Daily Express Saturday Magazine - September 20-26 2003
Heart of Glass
Written By: Marie Keating
Once she had a love and it was a gas... Debbie Harry reflects on pop fame, personal tragedy and why she never married.
With her diary brimming with tour dates and a forthcoming single and album to promote, not to mention a new job presenting the Alternative Rock'N'Roll Years for the Discovery Channel, Blondie's Debbie Harry isn't ready to hang up her microphone just yet. She may be almost 60 but she can still cut it, as the new Blondie single, Good Boys, proves. When she laughs, her huge feline eyes glint, her dark lashes curl up at the edges and whatever it was that used to bewitch teenage boys (and their fathers) is clearly still there.
Legend has it that Debbie bleached her mousy brown hair blonde in homage to her favourite screen goddess, Marilyn Monroe. Today, sitting in a smart hotel on New York's Lexington Avenue, her platinum mop is shorter than ever and, with her smooth movie-star features and effortless elegance (the geometric minidresses and heels have been replaced by sporty black trousers, a stretchy top and comfy-looking sandals), she facially resembles that other 50s Hollywood favourite, Kim Novak. Anyone with slinky Parallel Lines era Debbie etched into their memory will agree that she's changed. The figure is fuller - although she has trimmed down a lot since her semi-reclusive years in the early 90s - but her face certainly doesn't scream rock'n'roll casualty. More importantly, unlike so many of her punk peers, including her good friends Nancy Spungen and Joey Ramone, she is still here. Admittedly, there have been a few surgical tweaks of her once flawless face, but nobody said Debbie Harry had to grow old gracefully.
She was born in Miami, Florida, on July 1, 1945, and was adopted, by salesman Richard Harry and his wife Catherine, when she was just three months old. Debbie lived with the Harry's in Hawthorne, New Jersey, until, aged 18, she could no longer resist the bright lights of the big city. In search of a creative outlet, she headed for the Big Apple and found herself waitressing at Andy Warhol's favourite hangout, Max's Kansas City. It wasn't exactly the ambitious teenager's dream, but it allowed her to mingle with the creative folk of Greenwich Village and get her first glimpse of radical bands like Jefferson Airplane. So was it a culture shock arriving in New York? "I was really excited to be on my own and to see all the stuff that was going on in New York at the time," enthuses Debbie. She is in her element as she describes meeting musicians, artists and hip Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg: "I thought it was rather sexy. The early days of rock'n'roll was all counter-culture. It was forbidden - all rather clandestine. Churches forbade it and schools set dress codes."
Consumed by a burning desire to perform, Debbie join various groups until Chris Stein, a guitar player and her soon-to-be lover, spotted her singing with girl-group the Stilletos. The pair formed Blondie and everyone knows what happened next. As the alluring singer of the disco/punk Sunday Girl and Call Me, Debbie Harry's appeal as a pin-up soon rocketed. But she seems rather uncomfortable with her iconic status. "Is it a blessing or is it a cause?" she ponders. "It feels kind of funny. It sort of happened overnight. I did my solo records in the late 80s [she has also acted and dabbled in jazz projects] then I sort of shut down for a while, then all of a sudden I was this [she lets out a huge throaty laugh] 'old, legendary figure!' I was like 'Oh my God! This is impossible!' I'm still trying to do so much, and the idea that you get locked into something because..." Her conversation tapers off as she fixes her eyes on the view out of the window. "I feel like, I'd still like to be a bit more experimental and I'm just frozen in time," she concludes regretfully.
So who is worthy of the pop icon crown these days then? "I hate to name names," sighs Debbie, who has found soul mates in Shirley Manson and Sharleen Spiteri, and goes on to praise Missy Elliott, Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera. But does she like Christina because she goes against the grain, as Blondie did with their genre straddling pop in the 80s? "Well, I wasn't so wild about her at first," Debbie reveals. "But then I read an interview with her, about how she felt sort of forced to take the dark side versus Britney, and I thought, 'Well, you know, I can understand where she is coming from.' Can you imagine being a child performer? Growing up like that, having nothing else in your life except trying to become a star?"
Unlike Christina, Debbie was surprisingly mature when she first entered the music business. She was 33 when Blondie had a UK hit with Heart Of Glass in 1979, and, incredibly, Blondie are about to unleash their seventh studio album. So what's the story behind its title, The Curse Of Blondie? "Everybody wants to know that," she says with a quick roll of her eyes that pre-empts a flurry of questions about the infamous struggles the band have endured. "Well, it's sort of been a standing joke over the years. You know, if something goes wrong, it's like: 'Oh, God! The curse of Blondie!"', she laughs, deftly deflecting any questions relating to Chris Stein, who she nursed through a near-fatal illness before they split in 1983 when Blondie parted company, only to regroup in 1998 to put out their huge hit, Maria.
Debbie and Chris were together for over a decade and, although he is now in his second marriage, Debbie has never wed. There doesn't seem to have been anyone significant since. The two are good friends, but many think she is still in love with Chris. In more candid moments, Debbie has said that she regrets not having Chris' children. But the reason she has never married is simple: "I've always had relationships," she says. "That's another thing that I don't talk about very often, but I never really thought marriage was for me. I always thought that relationships were important to me, but the idea of marriage in the traditional sense was almost like some sort of bondage to me - and if you're gonna have bondage, you might as well have a little bit of S&M with it!" She throws her head back and cackles wickedly, before regaining her composure. "I thought the marriage vows at that time were very inappropriate for me. I think I was probably ahead of my time, because nowadays people just write their own marriage vows anyway. My thinking was more about today. Many of the things that I was the right age for doing seemed totally innappropriate for me."
And now, just when you sense that Debbie might actually want some kids, it's probably too late. So, is there a man in her life at the moment? "No," she says, before adding, with a huge smile: "I actually have quite a few options." But, more importantly, is she really happy? "I think so," she says, before admitting there is always more to achieve artistically - the perfectionist in her means she'll often hear a 20-year-old Blondie record and still wish she had done bits differently. "I have to stop myself from complaining and being morose at times by saying, 'My God! You've had such a great experience. You've had a wonderful life!' And, you know, I have had a lot of great times".
The Alternative Rock'N'Roll Years starts on the Discovery Channel on Wednesday. The new single by Blondie, Good Boys, will be out on September 29, and the new album, The Curse Of Blondie, will be out on October 6.