Nancy and Tonya Museum in Hipster Hell
Nancy Kerrigan’s infamous wailing—“Why? Why?”—moments after being clubbed on her right knee haunted me as I toured the Tonya Harding & Nancy Kerrigan 1994 Museum in Brooklyn yesterday.
Two twentysomething roommates have transformed the 25-foot-long hallway of their Williamsburg apartment into an exhibit commemorating the sensational Kerrigan-Harding saga.
On January 6, 1994, just weeks before the Winter Olympics were set to begin in Lillehammer, Norway, Kerrigan was struck on the leg in the women’s locker room at the U.S. Figure Skating National Championship. It was quickly discovered that the attack had been orchestrated by Harding’s former husband, Jeff Gillooly, who was convicted of hiring a hitman to strike Kerrigan. Harding ultimately pleaded guilty to obstructing the prosecution and was banned from figure skating competitions.
More than two decades later, there’s now a museum devoted to the Olympic scandal. I’d like to think we’ve reached peak irony here. Viviana Olen, 28, and Matt Harkins, 27, are little known comedians (they met at the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy theater) striving to become better-known comedians. They’re currently enjoying their five minutes of fame with this Kickstarter-funded art project that reliably fails to distinguish irony from humor.
The media, including this cynical reporter, has fallen for their schtick.
It has all the makings of a Portlandia sketch.
“When we started the Kickstarter campaign, we thought it would probably just be a fun writing sample,” Olen says of the project. They conceived it late one night after streaming the 2014 ESPN documentary on the figure skating feud, The Price of Gold, on Netflix.
“But then all of these diehard Tonya Harding fans got in touch with us,” says Olen. “People started showing us their art.”
Many of the people who contacted them were “cut from the same cloth as us,” Olen adds, pausing before the punchline: “meaning they were all gay guys living with their female friends.”
Olen and Harkins also met “very cool older women,” Olen says, like Mary Alice Kellogg and Lois Elfman, two journalists who covered the knee-whacking scandal. Kellogg gossiped with Olen and Harkins over wine at her West Village apartment and gave them an autographed copy of TV Digest with Kerrigan on the cover (she wrote the story).
It’s one of the framed artifacts in their hallway museum, along with various other news and tabloid coverage of the juicy Olympic drama: “Tonya’s Double-Cross” on a February 1994 cover of Star; “Tonya’s World” covering People magazine the same month; Time magazine’s issue on the “Star-Crossed Olympics.”
Framed screenshots from the ESPN documentary make up the majority of the exhibit, each one captioned ironically—“Nancy Psychs Out Tonya”; “Tonya Gives Nancy Side-Eye”—with emoji. There’s an entreaty to ESPN, “Plz. don’t sue us.”
Thia is classic millennial humor, lazy and largely unfunny, except to millennials (myself included) who deploy it all too frequently on Twitter and in text conversations with friends.
There’s some Nancy Kerrigan memorabilia culled from eBay, including trading cards of the figure skater, as well as contributions from artists around the country: needlepoint portraits of Harding and Kerrigan and a cartoon depicting these dual archetypes as the twins in The Shining. One woman who funded the project drove up from the D.C. area to help Olen and Harkins with lighting design and fabric.
“It feels like a chain of art,” says Olen. “Working with other people is the fun part.”
Kickstarter prides itself on being a venue for this kind of communal support among indie artists, no matter how bad the art.
Olen and Harkins set the bar for their Kickstarter project at $75 and ended up with $2,036, all of which they say they spent on the project, including making “Team Nancy” and “Team Tonya” T-shirts.
It is abundantly clear that Olen and Harkin aren’t taking their exhibit seriously. But it’s also clear that they think it’s pretty funny, which is a different way of taking it seriously.
I have to ask: Do they think Harding conspired with her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, to attack Kerrigan?
“I think she was in an abusive relationship with Gillooly. Even if she knew about it, when you’re in an abusive relationship like that, you don’t have any power or control,” Olen says, sounding very serious for the first time in our conversation.
Olen points out that Gillooly worked in a liquor warehouse and counted on Harding to be a world champion. “That was his meal ticket!,” she exclaims, jocular again. “We blame the straight men.”
“We have to be objective as curators,” says a semi-serious Harkin. But he doesn’t think Harding plotted the knee-whack with Gillooly either. “If she masterminded the whole thing I think we’d know it by now.”
Isn’t it possible, after lying for so long, that she’s deluded herself, too?
They concede that yes, it’s possible—but I’m missing the point.
“When you have a guy like Jeff Gillooly around you, it’s hard to make any decisions. Even if you think you’re the boss,” says Olen.
There is little debate that the deck was stacked against Harding from the beginning. She was too rough around the edges for the frilly, feminine world of figure skating. She wasn’t poised and elegant like Nancy Kerrigan and other “ice princesses.”
All of this made sense given that Harding grew up very poor and was raised by an alcoholic mother who frequently hit her with her own hairbrush. The two had been estranged for several years by the time Harding competed in the Olympics when she was 23.
“Maybe our judgment has been clouded by this documentary, which makes the case so strongly that she was treated like shit by a bunch of shitbags,” says Harkins.
There’s little debate about this, too. Gillooly was a preeminent shitbag, a sloppy, made-for-Lifetime TV criminal and loser. He served two years in prison for the plot to destroy Kerrigan, changed his name to “Jeff Stone” after getting out, remarried, and opened a tanning salon.
Between 2000 and 2003, he was twice arrested for domestic abuse.
Evidently, Harding and Gillooly’s volatile relationship wasn’t a lark for either of them. In 2001, Harding spent three days behind bars after walloping her then-boyfriend with a hubcap.
As Olen puts it, “She was a real firecracker!”
To this day, Harding insists she only knew about the attack after-the-fact. (In March, 1994, she pleaded guilty to hindering the investigation and was fined $160,000.)
Kerrigan may have been the victim, but it was Harding who never recovered from the incident. She is remembered not for her brute athleticism as the first American woman to land the triple axel in competition, but as the villain of a national scandal and, now, a joke.
Physically, Kerrigan suffered only a bruise and mild swelling. Six weeks after the attack, she triumphed psychologically and skated brilliantly in the Olympics, even if she only won the silver. The tabloids turned on her, but she went on to make millions in endorsements and marry her agent. Last year, she worked as an announcer for NBC during the Sochi Olympics.
Both Harding and Kerrigan were featured in an NBC documentary last year, Nancy & Tonya, which was much less sympathetic to Harding than The Price of Gold. But the stereotypes of the two skaters persist 20 years later: Harding as trailer trash, Kerrigan as the poised professional.
Olen and Harkin’s exhibit confronts visitors with these stereotypes, because art should always impart a message.
“You’re either a Nancy or a Tonya,” Olen says, offering me a pin as I gather my things.