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The Chyna Doll, formerly Joanie Laurer, formerly WWF's Chyna, was the first female wrestler to fight in the Royal Rumble; to claim the Intercontinental Championship title; and the first female contender for the then-WWF (now WWE) Heavyweight Title. A protegée of Killer Kowalski, her Gorilla Press Slam, Jackknife Powerbomb and Double Underhook Facebuster were things of beauty, and a welcome relief in an industry where women typically fought in lingerie, or simply acted as sexy foils.

She left the WWF in 2001, citing personal issues, likely with owner Vince McMahon, whom she drunkenly referred to on shock jock Howard Stern's show this year as "Vince McDick." And since then, the girl who is all woman and then some has been exceedingly busy.

She created her own Body By Joanie website, appeared on Third Rock from the Sun, wrote an autobiography, lost a bout with Joey Buttafucco on Celebrity Boxing, posed for Playboy and appeared in a porn film with her most recent boyfriend, wrestler Sean Waltman, aka X-Pac, called, unimaginatively, One Night in China. She would later spend six days in jail for beating up Waltman, or, as she put it, for "bitch-slapping him."

Laurer is recently reported to have straightened up, after her alcoholism and dire emotional problems were lavishly showcased on season four of The Surreal Life, a wretched sight that had fans and Waltman begging her to seek help.

At its inception, VH1's The Surreal Life, or Television Without Pity, as one site calls it, seemed like just another irony-driven reality show designed to revive and tease the kind of celebrities who only appear on the print media's version of a milk carton: the "Where Are They Now?" pages.

The premise -- seven has-beens are cooped up in a hideous house and assigned adventures and projects -- is not unlike Big Brother, if you think of The Surreal Life as its lunatic, deformed twin.

The show has become increasingly pathological, a turn that began on season two, which captured the fury and self-loathing of Vanilla Ice so acutely (Ice railed against his jive public image and threatened to throw Gary Coleman into a deep fryer for refusing to say "What you talkin' 'bout Willis?" until one felt oneself cleaving to fellow cast member Erik Estrada as he talked him down).

Season three continued apace, with a horrible scrutiny of former Public Enemy rapper Flavor Flav's faux-romance with actress Brigitte Nielsen.

But it is the fourth season that has made this show less a mildly parodic showcase than a near-visitation of state treasurer R. Budd Dwyer's 1987 public suicide at a news conference. While the first winner of America's Next Top Model, Adrianne Curry, and former Brady Bunch cast member Christopher Knight have industriously formed a romantic match; while old-school rapper Da Brat and old Go-Go rocker Jane Wiedlin plot their doomed comebacks; while male supermodel Marcus Schenkenberg stares into space and while actor Verne Troyer (Mini-Me of Austin Powers) cops feels and hurries to his room to "choke his chicken," Joanie Laurer has been performing a one-woman show about self-annihilation that begs the accompaniment, as Stern suggested, of might-have-been Courtney Love.

On the most recent episode, Laurer received a visit from her ex, Waltman, which made her cry hysterically, then leap naked into the Jacuzzi while her housemates hid her pills. "I didn't want to do this!" she bleated to Waltman, referring to the show (after filming ceased, one associate claimed she checked into a hotel and came close to killing herself). While Laurer melted down, Da Brat and Wiedlin watched Troyer attempting to manoeuvre his mini-cart over a small hill and fell apart laughing: The former commented, "This makes it all almost worthwhile."

This tiny levity, however, is not what makes The Surreal Life -- the rough emotional equivalent of a snuff film -- worthwhile. Laurer, with her seemingly steroid-enhanced body and squeaky, seemingly transsexual voice, has long been the subject of prurient scrutiny, and her heroic efforts to occupy the regions of extreme femininity and masculinity have clearly been taxing. If exposing, without mercy, the ruins of this once great illusion has scared her straight, then reality TV is finally getting somewhere.

Yet, there is also something shameful about the process: Watching Laurer dissolve is like watching Blanche DuBois being roughly dragged under the light by her duped boyfriend, Mitch. If TV occasionally performs interventions, it does so by accident and always by humiliation. Anyone who saw Susan Hawk's desolate claim of sexual assault on Survivor: All Stars; who watched grown men cry on The Apprentice, knows how exacting extreme confession can be.

Before R. Budd Dwyer shot himself, he cautioned onlookers, "Stay away . . . This will hurt someone." He may have been speaking to those of us observing the terrible misery that now passes for good television; the kind that is likely far better left in the darkness of one individual's pain and pride.

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