At the center of this spicy controversy is a 5-ounce bottle of "Tonya Hot Sauce," made by PDX Hot Lix! LLC. The bottle features a cartoon of a frumpy Tonya Harding smoking in front of a trailer with a hubcap in one hand and a pair of skates in the other. The label is sprinkled with quips like "Guaranteed to assault your taste buds!" and "Not for the weak-kneed!" The sauce, on the market for two years, gets about 90 percent of its sales through Made in Oregon stores, says John Farmer of PDX Hot Lix! (Aside from a hot sauce lampooning Bob Whitsitt that had a brief run, Tonya Hot Sauce is the only product Farmer's company sells.)
On Oct. 21, a San Diego law firm representing Harding sent a letter to Made in Oregon claiming that the hot-sauce bottles defame the skater-turned-celebrity boxer and "unfairly remind [Harding] of upsetting, misunderstood events that years ago ruined her bid to become an Olympic champion." The letter demands that Made in Oregon fork over a share of revenues from the sales of Tonya Hot Sauce and give Harding a say about how she's portrayed on the label. Made in Oregon immediately pulled the sauce from its shelves.
Of course, Harding has recently been on the other side of the legal ledger. The former Olympian was arrested in April for driving under the influence after crashing her pickup into a ditch; tests showed that her blood-alcohol level was 0.16, twice the legal limit. Because drinking alcohol violated her probation from a 2000 assault case (involving a hubcap and an ex-boyfriend), she served a 10-day term in Washington's Clark County Jail in August. Earlier in the year, she was evicted from her Camas ranch house when she fell behind on rent.
Farmer says Harding is mistaken if she thinks his sauce will be her meal ticket. Although Tonya Hot Sauce is Made in Oregon's best-selling sauce, he says, only 2,000 bottles have been sold, each at $5. For now, he's letting the folks at Made in Oregon deal with the lawyers. Says Farmer, "I just want to sell my hot sauce."
Strange as it seems, Harding could be on the right side of the law this time. According to Duane Bosworth, who practices intellectual-property law, Harding may have a tough sell claiming defamation (because no one is saying anything false about her) but does have the right to stop people from using her image to make money. "You can't use someone's identity to imply sponsorship, endorsement, or to sell your product," says Bosworth. "If they're trading on her celebrity, then she has a legitimate claim."