AEW Exclusive Interview: Brandi Rhodes talks inclusivity in professional wrestling

AEW Exclusive Interview: Brandi Rhodes
AEW’s Brandi Rhodes. Pic credit: Tom Donoghue/AEW

Brandi Rhodes is the wife of former WWE superstar Cody Rhodes and was a huge part of bringing All Elite Wrestling (AEW) to life as its Chief Branding Officer.

Brandi is much more than just the wife of a professional wrestler.

Before she debuted in WWE as a talent in 2011, Brandi graduated from the University of Michigan and then moved on to the University of Miami, where she graduated with a Master’s degree in broadcast journalism.

Brandi worked as both a model and as a journalist when WWE invited her to try out and she began training at Florida Championship Wrestling, which later became NXT.

In 2019, All Elite Wrestling began operations and Brandi took her experience in the industry to start to build AEW into something different and special.

Brandi Rhodes took the time to talk to Monsters & Critics about her work with making AEW more accessible to special needs kids and adults who have been unable to enjoy professional wrestling events in the past, as well as her intense work to make AEW a more inclusive wrestling promotion inside the ring as well.

Monsters & Critics: One of the topics I wanted to really focus on was the sensory inclusive experience at the AEW events that you guys are doing with KultureCity. Could you tell me a little bit about how you originally partnered up with him and how you guys found each other?

Brandi Rhodes: It was actually a pretty easy link up with the KultureCity crew. Julian Maha, who’s their founder, is a very big wrestling fan. So when he got wind of this new organization and kind of what our core values are with inclusivity and diversity, he thought ‘what a great thing this would be if we could partner together and actually be fully inclusive.’

A lot of times when you think about being inclusive, you don’t think about those in those invisible illnesses that a lot of people have like autism, PTSD, people who had strokes and have trouble with lights.

So, he made the first reach out. It was fantastic and gave me his whole pitch. And I was sold on it from the very beginning. So he really didn’t have to pitch too hard. But it’s definitely something that’s been a need in wrestling for a long time. So I’m glad we’re able to bring it to our audience, finally

M&C: It means a lot to me because my son is on the spectrum. And I took him to a WWE house show and it was like a roller coaster for him. He’d be cheering, and then he’d be in tears. He was overloaded and had a lot of trouble. I thought I’d never be able to take him back to another wrestling show again. Now I hear you guys are doing this. And it kind of excites me because he loves wrestling. When you guys come to the area, what can I expect? What does this provide for him?

Rhodes: Well, it really depends on which show you’re going to and in which arena. Right now we’re working with KultureCity to see how we can make every single arena inclusive and have some sort of room available to people, ideally.

In a lot of the arenas that they’re set up with, they have what is called sensory rooms. They purchased these rooms, they’re set up, they’re noise canceled. They’re already set up with all the items that they need in there for people to be able to go in there for a bit of a retreat to get away from all the action and kind of just have that moment to decompress and then go back out.

But the reality of it is there aren’t that many of those in arenas already. So what KultureCity is working to do right now, and we’re helping them as much as we can, is get into as many arenas as possible.

However, a lot of times these places need to see it in action first before they’re willing to sign up, and, you know, put their name behind it. So what we’re offering a lot of times are travel sensory rooms. KultureCity has a mobile unit that makes it to as many events as they can. And as you can imagine, there’s a lot of demand for concerts and sporting events and different things, so that that mobile unit keeps itself moving pretty quickly.

We were lucky to have it in Jacksonville for our Fight for the Fallen event. But aside from that, we’re looking to kind of put pop-ups in different arenas where they provide a room for us. And then we decorate it how a sensory room would be decorated normally, and it kind of serves in that way.

The other option is a lot of arenas have what they just call sensory bags that you can check out from the gift services area of any arena. And those bags provide you with the noise-canceling headphones, the fidget tools, the cards that allow people who are non-verbal to express how they’re feeling.

Those are more readily available in a lot of arenas, but still not in every arena. So we’re trying to, you know, get the word out, spread the word. And through our event, we’re hoping that doing a lot of these pop-ups will encourage a lot of these arenas to fully sign on and want to do a sensory room.

So you can expect any number of things from any of these. I always tell people now that are looking forward to events, and wanting to go to the events in their area, call your arena. Ask them, hey, do you have anything in place for sensory inclusivity, and if you don’t, the more people that are talking about it these days, the better, because that’s really opening their eyes to these situations and how many people really need this.

That’s just helping us with KultureCity in these pitches. So the more you talk about it, the more you let your local arenas know that this is a need, the easier it is for everyone to get this working.

M&C: The biggest thing about AEW is the inclusivity. Whether it’s wrestlers like Nyla Rose or Sonny Kiss — traditionally different people are shown as caricatures and gimmicks. AEW seems to just say, this is who this person is. How important was that for you guys to say these people are not gimmicks — this is just who they are.

Rhodes: I think that’s been a lot of our core in acquiring talent is that if we acquired a talent because we liked them, why on earth would we want to change who they are once we get them? Talents are allowed to be authentically who they are.

So, in the case of someone like Sonny Kiss — Sonny is Sonny a thousand percent. There’s no influence from any of our creative team for Sonny to act any sort of way or do any certain moves. That’s just authentically who he is and what he wants to do.

And we like that. So we wouldn’t want to change that. And I think it makes our talent feel very much at home. It also allows them to feel like they can be creative and try different things and do different things for themselves.

And a lot of times if you’re the creator, you’re going to feel it the most, and the fans are going to notice that passion.

M&C: There is a history of racism and prejudice built into the history of wrestling. Do you see that changing with the work you guys are doing now? Do you see fans are changing and becoming more open and less closed-minded?

Rhodes: I mean, I would hope so. It certainly would be nice to say, hey, I had a hand in helping somebody change their opinions, and they’re changing their minds. But, at the end of the day, I think it’s just that the wrestling fanbase has just become very diverse. And they’re showing up a lot more.

Some folks may have been reluctant to go to events maybe five or 10 years ago, and now they’re feeling like they can go to these events because the wrestling fanbase is not the typical target that you would think. It’s very diverse.

There are a lot more women watching wrestling these days. There are kids watching. There are people in their 50s. Ther are teenagers. There’s a multiracial audience.

So, I think that people are just starting to show up more and enjoy themselves publicly more in watching wrestling.

M&C: Speaking of women watching more, talk about the women’s division with Riho as champion and the women of AEW stepping up to the challenge.

Rhodes: Well, the great thing about the women’s division is a lot of our talent is pretty new to the scene. So that allows the audience to be there on the ground level with them and kind of watch them grow up on the screen, so to say,

So, they really kind of have it to their advantage that there’s not an already pre-attached expectation to them. So people like Riho and Nyla going out there having that fantastic match, it really shocked people because they didn’t know what to expect from them. And it was just a really heartfelt fantastic showing.

In the interim, yeah, of course, we’re always keeping our eyes open for new talent and there may be some new talent coming to TV, you know, that you may not have seen. But it’s really important for us to focus on the people that we do have that we’ve had from the very beginning.

Like I said, the audience isn’t as familiar with some of our female wrestlers as they are with some of the male wrestlers. So this is really their time to shine. They’re time to get in front of that crowd and tell them who they are, show them what they’re about and start to cultivate their fan bases.

M&C: Finally, when I come to an event with my family, what can we expect at an AEW show compared to shows up in the past with WWE and promotions like that?

Rhodes: Man, it’s just nonstop action all night. Everything pretty much happens inside that arena. So there aren’t these long pauses where we go to the back and you’re not sure what’s happening.

When Tony Schiovanni does an interview, he does it right there in the ring. It’s right there in the center. You can hear everything, you can see all the action, and it’s really kind of just a really fast-paced SportsCenter event. I think a lot of people are going to start being happy to be a part of it because the energy in the arena is so infectious, people are on their feet the entire time.

They’re thrilled from the very first match to the very last match. And you’ll notice a lot of people stick around because they want to see that very last match — they don’t want to beat the traffic.

So it’s just a really fun kind of family event. So I really do hope that you get a chance to, you know, come with your wife and your son, and just experience it all for yourself.

AEW Dynamite airs every Wednesday night at 8/7c on TNT. For tickets to an event that is coming close to you, visit AEWTIX.COM.

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