Born: March 19, 1987
Town: Union City
April Jeanette Mendez was born March 19, 1987 in Union City. Her family struggled to secure dependable housing, often staying with friends and neighbors, or in welfare hotels. Many time AJ and her family spent the night in their car. AJ’s older brother was a passionate wrestling fan and AJ felt empowered by the agile and glamorous women who battled inside and outside the ring. One of her touchstone moments was meeting Amy Dumas (aka Lita) at a 2001 autograph signing in New York.
AJ attended Memorial High in West New York. After graduation she worked multiple jobs to afford college in New York and wrestling school. She couldn’t swing the time and money to do both, so she picked wrestling. Her first trainer, Elizabeth native Jamar Shipman (aka Jay Lethal), started her on New Jersey’s independent wrestling circuit when she was 20. Competing as Miss April, AJ formed a championship tag team with Brooke Carter and also won a King & Queen of the Ring title with Lethal.
AJ’s combination of beauty, athleticism and natural crowd appeal put her on the radar of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). She signed a development deal with the organization, changer her ring name to AJ Lee, and began competing in Florida. In 2010, she won the Florida Championship Wrestling’s Queen of FCW belt, but lost the FCW Divas title and became one of the circuit’s “villains.” She won the Divas belt in 2011.
That season she was also featured on the WWE reality show NXT. Over the next few years, her “character” would be involved in romantic storylines with a number of male wrestlers, which helped to boost her into the top tier of her sport.
AJ joined WWE’s main roster in the spring of 2011. Her romantic entanglements and feuds with other female wrestlers captured the public’s imagination. In 2012, AJ and heavyweight champion Daniel Bryan were one of the sport’s biggest stories. Prior to Bryan’s bout with Sheamus at Wrestlemania 28, she gave him a good luck kiss, which so “distracted” him that he lost his title in 18 seconds. She then became involved in an over-the-top “love triangle” with Bryan and Phil Brooks (aka CM Punk). Fans loved it. In 2012, AJ began a relationship with John Cena, triggering another dramatic storyline, and boosting her merchandise sales into the stratosphere.
In 2013, AJ defeated Celeste Bruan (aka Kaitlyn) to win the WWE Divas Championship. She successfully defended her title in a series of events, including a wild 14-woman match at Wrestlemania 30. She lost her belt to Saraya-Jade Bevis (aka Paige) in 2014, quickly regained it in a spring rematch, lost it again and then regained it and then lost it again in the fall.
At the end of the year, AJ took time off to deal with a legitimate neck injury. During this time, AJ married Phil Brooks (for real). AJ earned Diva of the year honors for the second time in 2014 and won her third straight ”Slammy” award. She was also named Pro Wrestling Illustrated Woman of the Year for a third year in a row.
In 2015, AJ returned to the ring briefly before announcing her retirement.