After Transitioning, Gabbi Tuft Pays a Visit to Smackdown

Almost until the end, Gabbi Tuft believed she would be able to swing free tickets to World Wrestling Entertainment’s Smackdown at Madison Square Garden.

“Pretty sure we’ll have backstage access, too,” she told me in the days leading up to the July 7 event.

But shortly before she left her home in Austin, Texas, for New York, Ms. Tuft learned that she wouldn’t be comped.

As representatives from W.W.E. put it, the issue was nothing other than a shortage of tickets. And as for permitting her to go backstage and say hi to the people she used to work with? Nope.

A self-described “politically purple” person who believes in the fundamental decency of human beings, Ms. Tuft said she was inclined to take the organization’s explanation at face value, rather than as a sign of its discomfort with her as the first cast member to come out as transgender.

At the same time, Ms. Tuft added, “One never knows with Vince.” She was referring to Vince McMahon, the former C.E.O. of W.W.E. and its current executive chairman. From 2008 to 2012, Ms. Tuft oiled her muscles to do battle in the W.W.E. ring under the name Tyler Reks. (Representatives for the W.W.E. and Mr. McMahon had no comment.)

By now the Tyler Reks character — a dreadlocked gladiator who weighed 250 pounds — is long behind Ms. Tuft, who has entered into a second career as an online personal fitness and nutrition coach and a TikTok personality. When she isn’t promoting her training business in videos beamed to her nearly 800,000 followers, she has described, in minute detail, the series of surgeries she has undergone over the last two years.

She has appeared in the kitchen with her 11-year-old daughter, Mia, who chides Ms. Tuft when she falls back into gesticulations and movements more reminiscent of Hulk Hogan than Carrie Bradshaw. (“It’s all in good fun,” Ms. Tuft said.) She has also talked on social media about her impending divorce from Priscilla Victoria Tuft, her wife of nearly 21 years. (A representative for Ms. Tuft had no comment.)

Gabbi Tuft said she had not attended a W.W.E. match since her retirement more than a decade ago. After the recent changes in her life, she said, it sounded like fun to see Smackdown in New York.

The W.W.E. bill at Madison Square Garden on July 7 included Sheamus.Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times

She made the trip from Austin with Britt Bussell, the chief operating officer of Ms. Tuft’s business, and checked into the Algonquin Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. They spent most of the first evening in the lobby, with Ms. Tuft parked at the grand piano, playing “Halo” by Beyoncé, “Stay” by Rihanna and other pop songs.

The next day, at 6:45 p.m., Ms. Tuft, 44, and Ms. Bussell, 39, took an Uber to Madison Square Garden. Ms. Tuft wore simple black trousers and a sleeveless blouse that her mother had given her last year as a birthday present.

“I couldn’t even button the neck or fit through the arm holes then, because I had too much muscle,” Ms. Tuft said. “Only this last month have I been able to fit into it. That feels good.”

On her feet she wore black flats. “I don’t need to tower over people any more than I already do,” she said.

No one seemed to recognize Ms. Tuft as she headed up the steps and into the lobby. “I’m flying under the radar,” she said to Ms. Bussell. “I guess that means I’m old news.”

“I should have gotten you a wig with dreads,” Ms. Bussell said, referring to Ms. Tuft’s old Tyler Reks look.

A moment later, at the top of the escalators, a young woman bounded over for a selfie, saying, “I follow you on TikTok and I’m a huge fan.”

“Thank you,” Ms. Tuft said.

Some fans of Ms. Tuft’s TikTok videos asked for hugs and photos. To her right is Britt Bussell, the chief operating officer of Ms. Tuft’s personal training business.Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times

She went into the arena and found her seat, which was within spitting distance of the ring. In the row ahead, two middle-aged men were eating hot dogs. One of them pulled out his phone, tapped in a Google search and showed the results to the other.

“I recognized her from the tattoo on her arm,” said the man, Carlos Herrera of Stamford, Conn. “I go to events all the time.”

The night’s first match was between Lacey Evans, who wore black leather, and Zelina Vega, who was outfitted in a crop top and micro-shorts with an American flag pattern. For nearly 10 minutes they went at each other, performing body-slams and neck-breakers. Each time Ms. Evans appeared to make some headway, the crowd booed. Eventually, Ms. Vega triumphed.

The narrative arc was familiar to Ms. Tuft, who, as Tyler Reks, generally played a villain who, per a predetermined script, usually got trounced. “Sometimes I lost in style,” she said. “Other times I just lost.”

Considering her years in the W.W.E., she said, “Actually, I really miss it. I didn’t realize I would.”

Into the ring went Roman Reigns, billed as the Undisputed W.W.E. Universal Champion, along with his sidekick, Solo Sikoa. They were meant to have a verbal confrontation with their archrivals, Jey and Jimmy Uso, twins whose real-life names are Joshua Samuel Fatu and Jonathan Solofa Fatu. But the trash talking led to punches, which led to body-slams, neck-breakers and the flinging of metal furniture, which resulted in Jimmy Uso’s exit on a stretcher.

During part of the confrontation, Ms. Tuft was talking on FaceTime with her daughter. After the match, she said she was glad to see the Fatus getting so much ring time. “We trained together,” she said. “They’re great guys.”

Around 10:30 p.m., as the crowd headed for the exits, Ms. Tuft was recognized by Michelle Kizoulis, 44, of Iselin, N.J., who told her how much she admired her for the way she has handled her transition.

A man asked if she would pose for a picture with his son, who appeared to be about 8.

Of course she would.

Ms. Tuft roots for her former colleagues.Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times

Outside the arena, Ms. Tuft and Ms. Bussell decided to walk back to the Algonquin. There, Ms. Tuft ordered a pizza and told more of her story.

She spoke of growing up in the Bay Area with her younger brother, Christopher, who died in 2015 of suicide. Her father, Chris Tuft, was a successful car salesman, and her mother, Lezley, had a variety of administrative jobs.

Early in her life, she said, she would play dress up in her mother’s clothes when left alone. But unlike some people who have spent their lives aware of their gender dysphoria, she said she had been largely in the dark about her own identity.

As a teenager, she got teased for being reed thin. So she started lifting weights and blew up in size. After high school, she attended California Polytechnic University, and in 2000 got a degree in civil engineering.

In 2007, she was living in Orange County, Calif., working as an assistant engineer for the City of Dana Point. Surfing and working out consumed a lot of her time and energy. Steroids were everywhere, she said, and she partook.

She enrolled in a wrestling class at O.C. Dojo, a gym owned by Rick Bassman, a talent scout whose clients have included the W.W.E. stars John Cena and James Brian Hellwig. Mr. Bassman asked Ms. Tuft if she was interested in going pro.

She went to Tampa, Fla., where the W.W.E. had what was essentially a talent incubator. She took part in tag team matches that were broadcast on local stations, and she was eventually named the state heavyweight champion of Florida Championship Wrestling.

Michelle Kizoulis, a fan, poses for a photo with Ms. Tuft.Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times

Her biggest W.W.E. contract paid her $100,000 a year, without benefits, she said, noting that it wasn’t an easy life. Off-season was nonexistent, and she developed back problems.

After Priscilla gave birth to their daughter, Ms. Tuft decided to retire from the ring. She worked in digital marketing for a couple of years, which she hated, then started her personal training business — and took more steroids, she said.

In 2018, her mother underwent open-heart surgery. At the same time, Ms. Tuft was feeling deep aches in her chest. The next year, she said, she was diagnosed with an ascending aortic aneurysm and underwent open-heart surgery herself.

During the pandemic, she said, she had time to reflect on her identity, and she began to cross dress.

As a wrestler, she had put on a mask, grown out her chest hair and worn a permanent scowl, all in the service of creating what she now calls “this mysterious, scary dreadlocked guy” and a “brooding heel and villain.”

So when she started cross-dressing, in 2020, she remained somewhat in denial, thinking it might just be another version of that, she recalled. “Subconsciously, I believe it’s a possibility I justified what I was doing as a form of role play,” Ms. Tuft said. But as time went on, she said that she came to see her true self as Gabbi, who was “screaming to be let out.”

She said the change was not easy for her wife, who continues to identify as a heterosexual woman. Ms. Tuft said she came to realize that she faced a stark choice, between transitioning (and losing her marriage) or suicide. She chose the first option, knowing full well that, for once, her size would work against her.

“Guys would say to me, ‘You’re just a man in a wig,’” she said. “I’m like, ‘It’s a process, bro.’”

In February 2021, she came out as transgender on social media.

“This is me,” she wrote in an Instagram caption. “Unashamed, unabashedly me. This is the side of me that has hidden in the shadows, afraid and fearful of what the world would think; afraid of what my family, friends, and followers would say or do.” Other posts from the time of her transition included family photos of Ms. Tuft, her wife and their daughter.

Ms. Tuft said she was somewhat perplexed about how she went from never thinking about men sexually as a man to being primarily attracted to them as a woman. But it is not uncommon for sexuality to shift over the course of a transition, according to experts who work with trans people.

“Gender and sexuality are different things,” Katherine Rachlin, a psychotherapist in New York with a transgender focus, said in an email. “A person has a sense of their gender that they take with them through everything they do. But that includes their sexual life. For many people, sexual love and appreciation is gender-affirming.”

How those shifts play out varies from one trans person to another. It is not uncommon, Dr. Rachlin said, for trans women who identified once as heterosexual men to seek relationships with men, finding that the “experience of being female is heightened by sex with men.”

Yet there is also a substantial number of trans men who seek out gay relationships, despite having identified as lesbian pre-transition. As well as trans women who go from having lived as gay men to being lesbians post-transition, she said.

Ms. Tuft said she had lost a number of male clients who once saw her as a role model. “I get it,” she said. “Guys don’t want to follow an alpha male who becomes female.” Through TikTok and Instagram, she signed up a large number of female clients, she said.

Her former ring mates have largely embraced her. “I’m just happy she’s happy,” said Curtis Hussey, who has wrestled under the name Fandango.

Ms. Tuft’s mother, Lezley, has embraced her transition. She said that, in a certain way, wrestling was good preparation for her daughter’s latest chapter: “She had to learn how to get booed in order to move up.”

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