For a brief time in the 1990s, before America became obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial and the internet turned gossip into a cottage industry, Tonya Harding was the cause célèbre. The first female figure skater to successfully execute a triple axel in competition, she was in the running for Olympic gold at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer. But Harding’s dreams came crashing down harder than a missed landing on the ice after an assault on chief rival Nancy Kerrigan was linked back to her. The ensuing scandal ended her skating career.
The new film I, Tonya looks to shed new light on the story by going beyond the caricature that ultimately turned her name into a punchline. Raised in a working-class family by a domineering single mother, Harding was rough-edged and looked down on by her contemporaries as white trash. She relentlessly fought to be accepted in a sport that wanted its skaters to be all-American pixies.
Directed by Craig Gillespie from a script by Steve Rogers, I, Tonya stars Margot Robbie as the embattled Harding and Allison Janney as her foul-mouthed, acerbic waitress mother LaVona. Sebastian Stan plays Harding’s dimwitted husband Jeff Gillooly, who ended up instigating her downfall.
The task of transforming the cast into their real-life counterparts fell to make-up department head Deborah Lamia Denaver and hair department head Adruitha Lee. The directive from the producers was clear.
“The producers and the actors wanted to duplicate the actual photographs,” says Lamia Denaver. “We really tried to copy all that we could find. If she had red lipstick, we did red lipstick. If she did French tip, we did French tip. The only way to say it is: we did it accurately.”
Engrossed in Harding’s saga when it first unfolded, Lee was determined to be a part of I, Tonya. “I watched this on television when it was all coming down. I knew that hair. I knew that period,” she says. “I started reaching out to people. Finally, I got an interview with the director.”
Robbie proved to be instrumental in nailing the look. As one of the film’s producers, she realized it was crucial to the film’s success. Her total investment in the character motivated the make-up choices.
“At our first early meeting, she said, ‘I want to be Tonya.’ So we went for it,” continues Lamia Denaver. “Every little tweak. Every little pull. Every little bit of anything that I could do to transform her into Tonya—she was all for it.”
Lee sensed they were on the right track when the wig went on Robbie at the first fitting. “I had just about gotten the bangs at the right spot and she smiled,” Lee says. “I had to do a little bit of cutting, but it was pretty much done. And she smiled because she knew that was so much of the look.”
Taking Harding from childhood to present day, Lamia Denaver estimates she created about eight different looks for Robbie. The primary make-up was Harding’s edgy, rebellious look during her competition days.
“There are slang terms, but I’d probably just say, rural,” says Lee. “Tonya lived a rural life in Oregon and didn’t have a lot of money. This look was about 10 years behind the looks of that period, but it was comfortable for her.”
Embracing the idea that Harding didn’t have a lot of money to spend on make-up, Lamia Denaver and Lee wanted what they did to look as if Harding had done it herself.
Lamia Denaver’s approach was the antithesis of the beauty make-up she normally does. She skipped foundation. She reversed the highlighting and shading to separate Robbie’s brow bones, widened her nose and jawline and dropped her chin a little to mirror Harding’s distinctive features.
“I drew a line on her jawline to accentuate that dropped chin,” adds Lamia Denaver. “Tonya had that chin that came forward and down. I used shading and darkened it all the way down that line and then blended it out.”
Describing it as “my old friend,” Lamia Denaver mostly relied on William Tuttle Hi-Light for Robbie’s make-up. This was augmented with Benefit Cosmetics Hoola Matte Bronzer and Make Up For Ever Sculpting Kit – Color: 2 Neutral Light. Kryolan DermaColor 24 Color Palette worked great for the jawline transformation.
Known for their unique arch, Robbie’s eyebrows underwent a major makeover. After flattening the arch, Lamia Denaver reshaped the corners to make the brows squarer.
“Widening between her brows helped a lot,” adds Lamia Denaver. “I basically painted white lines straight up the nose to add almost three quarters of an inch – as much of Tonya as I could pull out without it looking silly.”
Lamia Denaver then hand laid individual hairs to make the brows look fuller and unkempt. She filled them out with a Kanebo’s Kate Super Sharp Liner. “She looked like she just rolled out of bed,” continues Lamia Denaver. “They used to make brow hairs like they make individual lashes, but they don’t anymore. I had some old stock, so I added them underneath her arch, over to the side and to the middle. It worked great.”
Noticing that Harding’s eyes drooped at the far corners, Lamia Denaver duplicated this on Robbie with pencil, brown shading and, on occasion, Duo-Tape. “Margot’s eyes are more up, sparkling; they kind of smile at you,” she says. “Sometimes when she was skating, I used a little piece of double-sided tape and pulled that eye down so it drooped on the outer edges.”
Rather than add mascara, Lamia Denaver curled Robbie’s lashes. When she did use mascara for the competition scenes, she applied it from the center out to bring Robbie’s eye shape down. “Tonya was known for those smudgy eyes. Sometimes, when you did that to Margot, she looked very glamorous, so we had to find a different direction to go,” explains Lamia Denaver.
“Tonya has such thin, narrow lips,” continues Lamia Denaver. “I tried to create that with Margot’s lips by never painting them full and dragging the corners downward.”
Knowing that to replica Harding’s classic 1980s perm, Lee would have to do some serious hair damage, wigs were the obvious choice. Typically, Lee wants her wigs to be as lustrous as possible. Here, the plan was to subject them to a rigorous home perm regime. When she told wigmaker Justin Stafford this, he simply shook his head and advised her to make two. She did, augmenting that pair with a shorter one that Robbie wore for her scenes as a teenager and a straighter, longer style for Harding’s present-day look.
“You typically don’t have a reason to fry a wig like that. Usually everyone wants really silky ones, but that’s what we had to do,” explains Lee. “We did it to all four wigs. By the time I was finished, they were about ready to fall out of the lace they were tied into.”
Knowing chemicals would be the only way to give the wigs the right texture, Lee left her curling irons in the drawer and headed for the drugstore. Zotos Quantum Ultra Firm Perm was her home perm of choice. She also stocked up on Roux Fanci-Full Rinse 56 Bashful Blonde and Clairol Professional Textures & Tones Haircolor, Honey Blonde.
“I permed them. I permed them twice. Then I colored each about three times,” continues Lee, adding that the repeated process really gave the wigs that dried out look. “A lot of the techniques that I used were from the ’80s and the early ’90s. I wanted that look to be authentic.”
For the final step, Lee turned to the secret ingredient that she discovered back in her perming days. “Cheap beer,” she says, with a laugh. “Nothing will get permed hair crunchier than beer. I put a can of Busch Beer in a bottle, let it go flat overnight and used it to set the wigs.”
I, Tonya also features a series of documentary-style present day scenes. To create a mid-40s, heavier version of Harding, Lamia Denaver opted for prosthetics. Robbie was fitted with seven pieces in all—nose, two cheek pieces, a chin, a full wraparound neck and eye bags.
Originally, this make-up was slated for one day of shooting. But everyone liked it so much, Lamia Denaver estimates she re-created it 11 times with slight variations. “All of a sudden, my prosthetic budget changed drastically,” she adds. “They saw the benefits of it. It really brought a full turn to the show. She went from being that vulnerable child to a present-day tough cookie.”
Allison Janney required three looks. For LaVona’s scenes with Harding as a child (played by Mckenna Grace) and the 15-year-old Harding (Robbie, fitted with braces and a cropped wig), Janney needed to look younger. Lamia Denaver fitted the actress with two sets of lifts—one in her sideburn area and the other at the back of the neck.
Lamia Denaver then did a young corrective make-up.
“I plumped up everything that Allison normally has,” she says. “We went with very little make-up, yet we did a full foundation so I was able to use concealer under her eyes and plump up her cheeks.”
To bring LaVona into the 1990s, Lamia Denaver lost the lifts and applied a make-up appropriate to Janney’s age. The biggest challenge turned out to be the actress’s brows. “They are not period correct,” says Lamia Denaver. “I had to block out the top of her brows and then form the correct shape.”
Lee augmented LaVona’s look with two wigs. Both featured the same cut, but one contained about 30 to 40 percent gray hair.
The team had fun aging Janney for the present-day scenes. “We didn’t have the funds, so we did a full stretch and stipple,” says Lamia Denaver. “Everything you see on her, including her hands and neck, is stretch and stipple.”
Janney was aged twice. Each application took approximately two hours, with Freitas assisting. It was well worth the effort. As the make-up went on, Janney fell in love with it. “At first, she was saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t even look.’ And then as she saw it progress, she totally submerged herself into it,” remembers Lamia Denaver. “She was asking, ‘What if I used an oxygen hose?’ Then, we added the bird. I thought it was a beautiful make-up and it worked really well with her character.”
The key to turning Sebastian Stan into Jeff Gillooly was creating his familiar mustache. When he first meets Harding and is supposed to be about 17 or 18, Lamia Denaver wanted only a wisp on his upper lip. Key Bill Myer, who oversaw Stan’s make-up, hand laid individual hairs.
“You know kids at that age. They are trying to grow a mustache and have those five hairs. We gave him more than five—we gave him about 20,” explains Lamia Denaver. “Of course, the challenge was keeping them on. When he and Tonya are in the car kissing, a few times she ended up wearing the mustache.”
For the 1990s, Myer basically copycatted Gillooly’s mustache. Some scenes feature one Stan had grown. Others show the mustache the make-up department manufactured. Mary Everett was in charge of Gillooly’s hair, which required a cut, on average, every three days. A goatee, baldpate and a receding hairline were added for his present-day scenes.
Rounding out the crew were make-up key Teresa Vest and hairstylists Heather Morris and Tracie Morrison. Gary Archer created the braces for the 15-year-old Harding and also made a set of plumpers to go with the aging make-up.
I, Tonya turned out to be a blast from the past for both Lee and Lamia Denaver. Each found themselves going back to their early days to find great looks on a limited budget.
“It’s none of the new stuff. This whole movie is related to highlighting and shading, stretch and stipple, little bits and bobs that we do every day and kind of take for granted,” says Lamia Denaver. “Everything that I’ve learned from day one came in handy for this movie.”
I, Tonya is one of seven films in the race for a 2018 Academy Award nomination for make-up and hairstyling. See more here.