Known in the ring as Sonya Deville, Daria Berenato signed with WWE back in 2015

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Daria Berenato, AKA Sonya Deville
Daria Berenato, AKA Sonya Deville
| Credit: WWE

A previous version of this story said Berenato was the first openly gay WWE Superstar, rather than the first openly gay female WWE Superstar. We apologize for this error.

Daria Berenato made history when she became the WWE's first openly gay female Superstar. But her journey to self-acceptance on the national stage wasn't always smooth.

The 27-year-old, who is best known to WWE fans by her in-the-ring name Sonya DeVille, says, "I had to start accepting myself because there are all these amazing people that accepted me first."

Daria has always been an athlete — she grew up in New Jersey doing everything from four-wheeling to running track and playing basketball. It wasn't until high school that she got into watching UFC, drawn in by the fact that women could fight mixed martial arts. Soon, her mom began a daily 45-minute drive to the closest martial arts gym.

"Every day after school I would go to fight training and I just fell in love with it," recounts Berenato. "And I was like, 'This is what I want to do. I want to fight.' And I was taking acting classes since I was about 14. So I wanted to act and fight and I really didn't know that the two could be combined into one world until I got introduced to WWE in 2015."

The intro came through Maria Menounos, who Berenato had befriended when she relocated to Los Angeles. Menounos was approached to appear on WWE competition series Tough Enough, and though she wasn't interested, she thought to recommend Berenato for the gig.

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Berenato appeared on the series' sixth season in 2015, falling in love with wrestling and the organization quickly. She made it four weeks into the show before her elimination — a process she calls "intense." It was during filming that Berenato came out publicly, which was not necessarily her intention.

Daria Berenato, AKA Sonya Deville
Daria Berenato, AKA Sonya Deville
| Credit: WWE

Though her family and close friends had known Berenato is gay for years, she tells PEOPLE, "I wasn't a hundred percent comfortable with myself and my sexuality at the time to be open about it."

Berenato was asked about her relationship status as part of filming, "kind of being put on the spot," she recounts. It was then she revealed she had a girlfriend. Now, the athlete thinks it was "the best thing that ever happened to me ... because it probably would have taken me years to come to that level of openness."

She says she "always kind of knew" she was gay, never feeling right while dating boys. At 16, she first began to explore her attraction to women, eventually realizing "this is my true self." Her parents learned at 18, with Berenato noting that she's "super lucky to have supportive parents that really didn't care. They really weren't fazed by it."

And neither was the WWE, with whom she signed shortly after her Tough Enough elimination.

Daria Berenato, AKA Sonya Deville
Daria Berenato, AKA Sonya Deville
| Credit: WWE

"I would say since the day I started in WWE my sexuality — although it was very public — it was never a focal point of anything that I did in the ring," the WWE performer says. "It really didn't define me and I didn't let it define me because I wanted to be part of who I was because of course it is. And I wanted to use my platform and my voice with WWE to speak out and create the conversation and create the change that I wanted to see in the world. ... And so I've always received so much support from my colleagues."

And fans have noticed, with Berenato noting that she has a "tribe" of fans in the LGBTQ+ community who have told her that her "coming out story has helped them be open with their sexuality and their identity."

"Just hearing stuff like that really does make an impact on me," she tells PEOPLE. "It really does encourage me to keep doing what I'm doing and using the voice and the platform that I'm blessed to have to kind of create that acceptance to the best of my ability so that they can live in a place where maybe it's safer and more open to them."

As Berenato expands her reach — she's launched a doughnut company with fellow WWE star Mandy Rose called DaMandyz Donutz and she's now serving as a WWE official — she's hopeful to attract even more viewers to what's happening on Raw and SmackDown!

"WWE has all the different characters, there's someone for everybody to relate to," she says. "And that's what I love about WWE really, it's the diversity and really making a place where everybody can feel welcome."