The Sunday Express Magazine
14th February 1999
Interview: Susan Chenery
Photographer: Simon Fowler
Blonde
transition

Deborah Harry was Punk's pin-up princess. Twenty years on, she and Blondie are back - and growing old disgracefully.

The icon is bored. Bored in a fluffy black hat. She rises slowly from her seat with a remote smile and a broad hand languidly offered, rather like a mermaid rising from the sea. But the long, fine, two-tone hair that streams tangled from the hat is no longer the requisite platinum of the icon. It is something to see, though: an icon up close. It's as though you shouldn't really be doing it. Icons are for admiring from an unattainable distance. They are not supposed to hop down off their pedestal and sit here smoking and swearing and being elaborately, humanly bored like this one is turning out to be.

"We may be really famous, with some kind of cult status, but it is not like I am so far removed physically from the rest of the world. I am not so isolated any more," she explains. It is a messy interview: four highly voluble, jaded and vaguely neurotic New Yorkers sit around a table talking over each other in a jumbled narrative that is pretty much impossible to follow.

From an early age Deborah Harry understood absolutely the iconic power of platinum: the painted, the peroxided, pneumatic parody of female sexuality that is the American idea of the goddess. The Mae, the Lana, the Marilyn, in a straight line of succession. Deborah (or Debbie as she was then known) Harry was flaunting her blondness, her explicit sexuality, her underwear (sometimes her lack of underwear) on the world's stages while Madonna was still at school in the Midwest. Men desired her, women admired her: she was the famous girl-power prototype that Madonna would later take to the max. Debbie did it first.

As a mousy brown adopted child in Hawthorne, New Jersey, Deborah dreamed of that other orphan goddess, Marilyn Monroe. Dreamed the American dream of little girls from the prairies of Kansas to the swamps of Tennessee: that one day she would grow up and be a star. I wanna be a platinum blonde/Just like all the sexy stars, as she later pouted in a song. By the time she hit Manhatten at the age of 20, in 1965, she was her own work of art: a carefully constructed atomic faux-blonde, beautiful, ambitious, determined.

But it took another 10 years of hustling and hard work before she and her self-styled band, Blondie - what else? - rose from the nocturnal world of impoverished artists improvising in the trash culture and open arteries that was New York City in 1975, where image, honey, was everything. By then she had Been Around. She had been a Playboy Bunny, a waitress and a cohort of Andy Warhol. She was, as she later wrote in a song, no debutante.

"It was a struggle just to live back then, but at the same time it was inexpensive," says guitarist Chris Stein, Deborah's Former boyfriend, and Blondie co-founder, of those halcyon days. "There were a lot of economic elements behind what came out of the period. You had to really fight to get your head above water in those days."

By the time the band that had crawled out of the dirty, tramp-infested Lower East Side in home-made clothes self destructed into mutual hatred and serious drug problems six years later, they had sold millions of records and Deborah, her hairdo and her comic-book, trashed-Marilyn-Monroe persona, were a global commodity. Between 1978 and 1981 they had five number-one singles in Britain (Heart Of Glass, Sunday Girl, Atomic, Call Me, The Tide Is High) plus another string of top-20 hits (Denis, Picture This, Hanging On The Telephone, Union City Blue). "I wanted to inject some film-star glamour into the music scene," Deborah says now. "I didn't want to be a victim."

But it was too late: a star beyond her wildest imaginings, she was isolated by the fame she had once craved so badly. "I couldn't escape myself. Everywhere I went, I was Blondie. I really had no place to go."

And so she vanished, disappeared overnight; only caught by a camera some time during 1982 when, shockingly bloated, distraught, dishevelled and apparently falling apart, she emerged from the hospital where Chris Stein was wasting away from a rare skin disease. The ice-cool pin-up punk princess had, it seemed for a while then, imploded.

She spent three years nursing Stein back to health and, although they had broken up after 11 years together, they remained close friends and he continued to work on her solo projects. "I took some time off, yeah," she says now, with a sharp sideways glance of those extraordinarily wide, slanted eyes; eyes that can flash alarmingly, like a suddenly angered cat. She was, she said, lost, depressed and doing a lot of drugs.

"I went on a bender," interjects keyboard player Jimmy Destri helpfully from across the table, pausing briefly from enthusiastically shovelling in pasta. "I just went on a lost weekend that lasted for a couple of years. It is a good thing I did, too. Everybody needs to go through that once. I blew all my money but I got it out of my system." Chris Stein, now clearly recovered into droll and comfortable middle-age, nods sagely. "I stayed stoned for a long time. In those days I took everything you could imagine: drugs was just a way of dealing with all the hassle. It was just towards the end really that we took drugs. It was all about the frustrations, it was a reflex, getting numb and escaping and all that crap."

"Now," says Jimmy from behind the pasta, "we get off on deodorant we are so boring."

So here they are. Back from a long way away. Blondie, in palely loitering person. Alive, sober and still singing a catchy song. Reporting for duty after a 16-year absence - well, four of them are, anyway (over the years Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison have gone their separate ways). Back with a new album, No Exit, back with the single Maria heading towards the top five, sky-rocketing back to the middle-aged future. Pulled back together by Chris Stein. "I think it was at the back of everybody's mind, but I looked at it as an actual reality instead of just a casual thought. I figured it would be a good idea and the timing would be right." They are survivors of an industry that screwed them financially, survivors of their own destructive terminal velocity.

Drummer Clem Burke looks up with shining brown eyes: "We want to be in the here and now. A lot of people from the old days are not here anymore. We have survived the New Wave pop thing which was really about self-destruction. You have to remember we went from playing clubs to big stages without any interim. It was total madness."

For Jimmy, who has spent the intervening years as a contractor in Brooklyn, a mid-life rebirth got more than just the creative juices going. "My wife and I were trying to get pregnant for seven years," - he is eyeing the desert menu - "and it didn't happen until I started working with the band again. We are sure it was the testosterone kicking in."

And what of the chanteuse in middle-age? The tarnished icon? Ageing rock-chick has never been a flattering look, even if you are the prototype. The youth-oriented entertainment industry has a nasty habit of consigning women to the scrapheap just at the point when they have spent years honing their craft to perfection. Do you come back as a mature, neurotic, temperamental diva? Do you get respect?

"I sort of have a meatier style and a meatier sound than before," says Deborah, with an amused glance towards the ample cleavage. "I am meatier, basically." In the flesh, the revised icon, at 53, is still ripely, glossily beautiful. She is a surprisingly big boned woman. The creamy skin is clear and flawless across the famously wide, high-boned Slavic face with the full, fat, carnivorous mouth.

In conversation she is far, far more serious than her ironic sex-bomb stage persona would suggest. As serious, in fact, as her work with free-jazz group, Jazz Passengers, proves. "I have been lucky," she said recently. "I've had the chance to retreat from the spotlight and just work as a singer and an artist." She parodied herself with exploding hair in John Waters's huge-hair film Hairspray, had solo hits with French Kissing In The USA and I Want That Man, but then she pretty much turned her back on pop until Chris Stein persuaded her otherwise.

She is funny in the edgy way that bitter experience can confer, with a considerable and articulate intellect under all that make-up and hair dye. Her speaking voice is beautiful: both husky and crystal clear; a strangely compelling mixture of choir girl and come-with-me-to-the-boudoir. As she grows friendlier, you start to get the feeling that Deborah Harry is a really nice woman, an unattached woman who lives with her beloved lapdog Chi-Chi, a woman who would be a chicken-soup kind of friend.

These days she and Chris (his later marrige lasted only two years) even double-date. She has spoken in the past of her sadness at not getting around to having children. But she is happy to continue performing her glamorous professional role of icon. "I just go out there with my focus on doing what I do," she once said of performing. "And then when I get a response, I know what the atmosphere is, and I know the shape it is, and then I sort of deal with it and how it comes down."

In the dynamic between these four old warriors are the obvious intelligence and high-strung intensity that wrote and composed all those emblematic songs, and the artistic tension that must have agitated and propelled them out of the one-room tenements and shady dives of that other long-ago life. They are happier talking about weighty books they all seem to be reading than about the minutiae of the underground music scene of the seventies, and its many rigorous sub-categories.

That they can work together again now, without the towering feuds and monumental fights that characterised their previous incarnation, can perhaps be put down to the blessed relief of maturity and, well, therapy. "We still have all our fingers and toes and some of our brain cells," says Deborah with a wry smile when asked about going into the studio again, "but we are still in therapy. Always."

"I only wish," agrees Chris - who is wearing large sunglasses indoors on a filthy rainy day in a look that does not, somehow, say rock-star chic, "that I could take Doctor Reuben on the road. We need a band psychiatrist at this point. We are at breaking point. Analysing and talking about yourself every day really makes you weird and we have been doing it for months all over the world promoting this album."

Deborah leans over and taps my arm conspiratorially. "This is as good as it gets, believe me."

Destri says, with an evil grin: "Oh, we could snap at any moment."

The next day, at the photographic session, you start to appreciate the difficulties of being a goddess. How hard it is to be a babe at 53. To keep up the rock-star cool, day in day out.

Deborah is doing the Deborah Thing. The Deborah Effect. She is Deborah Harry, Rock Star. With those dramatic and photogenic features underscored and outlined in heavy make-up, she is feline. A large and lustrous jungle cat. The men in the band, in sharp black suits and spikey mod hair, fan out around her.

But the icon is not happy. The cat is not purring. The fangs are poised. She is edgy, resistant. She stands sullenly against a red velvet curtain. Oh yes, she pouts and poses professionally for the camera, she says "hi" warmly to me, but she seems to be thinking, "Why can't anyone understand, why don't they get it?" she does not want to be singled out. Deborah Harry does not want to be photographed alone. "We are intergrated," she says softly at one point, as she sits on a pink sofa in a beautiful coat looking luxuriantly wonderful. Then she wanders off to sit alone. Her wide shoulders slump under the exquisite, shimmering cloth and for a moment I see a tired, hard-working woman struggling, like all of us, to keep the show on the road.

"There is no such thing as glamour," I remember her saying once, rather crossly, in a television interview.

Jimmy Destri is looking fondly at his friend the icon. "It is very emotional for me working with Deborah again. You know - writing the lyrics with her and then rushing back to her apartment to look at it. The great part is when she gets her typewriter out and then you know it is almost done. I get all gushy."

Here comes the 21st century/Gonna be much better for a girl like me, she sang in the song that was a hit during her solo period. And even though she once wrote the song Die Young, Stay Pretty, unlike so many iconic blondes who did not live out the terms of their natural lives, she is still energetically, emphatically entertaining people, straddling half the century and still moving with the times.

"I'm just better at it, now, I'm better than ever," she says. Go Girl, go.


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