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Kerrigan's Ambivalent Dance With Celebrity

Like many athletes, the skater was unprepared for the media blitz

NNINE months after a personally tumultuous, sweet-and-sour Olympics, Nancy Kerrigan is still not on the easiest of terms with stardom or celebrity.

On one hand, she feels perfectly at home as a prima ice ballerina. On the other, she doesn't relish the intense media attention that has subsided but hardly evaporated since the melodramatic events of last winter: the attack on her at last January's national championships; the subsequent arrest of four men implicated in the assault, including the ex-husband of rival skater Tonya Harding; a silver-medal-winning effort at Lillehammer, Norway; and finally some unexpected post-Olympic image erosion stemming from offhand comments captured by ubiquitous media microphones.

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During a recent interview at her practice rink in West Dennis, Mass., Kerrigan's ambivalence about being a celebrity was apparent: She cherishes her privacy, yet wants to capitalize on her fame.

When asked about the 25 corporate clients she now represents, including such giants as Walt Disney Company, Campbell Soup Company, and Mattel, her enthusiasm for the work is real, but not total. ``Sometimes I do these commercials; it's so much fun...,'' she says, ``but then my face is more recognizable, so....''

Her agent Jerry Solomon, who has been linked romantically with Kerrigan, calls her ProServ's second-busiest client ever, right behind Michael Jordan, who was once in the agency's stable. Solomon also calls Kerrigan ``a very reluctant superstar.''

Recently, she's begun to reemerge in the media glare. Last week, she participated in a made-for-TV team competition dubbed ``Ice Wars'' by CBS, which brought Kerrigan together with Olympic gold-medalist Oksana Baiul, who now trains in Connecticut.

Kerrigan met with reporters during a media day to publicize this event and ``Christmas on Ice,'' a 15-city tour that begins Nov. 23 in which she stars alongside singer Aaron Neville.

The conference was actually conducted on the ice, where reporters, unsure of their footing, were left to feel as uncertain as Kerrigan sometimes looks before cameras and notebooks.

Off to the side later, she says she's really excited about having her own touring show and getting the opportunity, for the first time, to skate to live music. After performing on the 3-1/2-month post-Olympic tour of world champions, she is pleased that the Christmas revue is only a month long.

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Kerrigan is very much a homebody. While training on Cape Cod she had an apartment in Plymouth, Mass., but used it very little. ``I go home [to Stoneham, Mass., north of Boston] every other day, at least, and on the weekend,'' she said.

For a while last winter the Kerrigans' driveway became a veritable TV studio, with a horde of reporters there to collect quotes and sound bites for the ongoing Nancy-Tonya saga. Evy Scotvold, Kerrigan's longtime coach, says that exposure to this media circus and an even bigger one at the Olympics served to mature his pupil, sometimes while ``pinning her ears back a little.''

Scotvold says athletes in very technical sports like figure skating and gymnastics can be especially unprepared for media onslaughts. ``They don't have time or room for much else [but practice], so they come into adulthood very naive and very sheltered. Sometimes the media expect these people to be articulate, composed, and smooth-speaking, but they are total rookies. They have to learn this just like they have to learn their sport.''

For Kerrigan, the school of verbal hard knocks began in earnest in the immediate aftermath of the Olympic competition, first when she was caught making what seemed an ungracious remark about Baiul, the teary-eyed gold-medalist. Then during a parade at Disney World, she was skewered for appearing to knock Mickey Mouse, when she was, she explained later, actually expressing a sense of awkwardness in publicly wearing her silver medal.

``I never was in skating to get a medal,'' she says. ``Even during my first competition, when I finished second, I was so busy playing on the swings I didn't want to get my medal. The fun part was being out there in front of the people.''

Kerrigan has received reams of mail - 22,000 letters - since last winter, most of it positive. She has responded with letters and photographs. Many fans have sent birthday presents.

Her life will soon be the subject of a children's book. She hopes it will ``help children who aren't necessarily the normal kids doing a school or town sport.... I had to go through that.''

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