Editor’s note: In light of the release of the new Hollywood film “I, Tonya,” we thought it would be fun to revisit this story Sam Mellinger wrote for The Star in 2007, when Tonya Harding came through town to sign autographs for money.
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It’s just past 10 p.m. on a Friday, and six sanctioned mixed-martial-arts fights combined with more than a thousand beers served have the testosterone of this place on tilt.
One man, visibly drunk for at least a couple of hours, takes his camcorder up to the winner of the main event and apparently says something unflattering. Within seconds, large fold-out tables are overturned. Metal chairs fly. The drunken man retreats, but not as fast as the bald, heavily tattooed fighter approaches.
A few feet from where a couple of chairs land, a 5-foot-1-inch blond, a former Olympic figure skater, is posing for pictures with customers No. 31 and 32 of the night. Or at least she was. She sees the melee and quickly scoots away.
“I just don’t like violence,” Tonya Harding says. “I know people laugh when they hear me say that, but it’s true.”
Harding is here, watching a low-level fight card at the National Guard Armory in Kansas City, Kan. — “the city so nice they named it twice,” according to the ring announcer — because there are bills to pay.
She charges $10 for an autographed 8-by-10, and her handmade sign advertises $5 if you want a picture taken “with your camara.” Nobody seems to notice the misspelled word.
Harding looks in great shape, about 120 pounds, and she’s wearing tight jeans with a black T-shirt that reads “The Game of Redneck Life.”
This is what 15 minutes looks like stretched to 14 years, which is how long it has been since the attack on Nancy Kerrigan plotted by Harding’s ex-husband and her former bodyguard, the latter of whom died two weeks ago.
She maintains she knew nothing of the plot but pleaded guilty to hampering the investigation, paid a $160,000 fine and was banned from U.S. figure skating competition for life.
The rest of the world has moved on, of course, from one President Bush to the second, from Bryan Adams to Michael Buble. But Harding is, in a lot of ways, stuck to that moment forever, now 37 years old with the same blond perm she had when the “Wounded Knee” scandal turned her into Public Punch Line No. 1.
‘I was the best’
Harding’s story is at once inspiring and infuriating, worthy of your sympathy and cynicism. She sells her name a few hundred dollars at a time, trying to keep up with her bills, unable or unwilling to get a “normal” job because of everything people still associate with her name.
She recently turned her cable off, she says, because it was a luxury she no longer needed.
“I’m a redneck girl,” she says. “I drink beer, work on cars, that kind of thing. That’s who I am.”
She still skates. That’s what people always seem to want to know. Yes, she still skates. Just the other day, about 20 minutes into it, she was rocking double-doubles like she was when “America’s Funniest Home Videos” first came out.
That’s a good feeling.
“I was the greatest female figure skater in the world,” she says. “No one, not even most of the men, could touch me at one point. In 1991, I was the best. And nobody could touch me.”
That year she won the U.S. nationals and became the first American woman to land a triple axel during competition. It took 14 more years for someone to land the second.
Since then, Harding’s biography includes arrests for assault on her boyfriend with a hubcap and driving while intoxicated. Her old bodyguard from the Kerrigan days, Brian Sean Griffith, died at 40 on Dec. 11 of what his doctor said was natural causes. Graphic video of her wedding night was sold by her ex-husband and downloaded across the country. Unauthorized pictures showed up in a skin magazine. She thinks various “slimeballs” have made $5 million selling doctored images of her face on pornographic images.
She says that kind of thing makes her sick, and she’s proud that her income is all clean, even as she has become a bit of a carnival sideshow. She is good ol’-fashioned American entrepreneurship at work, traveling with a stack of glossy photos and Sharpies, because you never know who might have 10 bucks to spare.
The night before the appearance in Kansas City, she went to a local Mexican joint for dinner and a few beers. Hardly anyone was in there, but she sold nine pictures. That’s $90.
In an honest moment, she admits she wishes she had a better way. She’d like to be able to buy new pants or pay old bills without checking her account balance first, but she says she’s trapped by all the baggage that people associate with her.
She’d love to teach skating full time but says she can’t get anyone to invest in her “just because of my name.”
Thirty-six of the 500 or so people at the fight card bought either an autograph or a picture from Harding. It was a mix of old and young, men and women, people who genuinely seemed likely to frame the pictures and others who were clearly buying a gag gift.
Harding struck up a few conversations, which always ended in hugs. She likes this part of it, the positive feedback from strangers.
She hasn’t talked to her mother in years, doesn’t plan to ever again, and won’t say why. She says she had a little affection from her father, whom she stays in contact with, but that her only regrets in life are that she didn’t have “more leadership” or self-esteem growing up.
Most skaters are feminine — pink dresses, toy dolls and classical music. Harding? She’s black T-shirts, Tonka trucks and heavy metal. She used to skate to Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing.” She never felt as if she belonged in the skating world, never felt as if anyone — even her parents — truly embraced her.
So, yeah. She does like hugs from some strangers, even as she builds a wall to ignore the boos from others.
“I do what I have to do to survive,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if people like me or not. Even if they hate me, they’re still paying me, they just don’t realize it. They might want to see me get my ass kicked. But they’re still paying to see me.”
Curiosity’s the attraction
Doesn’t take more than a couple of seconds after the PA announcer mentions Harding — “the lovely ice princess,” he says — for the first customer to approach with some cash. He’s a middle-aged man named Dick Lacy, and he extends his hand for a shake.
“This is the highlight of my day,” he says.
Lacy sits down to make small talk, and when he gets around to asking for a picture, he pulls out a 50.
“Oh, (shoot),” Harding says, unprepared for the big bill.
Later, Lacy acknowledges that his opening line was just a polite ice-breaker. More than anything, he wanted to connect a personal experience with the image he has built in his mind these last 14 years. It’s a story to tell his buddies over a beer, and you know what?
He enjoyed it.
“Real pleasant,” Lacy says. “A lot different than I thought. She probably gets a bad rap.”
It’s curiosity. That’s Harding’s whole attraction. You can see it all night, starting before the doors even open.
A worker approaches Harding and asks her name. She tells him, and he cusses, saying he just lost a dollar bet. Later, a college-age kid with a buzz cut stares at Harding and tells his friends: “No way is that her. Really?”
At least three people ask Harding whether she’s a lookalike. One man comes up and, away from Harding’s earshot, says he wants to ask about the hubcap, the wedding video, the whole thing.
He doesn’t have to, because at this exact moment, the drunken man who will later start the post-main-event melee stumbles over to Harding.
“Did you make more money before or after you hit her?” he asks.
I didn’t hit her, Harding replies.
“I know not legally, but physically you did, right?” he asks.
“Nancy was my friend,” she says.
Reputation a handicap
Tonya Harding still moves the needle.
More than 15 million people watched her beat Bill Clinton accuser, Paula Jones, in “Celebrity Boxing.” She did a show on the Game Show Network’s “Anything To Win” series last year that more than tripled the ratings of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s episode.
A two-hour rock opera called “Tonya & Nancy” opens soon in Harding’s hometown of Portland, Ore.
“When people find out I’m working on this, they’re so eager to talk to me about it,” says Elizabeth Searle, a Boston area writer. “There’s so much in the story that’s about life in America. It’s such a microcosm about our super-competitive society. It’s darkly comic and plays on what people feel about this super-competitive society that drives people berserk.
“And as a writer, I cannot improve on these characters. I mean, who could come up with Gillooly?”
Jeff Gillooly, in case you’ve forgotten, was Harding’s ex-husband.
Searle says she is personally sympathetic toward Harding and that those feelings come across in the show. Searle says she hopes it helps Harding, keeping her name in the news.
Harding sees it as another example of someone else making money off her name while she struggles to get by, and this is the part she says “stinks,” the part of living with a reputation that handicaps more than it enables. Who could ever hire Tonya-freaking-Harding for a regular job?
So she does what she has to do. Makes appearances at low-level fight cards, and she even boxes — she is 3-3 as a pro, plus a few exhibition fights. She wishes she didn’t have to do any of it, but this is where she is now, both because of her own actions and the strange and unrelenting way we treat celebrities.
She’s finishing off her sixth beer of the night, packing up and counting her profit in her head when a cleanup worker stops by and looks at the photos. He stares at the one from the 1994 Olympics.
“That has to be the thrill of a lifetime,” he says.
Harding swallows a bit from the white plastic cup.
“Yes, it was,” she says. “Believe me.”