By day she is Kimberly Benson, but by night she’s Viper, the professional wrestler with attitude at the forefront of the revolution in the sport. Janet Christie meets the Ayrshire woman with all the right moves
I’m just gonna get myself comfy if that’s all right?” says Kimberly Benson, tucking one dainty foot under her and smoothing down her flippy purple dress. Sparkly pink nail varnish flashes as she flicks her long hair away from her glasses and it cascades around her shoulders in blonde waves. It’s not what you expect from someone who’s other name is Viper, The Vixen of Violence.
Benson is not just a bubbly, dog-loving 27-year-old from Ayrshire who works in her family’s coach hire firm, she’s also one of the UK’s top professional wrestlers, the current Insane Championship Women’s Champion and recent winner of the Japanese Stardom’s SWA Championship, she’s part of a new wave of the sport that has seen more women in the ring, and in the audience too.
Fresh from making the TV documentary, Fight Like a Girl, one of BBC 1’s Our Lives series, in which Benson allowed cameras to follow her training, fights and home life, she’s been doing a lot of press of late.
“I’ve got my answers... bing, bing, bing,” she says, announcing the start of our session like a ringside bell. Energetic and enthusiastic, Benson laughs a lot, a gurgling throaty laugh that makes you join in and puts you at ease.
When I tell her I had to watch the programme from behind a cushion as the punches rained and Benson and her opponents crashed and slammed at sickening angles in a carefully choreographed exhibition of violence, she says, “Yeah me too… I was oooh, eeeh, aaaah! Yeah I’m very sore ALL of the time.” Then she laughs, because she loves it.
She’s loved it from her first training session ten years ago at a wrestling school near her home in Ayrshire. “I found wrestling by luck,” she says. “One day I was watching it on TV with my nephew and my then boyfriend who said, ‘you know there’s a training school at Linwood’. So we went at the weekend and I got absolutely battered. I loved it. I remember lying in my bed the day after and I couldn’t get out of bed, my neck, my back, all of me just went ‘nope’, and I lay there for a few minutes and went, ‘this is great!’”
Benson was already a performer, playing the bagpipes in a pipe band and singing in her mother’s karaoke business. “I used to play the keyboard and sing too, but I was quite a tomboy as well and loved rough and tumble, sumo wrestling and play fighting with my dad. I have a half brother, half sister, two step sisters and a nephew from when I was nine, so there was always somebody to fight with! So wrestling was just a way of mashing those two bits of my life together.”
Benson puts the appeal of wrestling for fans down to its combination of live action soap opera, drama, action and humour, plus the sheer variety of the performers, especially now that women’s wrestling is on the up.
“The UK is an absolute hotbed for women’s wrestling,” says Benson. “We’re some of the best in the world and I think it’s because women are good at putting emotion into the fight. Women’s wrestling used to be very much treated like a sideshow but now it’s the main attraction for a lot of people. When I first started there were, maybe a handful of girls in the UK, and certainly none that looked like me.”
At 5ft 5in and 14½ stone Benson is not one of what she calls the “very cheerleader-esque girls” being used when she started, yet it’s her size that is part of her appeal. Confident and funny, she owns her larger than life persona of Viper and has developed it over the years.
“Wrestling helped me be comfortable with who I am. Originally it was difficult because I was very different but over time it helped me learn to love all the things that made me different.
“The thing about Viper was supposed to be the connotations, that I’m a venomous bitch!” She laughs. “When I first made Viper I was 16 and she was a little snotty brat you were hoping was going to get a skelp. Then as I grew up I got more confident and now I don’t really feel there’s a lot of difference between Kim and Viper any more. A lot of her just came about by being a big blonde badass, doing what she wants.
“Back then if you were big girl in wrestling, you had to be bad, angry and grumpy and wear dark colours. I went along with it for a while, then I was ‘absolutely not! I’m gonna have big, blonde curly hair and wear whatever I want’. I do have a black leotard, because well, that’s flattering, but I’ve also got a really nice bright blue one and a bright pink one. I like make-up too, there’s this greeny gold highlighter I love and I do big heavy eyes ‘cos you want them to go ‘oh, she looks nice’ from way over there – paint for the back row. I come out to heavy metal and go ‘hiya!’, ‘cos that’s just me. Everybody says that doesn’t go, but that’s the point. I’ll like whatever I like, and I’m not going to do what you think goes or fits. I HATE being told what to do.”
It would be a brave person that would try because as nice as Benson is, anyone that tries to push her around is literally on a hiding to nothing.
“Wrestling has made me way more confident and changed who I am, helped me develop. I used to be really shy with a huffy teenager face, but it was a defence mechanism. Now people say ‘you’re such a light and happy person, but when you’re in the ring you’re aggressive and battering people, how is that?’ Well, it’s because I get to do that in the ring, it’s an outlet for any anger or frustration, and all that’s left is happiness and lightness, sweetness and light,” she says, before demonstrating her trademark flexed fist and giving a flash of her impressive arm muscles.
With no role models to follow Benson has made it up as she’s gone along – she’s proud to have been part of the first ever televised women’s match on World of Sport – and along the way become an inspiration to others.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, sometimes. I’m ‘please don’t let the kids look up to me’ ‘cos I think I’m a bit of a riot of a person sometimes! But a lot of my appeal is it’s fine if you’re not perfect, superskinny or superfit.
“Someone once said to me they wouldn’t use a girl like me, a bigger girl, for some of the shows and I thought ‘oh, is that bloody right!’” She slams her hands down on the arms of the chair. “Now I do them all. I always feel I have this point to prove. I don’t really know who to any more. I think it might just be to myself!”
With up to four bouts a week, both here as a mainstay of the Glasgow-based ICW shows, and abroad, from Vegas to Japan, Benson is constantly on the move and loves the travel element of her job, along with the high of winning.
“The travel is definitely one of my favourite parts, running around the world just having a laugh with your mates – although I know we work really hard too. But I kind of love the bits of wrestling that are rubbish, because it’s all part of the experience,” she says.
“Me and my wrestler girlfriends have a joke: how many situations have you been put in because of wrestling where you’ve said to yourself, so this is how I die? Like where I was driven to a barn in East Jesus Nowhere in France and realised it was only me and one other girl, a strange woman and a strange man. I’m thinking ‘I’ve not really thought about this’ as we pulled up, ‘this looks like the beginning of Hostel!’” She laughs at the horror film reference, then says, “but luckily it all panned out. We did some wrestling and it was fine.”
To be fair, if you were a mysterious group hell bent on kidnapping and torturing backpackers and picked on Benson you’d find yourself on the wrong side of her signature moves, the Viper Driver, Viper Bomb, Snake Bite, Cannonball, Big Splash and Crossbody.
Wrestling has its lows too, from missing mum Yvonne, dad Niven and Cindy the dog at home in Kilbirnie, to injury and the lack of a regular social life.
“Sometimes I think I want a normal life, to go out with the girls at the weekend and die on the couch on Sunday watching Netflix. There are times I want to quit, but there are people who take inspiration from me so I try to remember when I feel crap and don’t want to do it, ‘it’s not just about you Kimberly, so get your bloody costume on and get out and do your wrestling!’”
As we talk it becomes clear Benson has a tendency to play things down, especially injuries. When she talks of a time when she “exited” a ring it transpires she was thrown out backwards, she has a “waggly” shoulder that requires painful physiotherapy to be popped back in, a “ripped boob” from a pierced nipple, one of seven piercings, that got caught, and a recent bout that wound up with both her and the opponent in hospital, Benson with a “wee lump” on her head and a “weird neck”, ie a suspected broken neck and concussion.
“I broke my friend’s ankle and feel absolutely rotten about it, although I know it wasn’t my fault. It’s the nature of the beast with wrestling. I did a Flip Cannonball and her foot slipped and I came down on her ankle. I expected the hospital to say to me, right you, get up the road, but they made me stay in for an MRI and it turns out I’ve got a wee abnormality in two of my vertebrates, probably from years of wrestling.
“They put us in separate wards because they heard we’d been in a fight, then they couldn’t understand why we were both asking to be next to each other. We said, we’re performers, we do this together, so they said OK. Did they think I’d go on a street fight in a leotard?”
Because she’s always on the road, Benson’s friends are mainly other wrestlers, Kay Lee Ray, Toni Storm, Lion Heart and DCT, her “wrestling husband.”
“Wrestling really is a weird, dysfunctional family. There is no other sport or hobby where you could batter the life out of each other then go, ‘oh, that was good, let’s go for a drink.’”
Battering the life out of each other is a bonding experience because of the potential for damage and the necessity to establish total trust with your opponent. “It’s always at the back of my mind before every match, that this could be my last, but you don’t let that voice win,” she laughs.
“When you’re in the ring they’re entrusting you with their life and vice versa. You are hitting each other really hard and it’s very physical and sore, but you don’t EVER want to cause injury. There’s this weird thing of ‘I love you so much I want the world to know how good you are so I’m going to batter the life out of you.’”
Ask Benson who inspires her and because there wasn’t anybody like her, the response is simple. “I became the person I needed when I was younger. There was such a lack of people like me I thought, ‘I’ll just go and do it then’. That’s me summed up. But in real life, my mum is my absolute hero. She does everything for everybody, works in our family business and in Tesco and she’s always there when I need her. She inspires me, day in day out.”
But she’s not physical at all?
“I don’t know!” laughs Benson, for the first time sounding slightly scared. “She’s like four foot, but it’s four foot of pure fury when it needs to be. Sometimes if something’s gone wrong in the coach business, she shouts, and it’s ‘Oh God!’”
With the wrestling going well Benson is happy with her life right now, and content being single, though she’d be happy for that to change.
“I do see myself as a Stepford wife with the wee picket fence at some point in my life, but for right now, I’m just waiting to see if somebody wants to come along for the ride.”
If someone does, they better not try and tell Benson what to do. She hates that. Or what not to do either. So when it’s suggested she lifts me, it seems rude to refuse. On the count of three she has me hoisted up onto her back, both feet off the ground, head somewhere round her knees – if she wanted she could toss me around like a rag doll. But she doesn’t and I feel completely safe. It’s all a matter of trust. I have been Viper-ed.
Fight Like a Girl is on BBC iPlayer