June 02, 2008 12:00 PM

She loves playing a quick game of eight ball, fixing up her old Jeep or looping on her lightweight bow to hunt deer near her home in southwest Washington. But every so often, Tonya Harding yanks off her hunting boots and lets her hair down. “I’ll put on some Wranglers or a pretty dress, throw my makeup on,” says Harding, 37, her folded hands revealing a bubblegum-pink manicure. “And I just feel better. I get an extra kick in my step.”

Yes, there’s a softer side to the most controversial ex-figure skater on the planet—the woman whose name triggers memories not of triple axels (the first American woman to land one in competition, she won two U.S. Nationals and a silver in the World Championship in ’91) but of the clubbing attack on Nancy Kerrigan, her rival in the ’94 U.S. Figure Skating Championship. The ensuing scandal “took everything away from me,” says Harding, who pled guilty to hindering the prosecution in the crime her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly was involved in.

Now, after a rough fourteen years—she was arrested for hitting her boyfriend with a hubcap and for driving drunk, took up boxing and autographing photos to make ends meet, and, fearful for her life, attempted suicide twice—Harding opens up about the painful upbringing she says made her “harsh on the outside” and about what really stopped her from going to the authorities back in ’94. She tells all in The Tonya Tapes, a new book by Lynda D. Prouse. “I think it’ll help people understand me,” she says.

Harding’s story began in working-class Portland, Ore., where she grew up with a waitress mother she says hit her and “told me I was fat and ugly.” (Reached by PEOPLE, her mom, LaVona, denies having abused her.) She sought refuge from the pain at home—which she says included sexual abuse by a half brother from the age of 5—by going to the rink. “I was the person I wanted to be,” she says, “when I was on the ice.”

Jeff Gillooly, a 17-year-old high school grad she met when she was 15, became “abusive,” says Harding, who married him at 19. “I was afraid of him, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

Divorced in ’93, they were living together again by the time of the ’94 championship. Harding and Kerrigan were favorites—until Jan. 6, when a man attacked Kerrigan, hitting her right knee with a metal club. As Harding now tells it, she heard the news, feared the assailant was still at large and called Gillooly for reassurance: “I had no clue he’d done anything.”

Harding took first place (Kerrigan did not compete), but within days, news broke that Gillooly’s friends might have been involved, and Harding says she overheard her ex discussing a cover-up. “I was like, ‘Oh my God,'” she says. She talked to a lawyer, but before she could out Gillooly, she says he forced her into his car, drove her to the mountains and, together with two other men, raped her at gunpoint. “He said some real threatening things,” she says, tearing up. “I didn’t tell anybody. I was ashamed.” (Multiple efforts to reach Gillooly—now Jeff Stone—were unsuccessful; Harding’s godparents, Greg and Linda Lewis, say she told them about the rape in ’96.)

Weeks later, 120 million people saw Kerrigan win silver at the Lillehammer Olympics. Harding, under investigation and nearly banned from competing, placed eighth and in March pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution (she denied foreknowledge of the plot but admitted she hadn’t come forward once she found out). She was put on probation and banned from amateur skating; Gillooly, who said Harding was involved all along, spent six months in prison. Harding and Kerrigan, who is now married and raising her two sons and newborn daughter near Boston, haven’t spoken since Harding’s TV apology in ’98, but “I consider Nancy a friend,” she says. “Of course I feel guilty for what happened. But I can’t dwell. I have to go on living.”

These days, life includes occasional visits to the closest rink (“Within half an hour, I’m doing double jumps!” she says), spending time with her new boyfriend and black Lab puppy and coping with the local wildlife. (Frightened after a raccoon “hissed at me,” she shot him and “kept a souvenir.”) Money is tight, but she hopes gigs like doing commentary on truTV’s The Smoking Gun Presents: World’s Dumbest will keep her from having to box again: “It’s not me.”

What is? “I’m a little bit redneck—the fishing and four-wheeling. I have bonfires, I have friends over.” And she’s done apologizing. “You have to love yourself, and I finally do,” she says. “It sounds harsh, but this is who I am. And if you don’t like me, tough.”

You May Like