“Put your hair up and square up.” It’s such a simple saying, but it’s also one that tells you everything you need to know about WWE’s Sonya Deville as an in-ring competitor. Born Daria Berenato, the 26-year-old New Jersey native and former MMA fighter technically made her debut in front of the WWE Universe on the 2015 season of WWE’s competitive reality show Tough Enough.
It was also on Tough Enough that she came out publicly as a lesbian, on national television. Berenato was eliminated in the third week of that competition, she ended up signing a developmental contract with WWE months later, to train at the Performance Center in Orlando, FL and be part of the NXT brand. Now, Berenato is better known as Sonya Deville, one-half of the women’s tag team Fire and Desire with her fellow Tough Enough competitor (and real-life best friend) Mandy Rose.
Sonya took the time to speak with RondaRousey.com about the road so far in her career, as well as her goals for the future, her message as a public figure, the bizarre world of reality TV within the already bizarre world of sports entertainment, and, of course, donuts.
I kind of always kick these interviews off the same way, so I’ve gotta ask: Assuming you’re not always in Wrestling Mode, how exactly do you unwind from Wrestling Mode? Any hobbies, favorite TV shows? Anything like that?
Good question. Yeah, when I’m home, I like to just lay low and hang out at the house, drink some wine, cook some food, and just hang out. I’m a big TV show watcher. So, I do like to binge-watch a good Netflix series or a good HBO series. Right now my show is You. The second season just dropped, so I’m loving that.
Oh, yes. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t finished the season yet, because it’s crazy.
No, don’t. Don’t give it away.
It did get renewed for a third season though, so there will be more You.
I know, I heard that. I was so stoked.
It’s so good. What about movies? Any new releases you’re excited about?
They just announced the Fast and the Furious: F9 saga. So, I’m really excited for that. I saw John Cena was starring in that and that’s pretty cool. I love the Fast and the Furious movies. I’m a sucker for any action-thriller movie.
Speaking of action, we all know you came from the world of MMA pre-WWE. I would actually love to hear more about your MMA experience and working with American Top Team. Admittedly, I’m not really the MMA expert around here, but I do know of American Top Team and its reputation.
Basically, the day of my high school graduation, I was like, “I want to get out of this small town in New Jersey. I want to take over the world.” I always had really big dreams and becoming the best MMA fighter in the world was my dream at the time. So I got in my car and drove it to south Florida. I told my dad I was going to some state college. Which I did enroll in, but it was really just a cover story because I wanted to train with American Top Team, which is one of the best fight teams in the world if you’re talking about MMA and combat sports.
So, I literally walked in the door—I didn’t know anybody at American Top Team. Like, two days after I drove my car there, I just knocked on the door and I said, “Hey, I want to be a fighter.” And they were like, “Oh, do you have any experience?” And I was like, “Oh, I trained with a group at a gym for a year before I had gotten down there.” And they were like, “Yeah, yeah. Join the classes.” And so they stuck me in, you know, beginners … Muay Thai class and just different classes, and I ended up just working my ass off. I mean, I’d be in that gym just five, six hours a day just hitting the bag before practice. Then I’d do Muay Thai practice for an hour and then I’d do Jiu-Jitsu class for an hour. And then I’d stay after and I roll with… India Gomes was one of my rolling partners.
She is someone who really helped me out and taught me a lot about the sport. So, slowly but surely, I proved myself. And I was trained with coaches like Steve Bruno and India, and a lot of people just took me under their wing and really, really helped me because they saw that I was passionate and really wanted to do this. And so I competed in, like, four or five grappling tournaments when I lived in South Florida with American Top Team. I got first place in maybe three NAGAs and stuff like that. And then, I was like, “You know what? I really want to act.”
And so I ended up moving to LA ’cause I was like, “I can act out here and I could pursue fighting.” Because some of the best fight gyms are out there, as well as “Hollywood.” So, I ended up moving out there training with Systems Training Center and Black House MMA and taking three amateur fights. And then I got introduced to the world of wrestling and kind of just… a new love and took that path.
So how exactly were you introduced to the world of professional wrestling? Did you ever watch as a kid or anything like that?
No, I never grew up watching wrestling. So I was in LA, I was managing the bar full-time, bartending full-time, training MMA full-time. And on the weekends I would host a UFC podcast—actually at AfterBuzz TV, in the Valley. And the owners of AfterBuzz TV, Maria Menounos and Kevin Undergaro—Maria is a host … she’s in that kind of world. WWE actually called Maria and offered her a spot on Tough Enough, which is the reality series that the winner gets a contract into the WWE. And Maria was like, “No, no, no, I’m too old for that. But I have the perfect girl.” And so Maria and Kevin kind of became my mentors at AfterBuzz, because they saw me host, and I actually pitched a couple ideas to them creatively as podcast videos. And they really liked me and believed in me.
They actually came to my last MMA fight. … Afterwards, they were like, “You’re too pretty to be doing this, you know.” And I was like, “No, I love it!” … They were like, “Have you ever considered wrestling? Like WWE?” And I was like, “Well, no, I had never considered this, to be honest. I was always wanted to be a fighter.” And they were like, “I think it would be the perfect fit for you, because you know, you love to act and you love to perform, but you also love to compete. And WWE kind of encompasses all these things.”
And so them being my mentors and me being this student, I was like, “Yeah, I’ll try anything once,” you know? And so I ended up trying out for Tough Enough and getting on the show, and I just fell in love with wrestling. It was everything I had always wanted to experience, all wrapped into one company and organization.
Honestly, how was the Tough Enough experience? Do you think it might have kind of prepared you for the world of wrestling? Because in a way, reality television and wrestling are kind of two sides of the same bizarre coin.
Yeah, it really thickened my skin, honestly. Tough Enough was crazy. I was thrown into the world of wrestling for the first time. Simultaneously, I was thrown into the world of reality television for the first time. And so these were two kind of foreign worlds to me at this time. And I’m kind of trying to navigate the waters and figure out how to be the best at both. So it was definitely a learning experience. It was tough mentally and physically. And then, I think we all learn from our greatest losses. I got eliminated like the third or fourth episode of Tough Enough, and I was heartbroken. I was devastated because in those four or five weeks I was in Orlando, I fell in love with WWE and I just wanted to stay.
And when I got eliminated, I was devastated. But I went right back home to California, to LA. And started training with Brian Kendrick [in] wrestling. And I just hounded WWE’s hiring staff and was like, “One way or another, I’m going to get back there.” I was just persistent.
And then about four months went by. I went back to bartending, back to the training—back to my grind. And I was training wrestling full-time now on my own. WWE called me and said: “Alright, come back out for Orlando for another tryout.” So one thing led to another and then eventually like, I think it was four or five months [before] I was finally signed.
You were eliminated relatively early, but do you have any fond memories, any particular stories you can tell about your time on Tough Enough? Maybe some stuff that we didn’t see?
Yeah. So when we were doing the tryout for Tough Enough, there’s like this big room upstairs at the Performance Center where all the girls were kind of waiting to do this on-camera interview. We were all really nervous about it because you had to be, like, in a bikini, in the middle of the ring, and we had to kind of answer whatever questions WWE top execs threw at you. And I remember sitting up there and I saw Mandy [Rose] across the room, and I was like, “Who is this blonde chick?” She stood out, obviously. And I judged a book by its cover, I’m not even going to lie. And I was like, “Oh man, I don’t know. I don’t know if this chick’s going to be nice. She kinda looks a little stuck up.” or whatever. So I kind of went over there to assert my dominance to the competition.
I was like, “I’m going to go over here and let her know I’m not intimidated by her.” You know, because all the other girls kind of weren’t really hanging around her. She was like “top competition.” So, I went over there and I introduced myself. I said, “My name’s Daria. What’s up?” And I was fully expecting her to be snotty or standoffish or whatever. And she looked right back at me and she’s like, “What’s up? I’m Mandy.” And in the same tone as me. And right then and there, we just [were] like sisters. So I got to spend the whole experience of Tough Enough, NXT, now Smackdown, RAW, you know, with my best friend. So it’s been super cool. She’s from New York, I’m from Jersey. So we ended up just being like in two peas in the same pod.
You always hear about locker room culture, especially in pro wrestling, as an intense brotherhood. But you also hear about how, in the last five years or so, especially, the locker room is not as cutthroat or as backstabby as it used to be. Was there any sort of pushback or any kind of weirdness with you joining the Performance Center and WWE as kind of a reality star? I know that The Miz had those issues, but things have also changed since his day.
Yeah, I don’t think I got that stigma so bad as the other people because I had the MMA background. So I think they just looked at me as like a fighter that made the transition from MMA to WWE. Not so much the reality stuff on Tough Enough, because I was only on the show for like three weeks. I didn’t get that stigma as bad as [Miz] or any of them.
Do you also think it’s possible that because the PC has such a mixture of indy veterans and newcomers and it’s really all about learning that it also helped change that stigma?
Yeah, the Performance Center and the whole vibe of all that I think has changed over the last decade. It’s like, now people come from every walk of life to the WWE. I mean you have everyone from professional athletes to models to wrestlers who have been wrestling for 15 years. So, it’s really a diverse environment now and it’s awesome because it is much more welcoming, I’d say.
When you first got interested in wrestling, who were the wrestlers that really stuck out to you?
I always liked Becky Lynch. She was always, to me, just different and unique, and she was always a badass. I think she still is. Charlotte… I liked how strong she was and how she kind of redefined femininity for me. She didn’t fit in the perfect square mold of what it means to be a Diva, to say, back in the day. She kind of reinvented the meaning of the women’s wrestler. And Lita, obviously, from back in the day. I mean she stood out to me because she was a tomboy living in a world of super girly Divas at the time.
Of course, at the PC, there are so many legends around to give you, just, mountains of information. But, other than the PC trainers, who were the veteran talents when you were first starting out in WWE who you would go to to ask for advice? Or to just pick their brains for information?
Bayley is definitely one—she’s like the locker room leader always. She’s someone you could go to for advice or if you have questions about how things work or whoever it was, she’s definitely just a natural leader in the locker room. Becky was someone that I always went to too. Becky’s cool because she’s one of those people that leads by example. She’s not going to tell you what to do with your life, but she just carries herself in a way that’s admirable.
You’re the first non-Horsewoman I’ve talked to for the site who didn’t come into WWE with any indy experience, and I’m always fascinated with how someone who didn’t go that route sees this business. What would you say is your particular philosophy on wrestling? You know, do you find it to be more of a storytelling medium or a more athletic medium? What is it that you want to say with your body of work?
Yeah, I definitely want my athleticism and my intensity to come through on the screen. I don’t want anyone to have a second thought about what my intentions are when they watch me wrestle. I don’t want them to overthink it or think that anything I do isn’t with aggression and intensity. So that’s definitely something that’s very important to me.
But I also know that this world of sports entertainment is about storytelling and connecting with the fans. And the most important thing to me is connecting with the fans. I have a message that I stand for and I speak for. And it’s represented with me everywhere I go, whether it’s on social media or in the ring or in my ring gear. You know, with a little rainbow. I love just carrying the message of being a “Pride Fighter” with me because I came out on Tough Enough four years ago and it was very unexpected.
I was asked if I was in a relationship on national television. And so it was kind of one of those things where I didn’t know what it meant when I said it. And the last four years has really been a kind of evolution process, trying to not only become comfortable with myself and who I am, but also help take people with me along that ride. So yeah, there’s a lot of passion in that because I remember the terrible feeling of not feeling like I was like everyone else. And not feeling good enough in certain ways.
Obviously, people ask you a lot about being the first out lesbian in WWE. Is there anything that no one really ever asks you about that you wish they would? What exactly would you want people to know?
I would say, just the reason why it’s so important to me. I mean, why it’s so near and dear to my heart. And it’s funny because I was actually talking … about this the other day and I was like, “It’s so crazy for me to think back when I was 15, 16, 17 years old and all the things that subliminally manifested in my life because I was hiding who I was.” Back then, I partied a little too much.
You know, I went out a little too much as a teenager. I would act out because I was hiding certain things… a part of who I was. And I spent so many years trying to date guys and trying to act more feminine so that nobody would catch on that I liked girls. And then for a while, for a couple of years, I just called myself by bi—bisexual—because that was more politically acceptable at the time or socially acceptable at the time. So I was like, “Oh well if I just say I’m that fine. Sometimes if it’s girls, no one will think anything of it.” There’s just all these things that I went through internally over the past 10 years. It was really tough. And I’m just starting to unravel all of it now. I’m 26 years old now and I’m just now starting to realize the real effects it had on my life not being true to who I was.
And so if I could be that influence for somebody else, to give them the confidence at a younger age to be like, “Wait, Sonya did it, maybe I could do it.” There’s strength in numbers, right? Just unity and equality for all is something that lays really near and dear to my heart. It’s not just something I preach because I think it’s FOR something… I preach it from a very intimate and dear part of my heart because I was that person 10 years ago. I’m dealing with a lot of effects from all that now. So, I want to help people not have to go through all that.
How do you really feel the fan response has been to you being so open about this? In my opinion—just from what I’ve personally seen and from my own inner circle of LGBTQ+ wrestling fans—it’s been positive.
Oh cool. It’s been super positive. Yeah, since I came out on Tough Enough, it’s been super positive. I haven’t really had any issues. Obviously, it’s social media—you’re gonna have good and bad. But, I tried to just kind of remain positive and just be a positive voice on social media. And, using this platform to just spread the positivity, because there’s no room for hate. We ain’t got time for hate, you know?
Absolutely. And, of course, you got to share that positivity on Total Divas this past season too. How was that experience, by the way? And did Mandy give you any pointers since she was on one of the seasons?
Yeah. Yeah, she’s on one of the seasons, I don’t remember which number it was.
Yeah, it was one of the earlier ones. [Ed. Note: It was Season 5, out of the series’ eight seasons and after making guest appearances on Season 4.]
Yeah, I definitely asked Mandy, going into Total Divas, wondering what it would be like… and [she] was like, “Just be yourself, you know. Just be yourself and don’t get caught up. Just be you and let the cameras kind of capture what they’re going to capture.” And that’s what I tried to kind of stand by. And it’s crazy because, in the beginning, your guard’s up, you’re trying to like manipulate what’s seen and what’s not seen. By the end of the season, you forget the cameras are there and the exact opposite happens. So it was a really cool experience. And I was proud to be able to share my story and show a little bit more of a vulnerable side to the fans that they don’t really get to see in the ring.
And now it’s time for me to ask the most important question: Could you please talk about donuts?
Oh my God. … Yes, Mandy and I have a donut company called DaMandyz Donutz. And, basically, it’s a series where we traveled around the world and try the best mom and pop donut shops. But along that journey, we expanded a little bit and now we do DaMandyz Donutz: Food, which allows us to have some of our favorites, like wings, pizza, bar food, cheese curds.
So we kind of try to have the local cuisine in whatever town we go to now. And we’re also showing a little more of our fitness and behind-the-scenes of the day in the life of Mandy and Sonya, is what it’s kind of expanded to. And you know, our end goal is to open up a donut shop. But a donut shop that speaks to our motto in life, which is, “It’s all about balance.” So a little bit of a health food/protein/donut concoction. We’ve been working on for a while now and hopefully in the next year or two that’ll be full-blown… a thing. But for now they can go to DaMandyz.com, get all our merchandise, calendars, all kinds of cool stuff that Mandy and I have created for them.
Very cool. And you and Mandy also you killed it in the first-ever women’s tag team Elimination Chamber. Can you talk about the experience of working that match?
That match… Wild. Yeah. So, that match was crazy. Me and Mandy were in the first-ever [women’s] Elimination Chamber—singles—and then we were in the tag team Elimination Chamber match. It was so cool. The tag division was super hot. And we were stoked to be one of the longer tag teams, Fire and Desire. And anytime that I’m matched with high stipulations, high stakes, that works. Trapped in a cage for 45, 50 minutes—if the pressure’s on it, it gets more fun, you know? I love the drama of the Elimination Chamber. So, we had a great time.
I got rocked in that match actually, like early on, and ended up wrestling through it. That was kind of crazy. I remember going to Mandy and being like, “Oh crap, how much longer?” But we got through it. It was a good match for us and it was great working with veterans like Bayley and Sasha [Banks], you know?
And last year, you got to wrestle against lo Shirai at Worlds Collide, which is a special that I tell everyone who will listen to watch—because that whole special top-to-bottom was great. But do you have any personal dream matches you still haven’t had yet in WWE?
Yes. First of all, lo Shirai is badass. And I loved wrestling her at Worlds Collide. That was a super cool experience. And yeah, honestly, Asuka. I’ve never got a chance to wrestle Asuka in like an extended singles match on TV or on pay-per-view or anything. And I think that some of my best chemistry in the ring is with Asuka, so I would love to have a full storyline and a couple bouts with her, you know?
Now that I think about it, I guess you really kind of wrestled a lot, if not most, of the women on RAW and SmackDown, right?
Yeah. I’ve wrestled pretty much everyone. … I don’t think me and Nattie have ever wrestled. That’d be cool. Yeah. Asuka, Nattie are two I’d like to go into something with. That’d be cool. Obviously, I always say this too… Me and Ronda never had our bout in WWE, which I felt was kind of lame. I was like, “Wait, you’re coming in here, MMA’s top fighter. I was WWE’s first-ever female MMA fighter.” I thought there was a planted story already there. So I’d love to face Ronda if she came back.
We all want to see it. Honestly, it is ridiculous it didn’t happen. But, one day, I believe it will.
Yeah. One day. You know, just save it for a later date, a better time, you know?