Britni de la Cretaz | Longreads | January 2019 | 15 minutes (3,959 words)
In February 2006, Polly Esther answered a classified ad in NOW Magazine, Toronto’s alt-weekly. “The Pillow Fight League wants YOU,” the ad read. “Tryouts, Sat. February 18th. Ask for Suzanne.”
“I’m like, ‘Oh, this sounds interesting,’” Esther told me over the phone from her home in Toronto recently. “I literally have no idea why I looked in the back of the paper that day or why, for some reason, this spoke to me. I called and I asked a bit about it: ‘We’re gonna be this women’s fight league. It’s pillow fighting, but it’ll be a mix of boxing and wrestling and mixed martial arts as well.’”
Esther, who is now 47, had no fighting experience and no idea what to expect when she showed up to the tryouts. She was told to wear “something comfortable,” so she brought pajamas. It was pillow fighting, after all.
The PFL lasted from 2006 until 2011, and during those five years, it burned hot and bright, receiving mountains of press from Sports Illustrated, ABC News, Fox News, and the New York Post, among others. There was a Good Morning America segment, an appearance on VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club, and a promise of its own reality show. When the league debuted in New York City in 2007, ESPN called it “the sporting equivalent of The Beatles playing The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Esther was the very first fighter to join the league, and the experience had such an impact on her life that she now goes by her pillow-fighting moniker exclusively. “Fiona is the girl [I was before the PFL] who had all these horrible things happen to her, but Polly is the one who really came to life,” she says. “And it’s the same person, but it’s like I only discovered myself when I became Polly.”
The PFL crumbled, though, almost as quickly as it began. It was not due to lack of effort or commitment on the part of the founders or fighters — they gave it their all. At the end of the day, the PFL fell victim to a clash of personalities, differing visions, and an inability to secure financial backing. There’s only so long you can keep a sports league running on pure will and enthusiasm.
The PFL was the brainchild of Stacey P. Case, a Toronto-based talent agent who was also a drummer in a group called the Tijuana Bibles. The band sometimes shared its billing with a burlesque troupe called Skin Tight Outta Sight, and as the story goes, in preparation for a New Year’s Eve gig in 2006, Case conceived of an interactive theme: after each song, the troupe would pillow fight. Those first fights weren’t all that interesting — the troupe lacked for spontaneity or creativity — so the following New Year’s Eve, Case staged an amateur match. According to the PFL founder, “these two girls in the audience went wild for the fight so I grabbed the mic and asked them if they wanted to fight.” They did want to fight.
And so the PFL was born and, as Case told the New York Post in 2007, he knew from the start that it would be a girls-only league because “who wants to watch a guy have a pillow fight?”
For help getting the league off the ground, Case called on Dan “The Mouth” Lovranski, an old friend who hosted a radio show about pro wrestling. “I said, ‘I think it’s a cool idea, but you can’t go scuzzy with it, you can’t go slimy with it,’” Lovranski recalled in a phone call from his home in Toronto. “‘It has to be real fights or semi-real fights with characters that have personas and we create storylines.’ I wanted to kind of approach it from a pro wrestling kind of aspect.”
The fighting that resulted was a cross between wrestling and MMA — like wrestling, the fighters had characters and personas that they brought into the ring, but the fights were unscripted, like MMA. It wasn’t an all-out brawl; fighters had to make contact with the pillow — “fiberfill queen pillows only,” according to Sarah Kurchak, who fought as Sarah Bellum. Why so specific? “Both because of allergies and because down could be packed too tightly and become far too much of a blunt weapon,” she said. The pillows were purchased by the league and stored at Case’s studio (a less than ideal situation for some of the fighters, like Kurchak: “Where he smoked, which was GREAT for my minor asthma.”).
Fighters were given carte blanche to design their own costumes and develop their characters, but according to Matt Harsant, the league’s head referee who also helped create the league, Case was adamant that their in-ring personas be extensions of their real-life personalities. No one should play a part; instead, Case wanted his fighters to merely play up parts of themselves that already existed — their personality, but on steroids.
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At first, fights lasted five minutes, but the rules changed once it became clear the athletes couldn’t maintain their momentum and energy. Eventually, the PFL settled on two and three-minute rounds, which allowed fighters to develop moves that were unique to what was already a sui generis sport. “Most of us had signature moves,” said Kat Armstrong, who fought under the name Sally Spitfire. Her persona as a World War II–era pin-up fit her singular signature move, “the centerfold”: “I would use the pillow in between my legs and then wrap my legs around my opponent and snap my legs shut so that they would basically fold in half.” Boozy Suzy coined the “hammer fist,” which is just what it sounds like — she’d hammer her opponent’s face.
The personas were larger than life. Sarah Bellum told me that she was “the scholar of pillow fighting.” Betty Clock’r was a “pillow-swinging housewife” who would enter the ring with a plate of cookies. Boozy Suzy would saunter in with a beer, which the ref would immediately confiscate. Lynn Somnia fought in a hospital gown festooned with electrodes dangling off her body. Meanwhile, T.V. Starr was “the best thing on TV since TV,” she says, and transformed her character into the PFL’s resident “heel”—“a diabolical fitness model type” that would “thumb someone in the eye (illegal) or fake being thumbed in the eye.”
It was the performance aspect that drew Esther to the league. She described her character as an amplified version of herself: “the waitress from hell.” “I’d been a waitress for almost a quarter of a century,” Esther said. “It was like me finally able to deal with all the people who were rude to me over the years, or the shitty tippers. This was my way of getting out all that pent up anger.” She wasn’t a good fighter — “I don’t think I ever won a fight” — so she played up the character, screaming, “Fuck you!” at the crowd when she entered the ring, then reveling in the boos showered on her. Lovranski, the MC, would warn, “Someone is about to get served!”
In some ways, the PFL was ahead of its time. Women have always struggled to break into contact sports. Wrestling has its roots in carnivals, where fights were long a sideshow spectacle, and this was even more true for the women’s fights than the men’s. In 2006, WWE was at the tail end of its “Ruthless Aggression Era,” a period known for its assortment of sexualized gimmick matches for female wrestlers. The action was less R-rated than during the “Attitude Era” of the late 1990s, but “with the same goals of [‘hot lesbian action’ storylines] and definitely all about the rude, lewd, and suggestive behavior,” according to LaToya Ferguson, author of the forthcoming book An Encyclopedia of Women’s Wrestling: 100 Profiles of the Strongest in the Sport. These included the Bra & Panties Match (which debuted in 2000, toward the end of the Attitude Era), the Wet and Wild Match, and the Lingerie Pillow Fight Match (which the WWE launched in 2002 and abandoned just six years later, coinciding with the PFL’s rise).
“While this emphasis on sexualization over actual competitive skill was the norm for WWE, at the same time, you had the smaller, independent wrestling promotions providing alternatives for people who wanted to see actual wrestling,” said Ferguson. Not only did Shimmer Women Athletes, an independent women’s wrestling promotion with a focus on being a non-objectifying platform, start in 2005, but TNA’s Knockouts Division — the women’s division of Impact Wrestling — began just two years later. And while there were no female fighters in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a mixed martial arts league steadily growing in popularity, there was already a robust tradition of female MMA fighters. (Ronda Rousey, the first woman to enter a UFC-branded octagon, didn’t debut until 2012, a year after the PFL shuttered.)
“It took the female competitors more seriously than WWE seemed to,” Ferguson says of the PFL. “Pre-Divas Revolution, Women’s Evolution, and the WWE mandated that the women not wrestle ‘like the men,’ and if they decided to do so, they got chewed out for it. That meant wrestling with a lot of combination hair-pulling and slapping.” Ferguson notes that hair-pulling was on the PFL’s no-no list, along with other types of gendered attacks like biting or scratching. But using a hammer fist to clobber your opponent with a two-and-a-half-pound pillow was not only legal, it was encouraged.
(Though, the PFL’s first trip stateside — to the Big Apple — was short-lived when the the New York State Athletic Commission banned professional pillow fighting in advance of the matches on the grounds that their pillows constituted dangerous weapons.)
“It was empowering,” said Starr. “We weren’t romping about in lingerie and giggling like girls at a slumber party. It pushed limits. It had some major violence. People loved it because it was different and it was raw.”
Esther realized the PFL would change her life the day she was officially invited to join the league. Case told her he “wanted to talk about” her teeth, and her stomach sank. Her teeth had always been a source of insecurity. She describes them as “big,” “jaggedy,” and “really crooked.” But Case wanted her to use them to her advantage, to make them a part of her in-ring character. She says that no one had ever spoken about her teeth in a positive way before.
The fights, which were initially limited to Toronto, began to branch out to several other cities as the league gained popularity. It “spread like wildfire,” said Lovranski. In the ring, the fighters were judged on three criteria: “style, stamina, and Eye of the Tiger.” As for what the Eye of the Tiger is, Harsant explained: “One does not judge the Eye of the Tiger, the Eye of the Tiger judges you and you score accordingly” (though, if a fight was deadlocked and there wasn’t a pinfall or submission, the judges, selected by Case, were the ultimate arbiters). Ringside bouncers kept the fighters from launching themselves too far out of bounds and off the relative safety of the mat.
Events weren’t regularly scheduled — the inaugural match, for example, happened at the Vatikan in the Queen West neighborhood of Toronto. “A really run-down club,” according to Esther, and one that closed soon afterward only to reopen as a swingers club. “There was no real pattern to it,” Kurchak said of the event schedule. “As far as I could tell, it was when Stacey could book space.” For another fledging sport, that uncertainty could have affected the its ability to draw an audience, but the unceasing press and the sheer desire to watch people smack one another with a pillow for several rounds eventually enabled the PFL to fill venues with capacities of 600.
Like the Mod Club, Esther’s favorite venue in Toronto’s Little Italy. The girls had their own dressing room there, and there was a curtain that revealed the fighters’ silhouettes behind it when they made their entrances.
The PFL also hosted several events at the Ballroom in Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel, a smaller open space with red brick walls and narrow, floor-to-ceiling windows and a Victorian-inspired marble bar. For the league’s championship matches, though, Case could always count on crowds filling a venue. The prize was a championship belt — and bragging rights.
The women took what they were doing seriously, training three times a week with a Brazilian jiu jitsu fighter named Eric Yu and Kizarny from WWE SmackDown — and their workouts were intense. Many were hoping to use it as a way to get into wrestling or MMA: Kurchak — Sarah Bellum — eventually quit the PFL in the hopes of being taken more seriously as a jiujitsu fighter, and at least one PFL fighter, Suzanne Carte aka Boozy Suzy, leveraged her training into an Muay Thai career. But even those interested in merely honing their pillow fighting craft improved over time. “Since we started doing training in Muay Thai, jiujitsu, judo, wrestling, boxing, a lot of the girls have become more serious about their fighting,” Carte told Torontoist in 2008. “We pride ourselves on it now, whereas before it was completely show.”
The championship bouts were the culmination of those efforts, and former PFL champions include Champain, Olivia Neutron-Bomb, Carmen Monoxide (who lost her first seven fights in the quest to become a title holder), Dinah Mite, and Boozy Suzy. The bouts between Carte and Champain, her PFL nemesis, were legendary — Champain handed Carte a loss in her first ever fight, pinning her to the mat (“I’ve never forgave her for that,” Carte said in an interview). A year later, Carte was vindicated when she beat Champain in a match in Montreal for the belt.
Naturally, the press ate it up. The women appeared on Howard Stern and Kurchak pillow fought Maureen McCormick aka Marcia Brady on VH1. But the direction of the league’s marketing rankled some of the fighters: Despite the PFL’s focus on real fighting and that the fighters didn’t wear lingerie or make out with each other, the trend of oversexualizing female athletes was clearly visible in the coverage of the league.
“The general concept of it being a pillow fight league, as [subversive] and as empowering as it was ultimately supposed to be, still explains why it wasn’t built to last,” said Ferguson. “Even adding more agency to the women to be badass still includes something that will make them a sideshow act to a sideshow act.”
Armstrong didn’t believe it was intentionally malicious, but the result of having men atop the organization meant that there was a lack of focus on the women’s athletic skill and fighting prowess. Case and his ilk had good intentions, but she felt they had no clue how to market a women’s pillow fighting league. For all of their efforts, the league was still perceived as a gimmick.
And for all its talk of empowerment, the league had to contend with the issue of exploitation: It was a league of women in which three men — Case, Lovranski, and referee Harsant — held most, if not all, of the decision-making power. Carte, who had been involved with the league since its inception (she was the Suzanne mentioned in the NOW Magazine ad), had initially been in charge of helping to book venues, but she soon assumed more of a managerial role as the league progressed, but by 2009 and 2010, some of the fighters grew resentful of Case. “I became a mouthpiece for a lot of the women,” says Carte. “I was the liaison between the administration and them.”
And what she conveyed to Case was a lack of empowerment. He — and Lovranski and Harsant, to a similar extent — wasn’t putting his body on the line on a weekly basis, yet the fighters had little say in any decision pertinent to the PFL’s future. This was particularly galling, a timely Hammer Fist in the face for essentially the league’s cornerstone; fans weren’t forking over cash to gawk at the architectural integrity of Toronto’s dive bars.
It was at about this point that Harsant says he decided to take a walk from the league. He felt like the PFL had run its course, but he also believed the league was changing in a way that felt less collaborative and more a route steered only by Case.
“Stacey, it was great that he started the league, but he could be a real asshole,” Esther said. “He could be, oh my god, he could be really awful to the girls.” Armstrong contends that Case was the reason she left after less than a year in the league. She alleges that Case stoked personal arguments between the fighters off the mat, in the hopes that it would translate to exciting fights on it. She had gone to Case for help squashing an issue she was having with another fighter, but he instead made it worse, and Armstrong says she quit soon after the other fighter threatened her. (Case chose not to comment for this story, but he did provide fact-checking assistance, and he disputes this characterization.) That sort of meddling created rifts between the fighters, many of whom had initially found a sisterhood in the league.
“I gave Stacey a pass on a lot of things because this league meant so much to me,” said Esther. “I stuck by Stacey when I shouldn’t have. I should have been fighting for, speaking up more, for other fighters when they were complaining. And that’s on me. There are some fighters that don’t talk to me anymore and I know it’s because of that, and I totally can’t blame them.”
Perhaps all of this could have been worked through if the fighters had been getting paid. After all, when you get a bunch of people with strong personalities together, there are bound to be some who clash. But these women were training multiple times per week, working through injuries, traveling to matches — including a trip to New York City for two sold-out shows — for little to no money. Esther said that the profits — the PFL charged between $12 and $20 at the door — was split between the fighters and that, on a good night, she’d make “about fifty bucks a fight.” But Armstrong said she never got paid a dime.
Management wasn’t hoarding the cash — there just wasn’t any. All the media coverage in the world doesn’t equate to actual money. “We had this entire troop of girls, we’re trying to get financing, we’re trying to get sponsors, even after all that huge media that we got, it was incredibly hard to get people to back us and that was always the main issues that we just never had the money to really take it to the next level,” said Lovranski. “It just never seemed to happen, and that’s why eventually it just kind of falls apart because you’re paying the girls really nothing.”
And then there was talk of a reality TV deal, which, in spite of selling the rights to Al Berman, a producer who had previously worked on hit shows like Survivor, The Apprentice, and The Biggest Loser, never materialized. Berman called PFL “a return to simple pleasures,” but it was this attitude that Lovranski speculates is what ultimately thwarted it from receiving the financial backing it needed to be successful (along with it being at odds with what the fighters wanted the PFL to be).
“I really think anyone that was interested in doing it wanted to do the TNA [tits and ass] approach and we just weren’t about that,” he said, adding that the PFL’s rights eventually reverted back to Case. “Stacey and I always kind of thought there would be someone that would be interested in backing us, but every time we talked to people, it was just like, they wanted to make changes that were fundamentally in conflict with what we did. So, how would it be the same? It wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t work.”
There are differing stories, depending on who you talk to, about why the PFL folded in 2011. According to Esther, who had already left the league, there was a walkout, the result of years of long-simmering discontent and frustration. Lovranski corroborated Esther’s account, but added that he and Case were blindsided by it. “It was kind of weird what happened,” he said. Lovranski and Case were getting burnt out from all the work they’d put in to running the league, and so at the end of what he thought was a successful show, they offered the fighters the opportunity to take on more responsibility within the PFL. “They came back and, after we had offered them chances to kind of do more stuff in the league and help us build it up, they all quit,” Lovranski said.
The story Case told the press was different. Following the final show, he described suffering a “complete breakdown,” which resulted in a two-week hospitalization. When he left the hospital, he said he decided to shutter the PFL. The full truth is probably that all of it — the fatigue, the fighters’ feelings of discontent, the lack of financing, and Case’s own personal struggles — created the perfect storm that ultimately led to the league’s demise. There was a short-lived attempt by some of the former fighters to launch a new version of the PFL in 2015, but it never went anywhere.
For the women who fought in the league, the experience profoundly affected them. Some became fighters in more respected and widely recognized leagues. For others, the experience was less positive.
“It was so hurtful and it was so damaging and it was so disrespectful and I felt so used by the league,” said Armstrong. “I left because I felt like shit about it, where I [had] started with something I was so happy with and felt so good about.” After she left the league, she didn’t talk to many of the other women for years, though she has since reconnected with some of the fighters, who remain her good friends today.
For women like Esther, they found the self-confidence and self-love that had previously eluded them, and, along with other fighters, they continue to mourn the end of the league. “I still miss it sometimes. There was a huge amount of love and respect amongst the girls,” said Starr. “I’d never been or felt stronger.”
Looking at the Pillow Fight League as a failed sports league misses the point of what it was and what it was supposed to be. The PFL was never a sports league in any traditional sense, seeing as there was no governing body or professional association — it was always just a group of people who wanted to create an experience. Harsant thinks the PFL only failed once “it started to believe that it actually was a legitimate sports league.”
But the truth is that a thing will always meant different things to different people, and it is no less true for the PFL. For those who tirelessly trained weekly and stepped in the ring with nothing but a fiber-full queen pillow, the league was “a place to perform, or get fit, or make friends, or find community,” said Harsant. “For most of us, it was different things at different times, with the only constant being that the fights and the fighters were real.”
Harsant adds, “We succeeded fantastically in achieving our common cause: throwing spectacular events for whoever wanted to show up and cheer us on. All I know is that, live-to-air in 2007, when I told CNN that ‘professional pillow fighting is the most significant Canadian sports export to the United States since ice hockey,’ I meant it.”
Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance sports writer living in Boston. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, espnW, Bleacher Report, and more.
Editor: Matt Giles
Fact checker: Ethan Chiel
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross