As the premiere female super hero, Wonder Woman has inspired people all throughout the world. But she’s not the only one. With Wonder Woman’s 75th Anniversary now upon us, the time seemed perfect to celebrate Diana through a series of exclusive interviews that highlight a few of the amazing real-life women who have also inspired us. Whether it’s in action or words, we all have the capability for greatness. These are a few women who have achieved it.
Jessie Graff is superhuman. There’s no other way to put it. Anyone who’s witnessed her feats over the past few years on American Ninja Warrior would know that’s not really hyperbole. A professional stuntwoman with a background in martial arts, gymnastics and pole vaulting, Jessie grabbed national attention when she became the first woman to progress to the City Finals in the fifth season of American Ninja Warrior. In later seasons, she’d go on to become the first woman to advance to the National Finals—and last night in American Ninja Warrior's current season, became the first woman to advance to Stage 2. The fact that only seven other people qualified—all of them men—and that Jessie finished in the top 50% is all gravy.
Of course, that’s only a part of the picture. When Jessie’s not making obstacles like the salmon ladder, wedge and the warped wall look easy, she helps to keep one of our other beloved heroines busy on Supergirl, where she works as a stunt double and regularly spars with Melissa Benoist’s Girl of Steel. She’s also appeared on shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hawaii Five-O and in movies like Ted 2 and Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers. In short, for all of her adult life, Jessie has lived a nonstop life of action and excitement on film and real life…but she slowed down long enough to speak to us about Wonder Woman, inspirations and which DC hero she’d suspect would do best on American Ninja Warrior.
Jessie, what is it about Wonder Woman that appeals most to you?
In a time where all super heroes were male, and society said women were weak and fragile, Wonder Woman appeared: brave, strong, capable, independent. She didn't need a man to take care of her, but men needed her, and came to her for help. She was the first female super hero who wasn't a sidekick or romantic interest of the male lead. She could stand on her own two feet, and save the world. She showed us that we don't have to be damsels in distress, waiting to be rescued. We can be heroes.
A lot of people seem to find Wonder Woman to be inspirational, and I’d say many people would say the same about you. How important is it for young women to have heroes, whether in real life or fiction?
There are plenty of women out there, who instinctively know that we can do anything we set our minds to, and we choose our heroes (not for who looks most like us, but) for the qualities we admire in them: integrity, selflessness, generosity, amazing abilities and skills, accomplishments... But what kind of message would it send to our kids if all of the comic and TV heroes they saw were male?
I love Wonder Woman because of what she stands for. In a world of mortal humans, I can be a dominant athlete, and in the superhuman world of Ninja Warrior, I can hold my own against the top guys, just like Wonder Woman in the Justice League.
Did you have any heroes when you were growing up? Who were they?
Jackie Chan is still my biggest personal hero and role model, but I grew up on Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Buffy, and Xena. Xena was my favorite, and I cut my bangs and braided my hair to look like her, and ran around in the forest, kicking down dead trees, and fighting off imaginary bad guys with a stick. I mimicked these physical things, but also absorbed her values of defending the weak, helping others, and avoiding conflict when possible, but being more than capable of standing up for myself if I'm ever threatened. There are so many bad role models out there, and that's why it's so important to have engaging, inspiring GOOD role models for kids to emulate. They see and absorb everything! I've always tried to live by a rule of only taking actions I can be proud of later. Knowing that kids actually ARE watching me now only reinforces that mind set.
Lately you’ve been working behind the scenes on another iconic DC heroine, Supergirl. Has it been fun mixing it up with a super hero?
I LOVE working on Supergirl. Melissa is fantastic, and getting to fight her and her stunt double, Shauna Duggins, on a semi-weekly basis has been a dream come true. Shauna has been another one of my role models since I first found out about stunts, and started studying to get into it. I loved getting to fly, thanks to stunt coordinators John Medlen and Merritt Yohnka, and the incredible stunt utility team, headed up by Mark Ginther. Flight is the one superpower I've always dreamed of, so I am eternally grateful to those brilliant guys engineering the rigs and pulling the wires.
If you could spend a day hanging out with Wonder Woman and Supergirl, what do you suppose you’d spend it doing?
I like to think that I'd be fighting crime and saving lives with them...but let's be honest. They're a little out of my league. But if all the criminals and bad guys took a day off, and Supergirl and Wonder Woman actually wanted to hang out with me, I'd hope that Wonder Woman would teach me some roping skills with her Lasso of Truth, and we'd go make a bunch of politicians say honest things in their speeches. And I'd play a game of catch with Supergirl where I hurl myself off the highest buildings and bridges, and she swoops down and catches me at the last second...if she didn't mind, and only if she was having fun too.
It’s amazing seeing what people have been able to accomplish on American Ninja Warrior. Is there one accomplishment in particular that you’re most proud of?
I always try to be realistic about my abilities when I evaluate the challenge in front of me, so that I give thorough attention to the parts that will be most difficult for me. My predictions are usually pretty accurate, but I never let my perception of what's impossible stop me from attacking the obstacle as if it is possible. Conquering obstacles that other people consider impossible is wonderful, but surprising myself, and surpassing what I thought I was capable of is the MOST amazing feeling. When I cleared the wedge in the LA city finals after a series of high impact, jarring preceding obstacles, I exceeded my own expectations. That was my proudest ANW moment.
Which obstacle on the course would you say is your biggest nemesis?
I have not found a single obstacle on ANW that I can't do. My nemesis is having the grip endurance to string all of them together. It takes years to build that strength, and I'm off to a good start, but still have a ways to go.
Is there anything you haven’t done yet in life that you really want to? What’s at the top of the list?
I LOVE doubling super heroes, and would like to do more of that, but I'd also like to try playing one as well. I'm back in acting classes, so that if the opportunity comes up, I'll be ready. Also, I want to ride a wrecking ball, and laché from one helicopter skid to the other while flying over the water. [Note: Here’s an example of a laché, if you’re unfamiliar with the term.]
Which DC super hero do you suspect would fare the best on America Ninja Warrior?
Superpowers are cheating, so Kryptonians and genetically enhanced humans are disqualified. Obviously the Arrow would crush the salmon ladder, so he'd be a good pick. Nightwing would be a solid choice as well, with his strength to weight ratio, trapeze experience, martial arts training and the mental adaptability one needs when fighting unpredictable criminals. I still think they'd both have to train their grip strength to make it through stage 3, though.
So how do you plan to celebrate your 75th year?
I will spend my 75th year on a pirate ship, teaching my grandkids how to swordfight, and judging their diving competitions off the plank.