Under the headline "Beautiful but Deadly," the National Enquirer recently did a spread on lady wrestler Debi Pelletier, a.k.a. Killer Tomato, wrapping her assets in a skin-tight Spandex body suit splashed across a four-color pullout centerfold.
It was done in typical Enquirer style, yet somehow missed a great opportunity to be sensational. A little investigative reporting would have revealed the real inside story about a self-described "sweet little cheerleader and plain Jane" who woke up one morning and found herself body-slamming 260-pound Matilda the Hun.
A 24-year-old Valley resident, mother of a toddler, Pelletier had never wrestled, never thought about becoming a pro wrestler, but within two weeks in the summer of 1983, she became Killer Tomato and was making her wrestling debut at the Olympic Auditorium.
"Boom," she said. "It happened that fast."
To inquiring minds, her startling transformation--"Sudden Attack of the Killer Tomato!"--might be attributed to the influence of extraterrestrials or the long-term effects of a toxic waste dump beneath her bedroom. But the actual reasons for Pelletier's metamorphosis are even more bizarre.
Pelletier lives in Van Nuys with her son, Beau, and a giant pro wrestler, a bearded guy with a shaved head who calls himself the Alaskan and collects aboriginal boomerangs. Their ivy-covered, small frame house is down an alley behind the oldest "head shop" in the Valley.
In 1984, Jay York, alias the Alaskan, was 46 and still making money in the ring. One of the last survivors of pro wrestling's Golden Age of the '50s and '60s, he had been the Alaskan since leaving the Marines as a hand-to-hand-combat instructor in 1957. A nomad who literally wandered the world for 20 years, York was always the villain, wrestling such stars as Gorgeous George, Lou Thesz, Haystack Calhoun and Nature Boy Buddy Rogers.
When his father, a former chief of police in Evanston, Ill., moved to Woodland Hills in 1960, York began basing his operations out of Los Angeles. It wasn't long before Hollywood recognized evil incarnate in the menacing 6 feet 4, 260-pounder and began casting him as the heavy in movies and television. He got his Screen Actors Guild card for his first role, a pro wrestler who tangled with Herman Munster in "The Munsters."
Pelletier, 5 feet 9, 130 pounds, grew up in the country outside Sacramento. Oldest of five children in a fatherless home, she was forced to be her "mother's right arm," doing heavy chores like lifting bales of hay. Those exercises and her three-hour shifts as an exotic dancer in bikini bars would one day give her the physical strength to hoist people twice her weight over her head.
But if anything prepared her to turn into Killer Tomato, it was her longtime exposure to pro wrestling. She'd been watching it on television since she was a girl. And at 17, she got an inside look at the business by dating a Sacramento pro wrestler named Ron Starr, whom she nicknamed Rotten Ronnie. It was through Starr that she met York. After visiting him in Toluca Lake for a week in 1981, she left Sacramento with Beau and moved in with York.
Their 21-year age difference didn't matter, she said. "Jay is just such a nice guy. He may be intimidating to look at it, but when you get to know him, he's a teddy bear in a grizzly bear body."
Another Source of Revenue
They had been living together for three years when a promoter called York and begged him to find a substitute lady wrestler for the Olympic card. York looked across the room at his girlfriend and immediately envisioned Killer Tomato--as well as another source of revenue. Despite his longevity in wrestling, York never saw big money. To supplement their income, Pelletier does exotic dancing and, with York as her bodyguard, jumps out of cakes at bachelor parties for a few hundred dollars a pop. For the last 10 years, York has worked steadily as a Teamster driver on movie studio lots.
The Olympic match was two weeks away. "Jay had to give me a crash course in wrestling," Pelletier said. This included a lesson in attitude. Easygoing and relaxed off the mat, a guy who wears warm-up suits and smokes Salems, York does a 180 when he gets in the ring, turning into the dreaded Alaskan who cracks bullwhips and heads. Pelletier was designated as a heavy and got her name from a character in a friend's unsold screenplay. But she lasted only six months as a bad girl.
"The fans liked me so much I was switched to good guy," she said. Despite her cleaned-up image, she retained the name Killer Tomato, and two years ago was awarded "Best New Name of the Year" by Pro Wrestling Illustrated. A stunt woman and actress with TV credits, she has become a luminary in the world of pro wrestling, good enough to teach and invent holds like a double-leg drop for women. Dressed as a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader, she also performs on a nationally syndicated television program called "Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling" and trains women for the show.
Pelletier still doesn't see herself as a pro wrestler. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be doing this," she said. And because of what she regards as the gentleness of her soul, she never imagined that sweet little Debi would be so violent in the ring. Once, when an opponent apparently deviated from the script by knocking the wind out of her and kicking her in the back, Killer Tomato "grabbed her by the hair, got her in a headlock and said, 'Say your prayers.' I worked her over pretty good. She was in tears. I didn't feel bad."
Maybe it's hype, but she says that even if the matches were on the level, "I could win anyway. They're girls. I wrestle like a man because I was trained by a man." She once wrestled World Wrestling Federation champion Wendy Richter and, Pelletier said, "I kicked her butt."
Pro wrestling, she says, has been very, very good to her and is getting better. In February, she and York will journey to Indonesia for a 21-day series of exhibitions at $1,000 a day for each of them. Travel was something she never planned on. When she wrestled in Tijuana a year ago, she was "the only blonde in this packed arena. The fans went crazy over me before the match," she said, "but when I wrestled the Mexican champion, they acted like they hated me, threw radishes, then whistled again when I left the ring."
To York, a radish is a small price to pay for being disliked. During his 30 years as a villain, he has been pelted with coins and darts and chairs, got kayoed by a cop in Kansas City and became so paranoid he began taking taxis to his car after matches and checking his food for harmful items. "If the cook is a wrestling fan and he's mad at you, what will he put in your hamburger?" York asked.
At a match in Texas, a crazed fan who apparently was taking the show too seriously jumped in the ring with a knife and was nearly broken in pieces by York. In a lawsuit brought by the would-be knifer, a judge ruled that York used excessive force and, York says, awarded the plaintiff $22,000. Maniacal fan behavior is not new to pro wrestling. But York understands where their anger comes from and is philosophical about it.
"We call the thunder down on us," he said. "Like a gunfighter, everybody wants a shot at you. If Joe Lunchbox knocks you out, he's a hero. If you knock him out, you get sued."
York may be a villain on the mat, but in his home, he's a hero to Beau, Pelletier's son from her first marriage. York, called Daddy by 8-year-old Beau, spends a lot of time with him, especially shooting arrows together at Sepulveda Basin. But according to Beau, it's a mixed blessing to have the Alaskan and Killer Tomato as parents.
"Last time I brought a bad report card home, I didn't feel very good afterward," said the gregarious youngster. The pluses: Beau knows a lot of big-name wrestlers, listing as one of his memorable moments the time when Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan played catch with him in a swimming pool. And what kid at school would be crazy enough to bully him?
"If they try, I just tell them who my parents are, and that settles it right then and there," he said.
Killer Tomato and the Alaskan are among a handful of co-habitating couples in pro wrestling. This doesn't mean they can't be adversaries in the ring. A while ago, they opposed each other in a mixed tag-team match at the Showboat in Las Vegas. It was Killer Tomato and Samoan Joe vs. the Alaskan and Spice Williams. Pelletier recommends it as a catharsis for the couples.
"It was fun," she said, laughing. "I got to hit him and get away with it. I took out a lot of built-up frustrations. He didn't want to hurt me in front of all those people."
Now engaged, the pair are planning a rock-and-wrestling wedding, with Rowdy Roddy Piper as best man and Cyndi Lauper the maid of honor.
"Jay and I are the Beauty and the Beast," Pelletier said, providing a headline idea that will no doubt make editors drool at the Enquirer. Or at least cover the wedding.