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 Ms. Kerrigan’s leg that day. People still think she was married to Mr. 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 Ms. Kerrigan, Shane Stant, and they have never forgiven her for it. “I’ve had rats thrown into my mailboxes, [expletive] 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 realize 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.
Ms. Harding was trailed by her BFF, Erica Manary, an E.R. 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. Ms. 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.”
Ms. 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 Ms. Manary shimmied her shoulders to the music from behind the plexiglass.
When Ms. Harding got out there with her first jump, the girls who had been practicing 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-centered sport of figure skating is exertion without expression of exertion? Has anyone ever said screw it all and flipped on the Tone Lōc and just gone for it like she did? Has anyone ever made skating look so fun?
Ms. Harding skates sometimes, but not as much as she used to. What would be the point? Her ban by the U.S.F.S.A. 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 Mr. 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 — Mr. Price with a muzzleloader and Ms. 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 Ms. Harding and her ex-husband, honors 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 F.B.I. found in a Dumpster that showed Ms. Kerrigan’s practice location and schedule in Ms. Harding’s handwriting supposedly existed in order to help her co-conspirators locate where to send threatening letters. (Ms. Harding has maintained that she did not help plan the physical attack on Ms. Kerrigan; no word on why you’d need practice times in order to send letters.)
The story is told in the tone in which Ms. 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 on Sunday Allison Janney won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Ms. Harding’s mother. But there have also been reviews (including in this paper) that wonder if the protagonist is a punching bag for cheap laughs and classism.
For the record, Ms. 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.” Mr. 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 Ms. 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 realized 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 [expletive] 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. Ms. Kerrigan was from a working-class family too, but she was loved. Her parents drove her to practices 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 dietitians 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.