Elle Magazine (UK EDITION) - October 2003
Photography By: Kayt Jones
Written By: Kate Finnigan
It's over 20 years since Deborah Harry was the
wittiest, prettiest girl in pop. But, as Kate Finnigan
finds out, she's lost neither her famous cheekbones
nor her evil sense of humour.
THE CURSE OF
Picture this. It's 1977. New York band Blondie are
playing the first night of their eight-week residency
at the Whisky a Go Go bar in Los Angeles. This first
night, Debbie Harry, the 32-year-old lead singer - a
blonde, red-lipped sex bomb - watches the kids in the
crowd. They're wearing their best gig gear: bell
bottoms and flowered shirts, muu-muu dresses and those
three-piece suits from the early 70s, which they're
all still into. Fast forward a week. At their second
performance, Debbie is watching again, this time in
some amazement as she sees that tonight the girls are
in tight black miniskirts, the boys decked out in
narrow-legged suits and skinny ties - an exact copy of
the styles worn on stage right now by her and the
members of Blondie. Oh my God, she realises, we've
created A Look.
Deborah Harry, formerly Debbie, now 58, is packing
up stuff from her hotel bathroom when she asks me if
I'd like to have her used false eyelashes. She puts
them in my hand and they lie there like a pair of
felled caterpillars, tiny lumps of old mascara
crumbling onto my palm as if the critters are popping
out little black eggs. What's that? Do I want the used
false eyelashes of Deborah Harry, style icon, punk-pop
princess, living legend...? Is she kidding?
It feels like we're standing inside a TV set or a
laboratory. Deborah's room at the minimalist St
Martins Lane hotel is totally white, with
floor-to-ceiling windows on two conjoining sides. It's
as if it was designed with the Grande Dame of Rock
Chicks in mind. Her white cotton T-shirt and bob of
platinum hair are enveloped by the backdrop, with only
her red lips and piercing eyes standing out. She's
like an installation or a working experiment: 'Deborah
Harry, pop icon - punk era to present day'.
The 6pm Eurostar to Paris leaves in under two hours
and she's got to be on it. She's managing to talk,
smoke and fast-pack a multitude of black garments into
two black cases. Drifting in and out of enthusiasm as
if she's walking through sunshine and showers, at
times she's positively glum. When she's revved,
though, she's hilarious, fiercely sarcastic and camp
as hell. 'You take yourself too seriously, where does
it go from there?' she shrugs later. 'I think that's
part of the era that we came from. The punk era was
definitely mocking. We were making fun of everybody.'
Born in Miami, Florida, in 1945, to a
concert-pianist mother, Deborah Ann was given up for
adoption and brought up in New Jersey by Richard and
Catherine Harry. Her father worked for a company that
manufactured woven labels for clothes and she had a
passion for fashion from a young age. She says she
dreamt Marilyn Monroe was her mother when she was a
kid. People put her blonde ambition down to that. She
was only 12 when she started bleaching her hair, dying
it violet, blue and 'all kinds of embarrassing colours'
- outrageous for small-town life in the 60s. She had
to get out of the sticks. 'I knew that if I stayed I'd
probably have a nervous breakdown by the time I was
40, so it's a good thing I left.' She pauses, so you
know a line's coming. 'I had my nervous breakdown much
earlier. I got it out of the way in my twenties.
'Blondie' was what labourers and truck drivers
shouted after Debbie as she shimmied around boho
Greenwich Village to her various pre-fame jobs -
secretary at the BBC's New York office, Playboy Bunny,
waitress at Max's Kansas City, which, like CBGB, was
one of the bars where New York punk was born.
Her platinum hair attracted men like magpies to
trinkets. 'Hey, Blondie!' they'd yell, trying to get
her attention. It was a good name she thought, back in
1974, for the punk by-the-way-of-60s-girl-group she
and ex-art student Chris Stein were starting up. She'd
met Chris in a club while she was singing in the
all-girl band the Stilettoes - and they formed Blondie
with Clem Burke and Jimmy Destri. Chris was Debbie's
mentor, her boyfriend, the love of her life.
Physically, Blondie's front woman was a ready-made
beauty queen - the hair and lips, those cheekbones
(still very much in evidence now, thanks, partially,
to a little nip and tuck. But more on that later...).
Her mother worried about her daughter's striking
physical appearance and told a teenage Deborah not to
rely on her beauty.
'My mother and I didn't look alike and I think she
always had a problem with her looks,' she reflects.
'She imparted information to me that she thought was
really valuable to her and I think she was right. But
I also think you have to use your looks to your
advantage. And there are two sides to that coin,
The power of that face and body, juxtaposed with
the tearaway clothes, launched the Rock Chick as we
now know her. 'It was a deconstruction of the
traditions,' she says of the thrown-together fusion of
mod and punk. 'To wear something that was wrinkled or
ripped then was like, "Did you get mugged?"'
she says in John Waters-style snipe. '"Has she
been attacked?" But I don't think it seems so
outrageous now, when you look at it.'
Even so, woe betide anyone who lays claim to her
territory. 'There was a famous photo shoot with Shania
Twain dressed up in punk clothes taken in CBGB and I
was sort of horrified. The last thing in the world is
thinking of Shania Twain as a punk!' she laughs. 'I
mean, back OFF. BACK OFF! If you wanted to be a punk
you should have put your ass on the line, got yourself
down to CBGB.' We both cackle like hags at the
Their first album, Blondie, was released in 1976
and was well received but not a commercial hit. They
built up a buzz with that stint in LA and tours with
Iggy Pop and David Bowie and became household-name
famous, first in the UK in 1978 with the number-two
hit, Denis, from their second album, Plastic Letters.
(Debbie's subsequent appearance on Top of the Pops
wearing a striped swimsuit and jacket and little else
caused the BBC to gulp very loudly.)
It was followed that year by Parallel Lines,
considered by many to be one of the best rock albums
of all time, which finally lead to success in the
States. Between 1978 and 1981, the band clocked up six
UK number ones (Heart of Glass, Sunday Girl, Dreaming,
Atomic, Call Me, The Tide is high) and many US
successes. They were Andy Warhol's favourite band,
they consorted with legends - Iggy Pop, the Ramones,
Nancy Spungen - and they partied like the best of
them, though Deborah suspects her wilder days have now
'I don't know if anybody could live that
extraordinary lifestyle and survive. Some people I
knew who were really heavy drug-takers and wild party
people have died,' she sighs. 'It's not so much about
the party afterwards. The party on stage is where I'm
Debbie, to the delight of schoolboys everywhere,
was the first female pop star to play so provocatively
with her image. She wasn't just sexy, she was cool -
guys wanted to sleep with her, girls wanted to be her,
and visa versa, actually. Her identity was so strong
that it became mixed up with the group's - people
started thinking Blondie was actually Debbie's name
and the rest of the band took to wearing pins reading
'Blondie is a band'. Tensions rose.
To a certain extent, she was protected from the
music-industry madness by her love affair with Chris.
But the relationship bore the brunt. 'I think there
was this sense that he was the man and he should
protect me,' she explains, a little sadly. 'And that
was sort of impossible. I needed a bodyguard, not a
boyfriend.' She thinks this contributed to Chris'
illness - in 1982, he was diagnosed with what was
thought at the time to be a fatal skin disease called
Pemphigus, and Debbie disappeared from public view to
nurse him for three years.
'Chris and I were in love with each other and with
what we were doing. It was special. It was a unique
experience,' she says. But having to provide the
kick-start to her mentor's motor was too much of a
strain. In 1983, the band split up, exhausted by each
other and their demanding record company contract
(they were required to produce three albums a year).
Four years later, after 14 years together, so did
Chris and Debbie. Chris married twice, had children.
Debbie went solo and never married.
She made five albums, none of which ever received
the acclaim of Blondie (although the singles French
Kissin' in the USA and I Want that Man put a certain
va-va-voom into my adolescence). She hooked up with
the Jazz Passengers, grabbed suitably out-there roles
in David Cronenberg's Videodrome and John Waters'
Hairspray. And then in 1998, Blondie surprised
everyone by getting back together and the following
year zooming to number one with the single Maria - in
their 50s. Sick, eh?
Age has always and never been an issue for Deborah.
She was 33 when Blondie made it big. 'Would a
33-year-old woman walking into a record label be taken
seriously now?' she asks, as we discuss the
'production values' (ie no mingers allowed) of the
youth-obsessed music industry. 'No way!' I exclaim
passionately. 'Write that down,' she orders. 'No way.'
Admittedly, Debbie was probably the hottest 33 year
old who ever walked the earth, never mind into a
record exec's office, so her own 'production values'
definitely stood in her favour. But coming back to the
music industry at 53, and now again at 58 with new
album The Curse of Blondie certainly refocuses public
attention on your looks. Specifically, how you looked
then and how you don't look the same now. That's got
to be a drag.
'Age is a real problem, I think, because unless you
commit suicide, you're gonna live, you're gonna get
old,' she points out rationally. 'You might as well be
sharp about it and make the best of it because the
opposite is no fun, death is no fun.'
For being 'sharp' let's read, having a little
plastic surgery. Deborah's not shy about it. She had a
face-lift some years ago, and 'I'm about ready for
another!' she quips. Then she retracts. 'Oh, I don't
know if I'm really ready for another. But you look
good, you feel good. Why not? Yeah, I think it helps
me, makes me feel energised, gives you all the things
you need to walk out, be part of what's going on, be
part of the action. I don't feel like hiding away.'
We're sitting in the lobby of St Martins Lane now,
slightly breathless, having heaved her bags downstairs
- no entourage for icons, it seems. But Marvin Gaye is
singing Let's Get it On very loudly and Deborah, her
hair topped off with a flowery gardening hat, is on a
roll. 'Furthermore!' she announces. 'If I get really
old and saggy, I've often thought what I'd do is try
to become like, Chinese or something.'
'Oh my God!' I yelp above Marv. 'What are you
'Have extreme surgery. Be really artistic, as if I was
trying to change my identity. Wouldn't that be cool?'
she nods, like a teenager suggesting she dye her hair
violet. 'I'd have to have a lot of loose skin, so they
could twist it up, tie little knots in the corners...'
She's winding me up, I know, but it's not that easy to
We talk about the new album (a tresure trove of
classic pop songs, sexy dance tracks and jazz tunes,
glittered with her usual sharp wit and romantic
wisdom), and how she believes love is 'the answer'.
She falls in love a lot, she says, 'all the time'. I
ask if she still thinks about adopting a child because
there's a little girl somewhere who would love to
inherit that archive of amazing outfits. 'That's
right!' she retorts immediately. 'And if I had a boy
who was gay, so would he!'
Plans are not yet in place for 'Blondie: the
movie', but she thinks it would be a great story.
There'd be a cat fight over that lead role. Who would
she want to play herself? 'Oh,' she says sitting up.
'I'm not sure exactly. I'd like to have, what's her
name? Kirsten Dunst. She's good and we sort of have a
similar look.' I suggest that Kirsten's cheekbones
don't quite measure up to Debbie Harry standard.
'Well,' she cackles evily, 'She'll just have to have
Walking out of the lobby in her flowery hat, she
heads to her limo and is snapped by a lone paparazzo.
I stand with the paparazzo guy and watch Deborah Harry
disappear, a pair of crumbly eyelashes in my pocket -
positive proof that an icon came this way.