After three years on probation following the Kerrigan episode, figure skating's bad girl, Tonya Harding--as bawdy and brazen as ever--is trying to resuscitate her career

by Stephanie Mansfield
photographs by Silvia Otte

An asthmatic with a pack-a-day habit and a hacking cough, Tonya Harding cracks the car window to let the smoke escape and presses her tiny sneaker to the accelerator. The needle on the speedometer quivers past 80 and there's a semi dead ahead. Tapping her talonlike fake nails against the steering wheel, she nearly rear-ends the truck and then swerves right at the last second into another lane on this rain-slicked highway in Portland. I ask her to slow down a tad. She purses her lips and snaps, "Don't tell me how to drive."

She's a little edgy. A dark-haired stranger allegedly abducted her three weeks ago, on Feb. 12; held a knife to her throat; and made her get behind the wheel of her souped-up Ford truck and drive him across town. The Clackamas County (Ore.) Sheriff's Department is investigating. Now she says she's too scared to go anywhere by herself and has to stay at her boyfriend's with her new beagle puppy and his roommate who has pet rats, and a rat got out last night.

Tonya Harding

Having sold her house to pay off back taxes, Harding poses in front of her boyfriend's.

Plus which, the much-needed cash she was supposed to receive last week from a tabloid television show for an exclusive interview following her professional ice skating debut at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center hasn't yet been sent to her by Phoenix-based agent, David Hans Schmidt. He's the same guy she blew up at during an ugly 2 a.m. phone call a few days ago.

Schmidt had worn a cap emblazoned with TONYA II as he led the 5'1" Harding into the Reno press room. It was not even half filled by the dozen reporters covering her pro debut, some of whom had schlepped from as far away as Germany. Her two-minute program-her first public performance since the 1994 Winter Olympics-was a sort of warmup act for a minor league hockey game between the Reno Renegades and the Alaska Gold Kings and was greeted with equal parts cheers, boos, jeers, catcalls, cowbells and projectiles: a half-full beer cup, a few supermarket bouquets and two black rubber billy clubs. Appropriately attired en noir, the bad seed of women's figure skating did only one jump, a triple Salchow.

Tonya Harding

Tonya after her lights-camera-action debut in Reno

"Everybody wants the triple Axel," Harding says (referring to the notoriously difficult 3 1/2-revolution jump that only she, among American women, has landed in competition), "but they're not gonna get it. I'll do it when I have to, you know? If they had asked me to do the triple Axel and paid me a lot of money to do it, I would have trained way before to do it."

She knows that sportswriters criticized her performance, but she thinks the crowd was, for the most part, happy to see her. "I was very nervous," she says, "but I wanted to show the people. I would love to be out there performing." As for her detractors, particularly those billy-club-tossing testosterone cases, she says, "I'm, like, 'Assholes, get a life.' I made one mistake, and there are people who don't want to forgive me. I'm not out raping people. I'm not out smoking crack, beating up people, stealing. I made one mistake. Can't I go on and live my life? I've learned my lesson. Give me the chance to prove I'm a better person."

But a sequel might not be in the cards for the 26-year-old Harding, a former national amateur figure skating champion, two-time Olympian and convicted felon. The last of those distinctions stems from her guilty plea in 1994 to a charge of hindering prosecution during the investigation of the assault on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. Harding's ex-husband,Jeff Gillooly, pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge in the case. This earned Harding the dubious honor of being banned for life from the sport that was supposed to propel her from the gritty trailer parks of Portland to the hot lights of Lillehammer to the show me the money world of endorsements, television gigs, magazine covers, Stars on Ice shows and maybe even a Taco Bell cup with her ponytailed mug on it.

Tonya Harding

Harding returned to Portland and another of her favorite sports.

According to a recent survey purporting to show the "product endorsement effectiveness" of 84 athletes, Harding came in last, behind Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson. Her fan club has been disbanded. She says she doesn't own a credit card and has sold her suburban house to pay off back taxes. Though she once earned upwards of $2,500 for personal appearances and landed endorsement contracts that were worth an estimated $75,000 between 1991 and '92, she now can't pay her bills.

Harding is weeks shy of ending a three-year probation for her part in the Kerrigan attack. She completed 500 hours of community service (she tried to get out of the last 100, but a judge denied the request), paid $110,000 in fines and legal fees, contributed $50,000 to the Special Olympics and agreed to see a shrink. For two years she has delivered dinners, washed pots and pans, and scrubbed floors for a meals-on-wheels program, and needed written permission to travel outside Oregon.

"I regret the stupidity," she says. "I was young and stupid. Very stupid. I regret associating with the wrong kind of people, not listening to people who were close to me and their opinions. Being blinded. It had nothing to do with love. It was just being young and naive. I did pay a price, but I don't regret that. I don't regret who I am."

Tonya Harding

Quasi foster mother Lewis, Harding and boyfriend Stupfel are denizens of Portland's aptly named Lost & Found bar.

When the gods blessed Harding with a fireplug of a body that could leap high and twirl fast, it was a cruel punishment. Spinning out of control off the ice, she was a gal with a million-dollar butt and a 10-cent brain. She chose to reconcile with Gillooly before the Kerrigan attack despite his physically abusive behavior. She once slapped another driver during a traffic dispute, and she has been accused of fabricating death threats against herself.

She says she hasn't spoken to her mother, La Vona, since 1994. When Tonya was a child, La Vona saved the tips from her waitressing job to buy her secondhand skates, and she continues to leave notes and gifts for Tonya at the Ice Chalet in Portland. Harding is also estranged from her friends, coaches and agents from the Kerrigan era, whom she describes as idiots. "Every one of them has screwed me over," she snaps. "I don't need that type of people in my life.

"She's a classic victim," says Linda Lewis, the platinum-haired, heavyset 51-year-old woman who befriended Harding three years ago because she felt sorry for her. Harding now calls her Mom. Lewis, an aspiring songwriter, has no children, and she and her 38-year-old husband, Greg, have taken on Harding as a sort of foster child célèbre. "Tonya is a victim of spousal abuse, of other abuse," says Linda. "A lot of that's never been brought out."

Harding is behind the wheel as she and Lewis head north to Vancouver, Wash., to look at a house to rent. The windshield wipers are worn thin, and they slap noisily against the glass. The day is gray and drizzly. Harding fires up another smoke and taps her fingers against the steering wheel. She returns to the subject of her mother. "She was in her late 30s when she supposedly had me," she offers.

Slap, slap, sckweek.

"Those darn wipers," says Lewis.

"But I don't classify her as my mother. Honestly, the blood types don't match up. And there are no baby pictures of me."

She exhales a steady stream of smoke.

"You can't have two positive blood types and have a negative blood type child. It just doesn't match up. One of the parents has to be positive or negative. Both my parents [her father, Al, lives in the Phoenix area] are positive, and I'm negative."

She says there are no pictures of her mother during pregnancy. She thinks she might be adopted (although when pressed later, she declines to comment on this theory). Which could mean there's yet another mother out there somewhere for Tonya. Maybe she's a cool, Grace Kelly blonde. Sipping a mimosa on the patio at the club. In pastel cashmere and L'Heure Bleue. And maybe someday she'll come for her daughter.

Maybe she will save her.

Tonya Harding

Backstage in Reno, the minor league Renegades were unfazed by the presence of a major league renegade.

Welcome to Reno, Las Vegas's seedier sister, where the beehive still reigns and busloads of grannies from Sacramento sit mesmerized at the slots, their fleshy arms getting a better workout than Jane Fonda could ever devise. A boomshakalakalaka kind of town. Loud. Gaudy. Home of cha-cha pants, sequined bustiers, cowboys with fat fake Rolexes, titty bars, more comb overs on Sans-a-Belt widowers per capita than any other metropolis. And, home of Harding's comeback. What better place for America's fallen angel to seek redemption and forgiveness, and maybe the lead of the local 11 o'clock news?

The cameras are rolling at the airport, taping her arrival on the day of her performance. Her hair hangs limply over her shoulders. She looks sheepish, holding the hand of her 23-year-old boyfriend, Portland construction worker Jason Stupfel. Onlookers gape. One makes a joke about getting out of her way, that she might whack him. Always the nervous jokes.

Just before 7 p.m. she is escorted by Schmidt into the press room. Harding stands on a chair and thanks the good folks of Reno for "allowing me to come and skate ... and for all the people who have supported me through all the thick and thin and everything." She doesn't take questions, instead ducking out as quickly as she came in. That leaves Schmidt, whose motto is Celebrating a decade of aggressive practice, to handle the media. "We've been waiting a long time for this, Tonya and I," he says. "It's been over a year in the making.... She's gonna give you a dynamite show. She's paid her debt to society. She wants to make a comeback."

The questions begin:

You call this the comeback tour. Where's the next stop?

"We're looking at entertaining some NHL offers right now. As well as professional. We haven't ruled out seeking amateur reinstatement."

The USFSA says she's not going to skate in any of their events. What will you do?

"I want to make it clear that my client has no beef with the United States Figure Skating Association. I've got a little something for them, by the way. It's an olive branch. I want to Federal Express this to the USFSA to let them know our hearts are open."

How is Tonya's training right now?

"It's mixed. Tonya's got her own schedule. She is self-coached."

Harding's appearance brings the Renegades' first sellout of the season. The crowd is vocal, and it erupts when Harding begins her warmups. "This takes a lot of guts," says Jim Langowski, who insists he's here because he's a hockey fan. "She's got courage. I respect her for that."

"I like her breasts," says Rob Silver. "I would marry her."

Are women harder on Harding than men are? "Yes, totally," says Rob's brother, Scott. "Girls hate her and guys like her. Guys like the tough attitude she has."

Music blares and Harding goes through her routine. She swirls and twirls and sends up a few ice shavings. Her big finish comes with her on her backside, sliding nearly across the rink like a human puck. She picks up the flowers that are thrown to the ice and ignores the billy clubs.

Afterward Harding spends an hour signing autographs. "People look at me the same way I look at Michael Jordan," she says. "They ask me for autographs. I won't turn anyone down."

One fan later asks her to sign a metal pipe. Security whisks him away. Back in the pressroom the reporters have left. The olive branch is lying on top of a trash can.

It's Happy Hour at the Buffalo Gap saloon in Portland 10 days later, and Harding slips into a booth, her cell phone and cigarettes on the table. She hasn't been sleeping well, she says, because she's anxious about having to move out of her house and all "the crap" that's been happening.

She orders a concoction of coffee spiked with shots of Bailey's Irish Cream and crème de cacao. Although she looks almost girlish, in jeans and a sweatshirt, there's a certain been-around-the-block quality to her. She's hard, all right, but not as tough as she pretends to be. She says her body feels old.

"I fired David," she says, referring to Schmidt. "He told me he had sent me the check from Inside Edition, but I haven't gotten it. Now he says he's not going to pay me. He's just being a jerk." (Schmidt declined the opportunity to trade insults, characterizing his on-again, off-again relationship with Harding this way: "It's like Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner.") She says she makes some money teaching skating at the Ice Chalet. She says she works three days a week. She's planning to do a jump class. (The assistant manager of the rink will say later that Harding is not employed there.)

It's been awhile, Harding says, since she saw Gillooly. He changed his name to Jeff Stone. She ran into him one night at Rock-n-Rodeo, a Portland bar, and she says she was scared. He served six months in prison for the Kerrigan assault and is remarried and has a year-old daughter.

A self-acknowledged former creep magnet, Harding says her new boyfriend is good for her. "I didn't think I would ever find another man who would love me, because of what I've been through," she says. She wants to start fresh. Be happy. Maybe have a family. She lights a cigarette and lets out a raspy cough. "I'm a '90s woman," she says. "I speak my mind. I don't let anyone else tell me what I should or should not do."

"A lot of women out there who have never been abused, everything is good for them," she continues. "They have great marriages, they go to work every day. They are harder on me than women who have been abused or have a rougher life. 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."

She says she doesn't care about regaining her amateur status, or about the medals she might then finally win. She drains her drink. "Let other people have their chance," she says. "I've been to the Olympics twice. I missed my chance."

Some say Harding was the best thing ever to happen to figure skating. Indeed, there's no denying that the sport's boom began with the hubbub surrounding her and Kerrigan. The women's figure skating short program at the 1994 Olympics got a 48.5 TV rating, a record for Olympic programming. Skating is now the second-most-watched sport on TV, behind pro football.

The next day Harding visits her boyfriend at his rented house. Stupfel is tall and thin, a workingman in a baseball cap. He says he's the kind of person who has to get to know somebody before judging her. "She was just Tonya to me," he says. "Then I watched her skate and it was like, Wow, it's Tonya Harding!"

He's standing outside in a soft drizzle. Harding is inside putting on makeup and curling her wispy bangs to go out for dinner. Her truck with the oversized tires is in the driveway. She says she wants to sell it.

Asked about their future together, Stupfel mulls the question. "The future is one of those big vague areas," he finally says. A truck pulls up to the house. It's the cable guy. "I know what he's here for," he says. Stupfel takes him aside and speaks to him quietly. The bill isn't that long overdue. He promises to pay the balance. Then he turns and smiles. "What's ahead for Tonya? Well, she's going work toward doing some more events. She's had a little bit different life than the typical person. She's had a tough time, but she's working through it."

He lights a cigarette. The drizzle lifts. The puppy is barking. "She's a survivor," he says. "Most definitely."

 

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