Is Sunny the first Diva in WWE history?
It’s a topic that’s been debated by the WWE Universe for years, so WWE.com was quick to ask the woman herself during a phone conversation on a particularly cold day in December of 2010. Home in New Jersey with two feet of snow outside her door and three pit bulls running around her kitchen, the beautiful blonde took a moment to consider her response even though she’d undoubtedly addressed the issue a thousand times before.
"My definition of a Diva is that all-around, well-rounded performer," Sunny said. "The girls who came before me were so one dimensional and then I came along and anything they threw at me I could do. I could get in the ring and have a match, I managed at ringside, I co-hosted TV shows, I did broadcasting, I did the modeling. I was the first one." (PHOTOS)
Sunny's claims aren't without merit and she has had an influence, impact and popularity that cannot be denied. Despite some real life tragedies and an endless stream of controversies — many of which are not suitable topics of discussion for WWE.com — she has maintained a special place in the hearts of wrestling fans that isn’t hard to explain. In the summer of 1996, the then-23-year-old stunner appeared in a bikini on the cover of RAW Magazine and pubescent sports-entertainment fans suddenly had a woman to love. Sure, Miss Elizabeth was beautiful and female ring announcer Mike McGuirk looked great in a powder blue tuxedo, but Sunny was a pinup, a fox, Pamela Anderson in a pair of spandex shorts. Now, the kids who wanted to grow up and be Bret “Hit Man” Hart wanted to grow up and marry Sunny. And they’ve never forgotten that feeling.
But the woman born Tamara Lynn Sytch did not grow up wanting to be Sunny. As a high school teenager in the late '80s, she was the prototypical all-American girl. A blonde-haired cheerleader with a bright smile, she made high marks in school and planned to attend the University of Miami on a full academic scholarship after graduation. Her dream was to become a doctor, but that was before she met a kid named Chris Candido.
A tough, but sweet guy who had dreams of becoming a WWE Superstar, Candido charmed Sytch to the point that she turned down her scholarship and followed him to Knoxville, Tenn. where the budding grappler was about to began a stint with Jim Cornette's now-defunct Smoky Mountain Wrestling promotion. The idea was she'd attend the University of Tennessee while Candido wrestled, but it wasn't long before Cornette got an eyeful of the young beauty and pitched an idea of his own.
"We were there for about a month and Jim Cornette took us out to dinner. We figured he’s going to talk to Chris about his career, but within two minutes he looks at me and says, 'I need a girl,'" Sytch revealed.
The fast-talking promoter wanted her to come on board as an abrasive college student from up north who idolized Hillary Clinton and threatened sexual discrimination lawsuits against anyone that crossed her. Interested in making some extra money, Sytch agreed and was soon managing a bruiser by the name of Brian Lee.
"Even though this wasn’t the thing I wanted to do with my life, it was a pretty easy thing to pick up," she said of becoming an evil manager. "I’m a smart girl. You can show me a few Bobby Heenan or Sherri Martel tapes and I know what to do. And I had Jim Cornette as my mentor."
Sytch had no prior experience in sports-entertainment, but she possessed the same natural abilities as Vickie Guerrero and could incite audiences to the point that they'd often attack her from the crowd. This transition from mild-mannered college student to the target of fans' hatred should have been jarring, but Sytch loved the reaction she was getting.
"It was so much fun," she said. "I don’t know why. Maybe it's just the evil in me."
She continued to raise hell in SMW on the weekends while attending college during the week, but all that would change when WWE invited her to Stamford, Conn. to try out for an on-air role. Sytch auditioned in December of 1994 and bombed (“It was probably the worst audition anyone’s ever done or seen,” she claimed.), but WWE hired her anyway. Now known as Tamara Murphy, she provided information about upcoming live events during WWE television shows for the first six months of her career. It wasn't until Candido was hired by WWE in late ’95 that she finally got a chance to do what she was really good at.
Paired together, Sytch and Candido became Sunny and Skip, a pair of smug fitness freaks called The Bodydonnas who did jumping jacks in the ring and insulted the physiques of everyone in the WWE Universe.
"I loved it," Sunny said. "I got to go out there and be my snotty little brat self, which wasn’t hard to be. Nothing was holding me back."
Soon forming a trio thanks to the addition of Skip's cousin, Zip, The Bodydonnas went on to win the WWE Tag Team Championships at WrestleMania XII. It was around this time that Sunny started to become more than just a brat in spandex. Her RAW Magazine cover had hit and her popularity was truly starting to take off. The Bodydonnas were still villains, but Sunny was getting cheered by the WWE Universe whether she liked it or not.
"Seriously, once you put a girl in a bikini she’s not going to get booed," she said.
Sunny wasn't just getting cheered though, she was getting a following. Fans snatched up T-shirts and posters and tested the resolve of their 56k modems so they could look at pictures of her on the burgeoning Internet. She was so popular on the Web that AOL christened her the most downloaded woman in the world in 1996
It was all very strange for a woman who just a few years ago had been preparing to attend medical school.
"The whole sex symbol thing was not natural for me," Tammy admitted. "I could be in a bikini for 24 hours a day getting my picture taken, but when they would do a lingerie layout with me? I was the most uncomfortable person in the earth."
This didn't deter her popularity, but for a personality so closely associated with WWE in the '90s, Sunny's time in the spotlight was surprisingly brief. After managing three different World Tag Team Championship duos in '96, she seemed to drift through '97.
"They were kind of at a loss of what to do with me," Sunny said. "I wanted to be active, but my main job at the time seemed like modeling 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin and Undertaker T-shirts."
She bounced back in '98 after linking up with a recharged Legion of Doom, but that quickly fizzled out. It would prove to be her last major run in WWE. Something was building up inside Sunny and she was about to make a move few people saw coming.
What led to Sunny's release from World Wrestling Entertainment in 1998? If you've read any number of sports-entertainment websites, you'd believe it was due to torrid love affairs or infighting in the Divas locker-room. Tammy Sytch said none of this is true, although rumors of a rivalry with Sable are not unfounded.
"It wasn’t professional jealousy at all, it was personal differences," she said. "I'm not going to go into it, but to me she wasn’t a quality human being and that’s why I didn’t like her."
So if it wasn't a catfight with Sable then what happened? Tammy explained it like this:
"At the time, they were lending me out to [Extreme Championship Wrestling]. I did a couple of shows with them and I was having so much fun. So stupid, young, naïve me, I was on an ECW pay-per-view and I said, 'This is my new home.' And WWE found out about it and I had my release by fax the next day."
It was a brash move she soon came to regret. Although ECW offered creative freedom and the chance to be by her boyfriend, Chris Candido, it was also a company facing financial ruin.
"For a while it was great — and then paychecks started bouncing.”
ECW's money troubles left Tammy and Chris with no choice but to head to World Championship Wrestling in 2000. This was the same year that David Arquette won the WCW World Heavyweight Championship. Clearly, the organization was having problems of its own.
"Everybody was miserable there," she said. "The people just walked around with pusses on their faces the whole day."
The couple lasted less than a year in the crumbling promotion. After that, there were countless independent bookings and a disappointing few months spent in Puerto Rico. By 2003, Sunny had become frustrated with sports-entertainment and spent some time managing a tanning salon and working in sales for a local gym.
The normal life was good for her, but in 2005 things fell apart. In April of that year, Chris Candido died suddenly following complications from surgery. It was a devastating loss for the woman who had been by his side for nearly 15 years. She fell into a depression and gained weight. Still, people criticized the way she dealt with Candido's passing.
"People were saying that I acted like nothing ever happened," Tammy said. "They didn't understand that my way of coping is bouncing back and acting like nothing happened. I'm not the kind of person that's going to sit around and mope all day. I'm the kind of person who will turn my focus on something else."
In the months that followed, she concentrated on her sales job and went to school to become a certified medical assistant. Eventually, she got back in shape and made a surprise return to WWE in December of 2007 for the 15th anniversary of Raw. (PHOTOS)
"That was that was my first time back in 11 years and I was like, 'Oh, wow, I missed this,'" she said. "I didn’t even want the night to end."
Sunny returned to WWE again at the 25th Anniversary of WrestleMania in 2009 as a participant in the 25-Diva Battle Royal. She hopes it will not be her final time in a WWE ring.
"What I’d really like to do is come back against Vickie Guerrero, because let me tell you I think Vickie is doing a fantastic job," she said. "I'm watching her and I'm like, 'Wow, she's really kicking [butt].'"
If this were to happen, Tammy would show no signs of ring rust. Still active in sports-entertainment, she spends her weekends appearing on independent shows across the globe.
"I’m like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde," she told WWE.com. "I live a normal life during the week, but on the weekends, that’s when Mr. Hyde comes out and I get to play."
Sunny's popularity has allowed her to support herself through these weekend appearances and have the week to pursue her hobbies. A dog lover, she owns three pit bulls and is very involved in animal rights charities.
"I probably give more money to animal welfare groups than I actually spend on myself," she said.
The New Jersey native has raised thousands of dollars for groups like the ASPCA through fundraisers she hosts at her home and the support of friends and fans on her Facebook page.
"This past Halloween, I raised $1000 dollars [for the ASPCA] from wrestling fans through Facebook," Sunny said. "It was incredible."
Tammy is also using her Facebook for another personal project — a cookbook. A self-taught chef, she shared many of her favorite recipes with friends on her page and was encouraged to compile them into a book along with a selection of stories from her decades in the ring.
"We have to have something with wrestling in there," she said with a laugh. "It can't just be a 'Betty Crocker' cookbook."
Of course, she'll have no shortage of wild stories to share. From the bright lights of Monday Night Raw to the dark days of WCW, Tammy has truly seen it all in sports-entertainment. And while her self-proclaimed title of "the original Diva" may continue to draw controversy, it can't be denied that Sunny has displayed the kind of confidence and resolve that merits a description like "sexy, smart and powerful." She has seen hard times and made more than a few enemies along the way, but the now-38-year-old manager would not change her decision to give up her medical school dreams to join WWE even if she could.
"Would I like to be a doctor right now? Absolutely. Do I regret anything? Absolutely not," she said. "Think about it, I’m in my 21st year in this business. You don’t do something for 21 years if you don’t have a love for it. Once this business gets in your blood, it's there to stay."