Just past 10 on a Friday night, and six sanctioned mixed-martial-arts fights combined with more than a thousand beers served have the testosterone...
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Just past 10 on a Friday night, 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, 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 drunk man retreats, but not as fast as the bald and heavily tattooed fighter approaches.
A few feet from where a couple of chairs land, a 5-foot-1 blonde, 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 hides.
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“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, 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 wearing tight Wrangler 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, who died last week.
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. But Harding is, in a lot of ways, stuck to that moment forever, now 37 years old with the same blonde perm she had when the Wounded Knee scandal turned her into Public Punchline No. 1.
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 live in the … middle of nowhere. … I cut wood, 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, period, 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 the second.
Since then, Harding’s bio 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 Wednesday at 40 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 Penthouse.
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. 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, with whom she stays in contact, but that her only regrets in life are that she didn’t have “more leadership” or self-esteem growing up.
“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.”
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, and stories on the show have appeared on ESPN, in Sports Illustrated, on National Public Radio and internationally.
“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 supercompetitive society. It’s darkly comic and plays on what people feel about this supercompetitive 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 for Harding, and that those feelings come across in the show. Searle says she hopes it helps Harding, keeping her name in the news and maybe boosting interest in the 20-some meet-and-greets per year that Harding uses to help with bills.
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 “sucks,” 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 makes appearances at low-level fight cards and 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.”