The Cult of Tonya Harding

Photo: Tim DeFrisco/Getty Images

We’re Matt and Viviana, best friends, roommates, and co-curators of the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan Museum (THNK1994 Museum, for short), in Brooklyn, New York. We weren’t born museum owners, like the Guggenheims or the Whitneys or the great MOFAD dynasty — rather, we sort of fell into it. One cold winter’s day in 2015, in our newly leased apartment that boasted a 25-foot-long hallway in lieu of a living room, several holes in the floor, and a scrawl on the wall from the previous tenant that warned “Get over it, it’s time,” we sat down to watch Nanette Burstein’s 30 for 30 ESPN documentary The Price of Gold.

The story of Tonya shook us to our very core. It was the most American story ever told. In short, for those unfamiliar (or who have yet to see her upcoming biopic, I, Tonya): After being born into an impoverished and abusive household managed by chain-smoking, parrot-taming, fur-drenched matriarch LaVona Golden, young Tonya pulled herself up by her own skate-straps to reach the pinnacle of athletic success. She became an Olympic athlete, and the first American woman to land the triple axel in competition, only to lose everything after a few poor decisions made on the world stage: namely, choosing to marry some guy named Jeff Gillooly, who we’re sure seemed hot at the time, and who thought it’d be a good idea to club Tonya’s competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, in the kneecaps. Stripped of her titles, Tonya became America’s punch line; every deli across this great nation thought it was clever to name a sandwich the “Tonya Harding Club.”

But to us — and to many others, who you’ll meet shortly — Tonya is more than a punch line. She’s a record-breaking all-star who skated to the Jurassic Park theme and Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing.” She wanted to be judged on the fact that she could do things nobody else could, not her outfit or her manicure or the profound lack of hair technology that existed in the early ’90s. Tonya had world-class talent — and a world-class chip on her shoulder — but no matter how hard she tried to play the game, America wouldn’t let her forget where she came from, or how much she didn’t fit into the mold. Most inspiringly, though, she never stopped trying. Even after the Kerrigan Incident, when the United States Figure Skating Association placed a lifelong ban on Tonya participating in (or coaching competitors) in all official USFSA events, Tonya was undeterred; she tried to start a singing career as a member of a Spice Girls–esque girl group, and later, became a boxer.

When we first watched Tonya’s 30 for 30, one of us had just left an abusive relationship (think Gillooly, but no ’stache) and the other had just spent three months in a wheelchair after getting hit by a car (it was more fun than it sounds). Neither one of us was in what we would describe as a “confident place.” But we found passion and joy, for the first time in forever, every time we talked about how unfairly Tonya was remembered by the world. (It didn’t matter whether or not you had asked us to do so, we were going to shout about Tonya into your face until you admitted you did her dirty just by watching the endless stream of news about her.) We related to how, when Tonya made mistakes, she made them aggressively. We were inspired by Tonya’s strength, talent, and the fact that she’s — as Samantha Jones once described Aleksandr Petrovsky, Carrie’s Russian beau — “a little cocky, but with the goods to back it up.”

We didn’t realize at the time, but this passion is one that’s shared by countless other people — people ready to shout with us, at random, into the ether, about Tonya Harding. After we turned our 25-foot-long hallway into the official space to do just that, these people showed up in droves. We’d unknowingly built a space for an existing community to come together. Some people came to pay homage, some to learn; a few wanted to see a stranger’s apartment, and while they were there, charge their phones. Most were women or gay men — we can count the straight men who came on one hand. But everyone related to Tonya’s imperfect perseverance. And everyone we value today came into our lives after passing through that hallway, engaging in a discourse about Tonya and Nancy, and remembering to follow us back on Instagram. We joined the Cult of Tonya at the time in our lives when we needed it most.

In honor of I, Tonya’s release, we caught up with a few of Tonya’s most die-hard fans to discuss what keeps the Cult of Tonya going strong — and adding new members every day.

Photo: Eugene Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

The Impersonator: Lynn Harris, former preeminent Tonya Harding impersonator seen on the Ricki Lake show, current women’s advocate, and founder of Gold Comedy. Lynn came into our lives via Facebook message, and gave a riveting speech at our original opening gala. Since then, she’s been an important fixture at all of our key social events. You can’t miss her — she used to look just like Tonya Harding.

How did you become the “premier Tonya Harding look-alike”? Some are born Tonya, some achieve Tonya, and some have Tonya thrust upon them. I’m the latter.

Would you agree that Tonya is a feminist icon? If so, why?
Yes. I mean, there’s no set definition of “feminist icon,” but even if she wouldn’t define herself that way, I would. First of all, she’s a straight-up icon. No money, no love, no support: She had no reason to dream big. But she saved bottle caps to pay for her ice time, sewed her own skating costumes, practiced like a machine, and became the first American woman to perform a triple axel at an international event. Come ON. If that’s not the great American story, I don’t know what is. And it should have been for her.

She’s like this glittering, spinning supermagnet for all the terrible things we project on women. She was a goddamn great athlete — against more odds than others — and we laughed at her, called her ugly, and blamed her for being preyed on by douchey morons (I firmly believe that those boneheads concocted the plan to take Nancy out as a way to take THEMSELVES out of their shitty going-nowhere lives in Shittytown, USA. They were hitching themselves, shittily, to her star. They had no reason to tell her they were doing it. She had no reason to want or need them to. If our default cultural impulse was to trust women, rather than the opposite, that would have been the narrative from day one). Nevertheless, she persisted. She sometimes lashed out, but she never backed down. She still hasn’t.

Dear Tonya, We owe you a massive apology. Signed, America.

The Obsessive: Terry Hall, founder of The Portlandian and resident of the still very active Tonya Harding Fan Club. Based in New Zealand, Terry coined the phrase “Tonya-phile,” and although we’ve never met IRL, he sends us a Christmas card every year, which we very much appreciate.

How would you describe yourself?
I’d like the focus to be on Tonya — talking about me is just a distraction.

Why do you think Tonya is so iconic?
Her life has all the ingredients of gripping story. It’s got sex, violence, glamour, revenge, greed, mystery, tragedy, and comedy. There’s comic relief in the form of the bumbling antics of what Christine Brennan called “the Gang That Couldn’t Whack Straight.” There’s mystery — we still don’t know how much Tonya REALLY knew, and probably never will. Then there’s the whole commentary on the tabloidization of our media, not to mention a strangeness factor that sends the weirdometer right up to 11. People who have never heard it before — like Margot Robbie — think it’s got to be fiction when they first encounter it.

But mainly it’s a tragedy in the form of someone who managed to overcome poverty and snobbery to become one of the world’s best figure skaters, only to have it come crashing down in a heap due to the stupidity of others. She’s a classic Greek anti-hero who nearly succeeded in having it all, but ultimately, the gravitational pull of the trailer park was so strong that even she couldn’t jump high enough to reach escape velocity. I think that Shakespeare would have given his right arm to have stuff like this to work with.

The Hermit: Duke Todd. Maybe the coolest person we’ve met through the museum. He found us on Twitter and wanted to donate a Mad magazine–esque comic from 1994 that had a repulsive drawing of Jeff Gillooly on the cover. We met him outside of his East Village apartment and he was in a hurry because he had to watch the season finale of Empire. We totally understood. He then took to DM’ing us at 3 a.m. while under the influence of Ambien — sometimes brilliant and sometimes half-written sentences (see below). Since then, whenever we have a question about art, fashion, or the general camp aesthetic, we turn to him. He also introduced us to iconic moments in pop-culture history, like a fabulous clip from a Lifetime movie where Kirstie Alley teaches her foster daughter how to shoplift, and a must-see introduction to who Joey Heatherton is. Don’t expect to see him at the museum though — he RSVPs to every event, but never leaves the house, because it might rain.

How would you describe yourself and what is your age?
Urban hermit/nightwalker, 54.

Why is Tonya so iconic?
DIY aesthetic prevails.

Why do you think there is so much Tonya-inspired art out there?

An alien has landed on Earth. He’s a white, straight, middle-aged real-estate agent who doesn’t know the first thing about anything, but he’s come here to find out who Tonya Harding is. What do you tell him in one sentence, because he’s about to get back on his spaceship and you’re the only one he’s going to ask.
Competitive ice dancing was once a blood sport on this weird planet, & Tonya was a gladiator.

The Artist: Zackary Grady, playwright, creative director, and creator of Toe Pick! The Complete Ice Capades of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

What inspired you to create Toe Pick?
I remember watching the ’94 Olympics live on TV, and the event has stuck with me my entire life. I grew up playing ice hockey and would memorize all the figure skaters’ routines when they’d practice before me, so naturally the idea to write Toe Pick came when I was 16.

Why did you decide to make every word of the script transcribed dialogue from televised media in 1994?
In 2013, I was compiling research materials like a madman in the basement of the NY Public Library, and after a few days of it, I sat back and realized I could never make up the things that were actually said about these figure skaters. Some of the Jane Pauley and Connie Chung quotes are so insane! So I transcribed everything and then worked like a film editor, using words and interviews, and the play slowly came to shape.

Why is Tonya a gay icon?
She reminds me of Little Edie from Grey Gardens in certain ways. They’re both poor, disenfranchised women who have a lot to say and don’t care what people think of them. I think a lot of gays relate to that feeling, and want to celebrate them.

The Former Nancy: Jenny Raynor is “more of a Tonya — a little rough around the edges, Scorpio, Taurus rising, age 33” and a part-time figure-skating coach, art educator, photographer and self-described “former Nancy.” She was one of the first to visit the hallway museum and recently made her own artistic contribution.

What brought you to the Tonya Harding museum, originally?
I love figure skating, art, and hallways. I remember reading about the museum and immediately planning a pilgrimage from Kansas City.

How has your perspective about Tonya evolved since you were a child?
I always related to Nancy as a child, because we both had dark hair. However, I quickly grew tired of the whining, experienced society’s ways, visited the museum, and today I empathize with Tonya.

An alien has landed on Earth. He’s a white, straight, middle-aged real-estate agent who doesn’t know the first thing about anything, but he’s come here to find out who Tonya Harding is. What do you tell him in one sentence, because he’s about to get back on his spaceship and you’re the only one he’s going to ask.
I wouldn’t even speak. I’d simply take him into a dark room and turn on Tonya’s long program from the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The volume is loud and there is no commentary. He would watch the moment where Tonya Harding became the first American woman to land a triple axel during competition. I want him to draw his own conclusions when “Send in the Clowns” fades out and Tone Loc’s instrumental version of “Wild Thing” begins. Either way, that’s all he needs to know.

The Cult of Tonya Harding