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?
She's not naming lovers' names, mind you. Anyone famous?
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
Liz Smith - New York Post, gossip columnist.