Superstars draw inspiration from the WWE Universe on a daily basis. It’s what motivates them to keep going when they’re feeling extra beat up. But when Maria Kanellis began looking for a post-WWE career, she took inspiration from the often-unsung heroes that make shows like Raw and SmackDown possible.
“Being a part of these giant spectacles, you see everything that goes into it, the production aspect, the planning for there to be 10 or 20,000 [fans],” Maria said. “It’s what inspired me to want to do more.”
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The former Diva is one of the first recipients of WWE’s Talent Scholarship and is using it to complete her degree in sports, event and entertainment management at Johnson & Wales University. The path Maria took that earned her the scholarship may have been a little unusual, but it has certainly provided her with plenty of life experience.
Although she grew up a huge sports-entertainment fan, the Illinois native never imagined entering the squared circle as a career.
“I didn’t really think it was possible,” she told WWE.com. “I thought that the women on there were so strong and beautiful that I admired them.”
While she played sports and danced as a kid, Maria got her first taste of the entertainment business by taking part in bikini competitions. The lifestyle was somewhat comparable to that of WWE’s Superstars and Divas.
“People talked about paying your dues and being on the road. I would spend seven hours on the road driving to Knoxville, Tenn., or Louisville, Ky., so I could do bikini competitions,” she explained. “Usually, you made no money doing it, but it was a lot of fun and gave me experience in front of a crowd.”
Maria’s life changed while watching Raw one night. After seeing an announcement for the 2004 WWE Diva Search, the bombshell immediately applied online.
“I had just finished a reality show called ‘Outback Jack’ and thought maybe I had my one great television experience,” she recalled. “I was never expecting the call from WWE. I didn’t really know that I was making it into the next round until I saw my photo on Raw.”
Out of thousands, Maria was one of eight finalists selected to take part in the televised competition on Raw during summer 2004. The experience of being out in front of the WWE Universe is something that will stick with her forever.
“It was absolutely surreal,” she told WWE.com. “There are so many people [in the crowd] that you don’t see faces at first, it’s just this mass of humanity. It’s a mutual excitement, they’re so happy to be there and you’re so happy to be in front of them.”
Though she was eliminated from the competition around the halfway mark, Maria knew sports-entertainment was the perfect fit for her. She eventually received a developmental contract with WWE. The beauty knows that certain qualities got her the deal.
“What probably did it was being very annoying and calling John Laurinaitis every single Wednesday,” Maria said with a laugh. “After being on live television, I wanted more, so I was fighting for it.”
When she arrived to Ohio Valley Wrestling, WWE’s former developmental territory, Maria was trained in the art of wrestling by Bill DeMott, Lance Storm, Al Snow and a cast of other trainers that popped into Louisville, Ky. For her, though, the lessons she learned outside of the ring were just as important as the ones she picked up between the ropes.
“It was the first time I had my own apartment,” she said. “Being in OVW taught me a lot about the wrestling world and a lot about myself. That’s what I’ll use for the rest of my life.”
Maria was getting a crash course in the wrestling business. While she was training at OVW during the week, the hopeful Diva was also on the road with WWE’s main roster. Her willingness to work seven days a week — along with a rendition of “I’m a Little Teapot” during an OVW class — earned her a role as Raw’s cheery, slightly ditzy backstage interviewer. Fans adored her bubbly personality, leading to Maria becoming an in-ring competitor.
“I never thought I was the greatest wrestler, but I never gave up,” Maria said. “I kept trying and it was a fantastic experience in finding out what I was truly made of. You feel accomplished, like you’re fighting for something.”
Her expanded role, including a turn as Santino Marella’s love interest, skyrocketed Maria to new heights, including a match at WrestleMania XXIV after which she planted a big kiss on celebrity guest Snoop Dogg.
Maria can even lay claim to an honor few Divas hold — main eventing Monday Night Raw. Teaming with John Cena to take on Lita & Edge, the bombshell certainly felt the gravity of the moment.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but I was working with Cena and he’s fantastic,” she said. “Before we went out there, he was like, ‘We’ll get through this. I got you.’ When you’re working with such professionals, it takes the pressure off. It was definitely a proud moment.”
The WWE Universe eventually recognized Maria for her dedication to the squared circle, voting her Diva of the Year at the 2009 Slammy Awards. Though her acceptance speech was cut off by an angry Batista, she realized how big an honor it was.
“It was humbling,” Maria said. “I had been out doing ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ so I figured the fans had forgotten about me, but they didn’t. I was definitely overwhelmed.”
Maria’s run with WWE ended in 2010. Since then, she’s released her own album of music, “Sevin Sins,” and acted in several movies.
Recently, a good deal of her time was spent getting ready for her wedding to independent wrestler Mike Bennett. The two were married earlier this month in a ceremony she helped plan.
“[Planning the wedding] was absolutely fantastic,” Maria said. “I’m going into event management, so it’s something I’m passionate about. I’ve been learning the ropes of what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life.”
In September, Maria also found out she was receiving the first WWE Talent Scholarship, which she’ll be using to help finish her degree at Johnson & Wales University.
“I was very excited, it’s a tremendous opportunity,” Maria told WWE.com. “I can’t wait to start [classes for my major] at school in December. School will be a lot more relaxing since I have the scholarships.”
After being involved in the rough and tumble world of sports-entertainment for so long, it might be tough to trade in tights for textbooks, but not for Maria. In fact, the former Diva finds that going back to college now is a better experience for her.
“I think that when you go back to school when you’re a little older, you’re a lot more focused,” she told WWE.com.
That extra focus has allowed Maria to dedicate herself to her studies. It’s paid off, as she had already been named a Presidential Honor Student after finishing her general education courses earlier this year.
“I got straight A’s for the first time in my life,” she exclaimed.