By Erin Heffernan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
It all came down to RahRahBoom! and Peter Pandemonium.
The “lady arm wrestlers” stood on opposite sides of the stage at a St. Louis dive bar. On the one side: RahRahBoom!, the “radioactive housewife,” wore a 1950s dress, green glitter lips and a scowl. On the other: Peter Pandemonium, a take on “the boy who wouldn’t grow up,” but, you know, it’s a woman who is deceptively good at arm-wrestling and known to chug tallboys between matches.
The contenders held grips built into a regulation arm-wrestling table and clasped palms. The housewife bent and licked her opponent’s hand.
“For good luck!” she said defensively as the crowd cheered at the Heavy Anchor in the Bevo Mill neighborhood.
A ref stepped in and warned her of the penalty box, in this case an actual cardboard box that can be put on an offender’s head.
He blew the whistle to begin the final match of SLLAW XVI, the 16th bout in the history of the St. Louis Lady Arm Wrestlers.
For the uninitiated, SLLAW is a collection of women who by day work as clinical researchers, college professors and welders, but channel alter-egos in arm-wrestling tournaments about three nights a year to raise money for charity.
The arm-wrestling is real. Their over-the-top personas are definitely not.
The third and final SLLAW bout of the year is set for Aug. 18 at the Heavy Anchor, 5226 Gravois Avenue.
The group is one of about 25 branches of the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers, which started in Charlottesville, Va., in 2008. Since its first bout in February 2014, the local group has raised more than $20,000 for small St. Louis charities.
But lady arm-wrestling here is about more than charity. It’s taking one of the most machismo-filled ways to settle a score and adding fishnets. It’s campy characters commenting on the patriarchy as they flex their muscles and talk smack. It’s an esoteric tavern sport with rules and customs all its own. It’s a creative outlet. And it’s a novel way to spend a Saturday night.
WRESTLERS IN TRAINING
SLLAW boot camp always has snacks and beer.
Twelve lady arm-wrestlers assembled earlier this summer in a Fox Park living room before their latest bout.
There were no extended montages of pumping iron or discussions of wrist form, though.
“People ask if we train,” says founding SLLAW member Erin Fisher, aka the tap-dancing disgraced child star Surly Temple. “We’re always like, ‘Yes, we work hard at picking up our beers.’ It’s not that serious.”
Boot camp is more about the pageantry of SLLAW.
On this night, Kelly Arnold, who plays Viking shield maiden Freydis Stormfist, cocks her head as she tries to come up with banter for the upcoming match.
Arnold works as a substance-abuse counselor for teenagers but channeled her love of Viking history in Stormfist, inspired by legends of a sister of Leif Erickson who went into battle while eight months pregnant.
Stormfist will face Emily Lickinson, a feline-like character raised by a feral cat colony.
“We’re thinking of some type of catnip situation,” she tells a few other wrestlers. “But like in some type of satchel in-character for a 1400s Viking.”
Oh, that’s good, they say. Arnold turns to the larger group.
“What do you guys think about a Nordic accent? Is that offensive?”
“No, I think you’re good,” says SLLAW master of ceremonies Allie Gordon, aka Lucille Brawl. “It’s not like there’s going to be a Nordic Viking in the crowd that would be offended.”
Sonia Dae, an artist and longtime SLLAW member, speaks from another side of the room.
“Attention! A new character is being born,” she says. “A sexy rainbow clown! I’m thinking of calling her So Much Fun.”
Silence from the room.
“OK, OK, I’m working on it.”
She brainstorms and tries again: “How about So & So the Inappropriate Clown, banned by the circus for her erotic balloon-animal creations?”
That one is a success.
“And what if I pop a balloon filled with glitter?”
Gordon shakes her head. There’s a strict no-glitter policy at the Heavy Anchor.
“What if I bring a Shop-Vac?” asks Dae.
“No, you know they’ll find glitter for years.”
They eventually decide that oversize confetti is acceptable.
The women of SLLAW have learned several lessons since the group started in February 2014. One of them: Glitter lasts forever.
The group has also embraced more structure. Bouts that used to be more unwieldy now have more choreography and preparation. The group creates a different theme for each bout. They’ve done nautical, the circus, feminism and, once, a 16-wrestler “Royal Rumble.”
There’s also been an SLLAW calendar, an SLLAW coloring book and even an SLLAW fight in which members wrestled in a kiddie tub full of coleslaw, SLLAW, get it?, to raise money for charity.
“It didn’t smell great,” Fisher says. “Yeah, we never did that again.”
STRENGTH PLUS SHENANIGANS
Ring girl Tammy Guns lazily walked across the Heavy Anchor stage to announce the start of the most recent bout.
Ms. Guns, played by Washington University administrator Holly Schroeder and described as a “south city tavern queen,” wore blue eye shadow and a cheetah print with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She held her handwritten cardboard ring-girl sign bordered in twinkle lights with an expression that said: “You happy now? May I please return to my bar stool?”
Every SLLAW event follows a traditional tournament style: four matchups, followed by two semifinals and a final. Best two out of three rounds wins each match.
Refs Tiny Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Get-It are onstage to check for cheating. Feet must stay on the ground. No bent wrists. Each match is called if there is no pin after 15 seconds.
The refs, dressed in black polos lined with white duct tape that slowly peels off as the night progresses, aren’t afraid to place the penalty box on the heads of competitors who get out of line.
But it’s not exactly fair.
SLLAW sells “bribes,” advantages or penalties that fans can buy. The crowd can pay to make a wrestler tire out her arm by holding a bedazzled Shake Weight, or it might summon a “brawl buddy,” another wrestler to add her hand to a side in the fight.
Bribes keep the shows unpredictable and help raise money for charity, but they can make the stage a bit chaotic.
In the latest bout, confusion followed a good round of donations as Betsey Boss, Sugarplum Scary and Fiona Fangansniff’dher the Bisexual Shapeshifter all piled onto the stage for a mega-round, stacking hands on top of one another.
It’s clear fan favorites have the advantage in SLLAW.
Master of ceremonies Lucky Slamrock, a leprechaun character played by red-headed Emily Kothe, responded to yells of “It’s rigged!” from the crowd.
“Uh, yeah,” she said into the mic. “One side had two wrestlers. That’s what this is all about, strength plus shenanigans.”
THE FINAL MATCH
The final match is different. Bribes are banned. No Shake Weights, no requirement to spin Hula-Hoops on your arm. No brawl buddies deployed. It’s down to two wrestlers for the glory and the title.
SLLAW 16 was over within 15 seconds as radioactive housewife RahRahBoom! slammed Peter Pandemonium’s hand to the table.
Ref Tiny Johnson raised her arm, and RahRahBoom! triumphantly walked to the front of the stage and took a bow.
“RahRahBoooooooooooom! Our majestic champion!” Lucky Slamrock called over the microphone.
The victorious arm-wrestler is also known as Rachel Melton, who works in community outreach at Mind’s Eye, a local nonprofit.
Melton is a founding member of SLLAW, but this would be her first win. For years she’s played RahRahBoom!, the once-obedient housewife who was blasted by radiation and learned to dominate and slam arms as she pleased.
She was handed the championship scepter, made from a roll of gift wrap, and took in the applause.
“SLLAW is a part of my soul,” Melton said in a post-bout interview with the one member of the press present. “To finally win the title of SLLAW Champ after years of bouts and battles and brawls, I feel glorious. Unstoppable even.”
That night, SLLAW raised $1,700 for Sisters Helping Each Other Reach a Higher Height, a St. Louis-based women’s organization.
And, Melton learned as she sauntered across the stage, victory was sweet.
_ What: St. Louis Lady Arm Wrestlers present SLLAW XVII: Beach Please!”
_ When: 9 p.m. Aug. 18; doors open at 8 p.m.
_ Where: The Heavy Anchor, 5226 Gravois Avenue
_ How much: $10 cash cover and “bribes” that will go to charity
_ More info sllaw.org