Is Tonya Harding Finally Good as Gold?
After Her '94 Olympics Fiasco, the Disgraced Skater Tries to Polish Her Tarnished Image
By Jennifer Frey
Back when she was 21, 22, 23--back before Nancy Kerrigan and the kneecapping, before the probation restrictions that crimped her travel, before she sold her wedding-night videotape to Penthouse, before her name started appearing in the same sentences with Joey Buttafuoco and John Wayne Bobbitt, a punch line to every trailer-trash joke in America--Tonya Harding was rough around the edges, and she didn't give a lutz. You grow up the way she did, and you don't have time for the snooty-tooty folks who think you aren't acting enough like a lady.
What did they know? Did they live in a trailer without electricity? Did they go to school wearing a bad wig after a free beauty school treatment burned their skull bald? Did they wear polyester polka-dot pants home-made by a mama who seemed hellbent on making them the freakiest-looking kid in the class? Were they abused by the guy they married at 19 because, well, it's hard to leave someone who says he loves you when you're pretty sure you're fat and ugly and there's nobody around to tell you otherwise?
"I'm a '90s woman," Harding told a magazine years ago. "I speak my mind. I don't let anyone else tell me what I should or should not do. . . . The women in the middle class and up are, like, 'You are a lady and a figure skater. You should act like a lady.' I'm not prissy."
A lady. Oh, how that word used to bother her. When Harding thinks about the way they used the word around her--"they" for Harding being the figure-skating world, some of the media, some of her neighbors and pretty much all the upper- and middle-class women who ever looked down on her--her tiny face scrunches up a bit. With her delicate fingers, she makes an almost involuntary quotation-mark gesture around the word.
Only it's okay now. Because, at 28, as she makes her professional comeback in a small town in West Virginia, Tonya Harding is determined to be a lady. She's convinced that she's all grown up. Just look at her--poised, polite, sweet-tempered as can be. She wants the world to know that it's really, really, really okay to let her back into the pristine world of figure skating. That she's not who they think she is anymore.
"I'm almost 29, and I've grown up," she says. "I'm a lady now."
Harding is in the lobby of a Holiday Inn, sipping coffee, smiling, rising occasionally to give a hug of greeting to one figure skater or another whom she hasn't seen in, well, years. It was suggested by a publicist that this meeting would involve kicking back with a few beers, but Harding was having none of that. Coffee is fine. And then room service. A little television watching, and straight to bed.
Harding has a big day coming up. A big week, actually. Last night and tonight, she is skating here at the Huntington Civic Center in the ESPN Professional Skating Championships, competing against the likes of Tonia Kwiatkowski, Surya Bonaly, Elizabeth Manley--other former amateur skating figures who now make money traveling the professional performance circuit. This is Harding's comeback try. After five-plus long years, maybe she's finally being let back into the club.
They kicked her out in 1994, after the Kerrigan incident. For those who don't remember the soap opera that dominated the 1994 Winter Olympics, Kerrigan was Harding's bitter rival, the one who got smacked a potentially crippling blow on the knee with a metal pipe in a whacked-out conspiracy that involved Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her former bodyguard Shawn Eckardt. They claimed Harding was in on the plot; she swore she wasn't.
Whatever the case, Kerrigan wound up at the Lillehammer Olympics anyway, where she won the silver medal. Harding collapsed in tears at the event, got a second chance to perform because her skates weren't properly laced, then went home in disgrace and wound up pleading guilty to "hindering prosecution," a Class C felony.
The United States Figure Skating Association--which controls eligibility for all amateur figure-skating events, including the world championships and the Olympics--banned her from competition for life. And the little girl who grew up with dreams of escaping the bad life with an Olympic gold medal found herself with no place to skate save the rink at the mall.
She thought she'd get a second chance, maybe after she finished her community service and paid her fines. She watched Darryl Strawberry get in trouble for all kinds of junk--cocaine use, tax fraud, soliciting prostitution--and wind up back in a Yankee uniform. She watched Mike Tyson get out of jail for rape, bite off somebody's ear, fly into a road rage, and still get opportunities to step into the boxing ring. She is an athlete, after all, and isn't there no limit on second chances for athletes in our world?
Apparently, not for Harding. Not in figure skating. Not for a bad girl in a sport that prided itself on having only two kinds of competitors--little girls made up to look like fairy princesses, and ladies. Ladies. Harding didn't qualify.
Once the USFSA said no, and her attempts to skate the 1998 Olympics for another country failed--Norway said no, too-- Harding hoped for the professional circuit. But she found the doors shut there, too. Basically, other skaters refused to compete with her.
"There was an unspoken rule that she was to be blackballed," says Christopher Bowman, the former skating star who does television commentary on skating events. "The USFSA always says that's not true, but it's the perception, the idea. That's the thing about figure skating--there doesn't have to be a blacklist for there to be a blacklist, if you know what I mean."
So while figure skating got its best ratings ever, the sport enjoying a huge boom in popularity, Harding did what she could. She painted houses. She worked for a construction company. She got a bit part in a cable movie. She sold wedding-night videos of herself and Gillooly to Penthouse. She lost her house, ran out of money, kept skating at the mall.
Every once in a while, Harding's name would show up in the papers: She got married, and divorced, again. She sang in a rock band. She saved a woman's life by performing CPR in a bar. She was kidnapped by someone she described as a "bushy-haired" man and was forced to drive her truck into a tree. (No charges were ever filed.) She performed at halftime during a minor-league hockey game in Reno, Nev.
"At first, there were a lot of boos, but then I got a standing ovation," Harding says. "Afterward I stayed and signed every single autograph, and there were, like, 400, and only one person said something that wasn't nice."
That was in early 1997, when Harding was still angry at the world, and working with an agent--David Hans Schmidt--who touted her as someone with a "trailer-park following." And it was right about when she decided it was time she had no choice but to grow up.
Cigarettes & Motorcycles
Harding moved from Portland, Ore.--where she'd spent her whole life--to Vancouver, Wash., in July 1997. It was a symbolic move, really--Vancouver is right across the river from Portland, just a few miles away. But it was a big deal for Harding.
"It was, like, I'll leave the past over there, and I come over here and I'm in a new life."
She has shed all the people she knew in 1994, she says--every single one, including her mother, LaVona, whom she now refers to as her "biological mother." She has adopted a new family, Linda and Greg Lewis, a songwriting couple who met her a few years ago and formed an almost immediate bond. She has had the same boyfriend, a union electrician named Darren (she refuses to give his last name), for 27 months, and they live together with a dog Harding adores.
She also has dumped agent Schmidt, whom she describes as "not looking out for my best interests," and signed on with Michael Rosenberg, who represents a long list of well-known skaters.
"[Schmidt] wanted an image that wasn't me. He wanted the bad girl image and that's not who I am. I am a good girl. I really, really am."
Those last words are said in a silly little-girl voice, like a child trying desperately to convince an adult that she's telling the truth. Then she gets serious again.
"I'm not going out to bars and partying and drinking and all that stuff," she says. "I'm usually home in bed by 10:30, and on the weekends by 11. I'm a homebody. I like to stay home, watch movies, have friends over. This is me. I've always been a good girl."
But what about that bad-girl image? It didn't come from nowhere.
"That's because the media portrayed me like that and because of the people I was associated with, and all of it kind of whirlwinded, and that's what they came up with," she says. "Now people realize that 'She's not a bad girl, she's a very nice lady,' and that's the way I want people to see me, that I'm a lady."
She's working very hard at it. At the rink, for her afternoon practice, she smiles graciously at everyone and waits politely for her turn. She gushes about how the photographers were so kind about not using too many flashes, while she practiced her jumps, to minimize distractions. She is pleased to meet everyone who wants to shake her hand. She is impossible not to like.
Harding is genuinely thrilled to be in this small West Virginia town where Marshall University football's blockbuster season (the Thundering Herd is ranked No. 15 in the nation) is the biggest topic of local conversation, and a satellite feed of a World Wrestling Federation event drew a packed house to the local Family Fun Center on a Sunday night. When Rosenberg called and told her that she had finally, finally been invited to a competition, she didn't even ask where. She just cried for joy.
"I'm hoping it's a warm welcome, but even if it's not, it's okay," Harding says the day before the event. "I've been through the worst, and nothing can be as bad as it was in '94."
Even her skating is different than it was in 1994, changed just as she is. Once known as the big-jump skater--she is one of only two women to land a triple axel in competition--she now has a smoothness, a grace, that was lacking before. She is smaller, too, than she was when she skated in 1994, her body more delicate.
"Her skating really is more polished now," says Bowman, after Harding's pre-competition practice. "She's different than she was before."
Different, yes. But she's no skating Barbie doll, this new Tonya Harding. Please. Let's not take it too far. She still likes to drive big, souped-up trucks--her current model, a Ford pickup, stands 8 feet 6 inches high. She still puffs on a cigarette now and then despite the asthma that sends her rinkside for regular puffs on an inhaler during practice sessions. She still says what she thinks.
"These pantyhose are driving me nuts!" she moans, wriggling a bit in the tasteful outfit she chose to wear for an interview with "Entertainment Tonight." She is talking about the way people used to try to change her hair, her clothes, her talonlike nails, everything about her "look." How she hated it when people wanted her to put on airs, be something she was not.
"I was, like, 'If I'm skating with the older girls, why can't I wear the older girls' costumes?' and stuff like that," says Harding, referring to the rap she used to get for wearing somewhat suggestive attire. "Then I got a little bit too overboard."
She is laughing at herself, at the memory. Now, she says, she's in between. If she wants to wear jeans at home, she wears jeans. But she asks for advice about interview attire. She trims her beloved nails if Rosenberg thinks they are getting a wee bit too long. She accommodates. But that's all.
"I'm a grown woman," she says. "Cigarettes, things like that--hey, well, it's not that big a deal. I still play pool, and I like to play darts, and boating and fishing and hunting and motorcycle riding. I'm an outdoorsy kinda woman, but I can be a lady when I need to be."
And she needs to be if she wants to skate professionally again. That much she gets. In spades. Tyson may get endless second chances. Ditto for Strawberry. But in her Dorothy Hamill world, it's not enough to be good. You have to be the right kind of girl.
"There's always a double standard going on, a difference between men and women and the different kinds of sports," Harding says matter-of-factly. "And figure skating, it's a 'ladies' sport."
The face she makes when she says "ladies" is priceless, a combination of sweet and simpering and something slightly devilish underneath.
And now you're a lady? she is asked.
"I am a lady," she says. And she crosses her hands and lays them delicately on the tablecloth--elbows in, smile in place--just in case you missed the point.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company