Tonya and I

Years ago, when I was still somewhat new in New York City, and I still saw worlds of opportunities (and looking for work), I went to the NBC building in Rockefeller Plaza to make sure my application to the NBC Page program got to the right place. Being from Ohio and used to some Winter storms, I wasn’t deterred by the storm that was starting. Once I had arrived, it was clear it was starting to get more severe, and the NBC building was emptier than usual.

After I had found the place to turn in my resume, I was riding down the elevator with a young woman. She smiled and what I thought she said was, “Should I be on Donahue?”

For the younger readers, Donahue was a talk show that had started in the 70s. The revolutionary idea was for the host, Phil Donahue, to get the audience heavily involved with questions and comments to the guests. At one point, many saw it as the most important show in the country. Although I define myself as a liberal, Phil Donahue often represented to me that branch of liberalism I disagreed with, that I thought was BS. I remember seeing part of one show where they were saying we’re all being brainwashed to take on gender roles by society. I didn’t see any evidence to back that up. I had always believed that is something we inherit, though some girls may inherit more male tendencies and some guys may inherit more female tendencies. It seems more recent news items have suggested my disagreement there correct. But I didn’t always watch the show, so maybe it wasn’t always like that.

In response to the woman on the elevator, I said, “I don’t know. Sure. Be on Donahue.” Then she said, “I said, do you want to be on Donahue?”

I thought for a moment and then said, “ok.” I figured I wasn’t doing anything else. Maybe it would be fun. Apparently, many of the people who were supposed to be in the audience that day hadn’t been able to show up because of the weather.

She escorted me to the studio and I was added to the list. Before taking a seat in the audience, I had to use the men’s room. As I was peeing, I told a guy, about my age, peeing next to me, that I was just there by accident. I said, “my sister really loves this show. I call him Dil Phonahue.” Then we both laughed.

After I sat in the audience, it seemed clear that Phil Donahue was a really nice guy. He didn’t seem preoccupied with himself before the cameras went on. He looked at us and said that he loved the “youthful energy from this audience.” I felt a little bad about what I had said in the men’s room, and hoped he hadn’t heard me–probably not.

Our topic that day was the Tonya Harding – Nancy Kerrigan affair. It was on the eve of the 1994 Winter Olympics. A guy came to where the figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was practicing and whacked her on the knee. Some believed that her rival, Tonya Harding, had something to do with it.

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Tonya Harding’s coach, Diane Rawlinson

Today’s guest on the show was Diane Rawlinson, Tonya Harding’s coach, who had taught her how to perform the triple axel jump.

As the show started, Phil talked about the incident with the suspicion that Tonya Harding had something to do with this. As usual, he took questions and comments from the audience.

It looked like fun, so on a whim, I decided to say something that I had been aware of from my studies in cinema, the Kuleshov Effect.

I raised my hand and Phil said “yes, you,” to me. I said, “It’s easy to see anything that she says as incriminating.”

Then Tonya Harding’s coach responded, “Yes, Tonya has a tendency to talk too much.” That double-edged sword I had just handed to her, it could only have been my subconscious at work, if it was by any design. But there it was, and then she reacted as if she had said too much herself.

After the show, I had a chance to talk to the coach, who was still seated. She told me she hadn’t liked Tonya’s new boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly, that they “hadn’t seen eye to eye.” Another guy stood next to me. He suggested that they might have to have worry about a similar incident at the Olympics. She started saying how it would be so tight there it would be impossible, but as she spoke, she looked more and more nervous, until she virtually ran out of the studio.

After the show was over, I went downstairs to ground level, where I found a nice bar to have a drink. I sat there and in walked this woman with this guy who looked a lot like Brooke Shields. She had the same eyebrows. I laughed. What a day I’m having, I thought. She was with a man in a suit who had a shaved head–must be her bodyguard, I thought.

As they stood next to me, I said, “You look a lot like Brooke Shields.” She said she wasn’t, but that her job was to sell wine to different stores and restaurants. The guy said he had to use the restroom.

“Oh, I said, well, I remember all the fuss about Brooke Shields in the 80s with the Calvin Klein Jeans commercials.” Then I proceeded to imitate Brooke Shields. “The only thing I let get between me and my Calvins is nothing.” I laughed and recalled all those angry mothers. I said, “my mother wasn’t so offended, but she said you could get a rash.”

When the guy came back, he said, “you’re not still talking about Brooke Shields, are you?” I told him we moved past that.

This woman I was talking to seemed intelligent and charming and a little flirty. Her hair hung down past her shoulders in curls.

I told her I was just on the Donahue Show.

“What did you say?”

Smiling, I told her, “It’s easy for people to see anything she says as incriminating,” my magic sentence.

“Do you think she’s guilty?”

“I’ll say what my father, who’s a lawyer, will often say. I don’t know enough about the case to have an opinion,” I said, being careful.

The Michael Jackson controversy was going on at the same time. I did have an opinion on that, however. I had just finished Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground, which reminded me of something a film teacher in college told us about. I said, “I heard there’s a story, I think by Dostoevsky, where a man thinks of the most awful thing he could do and rapes a child, in an attempt to hear God scream at him. I think that might be what happened with Michael Jackson.”

She laughed and said she thought it was funny the way I had said “Dostoevsky.” Maybe it was my Ohio accent. I smiled.

She made the situation sound Kafkaesque, that the police were after him. I laughed and suggested that was silly. Was this Brooke Shields?

The conversation shifted, and I spoke about coming from Ohio. There was an African American executive at NBC. He heard me and said that I should go back to Ohio and add to my resume there before coming to New York. That was unbearable for me to hear. I didn’t often feel that I fit in in Ohio, and when I had left, no one was offering me any real opportunities.

I said that I studied Philosophy with a minor in Cinema, to this woman–we’ll call her Brooke. I said maybe I should have studied something more practical, like being a wine seller like she was, but I didn’t know why I didn’t. It had been unbearable to me at the time in college to study something more ‘practical.’

She smiled.

As we had been speaking, I had two drinks and a salad with chicken–this was before I became a vegetarian. When it came time to pay, I gave the man at the bar my credit card. He came back and said it was declined. I laughed, thinking, my card is getting declined in front of Brooke Shields. I gave him another card that went through.

Brooke and the guy in the suit with the shaved head had to go. They had both been really nice and interesting to talk to. They said, “good to meet you.” He shook my hand. I said “good to meet you two, too.”

Some time later, I recognized the guy from pictures. That was Andre Agassi. I don’t watch as much sports as most guys. Anyway, the last picture I knew of him he had hair.

This is the funny part. I must have been thinking too much about Brooke Shields at that point. Or I don’t know why, but somehow, I forgot to tell anyone in my family that I was on Donahue.

My sister in Columbus, Ohio was watching TV the next morning with her husband when she saw me answering a question. “That’s Michael! Turn it up!” she shouted. Her husband accidentally turned off the TV with the remote, instead of turning it up. By the time they got the TV back on, my question was over. Luckily, my parents in Toledo could watch the show when it came on at a later time. So they videotaped it.

When I saw myself, I was a little surprised. That’s me? I thought maybe I could lose some weight. I wasn’t sure if I liked the sweater I was wearing. This is from the pre-Facebook days. So it was strange, because everyone you ever knew your entire life might see and recognize you when you’re on TV. It turned out that a kid I hardly knew in grade school, who knew my sister better, said he saw me on TV.

Shortly after the show aired, Tonya Harding could be seen with a shirt that read “No Comment” as the members of the news media followed her.

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Tony Harding: No Comment

At this point, it was too late for her. The FBI had people locate, from the city trash dump, the torn pieces of paper she had written on at McDonald’s where they planned the whole thing. Her notes mentioned how they could disable Nancy Kerrigan.

Sometimes I fantasize that my question helped, since I like to catch bad guys. I could see some special FBI agents.

Agent One: Have you seen this? Take a look at this.

(Both agents are watching a video taped show of Donahue. I ask my question and Diane responds.)

Agent Two: I think we’ve got something here. Looks like she’s trying to protect Tonya.

A couple of years after I was on the Donahue show, other talk shows, like Oprah, surpassed Donahue in ratings, even though Oprah’s show owed a lot to Donahue in the audience involvement that he pioneered. And the Phil Donahue show went off the air.







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