Disclaimer: Tim League, founder and CEO of Birth.Movies.Death.’s parent company Alamo Drafthouse, is a co-founder of NEON.
“Can I get a drink for Tonya Harding?” are words I never thought I’d utter in my entire life. Yet that was how I recently spent one very bizzare and awesome Sunday night.
When The Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco asked me if I wanted to host a Q&A with Tonya Harding after a screening of NEON's Academy Award-winning film I, Tonya, I thought it was an elaborate prank. After being convinced that no, it was not a joke, and yes, she would be there in person, fear set in. If you saw I, Tonya, you realized that even if only 50% of the film was true (and according to Tonya, 99% is true...) this woman has been through hell and back.
In our brief chat before, Tonya Price née Harding opens up immediately. She’s clearly a devoted mom, and given who her mother was this is probably her greatest accomplishment. She lights up when she discusses how clever her son is, how interested he is in technology, and his love of Minecraft. Again, If you didn’t know that Tonya Price’s maiden name was Harding, you’d have no idea that this adoring mother was at the center of one of the greatest scandals in sports history. Nor would you necessarily piece together from looking at her that she was an Olympic-level athlete. Tonya, as it turns out, is full of surprises.
In spite of being in the public eye for so long, she too felt a bit nervous before the Q&A. Once on stage, I could tell she truly appreciates having a packed theater full of support. She absorbs the reassurance from the crowd like a sponge, soaking up the encouragement as if it could wipe away the years of negativity aimed towards her. She is blunt, caring, and - as you'll see in the video below - surprisingly funny.
No, we didn’t talk about the incident. Nor, quite frankly, would I have wanted to after having met her. She has worked incredibly hard to move on, and when you’re sitting face to face with someone like that, any desire to dig into their painful past dissolves pretty quickly. She’s almost desperately proud of her accomplishments in her life after skating. She is, of course, still incredibly pleased with being the first American woman to land the triple axel in international competition, and will gladly talk about that.
They say never meet your heroes, but they say nothing about meeting villains. The vilified Tonya Harding is a creature of the past. The Tonya I met that day stayed after the Q&A to take photos with every single fan who wanted one. Her athletic prowess still reared its head. She playfully lifted me up into the air at one point (please look out for the pairs skating team of Harding/Han-Klein coming to the ice soon). We bonded over the miracle of Spanx, various respective sports injuries, and hell, we even did shots together.
I don’t feel like I met Tonya Harding that day, because I don’t think Tonya Harding exists anymore. That said, I’d be happy to hang out with Tonya Price again anytime.
(Header photo by Tommy Lau)