Under the headline "Beautiful but Deadly," the National Enquirer recently did a spread on lady wrestler Debi Pelletier, a.k.a. Killer Tomato, wrapping her assets in a skin-tight Spandex body suit splashed across a four-color pullout centerfold.
It was done in typical Enquirer style, yet somehow missed a great opportunity to be sensational. A little investigative reporting would have revealed the real inside story about a self-described "sweet little cheerleader and plain Jane" who woke up one morning and found herself body-slamming 260-pound Matilda the Hun.
A 24-year-old Valley resident, mother of a toddler, Pelletier had never wrestled, never thought about becoming a pro wrestler, but within two weeks in the summer of 1983, she became Killer Tomato and was making her wrestling debut at the Olympic Auditorium.
"Boom," she said. "It happened that fast."
To inquiring minds, her startling transformation--"Sudden Attack of the Killer Tomato!"--might be attributed to the influence of extraterrestrials or the long-term effects of a toxic waste dump beneath her bedroom. But the actual reasons for Pelletier's metamorphosis are even more bizarre.
Pelletier lives in Van Nuys with her son, Beau, and a giant pro wrestler, a bearded guy with a shaved head who calls himself the Alaskan and collects aboriginal boomerangs. Their ivy-covered, small frame house is down an alley behind the oldest "head shop" in the Valley.
In 1984, Jay York, alias the Alaskan, was 46 and still making money in the ring. One of the last survivors of pro wrestling's Golden Age of the '50s and '60s, he had been the Alaskan since leaving the Marines as a hand-to-hand-combat instructor in 1957. A nomad who literally wandered the world for 20 years, York was always the villain, wrestling such stars as Gorgeous George, Lou Thesz, Haystack Calhoun and Nature Boy Buddy Rogers.
When his father, a former chief of police in Evanston, Ill., moved to Woodland Hills in 1960, York began basing his operations out of Los Angeles. It wasn't long before Hollywood recognized evil incarnate in the menacing 6 feet 4, 260-pounder and began casting him as the heavy in movies and television. He got his Screen Actors Guild card for his first role, a pro wrestler who tangled with Herman Munster in "The Munsters."
Pelletier, 5 feet 9, 130 pounds, grew up in the country outside Sacramento. Oldest of five children in a fatherless home, she was forced to be her "mother's right arm," doing heavy chores like lifting bales of hay. Those exercises and her three-hour shifts as an exotic dancer in bikini bars would one day give her the physical strength to hoist people twice her weight over her head.
But if anything prepared her to turn into Killer Tomato, it was her longtime exposure to pro wrestling. She'd been watching it on television since she was a girl. And at 17, she got an inside look at the business by dating a Sacramento pro wrestler named Ron Starr, whom she nicknamed Rotten Ronnie. It was through Starr that she met York. After visiting him in Toluca Lake for a week in 1981, she left Sacramento with Beau and moved in with York.
Their 21-year age difference didn't matter, she said. "Jay is just such a nice guy. He may be intimidating to look at it, but when you get to know him, he's a teddy bear in a grizzly bear body."
Another Source of Revenue
They had been living together for three years when a promoter called York and begged him to find a substitute lady wrestler for the Olympic card. York looked across the room at his girlfriend and immediately envisioned Killer Tomato--as well as another source of revenue. Despite his longevity in wrestling, York never saw big money. To supplement their income, Pelletier does exotic dancing and, with York as her bodyguard, jumps out of cakes at bachelor parties for a few hundred dollars a pop. For the last 10 years, York has worked steadily as a Teamster driver on movie studio lots.
The Olympic match was two weeks away. "Jay had to give me a crash course in wrestling," Pelletier said. This included a lesson in attitude. Easygoing and relaxed off the mat, a guy who wears warm-up suits and smokes Salems, York does a 180 when he gets in the ring, turning into the dreaded Alaskan who cracks bullwhips and heads. Pelletier was designated as a heavy and got her name from a character in a friend's unsold screenplay. But she lasted only six months as a bad girl.