Photography: Nicholas Samartis
Hair & Makeup: Stephen Price
Styling: Nicole Bonython
Interview: Rebecca Henty

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DEBORAH HARRY
AT 
BLONDIE

In the seventies she reigned as the Queen of Blonde, Pop and Attitude. Now, nearly ten years since Blondie, Deborah Harry is an enduring female performer who can still make a black leather jacket look gorgeous. In an interview and photo session exclusive to FOLLOW ME Deborah Harry talks to Rebecca Henty.

DEBORAH HARRY'S FACE IS
storm or sunshine but nowhere in between. Behind the formidable, even menacing veneer - which is the defence and the accessory of fame - there is a graciousness waiting. Ask Deborah Harry a dumb question and she will either ignore you, make fun of you or deflect the question. Ask her something that does not insult her intelligence or lump her with an untenable image and she will engage in the conversation with sensitivity and openess. The girl with the haunting face who fronted the band, Blondie, in a zebra-print dress and thigh-high black boots, is now matured. At 45, it is the play of Deborah Harry's strong character on her expressive look which amounts to beauty.

The vampish character, Blondie, over-shadowed the band as the Blondie image now shadows Deborah Harry's own solo efforts. Presently relaunching her career with an album, Deborah embraces the exquisite spectre of Blondie; she just can't escape anyway. "Having been a pop phenomenon, it's refreshing to be able to go back to your roots, rethink everything and bring something new to that character everyone knew as Blondie. There was a time when I was hesitant about bringing her back. I wanted to move on with this album. I found that she's still part of me and I'm still part of her and it feels good. Blondie was oddly naive, Debbie Harry has grown up. There is something of both of us on this new album." The Blondie legacy, now part of the landscape of popular myth, is an indelible mark which Deborah Harry can influence but not erase. Recently, after one of the concerts on the Australian leg of her current world tour, a girl came backstage, asking to see Deborah. The fan opened her mouth to show BLONDIE tatooed, inky black, across the inside of her lower lip. "For that," says the tour manager, "I thought she deserved to go through."

Deborah Harry says she has always had "this sense of destiny" and according to her strength or fate, hers is a story of pop operatic proportions. She is, at first, the adopted child who never knew her real parents and who fantasised about being the daughter of Marilyn Monroe. Then, the starry adolescent who thinks only of being a performer: "Truthfully, I was obsessed about it [singing], I couldn't let it go. I tried other things, travelled a little bit . . . Whatever I did I still wanted to do music, it was always on my mind." Falling in with NYC's Greenwich Village rock scene in the early seventies, she "connects" with Chris Stein who becomes her soul-mate, guide, lover, collaborator and guitarist for the band they form together - Blondie. Their life accelerates into a spin of tours, trashed hotel rooms, drugs, fame and hit after hit until 1983, when Chris Stein becomes dangerously ill with a rare genetic disease, pemphigus. Blondie, the band, crumbles. Deborah Harry vanishes from the garish view, to look after her "other half", Chris. The gutter press, at this point, have the now tragic pop siren dying of AIDS.

For over three years, Deborah Harry held vigil over Chris Stein, never once leaving New York City. The fairy tale finish - his eventual recovery - then flattens into the real life fact that Chris and Deborah's love affair has come to an end.

Now living apart, they are continuing their strong professional partnership with a symbiosis that only 20 years of intimacy can bring. At press conferences and interviews, there are questions that Deborah will automatically leave for Chris to answer and vica versa. She says the time out has added clarity and impetus to her work. "In the Blondie days I was a little more detached because a lot of the lyrics were other people's point of view. Now I'm much more focused, I can hone in on things. Not just because of the break, but now I'm really performing the songs Chris and I wrote." Their most recent lyrics tend to be more poetic and personal than Blondie's satiric/surreal lines. It seems that the mask has slipped just slightly and the words reach more deeply into Chris and Deborah's life experience.

Considered a late starter (she was 32 when Blondie became well known), Deborah Harry's maturity is now her strong point. As the matriarch of the band she is possessive, intuitive, intensely loyal. She can ruthlessly dress down a manager in defence of a band member and gently apologise to him minutes later. She refers to the men in the band as "my men". She is old enough to have been named one of Madonna's inspirations. Yet, next to Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, Deborah, in her little black dress, looks like the younger sister of rock. And Deborah Harry, the pioneer female perfomer, who stripped off and sang long before Madonna and Annie Lennox, is no girl scout. She sees the changes for women in music as limited. About the progress of women in the past 15 years she says: "I don't know that it has changed for women performers. There are more girls doing it and I think there are more female musicians employed in bands, but I don't really see a lot of women in studio positions or female session musicians."

Deborah Harry sets herself apart from the soft-pop nyphettes and wannabes of the eighties. "When I did Blondie records there weren't many records out with girl singers . . . nowadays you turn on the radio and at least 75 percent of what you're hearing is girl singers. It tends to be diminutive limp-wristed pop vocals that are not really saying anything, they're cute. I don't want to be cute, that's why this record has a little more edge to it. And because I'm a different age bracket to them I have different things to say, I have different things on my mind. Anyway I have always been more aggressive, I was never a really clean pop singer."

The women performers Deborah admires write lyrics "that are slightly cynical and satiric and making fun. I've always liked that in songs . . . I think that as Paula Abdul and Madonna get a bit older perhaps they will get the edge. Things will happen in their careers. I'm sure they have lives that are extremely confusing, full of twists and turns and soon will be reflected in the music. Chrissie Hynde always has this nice edge in her lyrics, underneath the songs there is a feeling that kind of grips you . . ."

Deborah talks about an idea, concerning women, that she has already mentioned to the US press - that housewives should become unionised. It is one of those apparently wacky ideas that is, in fact, entirely sensible and sticks in your head. "You know," she explains, "I tend to think of things lightly, it was a glib kind of response but it does have some reality to it, some real benefits . . . It just popped into my head one day that the only people who don't really have a union, who are the largest labour force and who are totally unorganised, with no collective bargaining power are the housewives. All over the world, women are doing the same job and the majority of women do that job . . . I think we've already acknowledged inequality with the idea of women's rights and a housewives union is a logical development. Of course it will probably meet with a lot of resistance. In the States we have stores where union members can go and shop and they get substantial savings and bargains because they have a buying power and I don't think women have that. There should be certain things . . . I don't know, maybe I'm just being wistful . . ."

On one level, identifying with housewives is ironic. Her present life of sound checks and room service couldn't be further from that. Toying with the paradox, Deborah Harry books into hotels using the name of an actress who played one of TV's greatest all time housekeepers. At the same time, after years of success and her reclusive spell spent nursing Chris, fame must be a transparent affair. Deborah Harry sees a normal life as at once surreal and worthy of repect. "When I was younger, when I had this urge to be famous, fame seemed like a big umbrella that would protect you. That doesn't exist now . . ." She identifies with the lives of normal women because that is the way she grew up and it is an experience she shares with them. "I grew up in a straight middle-class family and my mother was a traditional housewife for many years.

"That's the way I grew up and how I expected my life to be. I expected to lead a normal sort of life. When I'm at home I do my own chores and stuff like that so I certainly know how to do that. I always had to do my laundry and take care of the house and do whatever women do."

While holding onto her picture of a conventional existence, Deborah Harry has lived an extraordinary performer's lifestyle. Perhaps more than any other female musician, she has translated the images and music of New York's underground scene into popular culture. With her innate acting sense, Deborah Harry is a post-Marilyn master at projecting herself in the way she wants to be seen. Marilyn Monroe could walk anonymously down the street in a coat and scarf and then suddenly, like a light switch, "turn it on" and make people stare with instant recognition. As Norma Jean projected Marilyn so Deborah Harry can do Blondie and Debbie Harry 'the-rock-star'.

Always visually and physically arresting, she still has an acute sense of fashion, of what will be commercial and popular. The video for the song "Sweet And Low", where Deborah is styled to resemble a luminous Andy Warhol pop-vision by the brilliant photographer, Steven Meisel, and fashion designer ("best friend") Stephen Sprouse, is a visual high point of her career. Deborah Harry, with her trademark white-blonde hair, her solid compact body and her strong sculptress hands, is still, at 45, the eclectic beauty she always was.

With Blondie all grown up, a well received album, and the experience and manner of fame, Deborah Harry may usurp her past levels of success. Yet she leaves her future undefined. There is, in the end, this disjunction between her achievement and potential as a performer combined with an extraordinary lack of expectation. No matter where she had ended up, you feel she would have been a strong woman.

"I think you grow up with a certain degree of innocence about who you are and I certainly wanted to have a bit of experience and adventure in my life before I settled, down but there is no way you can be absolutely sure that what you want to do is going to be successful or that you're going to be able to survive off it. It's sort of a gamble.

. . . As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a performer."

"So here you are?"

"Yeah, making a fool of myself, night after night!" We laugh at the cynicism of it but Deborah Harry is too smart and too honest to play at putting herself down. She corrects herself.

"It's OK, somebody's got to do it."


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