Paris, the relatively humble advertising major from Chester, W.Va., flips a switch and morphs into Zema Ion, a trash talking villain who obsessively sprays his hair and calls himself “pretty,” in front of thousands of live wrestling fans and millions watching on national television.
Paris wrestles for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, the nation’s second largest wrestling promotion—while attending WVU. He’s on track to graduate in December 2012.
And believe it or not, the two worlds—the field of journalism and the macho, melodramatic spectacle that is professional wrestling—collide.
To make it in the world of suplexes and steel chairs, you’ve got to market yourself as a shiny, top-shelf product, Paris says. He learned those ropes at WVU’s P.I. Reed School of Journalism.
“I got to where I’m at by selling myself,” said Paris, who signed a contract withTNA in the summer of 2011. More than a million viewers tune to Spike TV every Thursday night to see young stars like Paris and legendary household names like Hulk Hogan, Sting, and Kurt Angle on TNA’s “Impact Wrestling.”
“Being an advertising major and knowing the ins and outs of the field helped me market myself to TNA Wrestling when I got an opportunity,” Paris said.
Now 26, Paris began training for pro wrestling at age 16. He grew up idolizing performers who had the entire package—not just the jacked-up brutes who knew a hold or two. He molded himself after wrestlers such as “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels and Rick “The Model” Martel, undersized grapplers who relied on speed, charisma and in-ring ability to get over with the audience.
Paris is 5’8 and weighs 170. You might miss him in a crowd.
In character, he refers to himself as a “model” and carries his trademark can of hairspray to the ring. Sometimes, the hairspray winds up being used for devious purposes, like blinding opponents.
“Zema is my arrogant, flamboyant persona,” Paris said. “I really came into my own in the Journalism School by learning to speak publicly and be confident. By the time I got to TNA, I wasn’t nervous speaking on the mic or cutting promos.”
SON OF A MAIL-ORDER BRIDE
Paris’ wrestling persona stands out in a sea of vanilla characters.
Yet the real Michael Paris has a personal backstory that is even more intriguing.
His mother is a mail-order bride.
The family isn’t ashamed. In fact, the story was told in a National Geographic documentary about pro wrestling.
Paris’ mom, a Filipino, had worked tirelessly in Singapore sweatshops. She had dreams of becoming a fashion designer and decided to register for a groom. Soon enough, she was wooed by a French-American man, about 30 years older, through romantically written letters.
She went to be with him in California and they started a family. But when Paris was five, his father died.
This forced Paris’ mom to relinquish her dream, work odd jobs, and singlehandedly raise three children. The grit, hard work, and unwavering dedication of his mom instilled in Paris character and values that carved a path to his own journey.
“This was a single mom from another country who didn’t have a clue about what was going on in America,” Paris said. “She had to make it work and raise three kids. All three made it through or are in college. She’s the strongest woman I know.
“When I think of my adult life as difficult, I think about mom. She did it against all odds.”
THE BACKUP PLAN
In his first few years as a wrestler, Paris performed for small, independent promotions throughout West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A break came in 2006, when he caught the eye of a wrestling promoter who invited him to work in Japan. Paris’ global pursuits spread elsewhere, like Mexico.
He was making a name for himself. Yet he remained a realist.
What if the wrestling gig ended up a bust?
“I can’t put ‘backflips and spraying my hair’ on a job resume,” Paris said. “The chances of making it are slim. It could be over in a second. I could break my leg tomorrow.”
Paris enrolled at WVU in 2007 to study journalism—an outlet for his creativity and writing.
“I loved my advertising classes,” said Paris, who named Joel Beeson and Dana Coester as his favorite professors.
Michael Paris, wrestling as Zema Ion, delivers a dropkick from the top turnbuckle to his opponent at a wrestling show in Pennsylvania.
Not everyone was aware of his second life as a devious loudmouth of the squared circle. In the classroom, he was the opposite—quiet, reserved, humble, and fully clothed.
For an advertising project, Paris and some classmates filmed a yogurt commercial. The group wrote a wrestling-themed script. For the ad, Paris suited up in his gear and staged a wrestling match. He performed a miraculous comeback after taking a bite of yogurt.
The professor, Sang Lee, didn’t know of Paris’ wrestling pursuits and said, “Mike, you could be on TV. Really, you should think about that.”
A month later, Paris debuted in TNA on Spike TV.
If balancing school and work weren’t taxing enough for Paris, it soon became nearly impossible.
As a TNA wrestler, Paris regularly travels to Orlando, FL, where the promotion hosts TV shows and pay-per-views.
Even with the hustle-and-bustle, Paris has managed to earn his journalism credits to graduate.
Paris could have easily dropped out of college to focus on his budding wrestling career. But giving up is unacceptable—in and out of the ring.
“Getting an education is investing in yourself,” he said. “Once you earn that degree, no one can take that away from you.”