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The Jersey Devil In The Ring
WWE’s Sonya DeVille represents the Pinelands with pride
By Terri Akman

Kids who grow up in South Jersey usually find their way to some typical sport like soccer or lacrosse. But when Shamong’s Daria Berenato was 16, she tried something a little different: mixed martial arts. The intensely rough and physical sport led her to where she is today, traveling the country as a popular WWE wrestler and rising star on the television show “SmackDown Live.”

Her celebrity persona is Sonya DeVille, but in the ring she’s the Jersey Devil, a nod to her South Jersey roots. The 25-year-old has carefully crafted her alter ego as a tough risk-taker who will do anything to win. But unlike many WWE wrestlers, Deville also has a purpose. Since coming out in 2015, she is the first openly gay WWE wrestler, and she recognizes that she now has a platform to help the LGBTQ community. Deville says it’s given her job a new purpose and passion.

 

Q: You inspired so many people when you came out in 2015, an obviously unplanned moment. How did that come about?

I came out on the reality show “Tough Enough.” Part of the tryout was doing an in-ring promo in front of top WWE executives. The first question I was asked was whether I was in a relationship. I was so caught off-guard. I didn’t think in any way, shape or form would I be asked that on camera. I kind of laughed and gave a super awkward answer, “Yea, I have a girlfriend who’s not a wife yet.” They all started laughing because they could see how uncomfortable I was. He said, “You just came out on national television.” It was this spontaneous moment of something I hadn’t verbalized much before. It ended up being the best experience of my life, because now I have a platform to inspire others.

 

Q: Could you explain to us how professional wrestling works?

Professional wrestling is sports entertainment. We’re there to entertain the fans and put on a show, but there’s so much physicality that goes into it. Coming from MMA, wrestling is hands-down harder. You’re doing things that aren’t natural for your body to do, like landing on your back, jumping off the top rope. It’s super physical and taxing on your body and your mind. For me, it’s the most rewarding job in the world, because I’ve always had an interest in acting. I’ve loved fighting since I was 16 so it’s the combination of my two dream worlds. I fell in love with it when I realized that WWE is literally about putting smiles on kids’ faces.

 

Q: Is your Sonya persona similar to real-life Daria?

They are definitely similar and have a lot of the same core values, but they have their differences, too. Daria is more goofball and super silly, where Sonya is a little more serious. She doesn’t take herself too seriously though, she also has a lightheartedness to her that we’ll see more and more in the coming months. She’s intense and plays to win. Sonya has a trigger and if you mess with the things and people closest to her, you’ll see that ass-kicking Jersey girl demeanor come out. I do feel more myself in my character now than I ever have. Sonya is really coming into her own, and there are so many of my traits and attributes in her that I love. Obviously, Daria wouldn’t punch somebody in the face or knock their donuts on the floor, like I did on SmackDown. Sonya would, so it’s fun to play up that role.

 

Q: What is it about Sonya that resonates so strongly with the audience?

Sonya stands out because she’s a chick from the Northeast who brings a level of legitimacy and rawness. She gets down and dirty, she likes to fight. Yes, she has a martial arts background, but she also stands for a lot. She was recently named the Pride Fighter which is the perfect moniker for her because she’s fighting for a reason. Sonya’s a lot more than just an ass-kicker.

 

Q: How much time do you spend on the road wrestling before live audiences?

We leave every Saturday morning and get home every Wednesday afternoon. We’re on the road 52 weeks a year, holidays included. It’s a grind. There’s no off-season with WWE. You have to love what you do and it’s a blast every day to be able to travel the world. It’s a dream come true to me. To be able to visit hospitals and go to Pride rallies makes this job worth every minute.

 

Q: You and your wrestling partner Mandy Rose are super popular on YouTube. Some of your videos get 100,000+ views. Can you tell us about your YouTube series?

Mandy and I have been best friends since we were on the reality show “Tough Enough” in 2015. We’ve shared this entire journey which is a special bond that I don’t think is replaceable. One of our favorite pastimes is eating like savages, and donuts are one of our favorite foods. We’re traveling to a different city and state literally every week. We thought, why don’t we try the best doughnut joint in every town we go to? We do it on our cell phone in our rental cars. It’s totally not glamorous but it’s super fun for us, and the fans have been so magnetized to it. People can’t believe we eat like that – unhealthy.

 

Q: How did your South Jersey upbringing help shape you?

Growing up in the Pine Barrens was the best childhood I could ask for. I grew up riding quads and picking blueberries. I had a real outdoorsy lifestyle that shaped who I am. We used to play kick-the-can and go mudding. It kept me super real. I still go back for the shore, either Ocean City or LBI, for pizza, shooting guns and bows and arrows, and doing all the same stuff I always did.

 

October 2019
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