Call her a Diva, call her the better half of C.M. Punk, but WWE’s Maria is out to prove that she’s more than just a pretty face.

After competing in the 2004 RAW Diva Search, Maria, born Maria Kanellis, May 2, 1980 in Ottawa, Ill., was hired by WWE as an interviewer. Fans of the show have delighted (or cringed) in her ditsy backstage behavior, but as of recently, Maria is making it a point to spend more time in the ring.

Maria in the ring for an interview segment. © 2006 World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“I want to learn as much as I can and I’m looking forward to my role changing,” she said during a phone interview from her Kentucky home Thursday. “For a while, there were a lot of girls coming into the company and they were chicks that didn’t know how to wrestle, but it’s not like that now. Now you have a lot of girls who are really impressive, and I’m really excited to be part of that.”

Though she was defeated by Lita during last week’s RAW for a chance to wrestle Mickie James at Cyber Sunday, Maria said her in-ring career is just beginning, even if it takes participating in a few less-than-stellar matches. Case in point: she lost her first match, a Lingerie Pillow Fight, when she was hit in the face with a pillow by RAW crooner Lilian Garcia.

But that’s not to say that Maria hasn’t shown her ability at all. In January, she pulled off an upset against Victoria, and followed it a few months later with a co-ed victory with John Cena against Lita and Edge. She’s even beat someone she truly admires — fellow diva, and resident WWE psycho, Mickie James.

“She’s really an incredible wrestler, and I really hope I get to work with her more,” Maria told SLAM! Wrestling.

Despite winning beauty pageants (or “scholarship competitions” as they’d have you call them) before her time in WWE, Maria spent her youth as a tomboy. While other little girls dreamed of Barbies and finding their Prince Charming, Maria was in the garage helping her dad work on cars. In fact, last month’s WWE Magazine features Maria and her very favorite Camaro.

“I was the tomboy who dressed sexy, and here I am at home in my jeans and a t-shirt,” she said with a laugh. “But I was into wrestling as a kid, and then again when I was done with high school. I was really looking up to girls like Lita and Trish [Stratus]. They were good, they were real wrestlers, and they made you want to do it.”

But make no mistake about it — Maria said she’s not looking to become the next Candice Michelle. While some Divas earn their success through flesh, Maria’s looking to be the kind of female athlete young girls can look up to.

And she’s already influencing at least one; her younger sister, Janny, has expressed interest at eventually climbing into the ring. Though she said her sister’s boyfriend isn’t too fond of the idea, she’s encouraged Janny to pursue the industry.

So, what’s in Maria’s future with WWE? It’s anyone’s guess, but she has a list of fellow Divas and current superstars she wouldn’t mind partnering with for a storyline. Among the honorees are Kristal (“She’s a really good bad guy,” she says), Jillian and Jeff Hardy. And, of course, she had to show some love for her … well, love, ECW straight-edge C.M. Punk.

“He’s getting ready to take over the whole ECW brand,” she said with the giggle of a proud girlfriend. “I’d love to work with him in the ring.”

She’s also not ruling out making the move to heel someday.

“I’m glad I came in innocent, because it means I can become devilish at some point,” she said.

But don’t count on indecency, don’t look for all that exposed flesh – at only 26, Maria said she’s looking to be taken seriously.

She’s enjoyed watching the role of women in wrestling change since she watched as a kid, and while she sees an imminent and impending divide between girls looking to flash skin and those looking to flex a muscle, she’s confident both groups will come together again in the name of real wrestling.

“I just see it getting stronger and stronger, even if you have girls who are just there for the entertainment,” she said. “There’s a lot of up-and-coming talent right now that hasn’t been showcased, and it’s going to get more serious. But of course, you’ll always need the girls with the boobies.”

Amy Lawson is an East Coast-based writer who would do just about anything to meet Edge. But when she’s not watching wrestling, she can be found cooking, obsessing over the latest reality show on BRAVO or planning her wedding. Send her an e-mail at