Twenty-four years following a scandal that rocked the world, Margot Robbie takes on the role of figure skater Tonya Harding in a behind-the-scenes story that will have you questioning what’s real, what’s fake, and how much we truly know about the controversial figures who become cultural lightning rods. I, Tonya hits UK cinemas on 23rd February.
Before the Clinton impeachment played out, before Princess Diana was chased down and killed by paparazzi, before helicopters hovered over OJ Simpson’s Ford Bronco as it raced down California’s I405, there was the high stakes media bonanza that played out between the Olympic ice princess Nancy Kerrigan and her bad-girl rival Tonya Harding. Not only was it the perfect tabloid story, but it was the first of its kind. Never before had 24/7 news, celebrities, and international spectacle combined in way that has now become a normal part of culture.
It all began on 6th January, 1994, when Olympic hopeful Nancy Kerrigan was struck three inches above the knee with a police baton by a then-unknown assailant after she wrapped up practice at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. In the beginning, journalists—like always—focused on the hard facts about the crime. The most salacious thing was that it might have been a copycat crime, comparing the bludgeoning to a stabbing that had occurred against tennis star Monica Seles nine months prior. Over the next few weeks, odd details started to leak. On 24th January, Time published a three-page cover story headlined “Ice Follies” which gave a blow by blow account on the details of the attack and asked salacious questions: above the story hung the sentence, “Would you break some legs for $65,000?” in bold red type. But by the time the Lillehammer Winter Olympics began a month after, people were more interested in the motive: “Tonya’s Deal” blared the headline in Newsweek on 21st February, 1994, an article that rushed past the inciting incident and instead began to turn the story into a fable, and the two women into its main characters, while it was all still happening.
“The truth is that for the last month, myths have surrounded Tonya — and Nancy, too — that even pancake makeup cannot hide,” the Newsweek feature reads quite cattily. The story is referring to the “more sophisticated, softer” look Harding adopted in the weeks after the attack. And while the article itself methodically dispels persistent myths surrounding the figures — like that Harding’s looks affected her career, and that Kerrigan was all but guaranteed to win the gold before the attack — the Newsweek cover advertises something else entirely. Next to a zoomed-in photo of Harding’s face, the cover promises an exclusive interview with Harding within the magazine folds. Clearly, news outlets believed their audiences didn’t want to extinguish the myths. They wanted more of them.
Today, copies of these magazines are still available on eBay. They’re now just old paper, stapled together by sellers capitalising on nostalgia for one of American media’s most fervent news spectacles. Yet, their longevity as collectibles doubles as evidence for how the Harding-Kerrigan scandal blurred the lines between news and entertainment; how tabloid fodder would transform legitimate national news; how women could so easily get cast as innocent princess or vengeful villain. That these two juicy stories appeared in Time and Newsweek, two of the most prestigious newsmagazines in the U.S. over the more salacious publications like Us Weekly or People, says it all.
“This was the first time that people started paying attention 24/7 to something that they couldn't get enough of,” Ann Schatz, the Portland-based sports journalist who was the first person to nab an interview with Harding after the U.S. Championships, tells Refinery29.
“This was America’s first pop culture cable news story,” adds Christine Brennan, a sports broadcaster who worked for the Washington Post at the time. “I’m the only serious journalist who will say these words, but Tonya Harding changed my career.” Covering the Lillehammer Olympics and the drama leading up to it inadvertently led Brennan’s career to pivot from sports writing in one of the country’s most prestigious national newspapers to TV broadcast journalism. In retrospect it makes sense: TV was where the audiences flocked.
Given the media’s prominent role in shaping the narrative of the Harding-Kerrigan story, it’s no surprise the film I, Tonya, opening in the U.S. this week and in the U.K. on 23rd February, is designed to emulate a news documentary. The major players tell their (often conflicting) sides of the story through Q&A sessions with an unnamed interlocutor. Tonya Harding — played by Margot Robbie — often turns fiercely to the camera, and directly speaks to the audiences sitting in cinema chairs, munching on popcorn, and reliving the spectacle that had dominated news channels at the start of 1994. The movie’s Harding knows people are watching now, because they were always watching then. And according to I, Tonya, the audience is still watching.
You don’t have to be a figure skater, an Olympics fanatic, or even have been alive when the events transpired for the Harding-Kerrigan spectacle to have directly affected your understanding of how news stories get told and how the women in stories like these will be treated.
Like a weather vane, this spectacle spun around and set us on our course towards what we know as “news” today — a second cousin to entertainment.
Even before Kerrigan was attacked off the ice rink in Detroit, the media had already settled on a narrative: Kerrigan was the refined, classy ice princess who played by the rules, while Harding, the first American woman to successfully complete the notoriously difficult triple axel, was the truck-driving, pool-playing underdog who wore hand-crafted costumes and choreographed skating routines to ZZ Top. “She was the American story. She was Rocky. She came from the wrong side of the tracks. She worked really hard. She was somebody every little girl at home who wanted to grow up and skate at the Olympics could say, 'Well if Tonya could do it, I can do it.' She made it achievable,” according to Dr. Jill Swenson, journalism and media studies professor who contributed an article to the collection Women on Ice: Feminist Responses to the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Spectacle.
Kerrigan may have also came from a working-class family, but Harding embodied it. While that bad-girl persona might have painted Harding as exciting and rebellious star to root for, after the attack it played against her.
“We couldn’t wait to say, ‘Beautiful, long-legged, megawatt smile. Nancy, you’ll do just fine.’ My god, Nancy Kerrigan fit the bill perfectly. Then you have Tonya down at the pool hall after she changed the oil on her truck, puffing on a cigarette. You’re the white princess, and you’re Darth Vader. It couldn’t have worked out better.” recalls Schatz.
In a Time cover story that ran on 22nd January, 1994, writer Jill Smolowe drew a litany of poetic comparisons between Harding and more traditional figure skaters, like Kerrigan. “Tonya Harding is not — nor has ever been — like most skaters. She is neither politic nor polished, sociable nor sophisticated. Instead, she is the bead of raw sweat in a field of dainty perspires; the asthmatic who heaves uncomfortable while others pant prettile; the pool-playing, drag-racing, trash-talking bad girl of a sport the thrives on illusion and politesse.” Later on, the same article describes Kerrigan as someone “blessed with long, slender limbs and a natural elegance,” and emphasises her loving family. According to their portrayal in Time, and other similar stories, the two skaters were seemingly too different to be anything but rivals.
But it was the lower-calibre, less-respected tabloids that drove the story. Nightly network news programmes were interested in the mechanics of what had happened in Detroit — the “How” and “When” and “What” questions. But the spectacle’s narrative — the “Why” — was forged in the nonstop furnaces of tabloid U.S. shows like Inside Edition, Extra, and Hard Copy, the now-defunct news programme given a spotlight in I, Tonya.
“Tabloid TV news broadcasts were all about getting the human dimension. The story behind the story. The people’s motivations,” Swenson says. “A lot of the news coverage in the old school was so focused on facts they often lost sight of what is the story.”
The tabloids uncovered close to everything about Harding and Kerrigan — and more legitimate news sources were re-reporting those findings. In this way, the Harding-Kerrigan story originated in the tabloids, and then migrated over to hard news. This transition from tabloid to hard news was nothing short of remarkable.
“Typically before that, the tabloids would find something in the hard news stories and work off a piece of that. This was the first time it was the other way around,” says Swenson. “The story started in the tabloids and it set the national news agenda.”
In order to sustain the narrative, tabloids dug up all available information on Kerrigan and Harding. The following is a sample of the people tabloid news programmes contacted for their stories, that hard news programmes did not, as recorded in Women on Ice: Tonya Harding’s best friend, her best friend’s husband, her best friend’s neighbours. Kerrigan’s former fiancé. Harding’s former fiancé. Harding’s current neighbour. Harding’s former neighbour. Harding’s new male friend. Harding’s new male friend’s jealous fiancé. Kerrigan’s costume designer, Vera Wang, a former ice skater herself. A handwriting expert. The owner of the diner in which the napkin with initial sketches of the assault plan were found.
According to Women on Ice, the tabloids also asked their subjects questions that never came up on network channels: “Is Tonya blinded by ambition? Does Tonya need a lot of love? What kind of childhood did Tonya have? Would Tonya do anything for Jeff? Does Tonya go to church? Does Tonya believe God has chosen her to win the gold? Why would Tonya do such a thing to Nancy Kerrigan?”
Naturally, Harding herself became a coveted interview. The first one-on-one interview with Harding after the U.S. Figure Skating Championships came when an anonymous letter implicating Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, in Kerrigan’s attack turned up on reporter Schatz’s desk. It was only a matter of hours before Schatz was interviewing Harding and Gillooly at the news station.
“Tonya wasn’t herself; Gillooly was really tense,” Schatz recalls, even now with a sense of wistful excitement. “From the minute they arrived in the building to when we sat down on the green room to when the camera was fired on her, he never took his eyes off of her. As if to say, don’t screw this up. Do not say anything that is going to throw us or me under the bus. It was chilling. I’ll never forget it.”
Following that interview, Schatz was one of many reporters who would crowd around the skating rink at the Clackamas Town Center Mall in Oregon. When the Clackamas rink became overrun, Harding’s legal team decided she should move her practices to closed-off, midnight sessions. Only Schatz and her local Portland-based team had access to film Harding skating during those sessions.
“There would be hundreds of people outside of this skating rink hoping to get something with her,” Schatz reminisces. “We would walk right past them, and they’d look at us, like what the hell? We’d get some great stuff of her skating. We’d walk out and they’d be out there in the bitter cold. It would be the same scene, every day, until she basically got the OK to go to Lillehammer and compete,” Schatz says.
In the month leading up to the Olympics, captive audiences had been tracking the ebbs and flows of the story in the nightly news, from the $20 million suit Harding filed to prevent the U.S. Olympic Committee from voting on her eligibility to join the team, to Kerrigan’s mental state following the attack.
"Right now, I'm a little paranoid," Kerrigan told the Washington Post at the time. "But it has nothing to do with my skating. When I'm on the ice, skating is what I'll be thinking about...It's hard to say how long I'll be looking over my shoulder to see who's behind me.”
Nightly news reports devoted more time to covering the Harding-Kerrigan spectacle than to the fall of the Berlin Wall, says Swenson.
By the time the Olympics arrived, Kerrigan and Harding had been the centre of unrelenting media scrutiny for over a full month. In a column in the New York Times from 13th February, 1994, the day after the Olympics opening ceremony, Frank Rich commented that a frequently awkward Kerrigan seemed to be balking at her place in the centre of a media storm. Whereas Harding commanded attention, Rich wrote, “Ms. Kerrigan is a star only in skates. To make her dazzle in her showbiz arenas, her packagers will have to invent a new, fictional character for her. If Kerrigan the Courageous doesn't take, other personas, perhaps less dignified, will be trotted out to protect the investment.”
Unfortunately, Kerrigan and Harding had no say in the matter in 1994.
“Neither one in real life wanted to accept the role that the media was putting them in. But stories have power,” says Swensen. “Once the media turns its light on a story, and makes it a David vs. Goliath story, or oh, this is a Joan of Arc story — whatever the narrative is — the people inside that bubble can’t play a different role.”
After Harding-Kerrigan, hard news outlets covered spectacles with the fervour of the tabloids, and therefore threatened the very existence of those programmes. In a 1999 article, The New York Times noted the noticeable decline of TV tabloid programmes, for the precise reason that Swenson observed: Lurid, sensational stories once considered fit only for tabloids had migrated to traditional news. The article cites the months-long coverage of the O.J. Simpson spectacle beginning in June 1994 as the harbinger of the great change. ''I think the O.J. Simpson case never would have been such a huge story if tabloid news magazines hadn't been there before and alerted audiences to the power of these stories,” said Maury Povitch, who was interviewed for the piece.
How fitting that a woman-led story like Harding and Kerrigan’s would be overlooked as the one that started it all.
At the end of I, Tonya, words on the screen remind the audience that only a few months later, the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase would transpire, and kick off an even larger media storm. In this light, I, Tonya reads like a prologue for the current status quo of media coverage, which revolves around glimmering spectacles that draw in public attention, and gain traction over time. “The stories of today are much more subjective. Hard news today has shifted much more towards tabloidism than tabloids have shifted towards old-school, Walter Cronkite hard news,” Swenson says.
After all, we say spectacle, not scandal, deliberately. What happened to Kerrigan was undeniably terrible. But what came after — the distortion and embellishment of the story in the media, the sorting of women into easy archetypes — that was a spectacle.
There are the facts about what Kerrigan endured at the U.S. Championships — who designed the plan, how it was carried out, and how it affected Kerrigan and Hardings’ careers. And then there’s what we remember: The drama.