NEW YORK — Once dubbed the Ice Princess for her sometimes steely demeanor and hometown of Karl Marx Stadt in the former East Germany, figure skater Katarina Witt is quick to disclaim her past reputation.
''Being in East Germany, nobody really got the chance to talk to me. I was very mysterious and lots of images were built up: being an East German, cold-hearted Ice Princess,'' she says. ''The way I am now [is the way] I've always been.''
Winner of back-to-back Olympic gold medals for East Germany in 1984 and 1988 in figure skating, Witt today spends a great deal of time in the United States on the capitalist ice circuit. She performs with various touring ice shows and rents an apartment in Manhattan for those rare days off, although Berlin is her primary home.
In an interview, she gushes enthusiastically about her work, but says that it does take its toll on her privacy. ''The work I've been doing, with all the traveling, it's been kind of difficult to keep a relationship going,'' she says, dressed in a dark suit and her hair pulled back. Her Stars on Ice tour sponsored by Discover Card, for example, began on Nov. 26 and just ended April 1. Her plans now include starring in a movie fairy tale on ice.
She is dismayed that at age 29 she is often asked if she'll retire soon (many of the current championship figure skaters are teenagers). ''Of course it will be difficult one day to quit, because I just love to perform and get the attention,'' she says. ''But it would be sad if you come into a position where you say you need an audience to survive.''
The skater has already diversified into commercials and helped design a line of skating attire. And she says she is mulling over various contract offers. ''I think I'm always going to be restless,'' she says.
Even as she has wholeheartedly embraced life in the West since the fall of communism, Witt still fondly remembers certain intangible pluses of her life in the German Democratic Republic. ''You had more time for friendship. I mean you just had more time for life because you didn't feel like 'I've got to do this, I've got to do that,''' she says. ''There's more about being together, working things out, being a team.''
By contrast, she says the West offers ''a harder world to live in, you know, it's more cold, it's more competitive; everybody is struggling with their lives.''
Questioned about her past role as a symbol for one of the most repressive states in the former East Bloc, she is cautious but practiced in explaining: ''You have a profession, you want to be successful, you do anything to be successful and you shut your mouth. You're not going to go against your boss because you don't like something about him, because you have to have a career.
''I wanted to be a good athlete, I wanted to travel, I wanted to be at the Olympics; and, of course, the athletes were under a shell.... We were protected, we got support, we got help,'' she continues. ''You should still not forget that at this point I was 20 years old. I had no idea how politicians and politics work.''
When Germany unified in 1990, many West Germans were reluctant to embrace Witt because of the past. ''In the beginning they saw me as a symbol from the other system,'' she says.
The turning point came last year when she participated in the Winter Olympics for the unified German team, finishing sixth in the figure-skating competition. ''The east and the west were both rooting for me,'' she says. ''It was kind of a coming home for me.''