Wearing her 'Hart' on her sleeve: How WWE’s Natalya carries on a family legacy

For Natalie “Natalya” Neidhart, wrestling isn’t just her profession, it’s her life. Always has been, always will be.

The 36-year-old is part of one of the most beloved wrestling dynasties of all time, the legendary Hart family. A third-generation professional wrestler, Neidhart trained in Stu Hart’s infamous “dungeon,” wrestled across the globe, and has spent the past decade in WWE, all the while carrying on the legacy of not only her uncle, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, but also her father, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart.

Everything Neidhart does in WWE pays homage to her family. She wears the iconic pink and black ring attire, her entrance music starts with a guitar screech like her uncle Bret, and her submission finisher – the Sharpshooter – was made famous during the Hart Foundation’s heyday.

It’s that deep-rooted connection to her family and their legacy that has made her most recent storyline emotionally taxing for her while simultaneously captivating for WWE fans across the world.

“A lot of people have asked me, girls that I work with backstage, other superstars, people at home, if I’m OK with this storyline and how do I feel about it,” Neidhart told Yahoo Sports.

“For me, this is what is going on in my life, this is the elephant in the room.”

The elephant Neidhart is referring to is the recent death of her father, Jim.

Related: 10 highest-paid WWE stars in 2018

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10 highest-paid WWE stars in 2018
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10 highest-paid WWE stars in 2018

10. Kevin Owens — $2 million (£1.43 million). This is Kevin Owens' first ever appearance on the Forbes list of top-earning WWE stars, but the 33-year-old's activity in the ring and reign as Universal Champion helped him crack the top 10 in 2018.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images)

9. Dean Ambrose — $2.2 million (£1.57 million). Dean Ambrose is one of the most charismatic wrestlers. He is also one of the busiest WWE athletes and was the second most active wrestler last year.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

8. The Undertaker — $2.5 million (£1.79 million). The Undertaker has been around for almost three decades and is beloved for his spine-tingling ring entrances. He is a smash hit with WWE fans, which means he hardly has to wrestle to feature in the top 10 as his merchandise sales still earn him a pretty penny.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images)

7. Seth Rollins — $2.7 million (£1.93 million). Seth Rollins is a staple of WWE main events and overcame knee injuries to return to the big matches last year. Forbes says Rollins' popularity with fans means he gets a good salary from merchandise sales.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images)

6. Randy Orton — $2.9 million (£2.07 million). Sports entertainment is clearly in the family blood as Randy Orton is a third generation professional wrestler. A nine-time WWE champion, Orton has one of the most iconic in-ring poses and made 11 pay-per-view appearances in 2017.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by Andrew Toth/FilmMagic)

5. Triple H — $3.2 million (£2.29 million). Triple H now wrestles less frequently than he has in previous years, but the 48-year-old, an executive vice president since 2013, receives a base wrestling salary as well as a $1.7 million executive salary, including bonuses and stock awards.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo credit should read THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)

4. AJ Styles — $3.5 million (£2.5 million). AJ Styles has featured for many professional wrestling brands like Ring of Honor, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, and New Japan Pro-Wrestling. He moved to WWE in 2016, worked more WWE dates than any other wrestler in 2017, and is the current WWE champion in his second reign.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images)

3. Roman Reigns — $4.3 million (£3.08 million). Roman Reigns is one of the biggest names in WWE and this alone means he polarises fans. Some loathe him, some love him, and others love to loathe him. Regardless, he has headlined four WrestleMania events in a row — an impressive feat.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by Ron ElkmanSports Imagery/Getty Images)

2. Brock Lesnar — $6.5 million (£4.65 million). After a stint in UFC where he became world heavyweight champion, Brock Lesnar returned to WWE in 2012. Lesnar is a five-time WWE world champion and has headlined some of the biggest events WWE has staged, including the most recent — WrestleMania 34.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images)

1. John Cena — $10 million (£7.15 million). A 16-time world champion with WWE, Cena has followed The Rock to Hollywood. He still competes in the Raw and SmackDown brands for WWE, but has featured in movies like 'The Marine,' 'Trainwreck,' and 'Ferdinand.'

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

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Neidhart’s dad passed away suddenly this past August due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. The 63-year-old’s death sent shockwaves throughout the wrestling world, particularly for those who watched him and Bret dominate the WWE’s tag-team division in the 1980s.

At the most basic level, professional wrestling boils down to two athletes performing in the ring. The athleticism on display is often times enough to captivate a crowd, but the best matches and most memorable angles will often involve another layer of storytelling, a blending of what’s real and what’s scripted.

That element, the incorporation of reality, is precisely what makes Neidhart’s ongoing feud with Ruby Riott so enticing. For weeks now, Riott has provoked and incited Neidhart by mocking her late father and the legacy of the Hart family.

For some, the invocation of a late family member may be too much, but in a way, Neidhart admits, this has been a chance for her father, “The Anvil,” to get a proper sendoff in WWE.

“My dad was a professional wrestler,” Neidhart said. “He was a WWE superstar, he was a WWE legend before he passed away and I feel like in some crazy way this is like my dad is having one last run.

“I feel like if I asked my dad right now, ‘Daddy, how do you feel about me doing this storyline?’ My dad would say go for it. He understood pro wrestling, he understood how, for fans to become emotionally invested in stories, there has to be emotionally charged content.”

Dealing with death in the world of professional wrestling can be tricky. Often times when a former wrestler dies, it’s after years of being away from the spotlight and, tragically, before his or her time.

While Neidhart’s death was sudden, it was also particularly jarring because of how frequently he was seen on “Total Divas,” the E! reality television series his daughter stars on.

“My dad and I were really close. Anybody who watched [the show] or followed me on Instagram would see that,” Natalie Neidhart said. “When I wasn’t wrestling I was home with my family and spending so much time with my dad, we had this really incredible bond and relationship.”

By all accounts, Jim Neidhart loved being on the show and it provided a look inside a retired professional wrestler’s life that fans are rarely privy to.

“My dad was a family man, he isn’t just another statistic to me,” Natalie Neidhart said. “I feel like all of this was really different. I felt like it was really important for me to share my dad’s funeral and share his journey and what we were going through. Even my own family asked why we were having cameras there for the funeral, but it was what my dad would have wanted. He loved the entertainment side.”

Natalie acknowledges her unique grieving process. After her father’s death, the two-time champion was quickly back at work and, just a few months later, part of an angle that has focused primarily on her tragic loss.

“In some weird way, this storyline has been strangely therapeutic because anything I’m feeling I can get it out,” Natalie said. “If I need to cry, I can get it out. I can let everybody see it, hear it and I can take the WWE universe on this journey with me. I need to speak the truth and I need to remind the world that my dad was a WWE star, he was special and everyone can feel that with me.”

Related: WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon

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WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon
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In addition to homing in on her late father, the Riott-Neidhart storyline has incorporated several other tangential layers.

For many, it’s easy to assume that Natalie, given her pedigree and ties to the industry, has had it easy up until this point in her career.

In reality, she not only had to scratch and claw her way into WWE, but also to get the kind of opportunities that relative newcomers – like Riott – have been able to relish in during the “Women’s Evolution.”

“It took me five years to get hired in WWE,” Neidhart admitted. “I had family connections and it still took that long. I sent in tapes, went to tryouts, whenever WWE came to Calgary I went backstage and I would try to get a tryout. I was relentless, but I was rejected for a long time. I used that rejection to fuel me, but I knew in my heart I would get here.

“I stuck it out through 45-second matches, dancing with the Great Khali, crazy gimmicks, because I knew there would be a moment in time that I would get to deliver in the ring.”

When Natalie debuted in 2008, the first hurdle was cleared, but it wouldn’t be until 2014 – when she had an instant-classic match against Charlotte Flair at NXT TakeOver – that she’d begin to fully come into her own as a WWE wrestler.

“When I did make my debut on SmackDown in 2008 … I didn’t know where I fit in,” Natalie said. “I knew that I could wrestle, but at the time I felt like WWE didn’t want the women wrestling. I didn’t feel pretty enough, I couldn’t dance, I didn’t know if I could wear a bikini on TV, that just wasn’t me.

“When I was ready for the ‘Women’s Evolution,’ the ‘Women’s Evolution’ wasn’t ready for me.”

Natalie has served as a mentor for many women throughout the years – both on camera and behind the scenes – and is one of the most respected and well-liked veterans in WWE. It’s a wrinkle that helps make Riott the perfect Joker to Natalie’s Batman (or Catwoman, which is a more fitting reference for the feline-obsessed star).

 “Ruby Riott and the Riott Squad are some of the biggest heels in the industry today,” Natalie said. “They’re embracing these characters and Ruby has really [run with] it and she has been nothing but evil.”

Although Riott’s work as a heel has been heralded, that doesn’t mean Neidhart isn’t bringing some of her own heat.

On the most recent episode of “Raw,” Neidhart referenced one of professional wrestling’s most talked about moments – the Montreal Screwjob – where her uncle allegedly punched Vince McMahon backstage after a championship match at Survivor Series.

“I didn’t mince my words when I said anything. I’ve been wanting to say [the stuff about the Montreal Screwjob] for a long time because Ruby had been saying I got my opportunity because of who my family is,” Natalie said. “No, actually when your uncle punches the boss in the face, it makes it really hard for you to even get a job in WWE.

“I had never spoken about that, I was worried about Bret being upset, but I thought to myself, I’m just going to say it and I don’t care who gets mad that I said it.”

If her recent work is any indication, 10 years into her WWE career, Neidhart remains a consistent, driving force in the women’s division and a worthy successor to carry on the Hart dynasty for many more to come.

“On Sunday, it is going to be one of my most powerful performances and it’s going to be for my dad.”

“TLC” will stream live on the WWE Network this Sunday at 7pm ET.

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