One of the most acclaimed current series on Netflix is GLOW, a fictionalized look behind the scenes at Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, an 1980s-vintage made-for-television creation that became a cult favorite and not-so-guilty pleasure for a generation of viewers. But Susan Phelan doesn't need to watch the show, because she lived it for real. Before becoming an on-air traffic reporter for a slew of high-profile Denver-Boulder radio stations, including KOA, KBCO, KBPI and the Fox, as well as a badass bassist for bands such as Ryan Chrys and the Rough Cuts, she appeared on Powerful Women of Wrestling, aka POWW, a GLOW spin-off of sorts that also spawned a syndicated TV program enjoying a second life on YouTube.
"My character was Liberty, and I wore red, white and blue," Phelan says. "I was the all-American girl."
Appropriately enough, Phelan hails from the heartland. She grew up in Carmel, Indiana, and when she was in high school, "I used to watch the GLOW ladies on TV," she recalls.
Both GLOW and POWW were founded by Indianapolis's David McLane — "and when they came to Indiana, I got my cousin to go with me to check out the wrestling matches," Phelan continues. "After it was over, I approached David, who was the ring announcer-commentator guy. He looked me over and said, 'Come on over and meet the ladies.' And that's how I became a professional wrestler."
At the time, Phelan was "just out of high school, eighteen or nineteen," she notes, "and if you watched any of my first wrestling matches, you could tell I was very inexperienced and very shy when I did it, even though I was an athlete. I had always been involved in sports."
To get her ready for her new gig, McLane shipped Phelan to Miami. "They sent all the ladies down there to do some training and learn how to body-slam — learn how to land properly and get in shape to become a professional wrestler."
Action was one element that differentiated POWW from GLOW, Phelan maintains. "The GLOW ladies were actresses and models who signed up to be part of this TV show that happened to be about pro wrestling. POWW was less of the skits and the silliness and more wrestling. A lot more attention was paid to the wrestling and how to do it. And then we would travel around the Midwest and the South on a tour bus and tape our series."
The POWW program "would air on late-night TV in some markets," Phelan goes on. "We did a couple of seasons, and I was pretty fortunate: I had some good trainers, so I didn't get myself hurt too much. I didn't end up in the hospital, thank goodness — although one lady I threw almost broke her neck. I threw her wrong or she landed wrong and got seriously hurt. But all in all, we were pretty mellow. It was like acrobatics or theatrics — and not a lot of high-flying stunts that you see nowadays. Today, you see these wrestlers being able to do these amazing feats — flips and big jumps off the third rope. We would do some of that, but it was mostly gentler wrestling."
Otherwise, the matches stuck to pro-wrestling tradition, including outcomes determined in advance. "If you watch any of my matches, you'll notice I am a 'jobber' — which means my job was to get beat up," Phelan reveals. "I only won one match, and that one was not televised."
There was plenty of camaraderie among the cast. According to Phelan, "It all happened so fast. I worked with a lot of the GLOW ladies, and everybody was there to have a good time. We were passionate about what we were doing and tried to put on a good show for everybody. We all had signature moves, and I liked the body slam — that was the one for me — and the airplane spin, because I'm tall. I'm 6' 1" and when I did a spin and put someone across my shoulders, it was crazy."
Much about POWW was not particularly PC, Phelan acknowledges. "We had a gal who was supposed to be a Syrian terrorist, and when she was in the ring, she'd put out a mat and pray. Because I was Liberty, I couldn't be around her, but she was my favorite wrestler just in terms of the character she did. There was the Soul Patrol — that was an African-American woman — and Pocahontas, the Indian lady. That was all scripted, all stuff they created for us. But we really had to get into the ring and wrestle and knock each other around and take heat from the audience. They liked to throw things at the bad gals — throw beers at them."
When POWW ran its course, Phelan followed some of her fellow wrestlers to Las Vegas, then headed to California — and after one more Vegas stop, she found herself in Colorado. "I worked in music stores when I first moved to Colorado Springs; I taught bass and piano [something she still does on the side]. After that, I moved to Denver and did some restaurant work; I was a barista at Starbucks for a while. But then I found out through a friend about an opening as a traffic reporter. I did some radio in my high school — they had a radio station and a TV station there — and I'd dabbled a little with the media in one form or another. So I submitted a cassette tape, and with no experience, I got the job" circa 2001.
Phelan had a run of several years behind the microphone before being laid off — but in 2004, she worked her way back to a full-time position with what was then Clear Channel and is now known as iHeart Media. In the thirteen years since then, Phelan has expanded her reach; she's currently heard mornings and afternoons on iHeart outlets KBCO, The Fox, KBPI, 95.7 The Party, Orange and Blue 760, Modern Rock 93.3 and KHOW, plus mornings on KNUS and afternoons on northern Colorado's 99.9 The Point. As such, she's had a front-row seat to the traffic changes along the urban corridor and beyond.
"When they started T-REX" to widen Interstate 25, Phelan says, "My boss told me, 'This is job security,' because it was a seven-year project. But now that stretch along I-25 is worse than ever between downtown and the Tech Center. Every day, it's just incredible the amount of traffic on the roads."
That's why Phelan takes "the light rail quite a bit and try to stay off the roads as much as I can — not to add to the problems."
Overcrowding is just one of the issues Phelan witnesses on a daily basis. "I just think people are in a hurry. They're distracted, driving way too fast. I report a fatal accident nearly once a week and a motorcycle accident nearly every day, which is upsetting. And then there are all the pedestrian accidents and people hitting bicyclists. That's the hard part of the job. But I try to help people the best I can to try and avoid some of the headaches. On FM, I only have 22 seconds, which is why people say, 'You talk so fast.' But I've got a lot of information I've got to get to them quickly. I alert people to the top three things that are happening, because that's all I can fit in before I have to deliver the weather."
While there are plenty of traffic-related apps available now, "people still like to flip the radio on and find the nearest traffic report, so they don't have to be on the phone," Phelan points out. "And I hope I give them some comfort. They've heard my voice for a long time, so I can comfort them and let them know what's going on and hopefully help them reroute. That's why I love my job — and even though traffic has gotten a lot worse, it's not as bad as it is in L.A. The last time I was there, I thought, I can't wait to get home to drive in Denver traffic."
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When she's not on the radio, Phelan is often on stage.
"I've been playing in bands the whole time I've been here," she says. "I've played on the rock-and-roll scene, I've played on the rockabilly scene, I've played blues, Americana, hard rock — and I've had a lot of success with some very wonderful bands. I played with Angie Stevens, who's a great singer-songwriter. I played in a country-punk band called Rexway, which was loved by many, and also The Blackouts, a heavy female rock band, and Tracksuit Wedding, Libby Anschutz's band. I recently quit to play with Ryan Chrys, which is a great country band, and Dirty Backseat Lovers, which won the Westword Showcase Award for best hard rock band in 2012." The Rough Cuts took the same honor this year.
Phelan's also happily married to the woman of her dreams and is "the stepmom to a couple of kids. So life is good," and so busy that she didn't spend much time reflecting on her wrestling past before GLOW hit Netflix. In her words, "I'm grateful for the experience. And sometimes I think it would be fun to go back into the ring and see how I could do now — although probably my body wouldn't really appreciate it."
Bet she'd do just fine. Once a badass, always a badass.