In the ’80s, the women of G.L.O.W. — the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling — were massive stars: Known for their huge hair and bigger personalities, they had their own TV show, released music, toured the country. Netflix’s GLOW chronicles the rise of the league through 14 exceptional (mostly fictional) performers. And while each of the women is given their chance to shine, it’s Britney Young’s Carmen Wade, aka Machu Picchu, who has emerged as a fan favorite — much to the actor’s shock.
“This is totally my insecurities coming forward, but I'm so surprised how many people are saying Carmen is their favorite character over those 13 bodacious babes and badass women. Especially guys!” Young told BuzzFeed News at Hugo’s in West Hollywood, genuine shock palpable in her voice. “I don't mean to say all men are disgusting or think that all men are sexist pigs, but on a show where girls are prancing around in leotards, for them to say that Carmen — who’s in gym shorts and a cutoff — is their favorite character has definitely been like Whaaaaat? I'm completely overwhelmed.”
Hailing from an all-male wrestling dynasty, Carmen had long dreamed of stepping into the ring herself, but was told by her father and her brothers that wrestling is not for women. When the spotlight is finally on her, Carmen wows the crowd with her dynamic stage presence; outside of the ring, she’s equally beloved by her coworkers, thanks to her megawatt smile and huge heart, which she would happily wear on her sleeve if she didn’t favor cutoff tees.
While Young’s been caught off-guard by the attention (less than five minutes after she entered the restaurant for the interview, she was approached by a fan who couldn’t stop gushing about the show), the 29-year-old actor was equally surprised by how the show treated her character. “I always go out for the bully or the mean girl: typical plus-size roles,” said Young, who identified herself on Instagram as “Hafrican” (her dad is black and her mom is white).
Prior to the Netflix series, Young’s most prominent role was as Little Debbie, a physically intimidating volleyball star on TruTV’s Those Who Can’t. She also played an apologetic crew member in one scene of FX’s Better Things and a hyper-competitive woman who (physically AND verbally) spars with Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca in one scene on The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But when thinking about the kinds of roles she was auditioning for and — sometimes — getting, Young said she hadn’t realized she was pigeonholed as an actor until she was cast as Carmen. "I'm grateful for every role, but," she said, taking a thoughtful pause, "I'm like, ‘Oh, I really was playing these stereotypical big-girl roles.’”
It was a truth that only began to sink in once she actually experienced what it felt like to breathe life into a character who is more than a stereotype. “Through the whole show there was only one negative comment about my size in a place where it could have been brought up all the time. I'm really grateful they created a character who is more than her physical stature being a part of a shtick,” she said of her GLOW bosses, Jenji Kohan, Liz Flahive, and Carly Mensch. But it wasn’t just in the writing that Young discovered a character who was more than her weight; it was also in the way executive producers chose to outfit the cast.
Throughout the filming process, Young was pleasantly surprised by how frequently the show celebrated physical features that are often unwelcome in Hollywood. Producers not only made good on their word to hire women of all shapes, sizes, races, and backgrounds, but the reliance on Lycra uniforms meant the show’s costumes would, inherently, accentuate each of the actor’s physiques. Young spoke lovingly about the day she asked how the makeup department planned to hide her stretch marks only to discover they had no intention of covering them up.
But one particular moment stands out: the day Netflix released a GLOW poster that focused solely on her unretouched bicep. “When we shot that [photo], Netflix was so excited and I was like, ‘Okay, guys, if you don't like my jiggly arm, you can go ahead and photoshop it.’ But I realized I was saying that to prepare myself for when they would do it. And when they didn't do it, I was like, ‘This is badass!’” Young exclaimed, throwing her hands above her head in enthusiastic triumph. “Like, this is really us celebrating different body shapes and different sizes. It's ‘Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,’ not ‘gorgeous ladies asterisk who are 5'9", 120 pounds, and blonde.’”
But there is a world where Young would not have met this empowering promotional poster with a “YAAASS” attitude; she first had to go on a journey of self-acceptance. Born in Tokyo, where she lived until she was 9 years old, Young grew up loving film — the cinematic education not only kickstarted her interest in working in Hollywood but was also personally enlightening. “I owe all of my confidence to the movies in the ’80s, because that's what I grew up on over in Tokyo,” she said. In those movies, Young noticed that women who didn't fit the perceived cultural standards of beauty were shown as punchlines or as the "girl that sat in the corner with no friends. I remember instinctively knowing that I didn't want to be one of those people. I want to be nice, I want to be friendly, I want to be kind, I want to be happy about who I am. And that really shaped what I think about myself now.”
When her family moved to Alaska, Young and her two siblings enrolled in American public school for the first time, a switch she calls “a huge culture shock”: They’d gone from a major global metropolis to Eagle River, a small town with seven stoplights and one main street that was roughly 10 miles from Anchorage, the closest major city. It was the kind of town where kids from elementary school are the same kids you graduate high school with. And she had a rough time.
“I was bullied very, very bad in middle school,” she said. But like her experience watching ’80s movies, she learned from it. “Once that happened to me, I was like, ‘I don't give a damn anymore about what people think about my weight.’ It's not what defines me. It carries me along in the world, but it's not who I am.”
That unflappable confidence helped her soar through high school: She was class president, homecoming princess for three years, on the prom court, and voted most spirited. “How do I say this without sounding douchebaggy?” she posed before saying with an irrepressible smile: “I had a great time in high school.”
In college, “I was very stressed about how I was going to pay for things” after graduation, Young said. She spent two years at Gonzaga University in Washington before transferring to University of Southern California, where she began to get hands-on training in the entertainment industry and started thinking more about her image.
Young, who adores working in comedy and puts her chops to the test in GLOW, said she looks up to entertainers like Hunter McGrady, Ashley Graham, and Leslie Jones for inspiration — women who are “coming out and saying ‘my weight doesn't define who I am. Look at my talent, look at my skill, appreciate me for that.’” She especially loves Melissa McCarthy in Spy. “In that movie, she is the lead, she's a badass spy, she's funny, she's very aggressive and tough, but [she’s] nice and cares about her friends and she has a love interest in Jason Statham. It's almost the best role for someone who's like, ‘I'm more than just the sidekick.’
“I know people are going to be rolling their eyes, like, ‘Oh my god, she's talking about weight so much,’ but I want to star in a romantic comedy where it has nothing to do with weight, or losing weight to find love. It just happens that Zac Efron and I fall in love.”
That is a big reason why she loves it when GLOW fans ship Carmen and Bash (Chris Lowell), the moneyman who helps the league get their act on television. “It's so nice to have something be natural and not try to make a statement,” she said of the potentiall burgeoning relationship. “If these characters get together, it's not to be like, ‘The big girl can get the hot guy!’ It's just two characters who have feelings for each other and that's the natural progression of their relationship.”
The viewer reaction to Carmen and Bash reinforces to Young that she’s on the right path toward her ultimate goal: to get to a place where a character’s size is no longer the first thing she reads on her audition sides. And thanks to GLOW, she’s starting to see some positive movement. Earlier this month, she went on three auditions where the roles had no physical descriptions listed next to them. “I think people are starting to see past me being a bigger, intimidating presence and being like, ‘She can actually make people laugh. Let's bring her in!’"
While she’s reveling in the incremental shifts, Young is ready to put in the work to reach that goal — both in front of and behind the camera (she plans to start a production company one day). Young never in a million years thought she’d be considered a role model, but if owning who she is turns her into one, that’s one more role she’s proud to play. “Growing up I really didn't have people who were inspiring me in that way, and if I can be a little beacon in the world to somebody else, I'm totally up for it!”