A year ago, Tonya Harding was just an ordinary person living an ordinary life that shrouded her past scandals.
To those around her, she wasn’t a despised villainess or a prodigious jumper whose story would be forever entangled in the history of figure skating. She was simply Tonya Price, a married woman, a mother of a young boy, and a former hardware sales clerk at Sears. She had traded in her ice skates for screwdrivers and oven mitts, living a lifestyle similar to those of most Americans.
Flash forward a year, and today, Harding is in the dance studio ready to grace the small screen on the 26th season of “Dancing with the Stars.” Just a few months ago, she walked across the red carpet at the Golden Globes.
Everything changed for Tonya in late 2017 when the critically acclaimed film “I, Tonya” was released.
Harding quickly catapulted back into the limelight as details of her life unfolded before audiences around the country. “I, Tonya” which depicted Harding’s difficult childhood and life experiences, painted the former skater in a new light that many Americans quickly fell in love with.
In some of the public eye, Harding is no longer the disgraced athlete who had plotted to violently sabotage a competitor. She was a survivor of child abuse. She was a girl raised in a low-income family. She was the girl with purple lipstick and frizzy hair. She wore homemade costumes. She had a sharp tongue and an imperfect body. In spite of it all, she had talent and grit and made history. In a world of expensive dresses, misogyny and slender figures, she was an underdog–and now, it’s made her a hero.
America no longer hungers for Nancy, with her grace and delicateness; they want Tonya, in all her unabashedly proud and quirky glory.
Harding has been elevated to celebrity status once again. Her name has been plastered all over the news with a feature on ABC News and a cover on The Hollywood Reporter. There are fan pages and blogs dedicated to her story. America’s most vilified skater has now transformed into America’s new sweetheart.
But the public is too quick to forgive and forget.
Yes, Harding’s life was ravaged by challenges, and we should embrace her story with sympathy. However, our fascination with Harding is to an unhealthy degree. We are idolizing a broken woman with a messy past, not a champion for underdogs. This level of obsession could even harm Harding herself.
We are celebrating the life of a woman who is suspected of playing a part in a major crime.
The obstacles and challenges she faced fail to negate her actions. In 1994, Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly notoriously hired a hitman to attack figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in the knee. Kerrigan, one of Harding’s fiercest rivals, was injured in the attack, but it potentially could have ended Kerrigan’s dreams and career in one quick blow.
While her exact role remains uncovered, it is clear Harding played some sort of role. She pled guilty to hindering the investigation–a felony offense. She admitted to having prior knowledge of the attack, contradicting herself in interviews. Harding called an acquaintance to discover the location of Kerrigan’s practice facility, which later became the same place she was attacked in. An envelope was found with details and plans of the attack, matching Harding’s and Gillooly’s handwriting.
Worse, Harding has yet to show remorse or offer a direct apology to Kerrigan for her actions.
Harding’s revived fame isn’t just unwarranted or ill-deserved. It could also be detrimental to Harding herself. As long as her face is splashed over magazine covers and her name sits in headlines, Harding’s volatile life will be on display for the world to see. She’ll be subject to scrutiny and backlash that follow her every move. After receiving publicity and national media attention from Kerrigan’s attack, Harding took on the career of a professional boxer in the early 2000s. It was a short-lived career that became an opportunity for spectators to cheer on her injuries and failures.
As someone who’s skyrocketed back to fame after years of obscurity, Harding may be ill-prepared to take on the perils of celebrity living again. Her words may be misinterpreted and false stories pieced together from her claims. She’ll retreat back into her infamy, and once again, as the headlines begin to die down and her fans leave her side, Harding will be left alone to pick up the pieces. She’ll be left to rebuild her life and reputation that have been damaged by her length in the spotlight.
Harding is remarkable in every sense of the word, having conquered stereotypes and jumped her way to the top of the podium. However, dangerous effects will result from her spot in the limelight that entails exploitation by the media.