Move to the Global Stage as Professional Female Wrestler
Interview with Vernice Crystal Gabriel
Queen of Philippine Wrestling
Pro Wrestler
Q: Just to give a background, Crystal here is the first female pro wrestler in the Philippines. I guess the big question here is what motivated you to start wrestling, or how did you get started?
A: I’ve always watched wrestling when I was a child. I used to watch (wrestling) with my grandma and my uncle, and that really stuck with me. My grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 4 years old which was really sad but we were able to at least have fun…
Q: When you would visit her?
A: At that time I was still staying with her in the province, in Olongapo. What we would do while she was still undergoing treatment or at the hospital, we would rent out VHS tapes in video city of WWF back then. Even though she would be so sick and in pain, she would still clap and cheer for her favorite wrestler, Undertaker. It really stuck with me that even though she was in this much pain she was still able to immerse herself and find a different world in wrestling that was different from her reality. When I was a kid I thought “I want to do what they’re doing.”
When I got older I realized how much wrestling helped my grandma back then so I decided I also want to be a wrestler and I wanted to give back to wrestling the way it helped my grandma.
Q: That’s a really great story. It’s sad that it happened to your grandma but at least you’re able to remember her when you wrestle. Was it intimidating at first? What were the struggles you had to face being the first female wrestler in the Philippines?
A: It was hard. Prior to wrestling I already had Taekwondo, and I was in Taekwondo for 6 years. I even competed in the little Milo olympics! And then I also had cheerleading in college. I think those two sports helped me transition into wrestling. In the beginning, it was very hard because I was the only female in my batch. I wanted to prove that I had the right to be there. We’ve seen it around the world, but not really in the Philippines. It was very hard to break the idea that a woman is just supposed to be a pretty girl. I wanted to prove that I had the right to be there and I could fight as well. In training, I would always do extra. If we were doing 100 squats, the others would slack off during the end and their form would be off, but I wanted to prove myself so I kept my form perfect every time and I tried extremely hard.
Q: So you had to work extra hard to get the same amount of recognition.
A: I think it was vital for me to prove myself. We’ve had other girls before me, but they always wanted to be a manager, or an interviewer. I wanted to wrestle and be inside that ring. I said I would do everything in my power to get in there.
Q: Have you noticed any increase in female wrestlers or has there anyone who has approached you and said “I’ve been inspired by you.”?
A: Thankfully there were! After a year and a half of me putting myself out there and and after I debuted from my training, it took a year for another female to enter the ring and join, and then it took another half year for her to debut with me on the roster. Thankfully there are girls who messaged me on social media. Honestly, it’s a lot of pressure. I moved forward not knowing that this could be the effect. I was just in wrestling because I wanted to wrestle. I wanted to do everything just like my childhood heroes like Bret Hart and Rey Mysterio.
I wanted to do what they were doing. I didn’t realize that me wrestling could be an inspiration to other women, but it feels nice getting messages like “hey Crystal, you’re such an inspiration” or “When I grow up and turn 18 I want to join as well.” There was a girl who was 14 or 15 at that time and she would go to our shows and say “Crystal I’m going to join PWR when I’m old enough.” And now she’s training in wrestling.
Q: You’re not even that old but you’re already inspiring people, so that’s really amazing.
A: It’s really heartwarming.
Q: Even though you’re just doing what you want there’s an unexpected side effect. In wrestling you have your ‘ring name’, where does “Crystal” come from?
A: Actually Crystal is my 2nd name. My name is Vernice Crystal Gabriel. I normally just use Vernice and everyone knows me as Vernice. But the way I thought about it is that I’m still me, but there’s a different side of me. Crystal is the more competitive version of myself. If there’s Vernice who just likes to play video games and stream and shoutcast, there’s also Crystal who is the Queen of Philippine wrestling. She is the foundation of women’s wrestling in the Philippines. It was a good way to differentiate myself from who I normally am, but my wrestling character is still a part of me.
Q: You worked so hard and got all this recognition, and you eventually got the chance to wrestle in Japan right? Can you tell us more about that experience?
A: Honestly, I have so many pictures from my trip and matches in Japan. I’ll tell you how I got there. When I arrived at the airport, there was a storm. So we already weren’t off to the best start. I was nervous because I thought our plane wouldn’t take off in the Philippines, but we were able to fly.
When I got there (Japan) it was 6:00pm, but I only got to Tokyo at 2am. There was a storm, and the trains were canceled, no buses were going out of the airport. Sakura-san, who is my contact and the one who got me to wrestling, went around calling everyone that she knew that had a car who might be able to help. You know cars aren’t really a common thing in Japan, since people usually take trains. Also, finding someone who can drive at 1am after a storm isn’t easy. Despite the rocky start, I was able to go to my matches.
Of course it was difficult back then because all the Nihongo I knew was anime Japanese, words like “SUGOI” “OISHII” or casual greetings, “OHAYOU” “ARIGATOU” “SUMIMASEN.” It was difficult for me to actually talk to them because back then there were only 1 or 2 people who could speak English. It was kind of hard to plan the matches or to plan going out with them just because I would just be on the Line app hoping that it would translate. I was so so so thankful to be there, and I wanted to say how thankful I am but it won’t come out.
After my photos came in of me wrestling, I sent them to my mom and she said “you seem so happy.” She said when I got home I was glowing, and that I was a different kind of happy. I love Japan, I love the culture, I love anime, and my favorite food is Japanese food. When I was there I felt like I was living a dream. When I was there Sakura-san told me “You know Crystal, I think you could move here to Japan and I think you’d do well.”
I wanted to say yes, but I didn’t. I wanted to learn Japanese language first before I dove in. I didn’t want to be that foreigner that just goes to another country but knows nothing. When I got back home, I got busy, since I went to multiple countries and I was wrestling, and then I applied for Nihongo class.
Q: That experience in Japan, and then realizing that your dream is possible, is that what inspired you to start learning?
A: I always wanted to learn, I think that experience in Japan was just the push that I needed. Back then I would think “it would be so great if I could watch anime without needing subtitles.” That was the main goal back then, but now it’s not even that anymore. I want to be able to order my own food! I want to be able to converse with them, I want to be able to make my feelings known to them, like how happy I was or how thankful I am. I don’t think it has the same impact as when you say it in English rather than Japanese. When I went there and came back, they said there was a possibility that I had a future in Japan, and that was it, I realized I needed to learn now. Then the pandemic hit and I thought “this is the perfect opportunity to learn.”
Q: I think a lot of people decided to learn during that time.
A: We couldn’t go out, so might as well learn another language.
Q: With your schedule that’s so busy, I know you’re wrestling and before you were doing shoutcasting and then you come to Japanese class after, how did you manage your time? How did you make time to study Japanese language?
A: I keenly remember one time I was shoutcasting for a tournament and there would be breaks 15-30 minute breaks in between. I was still studying N5 and I brought my JLRC book, and during those breaks I would study for my test.
Q: I remember there were a lot of times you’d come to class and your voice was really tired and you would say “Sensei I just got back from a job, back from casting, I’m sorry”, but you still show up to class.
A: Whenever I commit to something I will see it through. I will do everything in my power to accomplish it. I wanted to and still want to learn Japanese. I only graduated N4 and I still want to be able to be fully conversational. I just want to have an easier time in Japan, instead of not knowing what I’m buying. If I’m in the grocery store I don’t want to accidentally buy cat food instead of actual food.
Moving to another country is hard, so I want to have an easier time there. I’ve connected with so many Japanese people, and some Japanese wrestlers also visit the Philippines for shows and I want to be able to connect with them more and on a deeper level.
Q: I think your attitude is really amazing. You said that once you commit to something, you’ll do it 100%.
A: No matter how sick I am! I think there was one time I had Covid in class.
Q: Yes you did! And even now you finished N5, you finished N4, and you’re already thinking about “when will I start N3?”
A: I want to be able to converse with my friends there, and I want to surprise them that I’m able to speak. Not just a half-assed mix of Japanese and English. I want a full-on Japanese conversation. I want to take N3 and maybe N2 after.
Q: For you, what is the most difficult part of learning Japanese language?
A: Kanji. When I was in N5 I was having the most difficult time because I would just look at it as characters. But when I learned it from you Sensei, one of the tips that you gave me was to understand the stroke pattern. When I see kanji now, I know how to write it even if I’ve never actually written it before. It’s honestly so interesting when it comes to Nihongo, especially Kanji.
Many words sound the same, the only difference is the Kanji. As long as you know the kanji you can get the relative meaning of words you don’t know. I think the hardest part is that I grew up speaking English, so the sentence pattern when you speak Japanese just completely boggles my mind. When you want to say “I have a story” it becomes “I, story have.”
Now that I’ve graduated N5 and N4, it’s fun, and it’s about your mindset.
If you think about it as something you are forced to do, then you won’t have fun at all. If you think of it in a more positive way where “you’ll be able to order your own food in a Japanese restaurant” or “you’re going to be able to talk to your Japanese friends using their language” then it’s more helpful. I think I was very excited for those types of things, rather than thinking of problems like “I have to study even though I’m tired.”
Even if I had a rough week, I was still looking forward to classes because I had such a good time and I think my batch at JLRC was such a fun batch.
We were just having fun together learning even though the things we were learning wasn’t easy, it was still a lot of fun because it was such a great environment to learn.
Q: I remember your batch, even though I would give you breaks you would just continue to talk, and I also really enjoyed teaching your class. I want to ask what are your goals from now on, or what is your ultimate goal. Especially now thanks to your hard work you’re preparing to move to Japan soon.
A: My goal is to move to Japan, and honestly I’m not looking to be N2 level Japanese. I want to at least be able to get to N3 and be conversational and communicate properly or better with everyone else.
Especially if I do go there for wrestling, there are fans who are going there to cheer for their favorite wrestlers and I want to be able to interact with them, not just a simple “hi, hello” but to be able to talk to them fully.
For example at the merch table, they (the fans) would come up and greet us. The first time I went, even though I wasn’t really known, there were still a bunch of people who bought my merch to support me.I felt like I could have done more, I could have conversed with them more and thanked them properly. After learning a little Nihongo I think I can at least communicate with them, and after continuing to N3, then I think I can finally be able to have a full conversation.
Q: Moving on to our last question before we end this interview, do you have any message or advice for aspiring wrestlers, or people who want to learn Nihongo?
A: I think a big thing for me was to get a notebook and pen. When I first ever started out with N5, I would just take notes with the PC. Or I would have the textbook set that JLRC gave me and I would write notes there. But it wasn’t enough for me to just listen in and draw circles on the book. I found myself having to go to a notebook and put it there. For me at least, muscle memory is very important. Whenever I write, it seems to stamp more in my brain. Instead of just highlighting it in my book, which I could have done, even though it’s redundant I would rewrite it. It’s another step for memorization.
I think for the people who want to be wrestlers, whenever I get asked this question I say just do it. Everyone starts off somewhere. You might not be the most physically toned person, you might not be the most knowledgeable in wrestling, but that’s why we have Senseis. It’s the same in learning Japanese. Even if you don’t know any Japanese, you don’t need to learn on your own. JLRC and Sensei are here to help you out and help you get your footing in Japanese.