Gay Community News - November 2003

RECONSTRUCTING
HARRY

She craved fame throughout her 20's, got it in her 30's, and spent her 40's trying to relight the fire. Now, at the tender age of 58, the world's first real pop icon is back at the top of her game and loving every minute of it. Brian Finnegan gets to grips with Deborah Harry, a survivor in every sense of the word.

In 1978, when Blondie were at the height of their fame, Debbie Harry's image - a cross between butter-wouldn't-melt, bubble-gum-blowing '60s girl grouper, naieve sex kitten and New York punk goddess - was a well thought out contrivance and a precurser to the kind of visual and preformanative manipulation a certain native of Detroit would seize on five years later. Deborah Harry was Madonna before Madonna even imagined it.

Debbie was the first female pop star to provocatively play with her image. Heterosexual boys wanted to sleep with her, straight girls wanted to imitate her, and queer fans wanted to be her. She wasn't just sexy, she was cool to boot and her identity became so strong it got all mixed up with the band's. People started thinking Blondie was actually Debbie's name until the rest of the group began to wear badges stating, 'Blondie is a band'.

Now 58, Harry has lost none of her edge or attention-grabbing attitude. The hair, which has gone through as many changes as Madge's barnet, is back to its platinum shade, albeit bobbed within an inch of its life. Scarlet lipstick emphasises that Jean Harlow pout, and that sense of style is just as chic and individual as it ever was - kooky, but never crass. When she was at the height of her fame, Harry was already 33 years old - a far cry from the typical age of today's pop princess - so aging has always been one of the 'negatives' the press have attacked her with over the years. She was criticised for being a ready-made beauty queen when Blondie were the world's number one group and as she got older she was castigated for not being as beautiful as she used to be.

Today she takes beauty and aging in her stride, with a little help from her plastic surgeon. "I think it's such an asset for a woman to be beautiful," she says with trademark softly-does-it conviction. "I don't think I would have gotten anywhere without my looks."

With the release of Blondie's latest album, The Curse of Blondie, and an attendant international tour which takes her to Ireland this month, those looks are once again centre stage. Harry is happy to admit that she's had a little nip and tuck along the way.

"Age is a real problem," she admits. "Unless you commit suicide, or die, you're going to live and you're going to get old. You might as well be sharp about it and make the best of it, because the opposite is no fun."

She says her face life a couple of years ago made her look and feel better. "It makes you feel energised, gives you all the things you need to walk out and be part of the action. I don't feel like hiding away."

Hiding away is something Deborah Harry never felt like doing. Brought up in New Jersey by adoptive parents, she says she dreamt her birth mother was Marilyn Monroe when she was a child. At the tender age of 12 she began bleaching her hair and then dying it outrageous colours. "I knew that if I stayed I'd probably have had a nervous breakdown by the time I was 40," she says of smalltown American life. "It's a good thing I left."

In New York her platinum-dyed hair attracted wolf-whistles and men would call her 'Blondie' as she passed by. The name stuck and when she met up with Chris Stein to form a post-girl-group punk combo, it seemed as good a band moniker as any.

Right from the start, Harry exploited the traditional blonde starlet image to her own popular end. "There was a song we used to do called Platinum Blonde," she remembers, "which was all about the great silver screen blondes. I think they've had a huge effect on me. Their tremendous sexuality and the combination of their innocence and vulnerability made everyone identify."

She also matter-of-factly acknowledges the gay connection with such Hollywood icons, and the subsequent queer following Blondie has retained over the decades.

"Two things happened silmutaneously with the advent of our success and our exposure to the public through music. Women's lib and gay rights came of age. These things are part of our foundation. We were always kind of outsiders, and 20 years ago being gay was being an outsider. You hold on to what you come up with. You always respect that. It's a place for you to stand."

She also maintains that her stalwart gay following has much to do with her pop iconisation on a wider level, a place which hasn't always been easy for her to inhabit.

"I always felt that there was this really dark voice inside of me, grumbling. I don't know if that has anything to do with the way the public see you, or the way people feel about you. But perhaps it does.

"When I first realised that I had achieved iconhood, I had been laying low for a while and hadn't been really active in performance. All of a sudden it struck me that people were looking as me in a certain kind of way. I realised that if you last long enough and maintain some kind of decent appearance, you're going to become a pop icon."

Speaking of pop icons, it's a well documented fact that Harry has little or no time for the prefabricated queens of today's charts, but now that she's back on the road, she's ready to grudgingly admit that Britney Spears works hard for the money.

"I've got respect for her because I think anyone who grows up in the business like that and is consistent, and really works hard as a child, really deserves to have some success and get what they want. It's a terrifically dedicated thing."

The same could be said for a woman who has plugged away in the industry way beyond what many would consider her sell-by-date.

Blondie's third album, Parallel Lines, is considered by many to be one of last century's classic rock albums and it ushered in a three year period of unparalleled success across the world. 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 had as many US successes. Blondie were Andy Warhol's favourite group, they counted legends among their friends, including the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and the Ramones; and they sealed a reputation for New York partying like no other celebrities since the days of Studio 54.

But when Chris Stein, Debbie's then boyfriend and founding bandmate, was diagnosed with what was thought at the time to be a fatal skin disease called Pemphigus, Blondie split up and Debbie all but disappeared from the radar.

She spent three years nursing him, out of the spotlight. "We were a couple for so long, we practically thought as one person," she says, but after his recuperation they decided to split. Since then, Chris has married and has had a child, but although he won't be accompanying Blondie on their current tour, Harry maintains there are no hard feelings. "I want him to be Happy," she smiles. "Of all the people in the world, he's probably one I love most. He has a beautiful little daughter and a beautiful wife, and what could be better?"

After she and Stein split up, Debbie went solo and made five albums, none of which ever hit the heights of Blondie's success. Singles like French Kissin' In The USA and I Want That Man kept her somewhat in the limelight, as did appearances in films like John Waters' Hairspray (as the mother of Ricki Lake's nemesis) and David Cronenberg's Videodrome. But, despite plenty of image changes, celluloid outings and catchy tunes, Debbie didn't quite cut the mustard again until she got back with the original Blondie line-up five years ago.

Considering how much she craved fame in her 20's and got everything she wanted in her 30's, spending her 40's trying to catch up with the success she once had must have been difficult to come to terms with. As is her habit, Deborah turns to Hollywood for the philosophy that's kept her intact.

"What Rupert Pupkin says in The King of Comedy is, 'You take all of the really rotten things that happen to you and you make them into funny things'. That's a really genius way of getting through life. I make light of things - that's probably how I get through it all."

She got through it to see herself back on the number one spot again in her 50's. Blondie hit top of the pops with Maria, the first single from their comeback album, No Exit, and have never really gone away since. Because it was completed just before 9/11, it's taken a long time for Blondie to get their follow-up album out, but Harry has rarely been out of the press in those days. She made a clever appearance in last year's Absolutely Fabulous: Gay special, and a new movie, My Life Without Me, in which she stars alongside Mark Ruffalo, is about to be released. There's also been a huge revival in Blondie chic, with Atomic Kitten's number one cover of The Tide is High and the Kylie/Justin Timberlake take on Rapture at this year's Brits.

The Curse of Blondie sees a return to the pop-rock-disco sound that Harry and co. all but created. Songs like Undone and End to End would not be out of place on the likes of Eat to the Beat, while the band get involved in plenty of musical nostalgia, including an homage to Duran Duran if there ever was one on the first single, Good Boys, and takes on classics like Rapture (Shakedown) and The Tide Is High (Background Melody).

"I think this album is more sophisticated," says Harry, never one for false modesty. "We didn't want to make a Blondie album that would just live on our reputation from the past. We wanted to make something that is part of our lives and our thinking today. I think we're all much more capable at what we do, so the songs are better and the performances are better.

"I think it's a Blondie tradition that all of our albums sort of have a wide spread of styles. We try to represent all the influences that we've felt over the years. Being from such an urban environment, there's a lot of different ethnic influences and we really try to represent that."

The Curse of Blondie also sees Harry in fine writing fettle, particularly on the closing track, Songs of Love, which is like Jacques Brel through an 80's looking glass. Indeed, Harry has written or at least contributed to many of the band's songs, a talent for which she's rarely credited. "Yeah, I know," she agrees. "It's sort of funny. I don't know whether it's because people don't think the songs are personal or what. But I enjoy writing very much. I really, really like writing songs.

"Doing the new material is refreshing for us because we've been doing the other material for so long. I've noticed in the last three shows that the audiences were really listening to the new songs, really paying attention."

And that's what Deborah Harry likes more than anything, and something she's making sure she gets more of. Plenty of attention.

Blondie play Dublin's Vicar St on November 9 and Belfast's The Waterfront Hall on November 10. Their album, The Curse of Blondie is currently on release.


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