Before Sandy Manley was a fiscal technician with the Virginia Department of Transportation, she was Gremlina – one of the more feisty and vocal “heel” characters of the 1980s TV series “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.”
Now, nearly 30 years after her six-month run on GLOW, the Highland Springs native and resident has had the curtain lifted on her former persona with the rise of social media and renewed interest in the show, which was featured in a 2012 documentary and serves as the inspiration for a new Netflix series, “GLOW.”
Thanks to fans using Facebook to track her down and GLOW alums using it to reconnect, Manley has seen her past come roaring back after essentially leaving the spotlight behind – while bouncing in anonymity between jobs in accounting and retail before joining VDOT’s downtown central office 12 years ago.
Manley now in her spare time participates in fan meet-and-greets, including annual cruises cleverly titled “AfterGLOW.” She has even made a return to the ring, participating as a manager and serving a year as commissioner of Norfolk-based Vanguard Championship Wrestling.
That was before the Netflix series, which started airing in June and has brought even more attention Manley’s way. Last month, VDOT featured her in a cover story for The Central Hub, the agency’s quarterly newsletter. And in June, she was one of several GLOW alums interviewed for an article in The Washington Post.
While she and her fellow ex-wrestlers have mixed feelings about the new series, which Manley describes as a fictionalized version of what really happened, she said she’s enjoying the renewed attention the original show is receiving.
“It was the most unique, amazing experience you could have,” Manley said.
“You’ve got to understand: in the ‘80s, women – especially a group like this – didn’t get together and work together like we did,” she said. “We called ourselves sisters. Even to this day – it’s 30 years later, and we’re GLOW sisters. That’s the bond, because we worked together, we lived together, we trained together.”
At 4-foot-8½-inches tall – 4-foot-9 at the time, said Manley: “Age shrinks you,” she joked; “Too many piledrivers” – one probably wouldn’t peg the diminutive, soft-spoken Manley for a former wrestler. That’s let alone the voice-shrieking, fight-picking Gremlina, which she describes as a combination of Stripe from “Gremlins” and the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz.”
“They loved to hate me,” she said of the show’s fans.
A lifelong pro wrestling fan herself, Manley said she came across GLOW on TV and saw an ad with a number to call if you wanted to be a wrestler. She did, especially after seeing the women in GLOW getting the spotlight.
“It was amazing to me as a longtime wrestling fan, because women before that really weren’t headliners,” she said. “They weren’t treated like men, until Cyndi Lauper came in with the Rock ‘n Wrestling Connection. Women’s wrestling was like a filler, an add-in. They worked hard and got paid very little. GLOW broke the glass ceiling on that.”
At 23 years old and 105 pounds, Manley drove down to Georgia with a friend who also tried out but didn’t make the cut. When the promoter told the friend she wasn’t gorgeous enough, Manley responded with an expletive and middle finger. That attitude apparently worked in her favor, as to her surprise, the promoter said she was in.
After a final audition in Las Vegas, Manley joined the 30-some women who made up the show’s third season cast. Over its four-season run in the late ‘80s, Manley said, the show had upwards of 60 women involved.
Kept under a strict curfew with no alcohol allowed, Manley said the wrestlers spent days training and evenings developing their characters. Hers was suggested by the promoter, who Manley said told her: “Little people are mean, evil, vicious ankle-biters. You’re Gremlina!”
“We were very politically incorrect at times, but hey, it was the ‘80s – everything was over the top,” she said. “GLOW was definitely aimed toward female empowerment and diversity, and that is amazing.
“To be with such a wonderful group of strong, beautiful, intelligent, empowered women was just amazing,” Manley said, “and it was a really good growing experience and learning experience, because you had to learn to work as a cohesive unit.”
Those lessons have translated to her work outside of the ring, Manley said – particularly at VDOT, where she sees several parallels to her GLOW experience.
“It taught me teamwork,” she said. “You have to work with all types, all personalities, so I feel that learning how to be a part of a team like this has really helped me in my day-to-day dealings with clients, with localities, with my other coworkers.”
While wrestling historically has been dismissed as a “fake” sport, with scripted matches and storylines, Manley said nothing’s fake about the effort wrestlers give, the injuries they sustain, and the business side.
“You have a chain of command. You have budgets,” she said. “You have to pay for buildings, overhead, salaries … And just like any business, you have your shady ones, you have your good ones.”
As a former GLOW wrestler at fan events and on cruises, Manley noted she and her peers operate as individual businesses themselves.
“When I do appearances, we sell 8-by-10 autograph (photos), some of us have done T-shirts,” she said. “We do our own marketing and merchandising.”
Before GLOW, after graduating from Highland Springs High School and attending VCU for a year, Manley left Richmond for New York City, where she worked in accounting for two Fortune 500s: real estate brokerage Douglas Elliman-Gibbons & Ives and ad agency Young & Rubicam, where she was a budget manager for its Ford Lincoln-Mercury print ads.
After GLOW and back in Richmond, Manley said she bounced between accounting and various retail jobs, including a seven-year stint as a retail manager for the Rennie’s gas station chain.
As a fiscal technician at VDOT, she works in the local assistance division, which works with localities providing oversight for projects. She works at VDOT’s central office at East Broad and 14th streets.
As for her GLOW days, Manley said: “I’d do it again.”
Laughing, she added: “If I were 23 again, yeah.”
Watch Manley as Gremlina in her GLOW days:
This is the latest entry in our Downtime series, which focuses on business people’s pursuits outside the office. If you, a coworker or someone you know around town has an exciting or unique way of passing time off the clock, drop us a line at [email protected] For previous stories from our ongoing Downtime series, click here.