No Feathers, Please: Learning what it takes to Fight Like a Girl(tm)

All-Star alter-egos. American tour stops. International media coverage.

And you thought pillow fighting was just something you did as a kid.

Toronto’s very own Pillow Fight League makes it a serious business. Now in its fifth year, the locally-developed sport has been featured on BBC, the New York Times, and even the National Enquirer. In addition to its regular games at the Gladstone Hotel, the league spreads word about its all-female bouts and its ultra-cheap entertainment through tour stops in Brooklyn, Montreal, Detroit and Charleston, South Carolina.

For whatever strange reason, this year I decided I would try and become the league’s first Asian player. You know, while completely ignoring the fact that I wasn’t regularly involved in any sports and hadn’t been to a gym in almost four years. I couldn’t be that bad, right? So I signed up for tryouts.

Not long after I found myself at 89-B Niagara St. on a cold, Wednesday night. The building, located in a quiet neighbourhood in downtown Toronto was almost like a secret location, with the entrance hidden away at the end of a small parking alley down five concrete steps.

Inside, I discovered was a room with some of its own alter-egos.

Turns out the basement office at 89-B does triple-duty for PFL founder and owner Stacy Case. A print-making shop by day, after-hours the space often morphs into the Trash Palace – a venue for local indie-arts events and vintage drive-in movies. Sandwiched in-between are PFL tryouts and team practices.

Every single space on the walls seemed covered in bright, colourful posters. There are metal lawn chairs, printmaking equipment and red theatre seats lining different parts of the room. An old-fashioned marquee is set underneath a projector screen. And across from the popcorn machine lies a stack of brand new posters emblazoned with Naudwuar’s face in bright red ink.

Not long after I arrive I’m given two sets of forms to fill out. One is the standard “I or my family will not sue even in cases of death” personal waiver and the other is a four-page questionnaire, apparently culled from the one given to American Idol contestants imbued with the ability to determine someone’s level of personal craziness.

For that second one, questions range from “How much do you weigh?” and “Do you have a criminal record?” to “What is the most daring thing you did recently?” Most puzzling is number 40 which simply reads: “Who is your favourite Beatle?” (My answer: “Ringo – he was awesome in Yellow Submarine.”)

When I ask Case about that last question he later responds, “It says a lot about you as a person.”

After finishing the written inquiry to my life and asserting to Case my tryout wasn’t just some lame writing gimmick, it was time to change into my workout clothes. And I soon discover the single-stall women’s bathroom is decorated just as colourfully as the rest of the office.

There, located next to the toilet is a large plastic Santa, the lawn ornament glowing silently in the corner while small toy Mexican luchador figures, paintings and other trinkets line the walls. With the toys and the Mexican wrestling posters outside, it’s not hard to figure out why Case named his company Studio Lucha Inc.

After changing I meet five of the league’s current fighters – the stunningly tall Eiffel Power, the comparatively shorter Dinah Mite, curly-haired Messy Jessie, neon-pink coiffed Carmen Monoxide and finally Olivia Neutron-Bomb, manager of the league’s tryouts and its general public relations.

Despite various piercings and a smattering of tattoos they all seem like relatively nice, friendly gals. Only later do I realize Carmen is ranked the league’s number one contender, hiding serious clout behind her wide smile and brightly coloured hairdo. I never end up learning any of the fighters’ real names.

I soon find out I am the only person to sign up and actually show up for tryouts that night. A strange woman in a leopard print-top briefly enters the office with another male before quickly apologizing, “My boyfriend set me up for this,” and then turning around and leaving.

The tryout was simple – a series of drills, each lasting one minute, the would later be analyzed to determine if I qualify for the next round. Let my torture begin.

After starting off with the requisite jumping jacks, crunches, and push ups, my required displays of athleticism started to get a little complicated. There are “spideys” and “jump-up full-body squats”, which soon make me wheeze and cause both my legs to want to collapse. At one point I actually feel such an urge to puke that I am barely able to stumble up the five steps outside, where after adjusting my seating position for lighting purposes Dinah Mite hugs me tightly and reassures me I’m doing great.

Ah yes, the adjustment. It was one thing to sign myself up for the tryout out of sheer spontaneity – it was another to find myself suddenly part of a documentary by four students from Ryerson University. I had no problems initially speaking about my story, but after a few circles of the camera I couldn’t help but start to feel like I was part of a reality-television show.

After ignoring the camera and swigging down some water, I finally go back in for the rest of the drills. ‘Firefighter pick-ups’ of Dinah Mite over each of my shoulders. ‘Jump-up knee-slaps’ that give everyone in the group the urge to pee. And then before I know it, it’s finally time to pick up some pillows and smack something.

The final four drills were set up to determine how fast I could actually hit with a pillow, and then how well I could do in an actual pillow fight. After almost an hour of pain, sweat, dehydration, near-feelings of vomit and plenty of dual-camera attention, it all came down to this.

Truthfully, at this point I was just thankful not to have passed out, much less have enough energy to fully display my ass-kicking abilities. But there was little time to dwell on that idea before I was quickly being shown my first cotton-sheeted test.

In a burst of energy I actually ended up doing pretty well during my initial attempt, the success I wholly attributed to employing a trusty figure-eight method for hitting. But by the second test exhaustion had clearly crept in and so my results seriously declined.

Still, nothing could have prepared me for the two minutes of actual fighting. With no knee pads, elbow pads or mouth guards, it was determined that my first test-fight would be grounded at the knees. I thought it would make things safer, but it only seemed to make it easier for Dinah Mite to push my face into the mat over and over again. The experience caught me by such surprise all I could focus on was not panicking and remembering to breathe.

It was an outcome I was determined not to repeat during my second fight. As I stood and faced Carmen Monoxide, I employed an old blocking technique from my childhood days of karate, brought to mind a crappy old relationship, and went at it. The rush as my pillow connected with Carmen’s head and the near-miss of my arm was enough to keep me going as I served and lunged over and over again. Soon, my 60 seconds were up.

As I collapsed into the mat with relief, the women around me cheered with big smiles. Beers were soon passed around, and Case lit up a cigarette.

While chatting briefly for a bit with him and the other girls, I learned PFL was essentially a performance-entertainment-based company. Sure, it was cool women got their aggression out, got to perform publicly and got fit all at the same time. But despite all of that Case stressed his primary concern was always going to be putting on a good, safe show for his audience and making them happy.

After PFL trainer Eric Yu arrived, it was time for Olivia and the other girls to discuss my results. And my cue to finally leave.

But soon after changing and packing up my things to go, Olivia delivered to me the good news: I made the second round of tryouts. I had officially survived and passed round one.

Still, right as I was about to turn around and walk out there was one last request from the Ryerson students. Could we do that exchange again so they could get it on tape?

Sure, boys, I thought. Anything for a good show.