Credit: Courtesy WWE

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The lights go dark and the big screen comes to life, panning over Patrick Clark’s crotch and his six-pack abs before landing on his face. White beads hang around his neck and from the tips of his sunglasses. Some say he channels Prince. To others, he’s just a flamboyant, costumed wrestler.

“D.C.,” he says, rolling his head to the right, his voice taking on a confident playfulness. “It’s time.” This is Clark’s homecoming and he isn’t going to let anyone forget it. 

Clark, 23, is a D.C. native and professional wrestler for WWE’s developmental territory NXT, embodying a persona known as Velveteen Dream. Despite his ostensible characterization as a “heel”—a bad guy—Velveteen Dream is the main attraction at NXT’s April 19 show at The Anthem in Southwest D.C.

Chants of “Velvet-een! Velvet-een!” emanate from the mostly male, mostly drunk crowd as he challenges Ricochet. Velveteen Dream shirts have been “selling like wildfire,” says the guy working the T-shirt stand. During intermission, the event’s in-house announcer asks a young girl with her father who her favorite NXT wrestler is. She doesn’t hesitate: “Velveteen Dream!”

Exceedingly flamboyant characters are not new to WWE programming, but in the past they’ve often been portrayed through the lens of homophobia, while the typical wrestler persona is built around a traditional definition of masculinity.

But in recent years, WWE, not immune to declining television ratings across the board, has followed in the footsteps of many entertainment mediums in moving toward more socially progressive programming. Velveteen Dream, with his long earrings, skimpy shirts, and serious placement on the card, is perhaps the WWE character most befitting the national moment.

“In a sport like wrestling, where it’s majority dudes here, you know? And it’s like, we’re chanting Velveteen fuckin’ Dream,” says Richard Echols, an Alexandria resident who attended the D.C. show. He lets out a chuckle, as if in disbelief. “It’s cool that we’re willing to accept that, and cheer for it. I mean, he’s supposed to be a heel, right?”

Almost every Wednesday night, when NXT airs on the WWE Network, Clark’s character tests commonly held beliefs about how a tough guy is supposed to act. But it’s hardly surprising to some who know the man behind the snazzy shades.

Credit: Courtesy WWE

“He was always looking in your eyes,” says Robert Locke, who trained with Clark at Maryland Championship Wrestling in Joppa, Maryland, “and trying to challenge you.”

Professional wrestling started out at as an escape for Clark, a way to block out the drugs and violence surrounding his Capitol Hill home in Northeast D.C. And then it became a way to create a positive legacy, the means to dissociate himself from the world that claimed his father, who was killed when Clark was 2 years old.

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“Wrestling gave me something outside science, which was my muse before this,” Clark tells City Paper.

He was a standout on the wrestling team at the now-defunct Forestville Military Academy in Prince George’s County. Former Forestville wrestling coach Rio Thompson says Clark was innovative on the mat, constantly searching for alternative ways to escape contemporary holds.

When MCW’s training school opened in 2014, Clark and Lionel Green, a Lanham native who now wrestles for WWE under the name Lio Rush, were the first two waiting in line. They carpooled together from the D.C area to Joppa, sleeping in the car before early morning sessions, MCW owner Dan McDevitt says. When they were unable to drive, they’d hitchhike in and stay as long as they could.

“Unless we told them, ‘You have to get out of the ring,’ they’d stay in there,” says McDevitt. Clark “flew through everything,” adds RJ Meyer, who helped train Clark at MCW. “It was very few and far between when you had to show him something more than once.”

MCW often hosted birthday parties for children, and Clark took the opportunity to try out different characters. He adopted one persona, Pretty Ricky, for which he donned a bright orange, long-haired wig. Pretty Ricky’s intentions were unclear, Meyer says. “You didn’t know if he was going to ask you on a date, or kick your ass.”

When asked about Pretty Ricky, Clark is terse, and channels his alter ego: “The Dream has no memory of that.”

Clark went on to compete in the WWE reality competition show Tough Enough in 2015. He was eliminated after four episodes, but the then-19-year-old impressed WWE executives enough to earn a developmental contract.

Velveteen Dream made his NXT debut on May 24, 2017. Dressed in purple tights and a ruffled white shirt, he sauntered into the ring, lips pursed. His earrings sparkled, as did the gold statement choker around his neck and the rainbow headband around his forehead. The NXT announcing team tried to make sense of him.

“Hey, look, only thing I can say is, don’t judge a book by its cover. I’ve seen this guy train,” announcer Percy Watson said during the show. “Are you ready to experience the Velveteen Dream?”

Nigel McGuinness responded in confusion: “I’m not really sure. I’ll reserve my judgement. He looks certainly enigmatic. Perhaps I can call him ambiguous as well.”

Locke, who came up with Clark at MCW, says his debut felt right.

“As soon as I saw him, I said, ‘Thank God that guy finally found out exactly who he is,’” Locke recalls. “That’s the true guy. You give him the resources of WWE, and it takes him two years to figure out who he is. If he was walking the streets of Baltimore it would’ve taken him 10 years.”

Locke says Clark kept his peers on their toes at MCW. He would survey people, mining their worldviews for their preconceptions of him, perhaps about his appearance or his upbringing. And then he’d challenge them. 

In response to that, Clark says, “I fought for what I believe is right.”

“The guy you see on stage, as Velveteen Dream is right now, without the resources of WWE, is the guy he would’ve turned into by the time he turned 28,” says Locke. “That was going to be him.”

Velveteen Dream’s first year with NXT was a hit. He engaged in a memorable rivalry with Aleister Black and had acclaimed matches with Kassius Ohno and Ricochet. His dress and mannerisms and provocative speech—he repeatedly implored Black to “say my name”—didn’t impede his success.

Professional wrestling journalists and fans have described Velveteen Dream as androgynous and gender non-conforming. Clark views things differently.

“I can’t make anything of those descriptions of Velveteen Dream. I don’t consider myself either of those. It’s very hard for a performer to take that outside look. I’m a very introspective individual. It’s hard for me to label myself or characterize myself,” Clark says. “I do believe that current performers in WWE, more specifically in NXT, we have more freedom to be ourselves. I can say the people you see on TV are real-life individuals, not just people playing a role, myself included.”

Before Velveteen Dream, WWE hadn’t always gone out of its way to present characters of that ilk in a positive way. Things have changed. 

“They’re eager to be seen as a progressive wing of sports and entertainment,” says Kenny Herzog, a regular contributor to The Ringer who covers professional wrestling. “WWE wants to be seen on the right side of history, even if it belies the fact that they’re an organization run with some puzzling political associations.”

WWE’s social direction is different in 2018. Women are no longer classified as Divas, paraded around in bikinis, ogled, and objectified. In October, WWE will hold Evolution, the first-ever all women’s pay-per-view event. Finn Balor, a popular wrestler on the main roster, wore rainbow-trim ring gear for his match at WrestleMania 34 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and was cheered on by members of the New Orleans LGBTQ community.

In 2018, WWE, a publicly traded company with corporate sponsors to whom it answers, has created an environment in which Velveteen Dream can thrive.

“WWE has never turned away something that’s good for business,” Herzog says. “Even if they don’t care one way or the other about inclusivity or representation, it’s good business.”

Before his NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV match on Aug. 18, Velveteen Dream, with his back to the camera, lifted up his vest and tugged on his tights, shaking his hips in the way Divas used to on a weekly basis. “CALL ME UP VINCE,” the back of his tights read, a nod to WWE CEO Vince McMahon.

Barely a year after Velveteen Dream’s NXT debut, many are clamoring for McMahon to heed the performer’s request. Legendary broadcaster Jim Ross championed Clark as a future WrestleMania headline on his podcast in August, and John Cena said Clark could be “the one” during a question and answer session at MegaCon Orlando in May.

But not everyone is confident WWE would present Velveteen Dream properly on RAW or SmackDown, its two primetime shows that air weekly on USA Network and combined draw millions more viewers than NXT.

“Vince is just very traditional. Probably very Republican, if that makes any sense,” says Pablo Rosas, an Arlington native who also attended the D.C. show. McMahon’s wife, Linda, donated $7 million to super PACs that supported Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, according to campaign finance records. She now leads Trump’s Small Business Administration.

The crowd on April 19 is too invested in Velveteen Dream’s match against Ricochet to think about the future. Most of the people packed into the dimly lit venue on Wharf Street SW eat up his every move.

“Say his name!” shout some.

“Velveteen!” shout others.

Velveteen Dream loses to Ricochet and makes for backstage. He stops at the top of the entrance ramp, flings his arms in the air defiantly, and disappears behind the curtain. Soon he’s back on the road, leaving behind the city and the circumstances he set out long ago to transcend. He has another match in 24 hours, another show to steal, in front of another crowd happy to say his name.