DIVA - June 2004

Photography By: Sanctuary Group

Written By: Joanna Walters

"I'VE HAD MY SEXUAL RELATIONSHIPS WITH WOMEN, YES..."

LOTS OF WOMEN?

"Yes. Well, what is lots?"

How many women have you slept with?

"Enough."

She's not naming lovers' names, mind you. Anyone famous?

"Not especially."

Harry peers briefly over the top of her shades, cheekbones, laser-stare and platinum 'do' intact. She's just come off a tiny stage in a New York cabaret club, where she performed solo at a laid-back and obscure little benefit gig. Performing two low-key numbers from Blondie's latest album, The Curse of Blondie, the pop legend is understated. Launching into One Way Or Another, she rocks the house. Even at the age of 58, if you're Debbie Harry, you can't go wrong in a silver latex skirt, silver hoodie, Lennon shades and, yep, a shiny silver handbag.

"You're so easy," she scolds the audience, to whistles and shrieks. "I'm not going to throw my pearls before swine," she says with a cackle. Later, she confides: "I like to tease people and give them a hard time."

It's not unusual for her to do a small gig, like this one for her voice coach, Barbara Maier, who recently lost her daughter and wanted to raise money for the charity Pug Rescue (rescues and supports adoption of pug dogs), of which her daughter was a huge fan. Afterwards, Harry's smile is a little tight as she shakes hands and receives a small knot of fans in the corridor, with just the right mix of courtesy and aloofness, as befits a pop icon. Then, she glides into the backroom to join fellow performer Diamanda Galas, who brought the house down with her uproarious lyrics, "Hide all the knives, 'coz baby's insane". Despite her huge commercial success, Harry has never really conformed, and when she's not hitting the circuit with her original Blondie band-mates, together again since their reunion in 1999, she's a regular on the fringe club and music scene in Downtown New York. She's much more likely to turn up at a benefit, a drag show or a fetish night than a big record label party. You might just as well find her with Kiki & Herb as Iggy Pop.

The cabaret club on Lafayette Street in Greenwich Village is just yards from the cradle of punk, CBGB's dive on The Bowery, the venue where Blondie launched in the late 70s, and the street where Harry used to rent an unheated loft above a liquor store for a few dollars a month, back in the day. Now, in a rather cool state of maturity, she lives a few crucial blocks uptown in Chelsea with her dogs, and takes a glass of champagne where she was once immersed in the drug-fuelled, wild frontier of Andy Warhol's 70s' New York. She admits to having subtle plastic surgery these days, and concedes that it would be easier if she was performing jazz or blues, rather than pop and funk, where the industry is obsessed with youth. What about that old Blondie number, Die Young, Stay Pretty, with its lyrics "live fast, 'coz it won't last"? "It's about people that I knew back then who didn't last very long. It's one of those terrible Catch-22 situations. I don't know which is more valuable - a flame that burns hot and fast or one that keeps on going," she says, suddenly pensive.

An almost-imperceptible note of defiance creeps into her voice when she's asked about keeping up her image and her creativity as the years roll by. "Fortunately, I didn't burn out. And I do say 'fortunately'," she adds in a rather strict voice.

She believes age has less to do with being edgy than wealth. "What was it Talking Heads said: 'stay hungry'?"

Her biggest hobby is hanging out with friends, and she reckons her mates divide about 50-50 gay and straight. Lots of fags but plenty of dykes, too. Her camp credentials come mainly from her image as the blonde bombshell with a mix of punk, princess and trash, and the bolshy, tongue-in-cheek attitude to go with it. But she also acted in the film Hairspray, and annually attended the legendary, giant New York drag festival Wigstock in the 80s and 90s.

Romantically, she's known best, of course, for loving band-mate Chris Stein; so close, she described them being "as one". Sometime after Blondie split in 1982, he fell ill for several years with a rare skin disorder, and she helped nurse him back to health. Their friendship survived, but their romantic partnership didn't. Is she looking for love? "Always," she replies, her voice wistful but warm.

And at certain times in her life, she's found it in the arms of women. Has she slept with women she ran into and fancied, or with close friends that slipped into longer romantic relationships?

"I think it was sort of all different kinds of circumstances, not one particular situation for me. I've had and probably will still have, a pretty exotic lifestyle," she says. Has she slept with any women any of us would have heard of? "Don't kiss and tell if you want to keep your friends."

She's equally diplomatic on the subject of which is better, good sex with a woman or good sex with a man. "I just find sharing affection and sexual pleasure special, don't you?" she replies, quicksticks.

When it comes to answering tricky questions without actually revealing much, Harry has perfected her interview technique over the years. But lest her lesbian fans get too excited, she says, very casually, "I'm probably more hetrosexual than I am homosexual, or even bisexual." Then she sighs and adds that she's gone off labels, and doesn't think sexuality - or gender, for that matter - is so clear-cut as the mainstream likes to make out. "It's tedious after a while. It really is about who the person is," she says.

On the other hand, she knows her audience is broader than many because lots of her lyrics are ambiguous. And, warming to her theme, she declares enthusiastically: "I have a feminine biology, but a very masculine brain... um, not aggressive, but very determined about things... to not live through a man, to have my own life."

There's no doubt that she's absolutely carved out her own life, so say nothing of her place in music history. When Heart of Glass smashed its way to Number One on both sides of the Atlantic in 1979, people were blown away by Blondie, the hardcore pop band, and their soft-punk front woman, Debbie Harry. The police had to close London streets to traffic when Blondie turned up at record shops and got mobbed. She remembers the sudden fame, the mayhem, the bodyguards and how the band were described as unique and genius. Harry balks, modestly. "We always felt that, musically, it was a lot of the same elements that already existed. From the inside, it felt like a struggle, and sometimes the absurdity of how people would analyse you - we would think, 'Oh my God, I'm just struggling to say a few things that satisfy myself, and we want to be entertaining'."

By the time Blondie had reformed, with originals Chris Stein, Clem Burke and Jimmy Destri, and hit the top of the UK charts with Maria in 1999, they were the only band to have had Number One hits in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Madonna, Annie Lennox, Garbage, Hole and The Cardigans were just a few superstars who had cited Blondie as a main influence in the meantime. It was hardly what her parents had imagined for her.

Harry was adopted, not long after being born in Miami. She later made efforts to trace her birth parents, but never had a relationship with either of them, adding that two parents was more than enough. "I think there's a form of damage (being adopted) - and a certain physical reality that I was always searching for different things," she said. She was brought up in Union City, New Jersey, no more than a stilettoed stride from the Big Apple. Harry rolled into New York at 19, and spent her 20s doing cabaret and even being a Playboy Bunny Girl in nightclubs, where angry girlfriends of men she was entertaining would stub their cigarettes out on her legs. She even had a narrow escape from the notorious 70s' serial killer Ted Bundy, after she accepted a lift home from him one night. Only as they drove along did she notice that the car was stripped inside and the door had no inside handles. Panicking, she managed to stick her skinny arm through the partially open window, wrench open the door and throw herself out onto the road before he could grab her - and only later discovered who he was. So, she almost died young, after all.

Bundy was executed, as - years later - was prostitute Aileen Wuornos, who was vilified as an evil lesbian at her trial for killing a string of clients, and is now being portrayed on the big screen in Monster.

"She was different, of course. Bundy was a psychopath. She was deeply depressed and angry, and she was obviously mistreated, and needed to be considered as very fragile and in need of medication. I don't think Bundy was curable but, with help, Aileen would probably have been okay," Harry says. US research has shown that a woman's lesbianism is, invariably, specifically used against her if she's on trial for a violent crime. "It's not a pretty picture, is it?"

How does she feel, living in a country that's simultaneously trying to legalise gay marriage in some states, while President Bush wants a federal ban added to the US Constitution? "Ah, George," she sighs. "Anyone who can say 'nookula' instead of 'nuclear' is living in another world."

Having never married, she associates the institution itself more with images of bondage (not THAT kind of bondage - down, grrls) and surrendering identity than with something to be aspired to, even in the name of equality. But she agrees that, when it comes to the crunch, if you want to get married you should have the right.

"It's all about love and acceptance, not judgement, and that's where the religious fundamentalists get it wrong and are misleading everyone."

Ah, back to love again. Her great amour, Chris, eventually married Barbara Sicuranza, a New York actor and writer who's worked with legendary performer Penny Arcade. They have a daughter.

Woman to woman, what is Harry's recipe for surviving heartbreak? "Wallow in it. If you wallow, you use it up and then you limp on... to the next."

Deborah Harry and Blondie tour the UK from 3 June-24 June, with further dates added from 3 July. Visit www.blondie.net for venues and info.

The Curse of Blondie is out now on Epic.

What people say:

"She lives and works with the people she writes about. She despises the bullshit in the pop business, and is an iconoclast. She also sings her ass off."

Diamanda Galas - singer, pianist, gay festival performer.

"She's got charisma. She'd rather hang out with Manhattan freaks than Hollywood celebrities. As an icon, she's the exception to the usual lesbian lack of taste - she will live forever."

Elisabeth Vincentelli - Senior Editor, Time Out New York.

"When I was 11, my bedroom was covered in pictures of Blondie, including a poster of Debbie Harry, straddling a motorcycle in a black tube top and leopard-skin pedal pushers. Those cheeks, that come-hither look... I was obsessed with the music and the woman."

Kris Kohler - New York DJ.

"Over the weekend, I caught Debbie Harry and Blondie on TV. Her voice is as potent and erotic as when she was the ravishing blueprint for Madonna and Gwen Stefani. Oh, that sophisticated sound, those high-school girl vamp motions..."

Liz Smith - New York Post, gossip columnist.


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