The item was the closer on the local Boston news. The face of Tonya Harding came on the television screen just minutes before the start of Letterman. Tonya Harding? This was Thanksgiving night, and apparently Tonya had helped hand out turkey dinners at some homeless shelter in Portland during the day. Or maybe she had delivered food to shut-ins. She had done something. Something charitable.
Nancy Kerrigan couldn't believe what she was seeing. Tonya?
"Why would the station be showing that?" she said a couple of days later. "What was the point? Tonya said something like, 'Oh, this isn't part of my court-ordered service. I just wanted to help.' Just wanted to help? Why wouldn't they show somebody who'd been handing out meals for 30 years instead of giving her credibility? And why show it in Boston? These are the same stations that have been treating me pretty rough. What's it all about?"
The irony seemed to scream through the New England night. Who was the victim and who was the perpetrator? The lines of public justice had taken a curious course. Who was the good girl and who was the bad girl? Who, at the very least, had consorted with a bunch of thugs, pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution and then could be seen in an X-rated wedding-night video? That person was shown as a second-helping angel of mercy. And who was now in the National Enquirer? The party of the second part. The victim.
December 5, 1994
"I shouldn't even watch the news," Kerrigan says. "I shouldn't even read the newspapers. Yeah, it's sad that I do. I watch, and I see all these scary things, so many really terrible things. And then they're showing some negative story about me."
Why me? Her famous question hangs there again.
She has been burned, and she has been burned, and she has been burned some more. There is no doubt that many of the burns have been self-inflicted: words that shouldn't have been spoken, attitudes that shouldn't have been taken, a defensiveness, almost an animosity toward the great media dance that surrounds—and helps hype—her booming ice skating career. By now it's hard to figure out who burned whom.
"You're talking to Nancy?" her mother, Brenda, asks a reporter. "You're going to interview her? Good luck."
"She won't talk," Brenda says. "She'll answer questions, but she won't talk like we're talking now. It's beyond all that. She's afraid. Too much has happened."
The situation is so strange. On the one hand, the large plastic tubs filled with letters of admiration still arrive at her parents' house in Stoneham, Mass. One girl, who started writing from Virginia, moved to California and still writes, numbering each letter in sequence at the top. The latest number was 184. There is a business schedule that is beyond belief; ties to 26 commercial entities; a study by Video Storyboard Tests that indicates that when it comes to endorsing products, Kerrigan is No. 2 only to Michael Jordan in popularity; a poll by the Children's Television Workshop that says kids choose her second behind actress Patricia Richardson of Home Improvement as "someone I would like to be my mom."
On the other hand, there are the burns. She is the defrocked Cinderella standing next to the pumpkin and mice. Comedians use her "Why meeeeeeee?" as a punch line. Sportscasters call her "not the brightest bulb...." Go into any bar and ask, and someone will call her a whiner and someone will call her worse. An image has been pulled and nibbled apart. Or maybe just lost.
"It's not hip to write something positive about Nancy Kerrigan," says Stan Feig, producer of Christmas on Ice, Kerrigan's current 16-city tour. "It's hip to knock her down. There are two kinds of people in the world, bulletproof and bullet-riddled. You see that in politicians. Ronald Reagan, he could do anything. Bill Clinton, if he walks across the street he's full of holes. Nancy, unfortunately, is bullet-ridden. She is taking the shots."
To list her public sins is to mention words and looks and attitudes and to sound as if you're talking about an unfortunate date on The Love Connection. What exactly did she do? Well, she said, "Come on, she's just going to cry," while waiting 26 minutes for the medal ceremony at last February's Winter Olympics after she had lost the gold to 16-year-old Oksana Baiul of Ukraine by a 10th of a point, the closest figure skating finish possible in the Olympics. That was probably the start. And a few days later she said, "This is the most corniest thing I've ever done," when she had to wear her silver medal while she stood next to Mickey Mouse in Disney World. And she said to a teammate, "I'm sorry, I sucked," and then, to a television camera, "You probably just loved that," during the recent made-for-TV Ice Wars competition in Providence. And she gave curt answers at press conferences. And, and, what? She wore a designer dress when she skated in Lillehammer? She didn't march in the closing ceremonies? She signed all those contracts for all that money, a reported $11 million in endorsements?
"What if she had been a man?" her mother asks. "Would there have been any of this? If she had been a hockey player, she could have been in a fight, and no one would have said anything after the game. Do you think any of this would have happened to a man?"
"What if she had won by a 10th of a point instead of lost by a 10th of a point?" her father, Dan, asks. "There wouldn't have been any of this ——."
Maybe. Or maybe one of the problems is that she is not a swan. After the grand hoo-ha was done—the eight-week run from when she was whacked on the right knee at the Nationals in Detroit to when she skated the long and short routines of her life yet finished second—she took off her skates, and she was not what she had been painted to be. She was human, not a fairy princess. She did not curtsy, she did not bow, and she did not have grace.
"Everything was blown up so big before the Olympics that everyone rushed to let out the air after the Olympics," Brenda says. "Nancy wasn't what they made her out to be before she skated, and she isn't what they make her out to be now. To find out who she is you have to go back. That's the only way. You look at a thing like Disney World, not wanting to wear the medal. I can show you a picture from a newspaper in Reading, Mass., that shows her, eight years old, with her first medal. She wouldn't wear it."
Of course, by the time Nancy stood beside Mickey in Disney World to launch her commercial relationship with Disney, she was 24 years old and being paid $2 million for her discomfort. But Brenda is a mother, and a mother worries about her only daughter. She worries how Nancy can handle such a heavy diet of negatives after such a rich diet of positives. She worries how anyone can keep going the way her daughter has, nonstop, really, from before Detroit until now.
There was an ice show that played 70 dates in 90 days—though, again, this was not a force-fed diet but a feast for which Nancy earned a reported $1 million. There are all the public-relations commitments, the exercise videos to be filmed, the television specials to be planned. There is the current ice tour lasting almost straight until Christmas. Where does it end? January was supposed to be a month off, but now there is a Disney special in the works. Nancy has caught—perhaps even given rise to—the gigantic wave that figure skating is riding, but at times she seems to be almost drowning in it. Maybe she'll rest in February? March?
"She has never given herself time to cry," Brenda says. "She has used so much physical and mental energy, I wonder sometimes if it's coming back to kill her."
And now, of course, there's another item on the problem list, another irony to tick off in the night. Last January the saga of the attack on Kerrigan was played out against the backdrop of Harding's marital problems (her ex-husband was sentenced to two years in prison for helping mastermind the assault). Now Kerrigan's personal relationships are raising eyebrows.
"You always hear people say about these papers, 'Where do they get their stories?' " Nancy says quietly of the Enquirer. "Well, now I know the answer. They make 'em up."
Actually, that's not entirely correct. Kerrigan does not debate the basic point of the Enquirer story—that she has a romantic relationship with Jerry Solomon, her 40-year-old agent. That is truth. She doesn't even debate the headline, NANCY KERRIGAN SHARES LOVE NEST WITH MARRIED MAN. She does debate quotes attributed to "insiders" and "sources" and "the skater's pal," and that cast her as a home wrecker. A married man? Solomon is now divorced, and Kerrigan says he was separated when all this began.
"We were at the Olympics," Kerrigan says. "The whole time, after Detroit, everything had been talk about me. I was so sick of talking about me. I started asking about him. That was where we really started talking, to get to know each other. My parents hadn't arrived yet. I couldn't go anywhere because of all the stuff that was going on. We were there together every day."
She talks about the Olympics, about the crazy time that was. She had bodyguards that she hadn't even been told about. Two strange men followed her everywhere, sat at the next table during meals. She was only told later that there had been three death threats. She talks about the end of the Olympics. She was disappointed, frustrated, spent. People had been congratulating her for winning the gold before Baiul skated. She wonders how she was supposed to feel? Happy?
"I always just wanted to compete," she says. "The first competition I was ever in, I ran out of the arena because I wanted to get to the swing set. I was more interested in the swing set than the awards. That's what people never seemed to understand. I never wanted to be where they put me."
"I don't think anybody can ever be prepared for what Nancy has had to go through." Solomon says, "I don't think anybody has had to do it. There can be second-guessing about things that happened, but it's really better not to look back."
So now Kerrigan is sitting at one end of the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, N.Y. This is another one-night stand for the Christmas show. Solomon is somewhere else in the building, taking care of the details. Giant inflated pandas and toy soldiers cover the sections of seats at the other end of the rink. The ice is a white, glassy sheet. Aaron Neville, who is the costar of the show, singing while Kerrigan skates, is checking out the sound system. His falsetto voice rolls to the roof.
"This is a good show," the defrocked Cinderella says. "I get to do what I love for a living. I get to skate."
Life is not all bad.