In professional wrestling, kayfabe is the portrayal of staged events within the industry as "real" or "true", specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not of a staged or predetermined nature of any kind. Kayfabe has also evolved to become a code word of sorts for maintaining this "reality" within the direct or indirect presence of the general public.
Kayfabe is often seen as the suspension of disbelief that is used to create the non-wrestling aspects of promotions, such as feuds, angles, and gimmicks, in a manner similar to other forms of fictional entertainment. In relative terms, a wrestler breaking kayfabe during a show would be likened to an actor breaking character on-camera. Also, since wrestling is performed in front of a live audience, whose interaction with the show is crucial to its success, kayfabe can be compared to the fourth wall in acting, since hardly any conventional fourth wall exists to begin with. In general, anything in a professional wrestling show is to some extent scripted, or "kayfabe", even though at times it is portrayed as legitimate.
Kayfabe was fiercely maintained for decades, but with the advent of the Internet wrestling community, and the sports entertainment movement, the pro wrestling industry has become less concerned with protecting so-called backstage secrets and typically maintains kayfabe only during the shows. Kayfabe is, however, occasionally broken during shows, usually when dealing with genuine injuries during a match or paying tribute to wrestlers.
Kayfabe is a shorthand or slang term used to describe the fact that professional wrestling is a staged, scripted event and not a competitive sport despite being presented as such. Initially, people "in the business" (either wrestlers or those working behind the scenes) used the term "kayfabe" as a code among those in the wrestling profession, discussing matters in public without revealing the scripted nature. Kayfabe covers both the fact that matches are scripted and that wrestlers portray characters for their shows. Unlike actors who only portray their characters when on set or on stage, professional wrestlers often stay "in character" outside the shows, especially when interacting with fans, trying to preserve the illusion of professional wrestling. Another term for "kayfabe" is the word "work", or "worked", which also refers to the staged nature of professional wrestling. In contrast, something that is not "kayfabe" but legitimate, be it a fight or a statement is referred to as a "shoot".
I remember the guy who would bring our jackets back to the dressing room. Every time he did, someone would yell "Kayfabe." ... Then one night, the guy decided to stand up for himself and told the whole dressing room: "I don't mind the yelling, but I want to let you know that my name is not Kayfabe. It's Mark." ... What he didn't know is that wrestlers called people outside of the business "marks"--that's why we were yelling kayfabe in the first place.
The term "kayfabe" was often used as a warning to other wrestlers that someone who was not "in the know" was in the vicinity. Sometimes that could include wrestlers' family members who had not been clued into the scripted nature of professional wrestling. Examples of "kayfabe" being kept even to family members was illustrated in an article describing how in the 1970s, the wife of James Harris (known under the ring name Kamala) was celebrating that her husband had just won a $5,000 prize as he won a battle royal; not realizing that the prize money was simply a storyline or kayfabe.
The term itself can be used in a variety of contexts, as an adjective, for instance, when referring to a "kayfabe interview", where the person being interviewed remains "in character", or when describing someone as a "kayfabe girlfriend", implying that she is playing a role, but is not actually romantically involved with that particular person. A person can also be said to be "kayfabing" someone, by presenting storylines and rivalries as real.
Various sources have suggested different origins for the term "kayfabe", but the actual origin is not known with certainty. One theory suggests that it was derived from a word manipulation of the term "be fake" (à la pig latin and other argots), designed to conceal the true meaning. Another theory claims that there actually was a wrestler called "Kay Fabian" who was mute. Neither claim has ever been substantiated. Another theory suggests that the term derives from the expression "keep cavey", from the Latin verb caveo, which means "look out for"; this phrase was used by Jews living in East London between World War I and World War II. Per that theory, many US promoters and wrestlers at that time were of Eastern European origin and many had heavy accents, leading to the term being transformed into "kayfabe". The term was first documented in a 1937 book by New York sportswriter Marcus Griffin that described some of the "behind the scenes" aspects of professional wrestling, suggesting that the term was already in common use in professional wrestling by that time.
While professional wrestling has been staged, or preplanned, from the time it was a sideshow attraction, the scripted nature of the performances has been hinted over time. In 1934 a show held at Wrigley Field in Chicago billed one of the matches as "the last great shooting match", implying that the other matches were not "shoot matches", the irony being that even that match was "worked". In 1957 comedian Groucho Marx described watching wrestlers "practice their match", hinting at the scripted nature of professional wrestling.
While the scripted nature of professional wrestling was an open secret it was not generally acknowledged by people in the business. Often wrestlers and promoters would make sure that on-screen rivals were not seen eating or traveling together between shows and so on. There were a few occasional 'hiccups' at the time, such as an infamous incident in 1987 in which police arrested The Iron Sheik and Hacksaw Jim Duggan, supposed rivals in an upcoming match at Madison Square Garden, as they sat together in a car drinking and using cocaine. The first public acknowledgment by a major insider of the staged nature of professional wrestling came in 1989 when World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon testified before the New Jersey State Senate that wrestling was not a competitive sport. The admission on McMahon's part was to avoid interference from state athletic commissions and to avoid paying the taxation some states placed on income from athletic events held in that state, as well as to avoid the need to meet the requirement of having to employ medical professionals standing by, as was generally mandatory for legitimate contact sports involving substantial possibility of injury.
Faces, short for "babyfaces", are hero-type characters whose personalities are crafted to elicit the support of the audience through traits such as humility, patriotism, a hard-working nature, determination and reciprocal love of the crowd. Faces usually win their matches on the basis of their technical skills and are sometimes portrayed as underdogs to enhance the story.
Heels are villainous or antagonistic characters, whose personalities are crafted to elicit a negative response from the audience. They often embrace traditionally negative traits such as narcissism, egomania, unprompted rage, sadism and general bitterness. Though not as prevalent today, xenophobic ethnic and racial stereotypes, in particular, those inspired by the Axis powers of World War II, were commonly used in North American wrestling as heel-defining traits. Another angle of a heel could be approached from a position of authority; examples include Big Boss Man, a corrections officer; Mike Rotunda as Irwin R. Shyster, a federal tax collector; Jacques Rougeau wearing RCMP-inspired dress as The Mountie; and Glenn Jacobs, later to become famous as Kane, as Isaac Yankem, a dentist. Heels can also be other characters held in low esteem by the public such as a repossession agent (a role played by Barry Darsow as Repo Man). Heels typically inspire boos from the audience and often employ underhanded tactics, such as cheating and exploiting technicalities, in their fighting strategies, or use overly aggressive styles to cause excess pain or injury to their opponents.
A wrestler may change from face to heel (or vice versa) in an event known as a turn, or gradually transition from one to the other over the course of a long storyline. Wrestlers like Andre the Giant, Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan, and Randy Savage could work across the entire spectrum and often gain new fans as a result of each "turn".
Matches are usually organized between a heel and a face, but the distinction between the two types may be blurred as a given character's storyline reaches a peak or becomes more complicated. Indeed, in recent years, several wrestlers became characters that were neither faces nor heels, but somewhere in between--or alternating between both--earning them the term "tweener".
Despite the wrestlers' character settings, the crowd may not react accordingly due to booking issues or the general public's affinity to react positively to heels, or negatively, or in an indifferent manner to faces. The divide also can be separated by fan demographics, where older male fans tend to cheer for heels and boo faces, while kids and female fans tend to stay on the 'cheer for faces, boo for heels' sentiment, especially with John Cena and Roman Reigns.
Many storylines make use of kayfabe romantic relationships between two performers. Very often, both participants have other real-life relationships, and the "relationship" between the two is simply a storyline. However, more than once, kayfabe romantic relationships have resulted either from a real-life relationship, such as between Matt Hardy and Lita, or ultimately developed into a real-life marriage (e.g., Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, who married in 2003, more than a year after their kayfabe marriage ended). During the early 21st century, this "kayfabe" practice has given way to reality in the WWE, largely due to the creation of the reality television program Total Divas where four "legit" (legally binding) weddings have occurred: Natalya and Tyson Kidd, Brie Bella and Daniel Bryan, Naomi and Jimmy Uso, and Eva Marie and her fiancé Jonathan. In TNA, after American Wolves disbanded, Eddie Edwards and Davey Richards and their "legit" wives, Alisha Edwards and Angelina Love-Richards wrestled against each other.
Tag teams of wrestlers, who may or may not look alike, are often presented as relatives, though they are not actually related. Examples include The Brothers of Destruction (The Undertaker and Kane), The Holly Cousins (Hardcore Holly, Crash Holly, and Molly Holly) and The Dudley Brothers. The "Brother" tag team concept was commonly used during the "territory years" (1950s-1980s) as a means to develop young talent, by pairing them with a veteran wrestler and giving the younger wrestler a "rub" by virtue of the association, such as the Valliant Brothers or the Fargo Brothers where none of the "brothers" were actually related.
A wrestler or a promotion uses kayfabe in regards to injuries in one of two ways; "selling" a fake injury as part of a storyline, or they come up with a storyline reason to explain the absence of someone due to a legitimate injury. Sometimes a wrestler will be kept off shows to demonstrate the severity of what happened to them previously as part of a storyline. Prior to the spread of the internet, this was a common tactic used to explain the absence of a wrestler when a said wrestler would tour Japan or was unable to appear on specific shows. If a wrestler appears on a show after a "brutal" attack they would "sell" the injury by limping or having their arm heavily bandaged and so on. In other instances, when a wrestler was legitimately injured either during a match or during training, a storyline would play out where a heel would attack the wrestler and "injure" them to give the impression that the injury was due to the attack. This normally would lead to the injured wrestler returning, later on, to "settle the score".
Promoters have used in-ring accidents that led to injuries, or in extreme cases death, as a way to make a heel even more hated and unpopular. In 1971 Alberto Torres died three days after wrestling Ox Baker. Evidence indicated that Torres died of a ruptured appendix, Baker's Heart punch finishing move was the kayfabe reason; the death was worked into Baker's wrestling persona by the promoters making Baker the most hated heel in the territory at the time. Acts exploiting personal tragedy or death became less and less prevalent by the turn of the century with fans being more aware of the worked nature of professional wrestling.
On the other hand, due to the legitimate risks involved in professional wrestling, some measures are still in place to let the crowd and commentators know if the wrestlers are legitimately injured in serious or dangerous spots. The wrestler receiving the damage can squeeze the opponent or referee within short timeframe before giving thumbs up or wave to the crowd (if possible). If they cannot do so in a timely manner, the referee has to put a cross above their heads to signal for medical help during a match, unless if that whole procedure is deliberately done as part of the match, like when Kurt Angle, as part of The Shield as Roman Reigns' replacement, took a running powerslam from Braun Strowman through the table, taken off the match for 15 minutes before returning to win against The Miz, Cesaro, Sheamus, and Kane.
Wrestlers being publicly "fired" is a popular storytelling device, often for the fired wrestler to return under a mask or "earn their job" back through a match. In the days where the National Wrestling Alliance territories were at their height some wrestlers would travel from territory to territory, often using a "loser leaves town" match to wrap up a storyline in the specific territory. At times a wrestler will make a surprise debut for a company, with the storyline presenting that the wrestler in question does not actually work for the company.
In the NXT era, however, kayfabe is often broken post-match when a wrestler is promoted to the main roster, with the rest of the roster applauding them, regardless of storyline relationships. Before then, these breaks are apparent when they are promoted from OVW, or when they retired. Most notably, The Undertaker broke kayfabe as a mysterious Deadman, as he hugged and kneeled down to offer his respects to Ric Flair on his retirement ceremony. Since then, Daniel Bryan's rivals (notably The Miz and Brock Lesnar) broke kayfabe in interviews and on Twitter applauding his decisions to retire, although their rivalry resumed after Daniel Bryan returned as Smackdown GM, and escalated to a point where Daniel Bryan legitimately left Talking Smack because The Miz did a shoot that got personal.
There have been several examples of breaking kayfabe throughout wrestling history, although exactly what constitutes "breaking" is not clearly defined. It is rare for kayfabe to be dispensed with totally and the events acknowledged as scripted. Often the "break" may be implied or through an allusion (for example calling a wrestler by his/her real name) and standards tend to vary as to what is a break. In the WWF during and after the Attitude Era, the line between kayfabe and reality was often blurred. With the growth of the industry and its exposure on the Internet and DVD and videos, kayfabe may be broken more regularly. Whereas in the past it was extremely rare for a wrestler or other involved person to recognize the scripted nature of events even in outside press or media, WWE DVDs and WWE.com routinely give news and acknowledge real life. In the case of the former, it has ostensible adversaries and allies talking about each other, and the angles and storylines they worked and their opinions on them. On WWE.com, the real-life news is often given which may contradict storylines.
Before the Attitude Era and the advent of the Internet, publications such as WWF Magazine, and television programs broke kayfabe only to acknowledge major real-life events involving current, or retired wrestlers, such as a death (for instance, the death of Ernie Roth, who was billed as "The Grand Wizard of Wrestling"), divorce (e.g., Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth) or life-threatening accident (such as the 1990 parasailing accident that seriously injured Brutus Beefcake), especially if said event received mass mainstream coverage. In addition, when WWF top officials and employees were facing allegations of anabolic steroid abuse and sexual harassment during the early 1990s, Vince McMahon responded via a series of videotaped comments defending his company and employees, and several full-page advertisements rebutting the allegations appeared in WWF Magazine.
In the Reality Era (2014, specifically after WrestleMania XXX where The Undertaker had his streak broken) onwards and the era of social media, kayfabe is often broken when wrestlers go on tour. Feuding stars in storylines can be seen being civil to each other when they are not wrestling. Off-ring persona can be strikingly different from the in-ring character with less disapproval.
Kayfabe has been broken many times, though it may not always be apparent to fans as seen below. The following is a list of some of the more notable examples.
In the 1996 MSG Incident, real-life friends Shawn Michaels, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Diesel, and Razor Ramon broke kayfabe by embracing in the ring at the end of a match between Michaels and Nash. On television, the two had been portrayed as rivals, but the group broke with the storylines as both Nash and Hall were on their way to rival promotion World Championship Wrestling. The embrace was a farewell gesture from Michaels and Triple H which had not been approved by anyone backstage. Because of Nash and Hall's departure, and the fact that Michaels was the world champion at the time, Triple H was the only one reprimanded for the incident. He was relegated to working lower card matches and was booked to lose to Jake Roberts in the King of the Ring 1996 tournament, having previously been booked to win it.
The most widely discussed example of kayfabe breaking is the Montreal Screwjob, centered on a match in which then-WWF World Heavyweight Champion Bret Hart wrestled challenger Shawn Michaels for the championship at the Survivor Series in Montreal on November 9, 1997. Hart had previously signed a contract with rival World Championship Wrestling and still had three weeks left on his contract with the WWF. The agreed-upon finish was to have Hart retain the title that night and appear on Raw the following night to give up the championship. WWF head Vince McMahon had, months before, informed Hart that he could not financially guarantee the terms of his contract with Hart, encouraging him to make another deal if he was able to. As events transpired leading up to Survivor Series with Hart still champion and booked to remain champion following the event, McMahon feared that his championship would appear on his rival's television program. During the match, Michaels put Hart in the sharpshooter, Hart's finisher. Referee Earl Hebner signaled that Hart submitted, even though he had not. At the same time, McMahon came to the ringside area and directed the ring crew to ring the bell and announce that Michaels had won the match. Hart, very upset, spat on McMahon and began trashing equipment around the ring, later punching McMahon in the dressing room. While everyone involved in the incident maintains that it was legitimate, some fans, and several within the business, claim that it was a very elaborate storyline and only pretended to "break kayfabe". Legitimate or not, the "Montreal Screwjob", as it was referred to later on, has been recreated over the years by various companies as part of their own internal storylines.
The accident that killed Owen Hart occurred on May 23, 1999 during the Over the Edge pay per view broadcast, but was not shown on screen (a prerecorded video featuring Hart in character as the "Blue Blazer" was playing at the time of the accident) and, after Jim Ross indicated that something was amiss in the ring, the broadcast immediately cut to a pre-recorded interview with Hart. Afterward, Ross acknowledged to viewers that an accident had occurred and that Hart was being attended to, at one point assuring viewers "this was not a wrestling angle". The following day WWF held a tribute to Owen Hart where several wrestlers spoke "out of character" about Owen.
In specials and tribute shows, kayfabe is often broken. In the tribute shows for Brian Pillman, Owen Hart, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Benoit, many wrestlers and officials, including those who had kayfabe feuds with the deceased wrestler, spoke in their honor. Kayfabe and real life came into serious conflict on June 25, 2007, when the actual death of Chris Benoit necessitated an appearance by WWE chairman Vince McMahon on his Raw program which aired that same day, even though the character of Mr. McMahon had been "killed" in an automobile explosion on a previous episode. The death angle was scrapped, as was the regularly scheduled Raw program. Instead, a tribute to Benoit was broadcast. However, the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Benoit and his family was not known at the time the June 25 Raw tribute was broadcast. When the circumstances emerged McMahon appeared in person on the ECW broadcast the following night as well, acknowledging the change in Benoit's "status" and making the last mention of Benoit's name on WWE television. In his remarks on Raw, McMahon directly refers to "Mr. McMahon" as "my character" and refers in both Raw and ECW to the WWE wrestlers as "performers".
After the September 11 attacks of 2001, the entire WWE roster gathered, and Vince McMahon proclaimed that the show would continue despite the September 11 attacks, with Lillian Garcia singing "The Star-Spangled Banner".
On the September 10, 2012, edition of Raw, after competing in a tag team match with Randy Orton against CM Punk and Dolph Ziggler, Jerry Lawler collapsed (legitimately) at the announce table while Kane and Daniel Bryan competed against The Prime Time Players. Updates were provided during the live broadcast by commentator Michael Cole, who broke kayfabe to make clear to viewers that Lawler's collapse and hospitalization was not a planned part of the show. As of the end of the broadcast at 23:15 EDT, it was announced that he had received CPR, but was breathing independently and reacting to stimulus. It was later confirmed on Dutch Mantell's Facebook page that Lawler had suffered a heart attack. This led to Michael Cole's face turn after Lawler recovered.
While Kofi Kingston started his career being billed from Kingston, Jamaica, where he had a fake Jamaican accent, when the character itself was dropped, only Triple H, then of D-Generation X stable, questioned whether Kingston broke kayfabe and how he lost his accent in the lead-up to 2009 WWE Bragging Rights.
In some instances, the use of kayfabe to protect a storyline or a wrestler led to real life events mirroring the storylines.
While working as a booker for WCW, Kevin Sullivan conceived an angle where Woman (Nancy Daus Sullivan, Sullivan's wife both on-screen and off), would leave his character for Chris Benoit. Sullivan insisted that the two should travel together to preserve kayfabe for the general public. This resulted in Sullivan's wife legitimately leaving him for Benoit when the two developed a real-life romantic relationship during their time together. Nancy ultimately married Benoit in 2000.
Brian Pillman developed a "Loose Cannon" persona for himself while in WCW in 1996, conspiring with Vice President Eric Bischoff and booker Kevin Sullivan. Pillman's character was based entirely on straddling the fine line of kayfabe, presenting it as if he had legitimate problems with WCW management. He would engage in on-camera actions that seemed to be unscripted, even to the other performers, and even breached kayfabe protocol when he addressed Sullivan on air as "bookerman". In the ultimate act of turning fiction into fact, Pillman convinced Sullivan and Bischoff that their storyline "firing" of him would seem more legitimate with the physical evidence of a release form. They faxed an actual WCW contract termination notice to him, complete with his name and the proper signatures, in order to preserve kayfabe. This allowed Pillman to actually leave WCW to work for Extreme Championship Wrestling and later the WWF.
When Triple H and Stephanie McMahon entered into a kayfabe marriage in late 1999, Triple H and McMahon started dating in real life, and continued to do so after their onscreen marriage ended in 2002; the two eventually married in real life in 2003. The Catholic priest at the wedding, not aware of the workings of the wrestling business, initially refused to marry the two when he found out about the kayfabe wedding from a choir boy who was also a wrestling fan. Linda McMahon later had to explain to the priest the difference between WWE programming and real life, allowing the marriage to go through. Afterward, the real-life marriage became an open secret on television before being acknowledged by Triple H in 2009.
The opposite also holds true, where the kayfabe story is based on, or as a result of, real-life events, from disclosing relationship status to starting family feuds. During the feud between brothers Matt and Jeff Hardy, Matt had brought a dog collar, which was found in Jeff's house, which was legitimately burned down and his dog died.
CM Punk's 2011 pipe bomb has claimed that Vince McMahon has the potential to be a billionaire, when in fact, Vince was at one point, before it was revealed he lost 750 million of his 1.6 billion net worth, losing 350 million in a day due to WWE's over-valued stock price and lower-than-expected WWE Network subscribers. He also referred John Cena and his beloved Boston-based sports teams as heels because they are all no longer underdogs, and they have all forged dynasties and championship teams in their respective sports (Boston Celtics, Boston Red Sox, Boston Bruins, New England Patriots).
Kurt Angle had legitimately won an Olympic Gold Medal for Freestyle Wrestling, and built heat as a heel because he was still not being recognized by his peers or the crowd. He also revealed his legit injury history and his separation from his first wife, and they divorced in 2008.
In June 2017, Big Cass broke away from Enzo Amore and cited that Enzo's off-ring antics made him a distraction in the locker room. On September 11, 2017, The Miz and Maryse revealed they are expecting their first child, having previously been mocked by John Cena for not having children after being married. On the same day, Enzo Amore had been criticized by The Miz about him being thrown off the tour bus and banned from the locker room as he was a negative influence, while Amore answered back by saying The Miz's initial heel run in the WWE was because he wasn't a great in-ring performer despite having great mic skills. Under this feud, The Miz and Maryse also blurred the face/heel divide as they are built as faces in the feud when they are normally heels in other feuds and storylines.
Last-minute injuries, contracts, and marital statuses can also change the storyline or how a segment is presented. When Enzo Amore's contract was terminated due to withholding information about his sexual assault investigation, his romantic storyline with Nia Jax was scrapped, while she has moved to have the storyline with Drew Gulak, the segments for Raw 25 has also changed on hours' notice due to Jimmy Fallon unable to arrive in New York in time for pre-taped segments for Raw 25 where he was supposed to interview the current and former GM's in Raw and SmackDown, but instead, they only waved in a Hall-of-Fame-like lineup.
The use of kayfabe comes into contention when wrestlers are off the ring, or backstage, most members of public or backstage staff still are implicitly or explicitly told to refer to wrestlers by their stage names, even when in reality shows like Total Divas, where, other than season 1, where Naomi and Cameron's real names were used in the credits, in subsequent season, only their stage names are revealed. While it is common for singers and actors to use their stage names in public, this is unnatural from professional actors that never stay in character outside the stage.
Kayfabe, while not referred to as such, has existed in other areas of show business, especially in feuds. For instance, the feuds between comedians Jack Benny and Fred Allen, and comedian/actor Bob Hope and singer/actor Bing Crosby were totally fake; in real life, Benny and Allen were best friends while Hope and Crosby were also close friends. A more recent example is the "feud" between talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and actor Matt Damon which has been a running joke on Jimmy Kimmel Live! for many years and was even referenced when Kimmel hosted the 89th Academy Awards. In reality, the two are friends, and in 2013 the feud was used as a springboard for Damon guest-hosting an episode of Kimmel's show (while Kimmel himself was left tied to a chair off to the side of the set).
It has long been claimed that kayfabe has been used in American politics, especially in election campaigns, Congress, and the White House, but no evidence of actual usage of kayfabe in Washington has ever been uncovered. In interviews as Governor of Minnesota, former wrestler Jesse Ventura often likened Washington to wrestling when he said that politicians "pretend to hate each other in public, then go out to dinner together."
In the WWE Universe era, the crowd also can be spontaneously used, mostly as a heel, either to distract promo, build more heat to heels, or used to distract referees on their count-outs to force a result, even when they have no physical power or rights to fight the wrestlers. Wrestlers can only react by shooting on them, either as scripted or as an improvisation. At WrestleMania 34, a 10-year-old boy named "Nicholas" was hand-picked by Braun Strowman as his tag-team partner for the WWE Tag Team title match. Strowman and Nicholas won the Tag-Team title, but it was later revealed that Nicholas is the son of the match referee, John Cone.