No dream has ever been too big for Brandi Rhodes. Long before becoming a wrestler and top executive at All Elite Wrestling (AEW), she was a figure skater as a child. For 17 years, she had her eyes set on reaching the pinnacle of that sport.
“What I imagined back then was that I would be the first black female figure skater to win the gold medal at the Olympics, so I had high hopes for being a ‘first,’ for sure,” Rhodes said. “I definitely ended up in a different direction.”
Rhodes hung up her ice skates while a sophomore in college to focus on academics and a future broadcasting career. But it was when she laced up a pair of wrestling boots during a tryout a few years later that she found the history she was chasing.
Rhodes became the first black woman to be a ring announcer at WrestleMania in 2015. She became the first woman of color to appear in a match at Wrestle Kingdom, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s WrestleMania equivalent, in 2018. And in January, when AEW launched, she became the first African American woman to hold an executive position in a North American wrestling promotion.
“It’s great because I’ve had a lot of big ‘firsts’ in wrestling,” she said, “and I don’t think a lot of people know that until you have to be the one where you have to let them know.”
Rhodes’ drive to break barriers came from her early days of competition. Her parents explained to her that she would be judged differently on the ice rink because of the color of her skin. Her errors would be magnified. Her “great” would be considered “good.” They told her she had to work harder than everyone else.
She carried those lessons over to her wrestling career, although now it’s not only the color of her skin that makes people judge her differently.
“That was a hard, hard lesson to tell an 8-year-old girl,” Rhodes said. “But now, here, as a 35-year-old woman and still making my way as an in-ring performer, it’s something that I hear all the time in my head because it’s not because I’m black that I have to work harder than everyone else.
“It’s because my last name is Rhodes that I have to work harder than everyone else.”
The name Rhodes is royalty in the world of pro wrestling. “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes retired in 2010 after a Hall of Fame career that spanned 43 years. He then worked backstage in WWE’s developmental territory NXT in Orlando, Florida. He would teach promo classes and write and produce weekly shows, all the while pushing newcomers to be better. Dusty Rhodes would often come home and recap his day with his youngest son, Cody, who was enjoying his own flourishing career in WWE. He was particularly excited about a new female performer who had these enchanting green eyes.
“He thought, ‘You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna do these vignettes where we just focus on her eyes, and it’s like her eyes do the talking,’ ” Cody Rhodes remembered. “And I didn’t know at the time that he was talking about my future wife.”
A common misconception about Brandi Rhodes is that she’s involved in wrestling because of her husband, Cody, but the truth is wrestling brought them together. In 2011, while she was working as a model in South Beach after completing her master’s degree at the University of Miami, the WWE invited her to a tryout. She signed a developmental deal in March of that year, and she married Cody Rhodes in September 2013.
Cody Rhodes said his wife is the type of strong-willed woman his father wanted in his son’s life. At the 2015 WWE Hall of Fame ceremony, Dusty Rhodes didn’t want to appear on camera because his health was declining. Brandi Rhodes encouraged her father-in-law to do a red carpet interview with WWE superfan Maria Menounos, and she stood by him while Menounos showed off her spot-on impression of Dusty Rhodes.
“[Brandi] brought that moment to him,” Cody Rhodes said. “It ended up being this really touching moment where Maria was able to share her fandom with Dusty, and I was glad that she gave that to him.”
It was Dusty Rhodes’ last public appearance before his death three months later.
Cody Rhodes’ half-brother Dustin has also had a successful career in WWE as the eccentric character Goldust. As a second-generation wrestler, Cody Rhodes was expected to excel at all aspects of the business. The same expectations are placed on people who marry into their family.
“The moment I married Cody, I was supposed to be very, very elite and strong in the ring, as far as people were concerned,” Brandi Rhodes said. “I’ve always had to grin and bear it. … I’ve always known that if a mistake is made, no matter what, it’s my fault. No matter what, it’s my fault. So I should just make sure there are no mistakes made.”
That’s the mindset she brings to her role as chief brand officer of AEW, where Cody is an executive vice president.
“She’s gonna face those same hurdles that I faced, that any second- or third-generation [wrestler] will face,” Cody Rhodes said. “But she’s been great, she hasn’t buckled.”
She also hasn’t been afraid to confront people who still see interracial marriages as taboo. She said she has never experienced racism from wrestling fans (not counting online trolls), but she has faced people who try to discredit her accomplishments. She was reminded of a recent interview she did.
“[The interviewer] had said, ‘Y’know, I feel like people don’t credit you a lot in these movements that you’re spearheading because you’re married to a white man,’ ” she recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, that could very well be true, but that doesn’t take it away from me.’ I’m still black. I’m still a female. And I’m still the first.’
“People can have different prejudices if they want to, and that’s their prerogative, but it doesn’t change the effect that I’m having, it doesn’t change the work that I’m doing, and it doesn’t change where I’m going.”
AEW was founded by Tony Khan, son of Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, and is the talk of the professional wrestling world because it represents change. That change was initiated last year when Cody Rhodes and The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) independently promoted the widely acclaimed pay-per-view event All In, which had the largest crowd for a non-WWE wrestling event in America since 2001. Now, as the executive vice presidents of AEW, they have the chance to create a viable alternative to WWE.
AEW recently announced a television deal with TNT, making it the first wrestling company besides WWE to secure a deal with a top-25 cable network since WCW went bankrupt 18 years ago. AEW is gearing up for its debut event, Double or Nothing, on May 25 in Las Vegas.
As chief brand officer, Brandi Rhodes focuses mainly on partnerships, community outreach and media relations. She is also the head of AEW’s women’s division, so she scouts and recruits talent. She’s filming for the YouTube series Being the Elite. Plus, she still laces up her boots for in-ring training two or three times a week as AEW’s first contracted female superstar.
When you show up at the club with your friends, knowing that Fenty highlighter is poppin #RISELegendary #AEW https://t.co/CaqeJbgrkf
— Brandi Rhodes (@TheBrandiRhodes) March 30, 2019
She said she is so busy she spends her lunch break in the gym.
“I’m constantly working on about four or five different things every single day, so there’s never a dull moment,” she said.
Rhodes, who holds the same position Stephanie McMahon has in WWE, has power previously unimaginable for a black woman in the wrestling industry. WWE Hall of Famer Mark Henry has been in the business since 1996, and he could think of only a handful of black women who worked for the company in a capacity outside of wrestling.
“It’s not a lot. It’s not like you can say, ‘Oh, there’s so many I can’t name them all,’ ” he said. “I’m able to name everybody.”
And none of them ever had a role as prominent as Rhodes’ in AEW.
Henry believes she’s more than qualified for the position.
“She didn’t get that job just because her husband is one of the people that conceptualized AEW and is one of the leaders in that company,” he said. “Brandi’s a smart woman. And who knows more about what her husband’s vision is than her? … So it’s only fitting that somebody that’s smart, somebody that’s aware and understanding of what it is that you’re trying to accomplish, takes the position at the top.”
Rhodes attended the University of Michigan on a full-ride scholarship and later earned her master’s degree in broadcasting at the University of Miami. She has more than eight years of experience performing in some of the biggest wrestling promotions in the world. And she also has that aforementioned desire to do what’s never been done before.
As hard as it has been for black men to succeed in wrestling, it’s been much more difficult for black women to find success and longevity in the industry. For most black female wrestlers, their careers are over when they can no longer perform in the ring. Brandi Rhodes has the opportunity to change that, to open the door for more black women to continue in the business after they’re done performing.
“There have been no women to have that opportunity. Brandi is the first,” Henry said. “I think now that Brandi is in that spot, she can kind of say, ‘Why are there not more? Because I’m able to do this job. I understand this job, it’s not too big for me. My exposure is that grand that I can get this job done.’ There should be more women of color in media and as well as in production and in the boardroom.”
One of her first accomplishments as chief brand officer was securing a partnership with KultureCity, a nonprofit organization that works with people who have sensory needs to make it acceptable for them to come to large-scale events. KultureCity, which has also partnered with the NBA, provides rooms at arenas that people with sensory sensitivities can go to and still enjoy the event. They also offer noise-canceling headphones, fidget spinners and more for those who need them.
“When they pitched me their concept, I thought, I have no idea why no one’s done this before, because our audience needs this very much,” Rhodes said. “We got to work on it, and Double or Nothing will be the first-ever sensory-inclusive professional wrestling show.”
But she knows there’s more work to be done, more history to be made. A proud fan of Panic! At The Disco and their recent hit “High Hopes,” Rhodes said she uses that song as a reminder to never be afraid to dream big.
“I feel like we’re just getting started,” she said. “I mean, of course, this is great. Being the first black female executive in this type of company is huge. But I can do more. There’s more in me, and I’m just gonna keep putting 150 percent into everything that I do.
“We’re gonna continue to see more great things from Brandi Rhodes, for sure.”