Attitude Magazine - September 2003
Written By: Simon Gage
As Blondie gear up for phase two of their stellar
comeback, Simon Gage meets up with icon, superstar and
survivor Debbie Harry.
"I'm probably like Dorian Gray," laughs
Debbie Harry, showing off some very young-looking,
white-looking teeth as she throws back her head. We're
talking about how some people live the life and get
off scott free and, more precisely, how come the whole
drinking/smoking/partying hard lifestyle thing she was
such a glorious part of back in the day hasn't turned
her into monkey lady. Line her up to macrobiotic
yoga-loving fitness freak Madonna, a good thirteen
years Debbie's junior, and you'll be ordering up
another vodka and tonic with something cheeky and
uplifting on the side and never mind the damn Kaballah.
Even her hands are in better nick.
Looking a good two, if not three decades younger than
her 58 years, Debbie (and, sorry, we're not having any
truck with the whole "Deborah" thing) is
cool and casual and totally appropriate in an outfit
that wouldn't look out of place on Beyoncé: a clingy
see-thru hooded top (nice body!), with a T-shirt
saying Crave underneath, calf-length combats and
trainers. It's no wonder straight boys half her age
totally lost it for her in the early 80s, when she was
number one pin-up of the world. But it's Debbie's face
that's most amazing. Sitting in an unforgiving white
marble room in London's fancy St. Martin's Hotel, with
hardly any make-up and a hyper-critical gay eye all
over her, there are just a couple of almost
imperceptible lines around that famous mouth while the
rest is all sculpted and youthful and tight enough to
bounce pennies off. How does Debbie do it?
"Good surgery," she says, as bullshit-free
as ever, looking at me like I'm mad, with one eyebrow
way up to here. "I haven't had that much but I've
had the right stuff at the right time."
But then Debbie has always known the importance of the
right stuff at the right time. One of the few pop
stars, sorry, pop icons, that truly worked across
generations (and we're not talking the granny-friendly
new crop), Debbie was every dad's dirty secret in just
a white T-shirt and no trousers on Top Of The Pops,
while kids breathed a sigh of relief that thank god
punk didn't have to be about ugly, dirty-looking (in a
bad way!) girls with ridiculous hair and mouths like
sewers. Thank god we could be rebellious and glamorous
all at the same time, quoting clever writers, hanging
out with clever artists and not just pissing it all up
a wall and killing ourselves in scuzzy New York rooms.
Rocker Patti Smith - owner of the finest moustache in
the music business - once told Debbie to get the hell
out of rock 'n' roll for being too sexy, never mind
that Debbie was the most perfectly created pop star
we'd had since Elvis went supersize.
"I thought it was absurd," says Debbie of
the whole "too sexy" thing (she doesn't
remember the Smith attack, but Chris Stein - one-time
partner and fellow Blondie-mate - swears it happened).
"I was doing nothing. It was all so tame. It was
in the mind. I had underthings on! I guess she didn't
want any competition." Which is really quite
funny, if you think about it.
For gay boys, the fact that Blondie's first number
one, Heart of Glass, was disco - an all-but-outlawed
form of music back in the "Disco Sucks" late
70s - was like manna from Heaven: the nightclub, not
the afterlife thing. Having come up the proper way -
actually being into music, writing songs, joining
bands (she was in folky outfit Wind in the Willows
before Blondie), playing to audiences more interested
in the catering than the act - Debbie was actually in
her 30s by the time the nights at New York's CBGB's
started to pay off and Denis became Blondie's first
hit (shame it was a cover, but they would more than
make up for that in the years to come). The fact she
was sometimes twice the age of the other acts on Top
Of The Pops is probably why there was always a bit
more to Debbie than your basic Smash Hits interviewee.
"In a way I guess I felt older," she says
now that she looks like their younger sister. "I
was always told I was a late bloomer. I just sort of
emerged fully formed at some point in my life. I
totally admire people that have the strength and
composure to do what they do at that age because I was
completely scattered and could never have been that
Mind you, when you mention the talent-show route of
becoming a pop star that has brought so many "organised"
stars into our lives she laughs.
"It's very entertaining really. And I mean that
in the most vicious way. I feel sorry for the
contestants. Maybe they just don't have the confidence
or the imagination to do it any other way. To me it
was hard work and it was scary and chancy but also
thrilling and wonderful and perfectly in line with
being a 'starving artist' or a bohemian of some
Because Debbie really did have that Desperately
Seeking Susan kind of Lower East Side life. Having
worked as a Playboy Bunny ("That was really a
job. There was a lot of training involved"),
lived in rat-infested apartments and written for three
hours a day sitting in a car to avoid paying parking,
she met Chris (it was eyes across a room while Debbie
was on stage), formed The Stillettoes, an art-house
six-piece, started hanging out with the likes of The
Ramones and Television and - begging bits and bobs of
cash from Chris's mum to buy food - invented Blondie,
named after a cartoon strip. "The initial idea
was to be desirable, feminine and vulnerable, but a
resilient, tenacious wit at the same time rather than
a poor female sapped of her strength by heartthrob and
unrequited love. Apart from the relationship to comic
books, Blondie always thought pop."
Not pop off the conveyor belt for mums and pre-teens
and Comic Relief as we've come to know it today, but
clever pop, with intelligent lyrics and a commercial
sound. "Producing something commercial is
probably one of the easiest things to do," Debbie
reckons. "Producing something that's exciting to
you and that turns out to be exciting to other people
and commercial too is the hard part." But when
you talk about how boringly clean-living today's
Mickey Mouse Club pop stars are, how safe and devoid
of the sort of danger that pop stars used to
represent, Debbie's not sure who's got it right,
whether the drugs and the dodginess that gave it the
edge were a good or a bad idea.
"I don't know how I feel about that," she
says, putting her hand in hair which is every bit as
blonde as in her heyday. "In a way, I think the
whole drugs thing is a waste of time because it sort
of takes hold of you. You don't control it, it
controls you. On the other hand it does give you a
bigger world experience, which is extremely valuable.
I can't really say that I suffer any after-effects,
but I think I regret wasting time. I think it may have
affected some of my memory stuff..." And she
laughs. "But I have an awful lot to remember.
However, Chris has an incredibly good memory and he
took a lot more drugs than I did so... Nowadays, the
drugs you get are so polluted that they're really
dangerous. You're not getting what's advertised. If
someone says they have great cocaine, it's probably
mostly speed. You'll be like [she gurns] this all
night long. Not a great look." And Debbie may
have been bigger than Britney in her day, but you sure
can't imagine pseudo-virgin Britney discussing those
sort of issues in today's pop climate.
As Blondie racked up top ten hit after top ten hit
(back in the day when a top ten hit was actually a way
to earn a living), and started moving in circles that
included the likes of Andy Warhol and David Bowie,
Debbie Harry became easily the biggest woman in pop.
And as well as the music, there were the films:
everything from arthouse horror like David
Cronenberg's Videodrome, through bleak dramas like
Union City to counter-culture comedies like John Pink
Flamingos Waters' Hairspray, where she played opposite
Divine, someone she knew from her days on the Bowery,
New York's major hang-out for bums, drug addicts and
"I really didn't adjust to it right away,"
she says when you bring up the fact that around 1980
she had arguably the most famous face in the world
(this was Pre-Madonna and there just hadn't been
anyone this sexy and beautiful and yet alternative in
pop: it was Olivia Newton-John or Debbie Harry).
"It wasn't how I imagined it to be. I think now
I'd deal with it in a different way, as a game. I took
it all very personally. I didn't consider myself to be
"in showbiz" - I wanted to be an artist -
but I started to like it and got to being good at it.
I'm good at it now and I wish I'd handled it better,
that I'd been more astute as a business person. If I
have a regret, it's that I didn't have that
She's referring to a time before pop stars became
brands, when you wrestled with managers who had their
own best interests at heart and would put you in a
motel while they checked in - on your money - to the
finest hotels in town and gave you a hundred dollars a
week pocket money to keep you quiet. Having gone
through that - and losing a whole load of cash
learning the lessons the hard way (well, that's what
happens when you're concentrating on the music) -
Debbie is philosophical about the whole thing:
"We were sort of ripped off. But reality is that
sometimes you win and sometimes you lose."
Besides, she's okay with her fairly small apartment in
New York. "I think I can be happy with
that," she laughs, especially happy as she gets
to stay in the nicest hotels in the world instead of
having to check into unused apartments everywhere.
"I don't really know how people have more than
one home and why. It's so much work having a home. I
feel almost like a maintenance woman."
These days she spends her time working with Jazz
Passengers, a real life jazz outfit that gives her an
outlet for showing off her voice; does pieces for
publications like Interview, her old mate Andy
Warhol's magazine; stars in interesting movies, like
the upcoming Spun, just one of three in the can; and,
every once in a while, goes back into the studio with
her Blondie compadres and pulls out a bit of perfect,
brilliantly conceived and executed pop just to remind
you that, when she's with her boys, there really is no
beating her. Maria, Blondie's comeback single, was a
number one smash and one of the best records of its
year, now the flawless Good Boys augers very well
indeed for the new album The Curse of Blondie, the
title a jokey reference to some of the mishaps along
the way, with the single's Giorgio Moroder mix giving
a wink to the glory days of Heart of Glass and
Moroder's gay Donna Summer anthem, I Feel Love.
And she's also dating a bit, now that her fifteen-year
relationship with Stein is over. "I sort of play
it by ear," she laughs, describing the boots and
sexy pants combo that constitutes her "shagging
"I have friends who are so systematic about
picking up boys. I'm not that systematic. I don't feel
I have to have somebody every single night but I do
have friends who are like that, who go out every
single night specifically to meet people and have sex.
I'm a little bit careful about that. I think I have to
be. I was a little bit like that when I was younger
and sometimes it backfired on me. At this stage in my
life, I think with the notoriety and the fame I have,
it would be problematic."
All in all, a very satisfying life for a woman gearing
up to celebrate the big Six-Oh. But you can't help
thinking, that were it not for the curse of Blondie,
Debbie could have been the hugest money-making
proposition in pop. She could have been, literally,
bigger than Madonna, who a lot of people accuse of
stealing Debbie's schtick in the first place: the
whole blonde thing, the sexy but alternative thing,
the arty but commercial thing, the pure pop in a
credible packaging thing. "Oh, no!" laughs
Debbie when you put the idea that Madonna is some sort
of Eve Carrington from All About Eve character, who
came along, watched her every move, learnt her
lessons, then took over.
"I knew she was happening back in the early 80s,
a friend of mine had some romance with her, but it all
happened when Chris was really sick so I was paying
most of my attention to him." Chris had developed
a rare and life-threatening disease and Debbie - with
a solo career just taking off (remember Koo Koo album
with that crazy spike-through-face cover produced by
Nile "Chic" Rodgers, who later worked on
Like A Virgin? Remember French Kissin in the USA?)
ducked out of work to look after him. They'd spent
almost every waking minute together, working together,
living together, travelling together since they met,
so it was natural for her to stick by him at that
"So I guess I didn't really catch onto Madonna
until she was marching on up," continues Debbie,
without a trace of wistfulness. "I do think she
has some great songs and I think she's done something
really interesting and powerful and wonderful, which
is that she's broken down racial barriers,"
something Blondie weren't so bad at, bringing rap into
the pop arena with Rapture, the first rap number one
Now say something bad about Madonna.
She laughs and gives me a little slap on the arm.
"No! I don't want to. It's so easy to slam
Madonna, because she's the one on top, she's the
target." And she laughs again. "Besides, it
makes me sound like a cry baby."
Good Boys is out 22 Sept on Epic followed by the
album The Curse of Blondie on 6 Oct.