is more for entertainment, she likes to emphasize that the injuries are real.
A few years ago, Davidson broke her ankle during a match gone awry and, in what was supposed to be her triumphant return after weeks of healing, she snapped her wrist.
“You definitely get bumps and bruises,” she says.
Netflix’s “GLOW” captures some of the grit that comes with this type of fighting, but what the show hasn’t explored yet is what happens when wrestlers pass their prime.
It’s a question that lingers in the back of Davidson’s mind. She’s now 32 and knows that putting her body through relentless trauma could mean she’s pushing her luck.
“I always said I was going to retire when I was 30,” she says.
“Now that I’ve hit 32 the new endgame is: we’ll see how long my body can hold up for. I’m starting to notice a little wear and tear, for sure, but I still feel like I’ve got some good years left in me.”
Davidson says she isn’t holding out for a full-time professional wrestling career, but she also doesn’t want to retire with regrets.
Getting a big pro-wrestling contract is the ultimate goal for McQueen, whose character lost against Bale in Oshawa.
But it didn’t matter for a little girl who approached her after the defeat and asked for an autograph.
“I think what a lot of young girls are looking for right now is somebody to look up to,” she says.
“To emulate the power they have.”