Tonya Harding is starving. It's 1 p.m. on a muggy day in Vancouver, Wash., where she now lives, and she hasn't had anything to eat since 5 this morning, when she awoke to do a round of 10 radio interviews, one after another. Between mouthfuls of buttered bread in the restaurant at the Heathman Lodge—a place she's never been able to afford, she says with a "know what I mean?" look—Harding explains why she's finally decided to come forward with some shocking new details to a now infamous story.
If you don't remember Tonya Harding, you don't remember Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan bawling "Why? Why?" on the floor at the Cobo Arena in Detroit in 1994; her knee busted, her career potentially stolen from her in what would go down as the most sinister low blow in the history of the sport.
Harding, whose reputation as the trailer-park envoy to U.S. figure skating has only seemed to cement itself in the decade-plus since her rival's attack, has decided "it's time" to share her side of the events. It's every bit as bizarre as the historical version, which roughly follows along these lines: Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (he's since changed his name to Jeff Stone), brainstormed with buddy Shawn Eckardt, then hired a hit man and a getaway driver named Shane Stant to whack Kerrigan's knee and knock her out of the U.S. figure-skating championships (Harding went on to win the event, securing a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, but she didn't get a medal. Kerrigan, just weeks after the attack, picked up a silver.)
Fourteen years later, Harding wants to reverse her pervasive image as a heel-slicer, one that Sen. Barack Obama conjured up in a reference last December, when he spoke out against the idea of "pulling a Tonya Harding" by going for the kneecaps of his rivals in the race for the nomination. Not only did she have nothing to do with the attack, Harding reiterates in "The Tonya Tapes," a new book compiled from a series of interviews with sports journalist Lynda Prouse, she had every intention of reporting her ex's misdeeds to the FBI—until Gillooly and two thugs convinced her otherwise.
"They said, if I didn't cooperate and say exactly what he [Jeff] told me to say, they were going to take me out. I had a gun at the back of my head and [was raped] on the back of a truck … and they told me this is what you are going to say. This is what you are going to do, and if you don't, you're not going to be here anymore," Harding writes, adding, "I wished they had pulled the trigger."
Could Harding's allegations result in a criminal investigation? The sheriff's office in Multnomah County, Ore., (where the rape allegedly occurred) didn't return phone calls from NEWSWEEK, and Harding says she's not aware of any investigation.
Stone, who tells NEWSWEEK he first learned of the charges last Friday, said he is considering a libel lawsuit against the book's publisher, World Audience Publishing. "That's ridiculous," said Stone, who maintains that Tonya was involved in the plot against Kerrigan from the beginning. "Fifteen years later, and, 'Oh I didn't say it because I was afraid.' What about the time I was in prison? Were you afraid then?" Stone said he now works "in sales" but declined to specify what industry.
Tonya's book, a compilation of interviews she granted to Prouse, paints a starkly different picture of an athlete whose notoriety is perhaps rivaled only by O. J. Simpson, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson of the World Series-throwing Chicago Black Sox or the Major League Baseball players hopped up on 'roids. The woman stripped of her championship before she went on to rack up convictions for drunk driving and assault--after throwing a hubcap at her boyfriend, Darren Silver--isn't the dastardly malfeasant the media makes her out to be, according to "The Tonya Tapes." In it, Harding claims she's the product of years of abuse at the hands of her mother, who beat her black and blue with a hairbrush after less-than-stellar performances on the ice.
"The whole world thinks of her as a demon. She's become the butt of jokes," said Michael Rosenberg, Harding's manager. "I started thinking, 'This is not a skating book. It's a woman's book.' America jumped and made Tonya Harding into a villain. Tonya Harding was really a victim."
Reached by telephone this week, Harding's mom denied abusing the girl. "I should have. Then maybe she would have respected the family," said LaVona Golden, after erupting in laughter at the question. "I did take a hair brush to her one time, one swat across the butt. She was supposed to be on the ice for a competition, and she was squirming all over the place, and I was trying to get her hair fixed, and I finally swatted her on the butt with a hair brush."
Golden said she had no qualms with the book, though. "If it makes her money, fine," Golden said. "She has to have a living. Her husband messed that up for her ... I still love her. She's my daughter."
So, who's the real Tonya? She's hoping people buy the book and decide for themselves.
Understandably, the blogosphere is suspicious of Harding's true motives. "Translation: I'm broke and quickly fading into obscurity," offered one blogger on the San Francisco Chronicle's Web site. "This story makes me want to go to Disneyland," added another. Other critics recall Harding's many desperate moves to make a buck, including boxing with Paula Jones (of Bill Clinton fame) on a Fox TV reality show.
"If you publish a book like that, you probably need to do it for financial reasons," said former gold medalist Brian Boitano, who was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame last month. "If people are going to read it, they have to read it for the entertainment value, and not go by every word as the gospel truth. She struggles with being taken seriously."
Harding knows as well as anyone that there's no such thing as bad publicity, and she's prepared to spend the next several weeks fending off skeptical questions from people "entitled to their own opinion" as she promotes her new book. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Harding struggled the most with this conflicting set of circumstances: if she knew nothing about the assault on Kerrigan until after it happened, why was her ex-husband so desperate to keep her quiet that he'd rape and threaten to kill her?
"You'll have to read the book," Harding said, explaining that it was a long time ago and that she has trouble remembering what she knew back then. "It was things I'd heard from other people."
Longtime friend Linda Lewis said she's known about the abuse since becoming good pals with Harding in 1995. Lewis kept her secret because "We respected her wishes," she said. "It was a very deep, personal emotional time for her to tell us that."
The book's author, Prouse, said she didn't want to write Harding's autobiography and was "absolutely not excited about meeting her" when Rosenberg first approached her in late 1999. But Prouse agreed to watch her skate, wondering if the "nice person" Harding projected was just an act, and decided the book would make a good comeback tale, conducting dozens of hours of telephone and videotaped interviews in the months to come. Then came the hubcap incident in February 2000, effectively ending Harding's career on the ice. The book got shelved.
"A few years later, I saw her on 'Entertainment Tonight,' and a reporter was asking her, 'When are you going to tell your story?'" Prouse said. "I'm thinking, 'I have her story, things nobody knows'."
Prouse said she can see how a pattern of abuse has affected Harding's life. "In her mind, that's what life is all about, being used by people for their gain," Prouse said. "In many respects, people have the wrong opinion of her."
Harding, who says she's found "inner peace" and notes that she hasn't been in trouble for "a long time now," says her interest isn't necessarily in changing that opinion. She says she's more concerned with having an impact on other victims of abuse, to let them know that they should come forward and not be ashamed of what's happened to them. "People have their own opinions, and that's all right," Harding said. "If I could help just one person out there realize it's OK, it's not shameful to ask for help. You don't have to hang your head."
Harding, who's now working as a commentator on the Court TV show "The Smoking Gun," says she'd teach ice skating if the closest rink weren't an hour away, if her "rig" didn't get 10 miles to the gallon and if gas prices weren't so high right now. How well the book will do is anyone's guess, but the author is sure to face some tough questions on her promotional tour.
Among those questions: is Harding really hungry for the truth, or just hungry?