The first time Adrian Street adopted the look that would change the face of wrestling, people couldn’t believe their eyes.
Five years into his career, he had grown bored by the way other wrestlers presented themselves – just trunks and boots in the same old colours – and wanted to inject some personality into the sport.
But once his colleagues in the dressing room caught a glimpse of that new look – long blonde hair, bronzed body and a baby blue velvet gown with silver lamé – they said he’d be out of his mind to go out there looking like that. This was Britain in 1962: a time when wrestling meant working-class men beating each other up without fanfare.
Convinced that his newfound showmanship would win the crowd’s admiration, Adrian ignored the warning. But the jeers rained down on him within seconds of entering the arena. “Ooh Mary, isn’t she cute?” shouted one spectator. “Give us a kiss!” roared another.
“When I was a coal miner, I’d always get guys having a go at me,” says Adrian now. “But I’d never let them have the last word.” He decided that if the audience wanted to play it that way, he’d turn it back on them: blowing kisses and pouting at every catcaller. That did not help defuse the atmosphere. As the bell rang, Adrian thundered across the ring, planted a kiss on the lips of his opponent and proceeded to tear him apart. The crowd went berserk.
“Back in the dressing room, I didn’t want to give the other wrestlers the satisfaction of being right, so I pretended that was my plan all along,” he says. “It’s like when you want to make an entrance at a party, except you trip and fall face-first into the sherry trifle. You get up like, ‘Yeah, I meant to do that.’” This marked the beginning of Exotic Adrian Street: a character that changed the course of his life.
As a kid growing up in rural Wales, Adrian used to dream of the day that his dad – held captive by the Japanese during World War II – would come home. “But I didn’t get the hero I thought was going to get, the dad I expected to love me,” he says. “Instead I got a hateful bigot who never had a kind word to say about me in his life.” His father came from a long line of coal miners and insisted that Adrian follow suit.
At 15 he was pulled out of school and sent to work with his dad, where he’d crawl through 10-inches of ice-cold water in the dark, his hands calloused and bloody from wielding a pickaxe six days a week. Disputes with other miners – men that towered over Adrian’s 5ft 7in frame – would be settled by a fight outside on the slag heap.
Convinced that this wasn’t the life for him, Adrian dreamed of an escape. He’d been lifting weights since the age of 11, inspired by his older brother’s bodybuilding magazines, and decided that he’d try to make it as a wrestler in London. The other miners laughed.
“Have you seen the size of those guys? They’ll rip a little fella like you in half. You’ll never make it.” On his last day on the job, Adrian overheard his father saying: “Nah, he’ll be back. He likes his mother’s cooking too much.” That scepticism gave Adrian exactly the kind of motivation he needed.
In London, he posed for bodybuilding magazines and boxed at a fairground booth – sometimes getting through as many as seven fights a day – so that he could earn enough money to train as a wrestler without distraction. The plan worked. As Adrian’s career gradually gained momentum, it felt like he’d proved everyone wrong. But five years in, something felt lacking. He remembered how, as a kid, he loved cutting up sweet wrappers to create tailor-made costumes for his toy soldiers.
Now he wanted to test out some designs on himself: platform boots, brash leggings, a purple gown with crystal rhinestones. The more shock his image provoked, the further he pushed it. “It was a way to get attention,” he says. “But I was also purposely painting a target on my back because I knew the other wrestlers would resent it – and I wanted them to bring their best fight.”
Infamy brought challenges. Adrian always refused to explicitly state his sexuality – an ambiguity that has proven divisive over the years. He has been embraced as a countercultural hero by some but criticised for furthering camp stereotypes by others. At the time, though, there were nights where he needed to be escorted into the ring by six rugby players for protection.
On other occasions, he’d have to fight his way out of arenas after beating the local hero to a pulp. In 1973, having won the European middleweight title, a national newspaper wanted to do a story on Adrian’s ascent. But there was only one place he’d agree to have his picture taken: back at the coal mine, standing next to his father.
“There’s nothing I like more than somebody telling me I can’t do something,” says Adrian, speaking over Skype from the study at his home in Wales. “And that moment was saying, ‘F-U, bastards!’ It was very, very satisfying.”
The 78-year-old is wearing a wrestling singlet he’s designed himself (bright blue and yellow with a leopard-like print), his head clean-shaven, his physique still buff. The space around him is filled with trophies, posters and championship belts – keepsakes from a career that has encompassed four world titles in three different weight divisions.
Those highlights are what inspired You May Be Pretty, But I Am Beautiful: The Adrian Street Story, a new documentary by Welsh filmmaker Joann Randles. Combining archive footage and interviews with the likes of WWE star Mick Foley, it crafts a portrait of someone determined to blur the roles of athlete and artist.
Apart from designing clothes, Adrian has published seven books (titles include My Pink Gas Mask and Sadist in Sequins) as well as releasing music under the name Adrian Street & The Pile Drivers. The latter felt like a natural shift once Adrian realised he’d became something of a godfather to glam rock.
Marc Bolan cited him as an inspiration, he says, while David Bowie’s lightning bolt face-paint and bright red wrestling boots seemed too similar to be coincidental. (Many years later, Bob Dylan would reference Adrian in his revisionist art.)
“Whenever I went to the States, interviewers would ask if I invented glam rock. I’d always say, ‘I didn’t invent it, though we sure borrowed a lot from each other.’ But I often wonder if Ziggy Stardust wasn’t a direct copy of what I was doing at the time.”
As theatrical as wrestling may be, Adrian bristles at the idea that it’s fake. Over the years, he’s been left with a broken nose, cracked ribs, bone spurs in his neck, a torn Achilles tendon and a kneecap that once ended halfway up his thigh. Way back at his first ever match, he dislocated his opponent’s shoulder and defeated him in under two minutes – a poorly received sequence that taught Adrian a valuable lesson. You could yawn while breaking someone’s arm, but how exciting would that look to a crowd? It takes serious work, he says, to make fights feel as genuine as they can possibly be night after night.
“Wrestling is real,” he says. “It’s just that very often, if there’s a way to make more money, the outcomes are fixed – just like in any other sport. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to kick someone inside out. The promoter may have the last word as to who wins and who doesn’t, but the other guy is going to be in for a damn rough time either way.”
At one particular show in 1971, however, Adrian refused to follow protocol. A promoter had the idea of pitting the wrestler against Jimmy Savile – the DJ and broadcaster later outed as a predatory sex offender – in order to draw a big crowd. But the Welshman wasn’t having any of it. “The guy was not a wrestler and if you want the business to have any credibility, you don’t do things like that,” he says. “I had just beaten the world lightweight champion, George Kidd, whom I considered the best technical wrestler I’d ever seen. And now I was being asked to make sure Jimmy Savile didn’t lose? I was flabbergasted.”
The promoter decided to trick Adrian into it: bringing Jimmy out after he’d already entered the ring. “He was wearing a gown and more or less aping me, which the crowd loved. But once the bell sounded, I kicked and punched him all over the place, tearing clumps of hair out until his head was bleeding. He never wrestled again after that.”
By 1981, 34 years into his career, Adrian hungered for a new challenge. He began competing in Canada, then Mexico, before settling in America’s Continental Championship Wrestling circuit alongside figures such as Andre the Giant and ‘Macho Man Randy’ Savage. The sport was transitioning into a new era of big personalities dressed in flamboyant outfits. It felt like the game had finally caught up to Adrian’s vision.
But within just a few years, the rise of the WWF (now WWE) altered the landscape of American wrestling forever: pulling the biggest names into one promotion while putting regional federations out of business. Adrian did receive an offer to join, but as a neo-Nazi character managing a tag-team of British skinheads. He refused on principle and continued on his own terms, opening a wrestling academy and costume design business in Florida with his wife Linda. (You can see some of their work in Darren Aronofsky’s film The Wrestler, for which they made the costumes.)
Adrian has since moved back to Wales to be near his family and only performed his final show in 2014, at the age of 73. He still hits the gym five days a week, having survived throat cancer and numerous ‘this is the end’ predictions from doctors. That will to confound people has never let up. Without it, he says, there would have been no Exotic Adrian Street.
“Mystery and contrast have always been important to me,” he says. “That’s why I would never say, ‘I’m absolutely not gay’ or say that I was either. The thing is, while people are arguing about it, you’re still getting attention. If you turn ’round and claim to be one thing or another, you’ve put yourself in a box. End of story. And I never want to be in a box. That’s not for me.”
You May Be Pretty, But I Am Beautiful: The Adrian Street Story will premiere at the Market Hall Cinema in Brynmawr, Wales on 16 May.