Candice LeRae looks to rewrite history with Io Shirai at WWE NXT TakeOver 31

WWE NXT, Candice LeRae (Photo by Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for WWE)
WWE NXT, Candice LeRae (Photo by Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for WWE) /

WWE NXT star Candice LeRae talks to Daily DDT about challenging Io Shirai for the NXT Women’s Championship at TakeOver 31, teaming with her husband Johnny Gargano, reinventing herself as a heel, and more.

After watching Io Shirai, Dakota Kai and even her own husband Johnny Gargano turn to the dark side in the last year, it was only inevitable before WWE NXT‘s Candice LeRae embraced her inner evilness as well.

Since becoming the black-and-gold brand’s resident Poison Pixie, LeRae has experienced a career resurgence. She emerged from her recent rivalry with Mia Yim on the winning end and currently finds herself in contention for Shirai’s NXT Women’s Championship.

The friends-turned-foes will collide for the gold this Sunday, October 4, at TakeOver 31 on WWE Network. Before then, though, they’ll be on opposing teams in a huge mixed tag team main event, also featuring Johnny Gargano and NXT North American champion Damian Priest, on Wednesday night’s episode of NXT.

Between those upcoming opportunities and celebrating a birthday this past Tuesday, it’s already been a terrific week for LeRae. Ending it as the new NXT Women’s champion would be merely be the icing on the cake, pun intended.

“I’m definitely feeling pretty good about [Sunday],” LeRae said to Daily DDT in an exclusive interview over the phone on Tuesday. “I mean, I’m having my birthday today and I get to tag with my husband [on Wednesday]. I just have all the momentum going into this. I’m not going to be able to top this week. I’m so excited. Yeah, it’s evil, new version of me, but that’s the thing. Last time I wasn’t ready, and now this time, maybe Io’s not going to be ready for what I have to give.”

As previously mentioned, LeRae and Shirai are no strangers to one another. Shirai betrayed LeRae on a June 2019 episode of NXT before beating her in an absolutely exceptional match two months later at TakeOver: Toronto II. They faced off two months later in a rematch on NXT TV that was also won by The Genius of the Sky.

This time around, however, Shirai will be facing an entirely new Candice LeRae, who snapped earlier this year and turned heel alongside her husband in April. Although Shirai went on to win the NXT Women’s Championship, LeRae has been equally impressive lately and promises a different outcome come Sunday.

“That [Toronto] match I was really nervous going into because I hadn’t touched Io because other than tagging as a team or being around each other or as friends, Io and I had never been in the ring against each other,” she said. “I had no idea how it was going to go, so it was very scary for me going into that. I’m thinking of all the times for me to get my big TakeOver debut and I’m wrestling someone I’ve never wrestled before in my life, that is so scary. For it to turn out the way it did, it makes me really excited for Sunday because now I’m going into it with more confidence and I’m just ready. I’ve been waiting for this my whole career. I’m so ready.”

Also at TakeOver, Johnny will challenge Damian Priest for the NXT North American Championship. It doesn’t happen often in WWE, but there is a very real possibility of the married couple ending the evening as champions in their respective divisions.

When asked about whether she could have ever imagined such a scenario happening in her career, LeRae responded with, “Never in my dreams.”

“From six-years-old to now, in all my time loving wrestling, did I ever think of a more fairy tale type moment than Sunday,” she said. “It’s so insane to me. I never thought my Prince Charming would happen to be a wrestler and I never thought we’d both be in this position. It’s exciting and pretty historic. It’s so cool we get to do it together at that. It’s so amazing. I’m so excited.”

Prior to this year, Johnny and Candice had intermingled in each other’s storylines but were never positioned as a permanent act on the weekly NXT shows. Candice played a major role in Johnny’s rise to the NXT Championship in 2019, but it was rare they ever teamed together on television.

That changed once Candice went rogue with her husband back in April by helping him blindside and beat Tommaso Ciampa in an Unsanctioned match. They’ve been prominently featured as a pairing on NXT TV ever since and have picked up their fair share of victories as a unit.

The now-married couple started dating well before Johnny joined WWE in 2016. Candice signed soon after in January 2018, though she didn’t expect to eventually team with him and especially not regularly.

“You don’t think that’s something that’s actually going to happen, like the stars aren’t going to align and I’m getting older and I want kids one day,” LeRae said. “I’m going, ‘Okay, this biological clock thing is real, so is this something that’s going to happen?’ I’m so excited that everything turned out for the best for us, really. Getting to work with him is such an awesome thing. Even before we started dating, I thought the world of him as a wrestler and as a human, so this is just the icing on the beautiful cake that is my wrestling career.”

Not only are the two almost always seen together weekly on NXT TV on USA Network, they’re portraying villains. Anyone followed the duo earlier in their NXT runs is aware of how they’re both natural babyfaces, yet they’ve managed to take their new heel roles and make the most of them in a major way.

LeRae admitted that she initially had doubts about changing up her character this year before she finally flipped the switch and went full throttle with it. She’s constantly finding ways to tweak the gimmick and mold it into what she envisions it could be.

“Honestly, for the longest time, I didn’t know what I would be if I was not the bubbly, happy Candice LeRae,” she said. “It all just kind of happened. I was like, ‘What do I do? This is foreign to me. I don’t know what to do.’ So, I sort of learned into what seemed to work, but I was literally like, ‘What would an evil Disney princess to me?’ And trying to embody that. It’s been really fun for me to get to do all these different things and find this new personality of mine. It’s like it’s been inside me all along, just waiting to come out.

“I’m so ‘You’re not going to know unless you try,'” she continued. “I threw a lot of things out there and figured out what did work and what didn’t work. The entrance alone, I didn’t know what to do if I wasn’t coming out smiling and happy and skipping. I don’t know what to do. The first time I tried the fairy wings, I was like, ‘Oh, I like this.’ It kind of gives me this added edge to my personality. It kind of sparks something in me. I’ve started doing these mannerisms that are Disney princess-esque and I’ve found that they’re working. You just don’t know unless you try it. I’m all for trying new, fun things. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work and then I go, ‘Well, that was a mistake. Moving on.’”

As far as what evil Disney princesses she’s channeling specifically, she named Maleficent and Snow White’s Evil Queen as her top two inspirations.

“I’ve kind of been looking at a lot of Maleficient and the queen from Snow White because I feel they’re both so… especially the queen from Snow White, she’s so vain. She’s insane,” LeRae revealed. “There’s something about that that I found very inspiring for this character. I love it so much. It just works well.”

In addition to rekindling her rivalry with Shirai over the NXT Women’s Championship, LeRae has also been at odds with her former friend Tegan Nox in recent months. Before that, she and Dakota Kai had their fair share of wars as well.

Behind the scenes, all three women are legitimately close. LeRae has cherished the opportunity to work with both of them, despite it admittedly being tough at times because of how strong their bond is.

“Working with your friends is a lot more stressful than you would imagine and it’s only because you want to be able to give them your best,” she said. “You want to be at your best, you want to give them your best, and you don’t want to disappoint them. They’re two of the better humans I’ve ever been in the ring with, inside and out. They’re so amazingly gifted. It makes me really stressed out because I’m thinking I can’t be the person to let this person down. I can’t do that for them. I have to be at my best. So, it’s stressful, but I love it so much. They really bring out the best in me.

In regards to the skit she and Johnny filmed with Nox visiting their house and things getting haywire, LeRae said, “It was fun, I’ll say that much. The hardest part was getting our dog to calm down because Pawdme didn’t understand what was going on and we kept trying to take her somewhere else, but if you take her to another room, then she knows something exciting’s happening and she wants to come back out. That was the hardest part. I never thought I’ve had someone say to me, ‘Okay, you’re going to throw this and break the TV.’ Who doesn’t want to throw something at a TV and break the TV? And let me tell you: I threw it because there was pressure.”

With the Poison Pixie being as valuable of an asset as she’s been to NXT’s women’s division since the onset of 2018, it should come as no surprise to fans that there have been occasional rumblings about her potentially moving on to Raw or SmackDown over the years.

Those rumors were fueled by her appearances in the 2019 and 2020 women’s Royal Rumble matches as well as in the annual WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal in 2019. LeRae noted that there hasn’t been any talk of her getting called up that she’s been aware of, but even if there was, she quite likely wouldn’t have heard about it until it happened.

“I feel like there’s a lot of things that happen around me that I almost make myself ignorant to just because I never want to get my hopes up, I never want to assume something,” she said. “Even going into the Battle Royal, I didn’t want to assume that I can be the person to win this because you just don’t know. I can honestly tell you that the Royal Rumbles that I’ve done and the WrestleMania that I was a part of, it wasn’t real until I was in it. I’m so thankful that there were people that reminded me that was a thing that was happening and to tell me to take a second to take it all in because it happens so fast. It’s like a wedding day. It goes by, happens, and then you’re like, ‘Oh wait, that really did happen?’ If something is in the works, then I’m not aware of it, but nothing’s real until it is.”

Winning the NXT Women’s Championship from Shirai this Sunday at TakeOver is of utmost importance to LeRae at the present moment. If she comes up short, it may lead fans to question what’s next for her on the brand and if a move to the main roster would be in her immediate future.

Needless to say, the women’s divisions on Raw and SmackDown could use some serious star power right now and LeRae would be a fine fit for either brand. However, regardless of the result of her TakeOver clash with Shirai, she’ll always call NXT home.

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“I’m very biased, but I love NXT,” she said. “I really love the environment, and for me, so much of it is feeling a certain way when you’re wrestling as a fan and there’s something about NXT for me that feels like home and I feel like I belong in NXT. It makes me so happy and I always feel like the talent there push me to be my best because no matter how long I’ve been doing this, I’m always trying to get better. I’m never going to be perfect, I always want to be better, and I feel like NXT forces me to do that. It forces me to be at my absolute best at all times, and I love that. I love feeling that anybody can take my spot at any moment and that I have to just go. I love wrestling, so as long as I don’t have to stop wrestling I’m fine anywhere, but I just love NXT so much. I can’t stress enough.”

Catch Candice LeRae in action every Wednesday night on WWE NXT on USA Network at 8/7c as well as against Io Shirai at NXT TakeOver 31 this Sunday, October 4, on WWE Network at 7/6c.