When New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling (NOLAW)founder Nina Feldman first arm wrestled in upstate New York back in 2009, she thought she was going to get her ass kicked.
"My persona was The Runt," says Feldman, who stands 5 feet, 4 inches. But when The Runt's gold lamé Spandex and onstage antics carried her to the finals that night, Feldman learned the first rule of Ladies Arm Wrestling: "It's not only about brute strength," she says with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
Not that New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling participants aren't tough women — many are blacksmiths, carpenters, farmers, athletes, or just plain jacked. But in NOLAW, as in the WWF, attitude is at least as important as muscle mass.
Take Justin Beaver, for example. At the NOLAW tournament last December, she made her grand entrance with a lip-synched performance of teen heartthrob Justin Bieber's hit song "Baby." Her costume's clever allusion to the photo blog Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber — or, in this case, Justin Bieber in a pair of rodent teeth and a beaver tail — made her an instant crowd favorite.
Then there was the Vagitarian. She wasn't even that great of a wrestler, but what she lacked in strength she more than made up for in sheer raunchiness. Her costume: a white chef's uniform with an enormous pink vagina hand-sewn in the back. Her signature move? Reaching back over her shoulder to give those faux-lady parts a tickle.
In past tournaments, there was the busty and flatulent Dolly Fartin, the lady cop Armed And Dangerous, a rugby player dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and a John Waters-inspired Cry-Baby complete with a jailbird's teardrop tattoo.
It takes only a few minutes of watching these bawdy, gender-bending characters brawl it out onstage to see that, in a town known for outrageous spectacles, NOLAW puts on one of the most outrageous spectacles in town.
And it's all for a good cause.
NOLAW is the local chapter of a national network of women's arm wrestling leagues whose mission is part entertainment and part philanthropy, with a wallop of female empowerment mixed in. Founded in 2008 in Charlottesville, Va., the original LAW league has spawned similar groups in seven other areas across the country, forming a national movement that reaches from Taos, N.M. to New York City.
Feldman, 23, originally was a member of Hudson Valley B.R.A.W.L. (Broads Regional Arm Wrestling League) near her college in upstate New York. When she moved to New Orleans after graduation, she knew an event involving elaborate costumes, wild antics and a way to give back to the community could find a home in the Crescent City. "I was like, 'This will catch on like wildfire,'" she says.
Feldman called her friend Ari Braverman, who called her friends, who called theirs. Before they knew it, they had formed NOLAW's core organizing committee — now known as the Council of Elders — to organize the first event. It took place at Finn McCool's Irish Pub in Mid-City in January 2010.
"No one had any idea that it was gonna be that successful and that packed," says Charlie Christian, who emcees the events with Feldman. "Finn McCool's was bursting at the gills."
NOLAW has since held a handful of events at venues across town, from Handsome Willy's to the AllWays Lounge, and has amassed increasing numbers of fans along the way.
Admission to NOLAW events is free, but money spent betting on wrestlers goes to local organizations that benefit women and children. The most recent, at The Maison on Frenchmen Street, helped fund an entrepreneurial printmaking workshop for women led by the Louisiana ArtWorks Community Print Shop, and before that, another one benefited a mental health program for families affected by the BP oil disaster.
On average, Feldman says, NOLAW participants are five to 10 years younger than those in other LAW leagues, and audiences are younger, too. The young crowds have made the cash flow slower than in other leagues — the group raises about $1,000 per event, while other leagues have raised as much as $5,000 — but they've also made NOLAW tournaments more fun.
"The other leagues are much more preoccupied with following the rules," Feldman says. "We get a little dirty."
This down-and-dirty, anything-can-happen quality has become NOLAW's trademark style. The basic outline of each brawl is like a standard tournament: eight wrestlers start out the night, one goes home the champion. But that format is really just a jumping-off point for the outrageous sideshows that unfold spontaneously along the way.
"It all goes by in a terrible blur," Christian says.
At the Allways Lounge tournament last spring, a wrestler named Bait and Tackle sparked NOLAW's first dance-off competition. No one quite remembers how it happened, but by all accounts she began the night wrapped in fishing net and ended it dancing on stage in nothing but a NOLAW muscle shirt and a pair of underwear.
"It seemed to happen as an organic ground swell, in some psychic group decision that this needed to happen," Christian says. Bait and Tackle went home a champion that night, and the dance-off has since become a NOLAW institution.
Another institution is the "celebrity judges" — costumed duos (Freddie Mercury and Andy Warhol, say, or Tonya Hard-On and Nancy Tear-It-Off) who sit onstage during each tournament to add an extra dose of drama to the show.
Last spring one celebrity judge impersonated M.I.A., the British rapper and political provocateuse who performed at the Grammy Awards while nine months pregnant. "She didn't really look anything like [M.I.A.] but she had a great accent," Feldman says. "And then, at the end of the show, she did a bit about how we're all terrorists, and then broke her water on stage and sprayed the water on the crowd."
Occasionally, NOLAW events have spiraled completely out of control, thanks to a bribing system put in place to encourage big spending. During a normal bet, $1 buys an audience member one ticket for a wrestler of her choice — winning bettors earn a chance to win prizes like gift certificates to local bars and restaurants — and wrestlers must adhere to a set of rules: wrestling elbow on the table, one butt cheek firmly planted. But for $40, an audience member can have the ref blindfolded and for $60, she can buy a rematch and bring back an eliminated wrestler. For $80, a member of the crowd can buy a "guest match."
When the Vagitarian and Armed And Dangerous squared off in front of a blindfolded ref at The Maison, the battle that ensued looked more like Ultimate Fighting than arm wrestling.
"It was complete lack of decorum," Christian says. "It reminded me of those scenes on [the Discovery Channel's] Planet Earth where two stags meet on a rocky crag. They lost all sense of self-preservation."
But for the most part, NOLAW manages to navigate a fine line between unpredictability and control (though wrestlers are asked to sign safety waivers, just in case). "It's like going to the zoo," Christian says. "You get to get really close to a lion and it's really nervewracking. But you know there are bars there and you're not really gonna get eaten."
And with its crazy mashup of campy humor, sports, pop culture and theater, NOLAW events have earned fans from all walks of New Orleans life.
"You're appealing to butch or buff or athletic chicks, and you're appealing to feminists, and you're appealing to guys who are there for a little bit of tits and ass, and you're appealing to the theater crowd, and you're appealing to strippers," Feldman says.
Attracting such a diverse group to such a gender-bending, female-driven event is one of the Ladies Arm Wrestling movement's greatest achievements, Feldman says.
"People's notions of traditional gender norms are transformed just by going. It's really easy to cast off feminist activities or movements as angry or fruitless; and you go to something like this and have a blast, and you realize you just supported one, no matter who you are," Feldman says.
As the only male participant on stage, part of Christian's role as emcee is to demonstrate that men, too, can enjoy such an overtly female event — and not just for the T&A.
"The fact that the women take it to that level and are so engrossed in it is what's fun to watch," he says. "I like watching that level of acting in general, regardless of sex."
Zach Gong, 24, is another man who has been a huge NOLAW fan since the beginning. He sees ladies' arm wrestling as a product of the current zeitgeist in the city. "In 2010 New Orleans, [NOLAW] is a quintessential type of event," he says. "It's driven by young people. There's no budget. And it's an altruistic venture."
NOLAW's first tournament of the new year is Friday, Feb. 25 — a benefit for the New Orleans Birthing Project, an organization that provides mentors for underserved and at-risk mothers-to-be.
To prepare for the event, the Council of Elders has been busy hatching new ideas. They want to attract an older audience (with deeper pockets) to their shows, and they're hoping to raise enough money to help fund the formation of a national Ladies Arm Wrestling organization to unite the disparate leagues under one umbrella nonprofit.
They've also been busy assembling a fresh batch of lady wrestlers. At a recent party in the Bywater, Feldman had her eye on a toned landscaper in a sleeveless shirt.
"I noticed her arms across the room," Feldman says. "And I thought, 'She should wrestle.'"