Tonya Harding: Redemption at last for skating’s hard luck story
I, Tonya is the ‘true’ Tonya Harding story. Except its not. After years as an outcast Harding is finally being understood
Tonya Harding’s name isn’t Tonya Harding anymore. “My name is Tonya Price, ” she said, when she saw me taking notes. In 2010, she had just returned home to Washington from Los Angeles, where she’d been doing another one of the odd jobs she’d collected over the years - colour commentary on ill-advised video stunts for the TV show “World’s Dumbest.” She was still in her cute LA clothes, still made up, and she went out to Timbers, a local restaurant. She was having drinks with a friend when she spotted one Joe Price, a heating and air-conditioning worker, on the karaoke stage. He was singing Great Balls of Fire.
“I’m going, damn, he’s got beautiful eyes,” she said. “I mean the eyes are the centre to your soul, OK? You might have a nice butt, but I want to see the eyes.” Within weeks she proposed to him. Within those same weeks she was carrying their baby. She had never met anyone so gentle or kind; she had never known a man to just love her, not for her skating abilities or for what she might potentially become, but for her. They married, and she changed her last name, like lots of people do. Okay, I told her. Tonya Price it is.
We were at a lounge called 38 Below, which is skating-themed. Hockey and figure skates, including a signed pair of hers, hang over the bar, which features a “frost rail” that makes its surface look and feel like an ice rink. “But you should use Tonya Harding in your story,” she said. I told her I probably can’t; if her name is Tonya Price I should call her Tonya Price - paper of record and all that. She objected. “But Tonya Harding is who people know.” Which is a good point. She is Tonya Price but you cannot deny that she is also Tonya Harding. This is basically how this entire story goes: There are facts, and then there is the truth, and you can’t let one get in the way of the other or you’ll never understand what she’s trying to tell you.
But therein lies the problem: Whatever her name is, she looks an awful lot like Tonya Harding. So even when she meets a stranger and says: “Nice to meet you, I’m Tonya Price,” the person will narrow his eyes and say, “Wait, aren’t you . . .?”
You can’t run from being Tonya Harding, is the point. Even if you wanted to, even if you tried, and yes, she’s tried. “I moved from Oregon to Washington because Oregon was buttheads,” she said. Then, with mock apology, “I disappointed them. It’s like, how can I disappoint a whole state? Wait a second, how can I disappoint a whole country?” Oregon had been so proud when their own Tonya Harding was the first American female figure skater to land a triple axel jump in competition. Then what happened happened, and people turned on her. So she confronts it head on, the way she always has. As if she ever had a choice. She knew from the moment it all went down in 1994 that the Nancy Kerrigan attack wasn’t going to fade into the annals of history.
“I knew that this would be with me for the rest of my life.” Absent anonymity - her face has softened over the years, but she is still clearly Tonya Harding - she is left to explain herself endlessly and hope that someone is listening.
Lord knows she’s tried to be understood. Over the years, “E! True Hollywood Story” came along. “Entertainment Tonight” came along. Oprah came along. But the focus was so much about what happened in 1994; it was never about before or after, and if you want to understand her at all, you have to understand her childhood and her early adulthood. They all told her that they would let her explain, and each time she felt like she didn’t really get her message across, because each time, it came down to: Well, did you do it, or didn’t you? Did you know more than you said? Did you actually plan the attack? Are you sorry? Are you still sorry?
Then, in 2014, the screenwriter Steven Rogers watched the ESPN documentary The Price of Gold and decided to reach out. ESPN had given a rounder, more nuanced look at Ms Harding and where she came from. It laid out the facts: How on January 6th, 1994, six weeks before the Lillehammer Olympics (and two nights before the conclusion of the United States Figure Skating Championships), Ms Kerrigan was clubbed on the knee by a man with a collapsible baton. An FBI investigation found that the man had been hired by Shawn Eckardt, a friend of Jeff Gillooly’s, who was Harding’s ex-husband. In the end, Harding pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution - meaning that she knew who had done the attack, but only afterwards, and that she didn’t report it immediately.
The prosecution believed that she was much more involved than what the plea bargain encompassed, but they accepted the plea since it included a felony charge. She was sentenced to three years of supervised probation, 500 hours of community service, a $100,000 state fine, and was tasked with setting up a $50,000 fund to benefit the Special Olympics, reimbursing the Multnomah County prosecutor’s office $10,000 in costs, undergoing a psychiatric examination and participating in any court-ordered treatment. And then there was this: She was forced to surrender her membership to the United States Figure Skating Association. Eventually, the association barred her for life.
Rogers, who wrote the 2015 movie Love the Coopers, asked her agent for the option to her story - her whole story - for $1,500, with more if the film actually got made and recouped its costs. The initial money wasn’t much, just enough for a month’s rent really, and she didn’t know if it was worth the hassle. But her agent said: “What’s the worst that could happen?” The worst had already happened.
All these years later, she’s still punished for what she did, but also for what she didn’t do. People still think she herself held a baton over Kerrigan’s leg that day. People still think she was married to Gillooly (who has since changed his last name to Stone), who planned the attack and was sentenced to two years in prison for racketeering, but they were divorced by then.
At the very least, people still think she herself hired the guy who attacked Kerrigan, Shane Stant, and they have never forgiven her for it. “I’ve had rats thrown into my mailboxes, crap left on my door, left in my mailbox, all over my trucks. You name it, it’s been done to me.” Sometimes she pulls up to a traffic light and a man in the next car will make oral sex gestures at her.
So yes, she said. Please call her Tonya Harding. It was Tonya Harding who was the punch line to just about every late-night monologue joke in 1994. Tonya Harding was the name Barack Obama used as a verb in talking about metaphorically kneecapping the competition during the 2007 presidential primaries. Tonya Harding is the title of a new and quite lovely Sufjan Stevens song (“This world is a bitch, girl,” it goes. “Don’t end up in a ditch, girl.”) And Tonya Harding is the name invoked in a pile of recent feminist think pieces coinciding with the opening of the movie I, Tonya in which she is played by the famous, beautiful actress Margot Robbie, explaining her side of the story.
Maybe I could just call her Tonya in the story, I said. Just to avoid confusion. She put her hands on mine. Her nails are unicorn purple with glitter particles that she swears are not fake (which, I don’t know) and they are unchipped the way they need to be when you are chopping wood one day and promoting a movie the next. “You have to say Tonya Harding,” she said. Tonya Price hasn’t done anything wrong. She is a relatively recent invention with nothing on her rap sheet. It’s Tonya Harding who has a few things she would like to clear up.
For as many people who are mean or crude when they realise who she is, there are just as many who love her. We had met earlier in the day at an ice rink in Vancouver that shares a building with a megachurch. When she entered, the 10 or so teenage wonders who had been jumping and spinning during serious-skater-only hours rushed off the ice to envelop her with hugs. “She’s such a good influence on the girls,” one of their mothers told me.
Harding was trailed by her BFF, Erica Manary, an ER nurse she met because their husbands are friends; they got married within a week of each other and then had sons within a year of each other and that just sealed it. Manary liked her instantly when they met in 2010, and made a conscious decision not to Google her. “I didn’t want to refresh myself,” she said. “I wanted to learn from her perspective.”
Harding swiped on her lipstick perfectly without a mirror: one coat of Wet n Wild 523B (Light Berry Frost) covered by a layer of Wet n Wild 530D (Dark Pink Frost). She laced up her tiny Harlick skate boots that she had painted pantyhose beige, which were attached to gold-plated MK Vantage blades, and put stirrups over her leggings and beneath the blades so that her lines would look longer and she would look taller (She’s barely 5-foot-1). She took a puff from her asthma inhaler, straightened her ponytail in its pink scrunchie, aligned her bangs, and stood up. The song Low came on and she said “I love this song!” and hopped out onto the ice while Manary shimmied her shoulders to the music from behind the plexiglass.
When Harding got out there with her first jump, the girls who had been practising all morning now looked like total amateurs by comparison. At 47, she still holds so much power in those thighs and so much grace in her hands and posture. People said that her sin - before her other sins - was not being the Disney princess Barbie doll that the Figure Skating Association demanded of its skaters. “I hated the word ‘feminine,’” she said. “It reminded me of a tampon or a panty liner.”
Has anyone ever interrogated the notion of why the highest achievement in the female-centred sport of figure skating is exertion without expression of exertion? Has anyone ever said screw it all and flipped on the Tone Loc and just gone for it like she did? Has anyone ever made skating look so fun?
Harding skates sometimes, but not as much as she used to. What would be the point? Her ban by the USFSA as a skater and a coach should leave her open to professional skating - say like in an exhibition or the Ice Capades - but “because everything is owned by the association,” she said, there are very few corners of it in which she can still meaningfully participate. Say she taught young skaters for $50 an hour at the rink, she wouldn’t be allowed to bring them to competition, so, again, what’s the point?
When she got the call from Rogers, she’d been doing fine. She could take care of herself. She had other skills. She’d worked as a welder, a painter at a metal fabrication company, a hardware sales clerk at Sears, where every day some guy would ask if there was a man who could help him, and every day she’d school that guy on how much more she knows about tools than just about anyone. She faced Paula Jones in a celebrity boxing bout in 2002, and started an unremarkable boxing career in earnest in 2003. But she wasn’t a great fighter, and she didn’t like it very much, either. She never bought the idea that hitting something could help you work out aggression. They told her: “Pretend it’s someone else’s face.” But it wasn’t, so what’s the point?
She married and had her boy, who changed her life by refocusing her attention on someone who wasn’t her. She and her husband would spend hours hunting together, just as she used to do with her beloved father - Price with a muzzleloader and Harding with a bow and arrow because she wanted “to give the animal a 50-50 chance to make it interesting and fair” (and also because felons aren’t technically supposed to possess guns in Washington State.)
Do you know how good of an archer she is? She says she has successfully done no fewer than eight Robin Hoods - shooting an arrow that splits another arrow, which itself was already in a bull’s-eye, 30 yards away - and that’s nothing compared to her fishing skills (But she doesn’t want to elaborate. “Some people,” she said. “If you eat a carrot you’re killing it.”) Also, she can build anything. She can fix anything. She had a life. It was going fine. She had made some kind of peace with the idea that she’d never really be understood.
I Tonya, which is based on hours of interviews with Harding and her ex-husband, honours its feisty subject by showing not just the abuse she endured, but how she fought back. It gives added context to the scandal for which she is now principally known. It even posits new information: The paper that the FBI found in a dumpster that showed Kerrigan’s practise location and schedule in Harding’s handwriting supposedly existed in order to help her co-conspirators locate where to send threatening letters (Harding has maintained that she did not help plan the physical attack on Kerrigan; no word on why you’d need practise times in order to send letters.)
The story is told in the tone in which Harding speaks, and there are scenes in it you’ve seen a hundred times before in Lifetime movies: a young girl being hit by her mother, a young wife being hit by her husband - that aren’t portrayed as tragic as much as a particular kind of wide-eyed Oregon gothic. The film has been generally well-received and in January Allison Janney won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Harding’s mother. But there have also been reviews that wonder if the protagonist is a punching bag for cheap laughs and classism.
For the record, Harding loved the movie. “Magnificent,” was her word, especially after she’d seen it a few times. You have to remember, that was her life. That those beatings were very specifically hers, not composite beatings. And that they weren’t even shown in full: “People don’t understand that what you guys see in the movie is nothing,” she said. “That was the smallest little bits and pieces. I mean, my face was bruised. My face was put through a mirror, not just broken onto it. Through it. I was shot. That was true.” Gillooly, er, Stone shot at the ground, she said, and it ricocheted onto her face. (He has denied this and other abuse.) She said her mother threw a knife at her. (Her mother has also denied allegations made by Harding.) But “that’s all true,” she said. The people charged with taking care of her didn’t.
So she watched it a few times, and the shock wore off, and there from the comfort of her living room, sitting beside the only romantic partner she has ever felt loved by and safe with, she watched what had happened in her life and realised that she never really stood a chance.
Which is not to say that the movie is totally accurate. As I said, there are some things she would like to clear up. Such as: First, because of the way it’s edited, it makes it look as though she hunted for rabbits and that is how she got her fur coat. Not true. She bought that coat. She loves fur coats and has two now, one of them a mink that she would like to wear to the premieres but the last thing she needs is those carrot-rights people telling her she’s a monster for wearing mink.
Second, the movie made it seem as if she has a dirty mouth. She wants you to know she does not. “Trust me I don’t say the word fuck 120 times a day. That might come out once in a while when something really bad happens or I hurt myself. I mean, the movie portrayed me as this person who cussed every 10 seconds and I don’t cuss like that.” There’s a scene in the movie in which she confronts a table of judges about her low scores despite a stellar performance. In it, she gets frustrated and gives them an obscene directive involving male anatomy. Never happened, she said. “I would never say that.”
“I did not go to the judges on the ice and talk to them like that in front of everyone. When I spoke to the judges they were in the back hallway room telling me you need to have better dresses. I go, ‘Well if you can find me $5,000 to make me a dress then I’ll wear it and I won’t have to sew these anymore.’ I go, ‘You know what? Out of my face!’”
That’s it? I asked. That’s it, she confirmed. Those are her only objections. Which was confusing, because the movie doesn’t vindicate her by a long shot. It presents both sides of the story, both her and her ex-husband’s, and neither comes across looking particularly innocent. Nothing else you want to clear up? I asked.
On a couch at 38 Below, she leaned back, frustrated, made her hands into fists and rubbed her eyes. It’s exhausting. Nobody ever gets it. She’s been waiting for a way to tell the world that the abuse she endured was so much worse than they thought, that she was so much poorer than people could imagine. And then all people want to know is whether or not there’s something she’s not admitting to.
The reason she loves the movie is because it conveys something she doesn’t feel was ever conveyed before. There were mitigating circumstances. Her life was terrible. She was beaten. She was threatened. You don’t get this way unless you were counted out completely. Her own mother didn’t seem to love her. The only time in her life she ever got anywhere was when she circumvented the rules and took for herself what appeared to be given to the Nancy Kerrigans of the world.
Kerrigan was from a working-class family too, but she was loved. Her parents drove her to practises and cheered for her and cried with joy. She had Vera Wang skating outfits! Tonya had nothing. She had costumes that her mother made with sequins everywhere so that her thighs got cut up; then she had to make them herself, earning point deductions for the quality. She danced to ZZ Top while the others were dancing to Mozart. They had trainers and dieticians and Tonya was eating broccoli and cheese from the Spud City where she worked at the mall. She had asthma. She had muscles.
“I was always told I was fat. I was ugly. I wouldn’t amount to anything. ‘If you don’t smile and follow through they’re not going to give you the marks. If you wear that ribbon they’re not going to give you the marks. If you wear that dress they’re not going to give you the marks.’”
This has nothing to do with exoneration; it hasn’t for a long time. Her side of the story is not about guilt or innocence - the discussion over guilt and innocence ended right about the time she completed her community service, as far as she’s concerned - but about the finer points of being Tonya Harding: respect, mitigating circumstances, how we treat people and what we expect from them in the first place.
We adjourned to the South Pacific Cafe, the restaurant next door, which is Polynesian-themed and owned by the same people as 38 Below. It had been a long day. Harding ordered a steak appetizer she loves and a drink the owner created just for her. It has vodka, Bacardi 151, watermelon liqueur, orange juice and pineapple juice. It is called the Triple Axel, because no one would understand if you called it the Tonya Price.
She hasn’t been keeping up with the movie reviews, she said. She doesn’t have time. She’s out hunting for deer and elk or cutting down trees or raising her son. The publicist says people love it, and that’s good enough for her. I told her that some reviewers said the abuse and poverty seemed played for amusement, that there were people in my press screening who laughed during one of the beating scenes. She stared at me with her eyebrows up, like you’ve got to be kidding me; the news media is horrible and filthy and of course they laugh at a girl being abused, nothing new there. “The media abused me in the first place.”
I told her about the essays I’d read about how we should have been kinder and protected her back then. She doesn’t want to hear it. What do we know about her? We never asked. She doesn’t want anything to do with Sufjan Stevens’s lovely song about her. Did he call her first to talk to her? Did any of those people writing their defences of her call her up and ask if they could make money using her name? No! “Who gives these people permission to use my name?”
She doesn’t need our protection now, thank you very much. She needed it back then. Where were our think pieces then? “You all disrespected me and it hurt. I’m a human being and it hurt my heart,” she said, her hand karate chopping the table lightly with every word for emphasis. “I was a liar to everybody but still, 23 years later, finally everybody can just eat crow. That’s what I have to say.”
Yes, but the world is different now, I tell her. People are remorseful for not taking into consideration the context of a person’s life. Look at Monica Lewinsky and how we treated her. Just yesterday I saw maybe the seventh essay comparing her with you, how rough the ‘90s were on women who needed support and - “Monica Lewinsky?” she asked, incredulous, using a modified version of the same obscene phrase involving male anatomy that she had just said she would never use. “In the Oval Office! You don’t think that there’s something wrong with that? She disrespected the country.”
But you were both so young, I said. And the press was so hard on you before they’d heard the full - Stop it, she said. Don’t compare her to Monica Lewinsky. She is nothing like Monica Lewinsky, she said. Tonya wasn’t making mistakes like a privileged person who gets an internship at the White House. Tonya was surviving. (Whereas Ms. Lewinsky wasn’t involved in a violent crime, so.)
She shook her head. Will we ever get it? For her, the rules made an ascent in skating nearly impossible for her despite her physical dominance over it. All she’d been trying to do was become a true American dream story. Do you know that in 1996 she was asked to move to Australia to skate for that country and represent it? She turned them down. (Ice Skating Australia told The New York Times that it had no record of contact with Harding.) “They loved me but America didn’t and I still said I’m sorry but I’m only going to represent my country. Because I love my country. If they don’t love me, I don’t care. I don’t care.”
She thinks that if she could have done a clean programme at the Olympics, if her lace hadn’t broken, if she hadn’t been so frazzled and beaten down by the news media, we would be having very different discussions about her. We would be marvelling at all she overcame. Her movie arc would have a heartfelt and triumphant trajectory like “Rocky” or “Rudy.”
The international judges loved her, after all, she’s pretty sure. She just had to get past the American ones who found her existence and her dominance so disgraceful - the ones who set such an impossible gauntlet for her. But instead, by the time she got to Lillehammer, the Olympic committee seemed set on punishing the United States for its sideshow. Kerrigan, who skated a stellar program, even after all that had happened, should (arguably) have won the gold and got silver instead. There was a sense that the judges were sending a message, that the Olympics were no place for American scandal.
Everything she did back then was a continuation of the things she had always been rewarded for, which were her scrappiness and her invention and her survival. Was she supposed to play by the rules and let her talent rot inside her extraordinary body? She’s saying that for girls like her, playing nice and fair would have gotten her nowhere. If it had worked out, we would say she was the manifestation of the American dream. Now instead we just say she’s very American.
It was getting late when we left the restaurant. Harding stood under an awning in front of her truck and took a puff off her inhaler. “Don’t describe my truck, okay?” she said. A few months ago, someone vandalised her truck and it’s under investigation. I thanked her for her time, and then she thanked me. She told me that the media had screamed at her and tricked her and lied to her and attacked her. No one ever sat down and bought her a drink and asked her for her side of the story. She came over to me and put her head against my chest, which is where it came up to on me. “You have a heart,” she said. “I can hear it.”
Here’s the thing: A lot of what she said wasn’t true. She contradicted herself endlessly. But she reminded me of other people I’ve known who have survived trauma and abuse, and who tell their stories again and again to explain what had happened to them but also to process it themselves. The things she said that were false - they were spiritually true, meaning they made her point, and she seemed to believe them. So much has been made about the tone of the movie - does it play abuse for laughs? Does it love her or hate her? Is she vindicated? Do we forgive her? Sit with her for an hour and you will understand that there might be no other way to go with the material. This is how she sounds. It would also be wrong to portray her as anything other than who she is.
With her head against my chest, I leaned down and hugged her. Here is something I’ll never understand, that you can be sitting across the table from someone who certainly did something bad, who appears to show no remorse for it and you can still feel the oxytocin rush of love and sympathy for her. “This world is a bitch, girl,” I told her. “Don’t end up in a ditch, girl.” She looked up at me and smiled and then Price hopped into her truck and drove home to her husband and son, who were eagerly awaiting her return. New York Times Service
I Tonya opens in Ireland on February 20th