Tonya Harding is a legend. No really, she is. Especially where ice skating is concerned. She was the first US woman to land a triple axel in competition — a feat that’s only been completed eight times to this date (number eight actually happening during the PyeongChang Winter Games this year) — and was one of the top female athletes in the world during the early 1990s.
Chances are by now, you’ve seen the largely biographical film I, Tonya which NEON released at the tail end of 2017 and if not, you at least know some of the story. Some, but not all.
I, Tonya is based on a set of interviews given by Harding and her at the time husband Jeff Gillooly, detailing Tonya’s youth and her rise in the sport of figure skating. It does of course talk about the “incident” — the Nancy Kerrigan attack — and some of the resulting fallout for Tonya. What the film also does is tell the story from Tonya’s point of view, using several instances in her past that fill in some of the media-created blanks in her personal narrative.
Last night, the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco had a screening of the Oscar-winning film, and local personality (and soon-to-be Bleeding Cool contributor) Dana Han-Klein moderated a Q & A with Harding following the movie.
The resulting conversation painted the former Olympian in a more personal light — she talked about the things that excite her, being a mom, and how accurately the film really “got it”. There were tears, laughter, and the enduring spirit of a woman who’s seen some STUFF and come out the other side.
Dana: You’ve been the subject of documentaries and various pieces before. What was it about I, Tonya that made you think “I’m ready to have someone play me”?
Tonya: I thought that just maybe they might have gotten it right. And obviously, 99% of everything that was in this movie is the truth. And for once in my life, I feel at peace. It’s not just about me, I’ve been to hell and back many times, but it’s about my son. Knowing that my son [Tonya began to break down in tears, but managed to compose herself] will know his mom isn’t a cheater, that’s the most important thing.
Dana: Your son is very young right now — are you going to show him the film someday? Obviously you’re going to have a conversation with him sometime about this point in your life.
Tonya: He’s already seen parts of the movie while he was playing with his friends. It’s something I want him to be a little bit older, wiser, and I want to teach him the rights and wrongs of life prior to him seeing this because I know it’s going to hurt him. I don’t want him to hurt.
Dana: Of course not — I don’t know if it’s going to hurt him, because this is sort of your chance to undo the perception of vilification, where we get to hear your side of the story. Yes, it’s a fictional film, but it’s YOUR side. And at the time, people weren’t ready to hear your side.
Tonya: When Stephen [Rogers, who wrote the film] contacted my godparents and also my publicists, I was like, “well, I have nothing to lose.” Other people have tried to put together a movie or different things, and it’s always their perceptive of what happened from the media. So I thought, “I’m going to give him my story, and see where it comes out.” And I could have never imagined, my life, being beat up all the time and put through hell, and being told “you aren’t going to be worth anything.” You’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re going to end up just like me — what my mother used to say — and I always swore that I would NEVER be like her. Don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing wrong with waitressing, I did it myself for a while.
Dana: I don’t think that’s what people took away from that. *audience laughter*
Tonya: But now that I’m a mom — my son just turned seven — I just always knew that it was the most precious thing that I could ever receive from God. I was told I could never have children, but when I became pregnant, I knew that was my miracle.
There are two things in life that no one can take away from me, and that’s 1), my skating, and 2), my son. *riotous applause*
Dana: So you had nothing to lose, and then you were told that Margot Robbie was going to play you.
Tonya: I was told that, and I was like HOLY CRAP, Harley Quinn! YEAH! She’s beautiful, she’s talented, I was like, “oh my god.” And then when they told me Allison Janney, I thought, “she’s gonna play my mom? But she’s too nice!”
But when I saw the movie the first time, I was so scared. Craig Gillespie [director of I, Tonya] brought my husband and I the movie, and I told him, “okay, but you have to sit way over there, because I don’t want someone watching ME watching me.” And I was watching it, and thinking, “wow, Margot is doing amazing,” and then it hit me — wow, that’s ME, oh, oh boy. But when I saw Allison playing my mom, I thought, “wow, my mom must’ve had some makeup done or something — oh, nope, there’s that damn bird, yep, that’s her.”
I mean, it was the nastiest thing in the entire world. She had this giant fur coat that she’d wear when it was like 70 degrees out, with bird poop all over, and then she’d walk around with curlers in her hair t00. And the bird went everywhere with her. But Allison was amazing. She’s now my friend, and Margot too, and we text back and forth all the time.
Dana: Allison just won an Oscar for that roll too. If you could win an Oscar for being yourself, what would you want to win for?
Tonya: Strength. There was a time after the ’94 Games where I was in the rocks, lower than rock bottom. And I didn’t want to be here anymore. One thing led to another, and I was facing ending up being back home, and I knew right then that God had a plan for me, and I know now that it’s so I can help other people. I realized that it doesn’t matter how low you go, that there’s only one way to go after that, and it’s up. *audience applause* And as long as you fight for everything you want, you may never achieve it, you may never get it, as long as you FIGHT — that’s all anyone can ask — you’ve got to start with one thing, and that’s loving yourself.
Dana: Is there one scene in the film that you feel truly speaks to the emotional state you were in during this time in your life?
Tonya: Gosh. All I know is the best part of the movie is when I told the judges to suck it. *wild applause and cheers*
Dana: Which is something you did not do, right?
Tonya: I did not say that to their faces, I didn’t even say it like that. I did tell a judge in a hallway with my coach after competing, that “if you can afford the $5,000 to make me a costume then I’ll wear it, but until then you can just shut your mouth,” and I walked away. But I WISH I could have said what I said in the movie, oh yes.
Dana: That sort of brings me back to ice skating, where you were at the top of the sport. We just had the PyeongChang Olympics — do you feel it’s sort of antiquated in a way how women are judged versus men? Because I’d never heard a male figure skater be judged on his outfit, or makeup, or not athletic enough.
Tonya: Um, let’s see, how do I go about being a lady about this–
Dana: See, that’s the thing! You have to be a lady about it. Is it fair that we have to be “ladylike” about this question?
Tonya: Well, figure skating is a very political sport, and as you all know, I never really fit in, but I was going to MAKE them make me fit in. There wasn’t anything else — skating is what God gave me the talent to do, and I can still do doubles now. I skate, I train at home, my passion of course is my son, but when he needs to go to school — it’s mommy time. So I do all my exercises to music and stuff, and then I go out and work in the yard.
Dana: So speaking of music: if you were to do a program now, what would you skate to?
Tonya: Well, if you want something that just sort of hits you right here [she points to her chest] I guess it would have to be Kid Rock‘s “Only God Knows Why”, because I can relate. Otherwise, it would have to be some badass song. I mean, I liked having the music that got the audience involved and got me the energy to finish the program, because four minutes is like 12 rounds of boxing–
Dana: Which you would know about as well.
Tonya: No no, I made it through four, just barely. And that wasn’t even boxing, that was two girls brawling.
Dana: Speaking of athletic endeavors: the triple axel. Only eight women have landed one in international competition, you were the first. It’s 3.5 rotations, right, and you’re going forward, but landing backwards, while knives are attached to your feet. What goes through your head?
Tonya: Well, you saw the program there at the very end, it’s like God and the Devil [she mimes the figures being on her shoulders] “I can do it,” “no I can’t,” “yes I can,” and then I’m like, “YES I CAN DO THIS, I did this for me.” When I went out and skated, the competitions, those were for me, but the exhibitions, everything else — that was for you guys.
Dana: I love the line in the movie, “I thought being famous would be fun.” And I think it is correcting some of the misconceptions about you. My question is, are you having fun now?
Tonya: My life has been very good since my husband and my son. I don’t let people bother me — well, that’s not true, some people say mean things about me and it does hurt inside — but I’m always going to be that tough B who’s just going to go WHATEVER. But then I’ll go into the garage and sit there and cheer up and think about it, why are they making me feel insecure? I have a good life, I feel good about me, this person doesn’t know me.
It’s still really difficult to watch the movie; it still gets to me every single time. But then I have to remember, it’s in the past. I have my future, I have my life, my family, and I AM loved. And that was the one thing I always wanted.
When I father passed, I self-destructed. Thank God my car found its way home, because I did totally self-destruct. And that’s the other reason I always tell people: if you have a problem, ask someone for help. If you need a ride home, ask me, because I will take you home, I will call you a cab. I won’t let someone hurt themselves or anyone else; it’s too easy. It’s like texting on the phone while driving — we all do it, and we can’t. Too many kids, too many kids die. Just take the time to THINK before you react.
Dana: Who in your life has been that support system for you? I know one of them is here tonight–
Tonya: Yes, my coach Dody Teachman is here. She’s been my best friend, she’s been like a sister to me. There was this long period of time we spent apart, but then I came back and started skating again, and we started working together, and we’re back to the same as we were back then. And she’s always told me to not worry about what other people think, you gotta worry about what YOU think, because that’s the most important person. You cannot please everybody, literally, but you can at least please yourself.
Thank you again to the San Francisco Alamo Drafthouse for having the screening, to Dana for inviting Bill and myself, and to Tonya Harding for being herself, always. See NEON’s I, Tonya if you haven’t already.