"I didn’t listen to any of the same music as my friends. I didn’t fit in.” How heavy metal helped Rhea Ripley grow from school misfit to world champion and one of WWE's biggest stars

Rhea Ripley at Royal Rumble 2023
(Image credit: Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)

Even if you've only a passing interest in professional wrestling, chances are that you've heard of Rhea Ripley. The 26-year-old Aussie WWE star has been wiping the floor with just about anyone that steps in her way on Raw, Smackdown and NXT over the course of 2023. At Wrestlemania 39 in April, Ripley's already impressive career reached a new peak as she defeated Charlotte Flair to capture the WWE Women's World Championship in front of over 80,000 people at the Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, California.

Since then, she and her stable The Judgement Day - a black-clad foursome of goths and misfits also featuring Finn Bàlor, Dominik Mysterio and Damian Priest - have been dominating WWE television. As well as being an inspiration to wrestling fans, Ripley proudly flies the flag for metal via her entrance music, mannerisms and look. It's an extension of her lifelong love of the music and the metal scene itself, and has helped her stand out in an industry famous for loud, colourful characters.

Back in 2021, Metal Hammer chatted to Ripley - then having only recently debuted on WWE's main roster - about her early life, her discovery of heavy music and her journey into wrestling. This is what she had to say. 

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“I’ve always been a brutal kid. I loved soccer, I loved netball, I loved rugby, I loved karate. I loved everything, especially the contact sports. Watching wrestling and how brutal it was sometimes, it really brought me in. I love weapons, all that sort of stuff…”

You love violence, basically.

“Violence, yeah,” comes the response, followed by a guilty chuckle. “I’m a very violent individual!”

Metal Hammer is rarely the hardest person in the room, but it’s safe to say that Rhea Ripley could give us an absolute kicking. Luckily, she seems to have no such intentions; she’s actually one of the friendliest people you could ever share an interview with. Plus, she’s thousands of miles away, beaming in via video link from sunny Florida while we sit in the comfort of a miserable, rainy spring evening here in the UK. Dressed in a Blackcraft hoodie, her blonde, spiky hair shaven round the sides and rocking black nail polish, piercings and dark make-up, Rhea looks like many of the faces you’ll see in Metal Hammer each month. The big difference? Rhea isn’t in a metal band. She’s a wrestler - in fact, she’s the biggest thing in women’s wrestling in the last few years, a multiple-time champion in the biggest wrestling company on the planet, no less. So make no mistake about it: Rhea Ripley may not be a musician, but she is a total rockstar. 

Born in Adelaide, Australia in 1996, Rhea - real name Demi Bennett - felt like the odd kid out from the start. A naturally bigger girl than most of her peers, she was treated differently by her classmates, and school was often a mixed experience.

“I [was] always a bulkier sort of child,” she tells us. “I’ve always had muscle, I’ve always had broad shoulders, I’ve never really fit in in that way and I’ve always been picked on for that. I’ve always felt somewhat of an outsider.”

Nonetheless, Rhea says her childhood was, for the most part, “fantastic”, describing herself as a “very outdoors kid” who would go camping all the time and play “every sport that you could”. It was that rough-and-ready, physical side to her personality that eventually drew her to professional wrestling - a world where larger-than-life characters are celebrated, not ostracised, and where physicality is the name of the game. 

“[WWE legend] Triple H was the reason I started watching wrestling,” she explains. “I watched a match with him and Ric Flair, and just the amount of brutality in that match alone… I was like, ‘OK, I have to try this, I really wanna do this.’”

That interest would soon spark a passion that would eventually lead to a career. But there was one other passion that wrestling brought her: heavy metal. As a young fan in the late 00s, Rhea would tune into WWE’s flagship show, Raw, every Monday night. The show’s theme tune in that era? …To Be Loved by Papa Roach.

“I was a huge Papa Roach fan after that,” she grins. “The song was so catchy, I was like, ‘I need to listen to this more.’”

Rhea took to Youtube to find more Papa Roach songs, eventually falling down the wormhole of heavy music that would make her a dedicated metalhead for life. 

“You know how you go on Youtube and you’re listening to a band, and then it’s a random playlist?” she adds. “The next song comes on and you’re like, ‘Ooh, this band’s cool…’ It was sort of like that. I would listen to all these new, cool bands and I’d write down the names and download the songs. Eventually, my love grew for it; I would be in class in high school listening to metal when no one else listened to the same music. But Papa Roach was definitely the beginning, and I’m glad that wrestling could introduce me to that.”

Rhea would become obsessed with bands like Of Mice & Men, Suicide Silence and Motionless In White, poring over their videos, plastering posters of them on her bedroom walls and confusing the hell out of classmates who had no idea what she saw in it all. It only fuelled her ever- growing belief that she just wasn’t like most people.

“It’s funny, ’cause at the time, I didn’t really stand up for myself at all,” she admits. “I’d sit in class and listen to my music, and I’d get carried away and start headbanging and singing along to it, moshing out a little bit in class…then I’d look over and my friends would be laughing at me and filming me, all that. I didn’t listen to any of the same music as they did. I didn’t fit in.”

Like metal, wrestling has often provided a home for outsiders. It’s another industry that has millions of passionate followers worldwide, and yet to those looking in, it remains a curious oddity, drastically misunderstood by anyone who doesn’t get it. Perhaps it was no coincidence, then, that as Rhea began to meet and hang out with wrestlers from her local scene, metal remained a part of the total package.

“All us ‘outsiders’ came together and made our own little group,” she says now. “I definitely felt more normal being with my wrestling crew; we all listened to the same music, which was fantastic. Every time we’d go into the gym and work out before wrestling training, my coach would be blasting heavy metal, and it just made the environment so good. I think that’s what made my love for heavy metal grow even more.”

Rhea spent her latter teenage years on the Australian independent wrestling circuit before signing with WWE in 2017. Since then, she has become a trailblazer in the company, becoming the first Australian world champion in WWE history at Wrestlemania 37 in April 2021. The further she’s come in her wrestling career, the further her love of metal has influenced her public persona; her theme music is sung by Ash Costello of New Years Day, her wrestling attire looks like it was designed by Rob Halford fresh off the Painkiller video and her entrance is marked by a homage to former Suicide Silence frontman Mitch Lucker, courtesy of an unmistakable deathcore stomp.

“Yeah, it’s the Lucker stomp,” Rhea laughs. “I still have my Mitch Lucker memorial shirt that came out ages ago, and it’s still my favourite shirt. I wear it at least twice a week.”

Rhea was just 16 when Mitch died after a motorcycle crash in 2012. It was a moment that had a profound effect on her as a young metal fan.

“It was horrible,” she recalls. “The way that he went, as well, was absolutely horrible. I remember going to my friend’s house - we had family friends and they were the people I watched wrestling with and listened to music with, and their daughter loved Mitch as well. I found out and went straight to their house; we just cried for a good couple of hours in her room until we calmed down. It was such a sad day. It still is sad thinking about it. It should have never happened.”

The fact that Rhea chooses to honour Mitch on such a major, mainstream platform like WWE is one of many reasons she’s become an icon for metalheads and misfits around the world. In a wrestling ring, she’s a real-life superhero: larger than life, charismatic and an absolute powerhouse, throwing opponents around the ring like ragdolls. In real life, though, she’s still just one of us: that same outsider kid who never quite belonged.

“I think it’s always best in wrestling to be yourself, but a 10x version,” she muses. “So the only difference between ‘Rhea Ripley’ and me, is Rhea Ripley is super-confident! Ha ha! I don’t know where all this confidence comes from when I go out there, but it does. In my normal life, I’m a quiet, shy sort of person. I’ll sit in the corner by myself. But at work I’m a whole different animal. It’s like the true me that I wish I could present in everyday life.”

On one hand, it seems impossible to connect the Rhea Ripley we see tearing up WWE with the quiet, easygoing young woman on the end of this video call. On the other… isn’t that exactly what heavy metal is all about? It allows us the spaces to be the loudest, proudest, truest versions of ourselves. For some, that’s on a stage. For others, it’s in a crowd at a festival. For the woman born Demi Bennett, it’s stepping inside a wrestling ring. And in her case, it’s inspiring millions of others to be the truest versions of themselves, too.

“I’m so thankful that I can be that person for everyone,” she smiles as our call comes to an end. “The amount of messages I get on Instagram about how people are so happy that I’m in WWE, ’cause it makes them feel confident within themselves and accept themselves for who they are…that’s so special. It makes me so happy. That’s the one thing I really wanna get across to everyone, to be themselves and love themselves. People love to judge others, unfortunately, but let people judge you. As long as you love yourself for who you are and portray yourself as the true you, then you can’t really go wrong.”

When it’s all said and done, what’s more metal than that?

“I feel like I’m pretty metal,” Rhea concedes with another chuckle. Who are we to argue? No, seriously, who are we to argue? She could give us an absolute kicking.  

Originally published in Metal Hammer #350

Merlin Alderslade
Executive Editor, Louder

Merlin moved into his role as Executive Editor of Louder in early 2022, following over ten years working at Metal Hammer. While there, he served as Online Editor and Deputy Editor, before being promoted to Editor in 2016. Before joining Metal Hammer, Merlin worked as Associate Editor at Terrorizer Magazine and has previously written for the likes of Classic Rock, Rock Sound, eFestivals and others. Across his career he has interviewed legends including Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Metallica, Iron Maiden (including getting a trip on Ed Force One courtesy of Bruce Dickinson), Guns N' Roses, KISS, Slipknot, System Of A Down and Meat Loaf. He has also presented and produced the Metal Hammer Podcast, presented the Metal Hammer Radio Show and is probably responsible for 90% of all nu metal-related content making it onto the site.