Genre - July/August 1996

DEBBIE HARRY: 
ICON
THE TIDE IS HIGH, SHE'S MOVING ON

By Peter McQuaid

Photography by Greg Gorman

Debbie Harry need not worry about ever being called a press whore. You see, when it comes to interviewing just about any celebrity, by the time the negotiations are struck and the meeting is consummated, the reporter invariably finds himself faced with either a subject who falls all over himself in an attempt to charm the interviewer, or a recalcitrant, resentful child who is surprised and dismayed to discover that fame has a price. Harry is neither. The former lead singer of Blondie (one of the seminal bands of the '70s), Harry is fairly easy to get to, but in fact very hard to get into.

Polite and professional once she's pinned down, this jersey-girl-turned-pop-icon is in no mood to sit and have her head examined. On our first date, she politely begged off, complaining of a headache; the second session ended abruptly when her cat walked into her bedroom with a bird, scattering blood and feathers everywhere. By the third session however, Harry seemed resigned to her fate, answering the sticky questions as cordially as the easy ones.

Curiously, unlike many famous people who seem to have canned answers for just about everything in their lives (leading one to wonder if they have time for anything but self-analysis), Harry seems most at sea when asked to reflect on herself and her career. Ask her for an opinion on current events though, and as you'll see, she has no shortage of fresh insights. These insights may, at first glance, seem a bit out of left field, but on further inspection seem very well-considered.

Unlike so many of her contemporaries from the punk years, Harry, it was widely felt, had superstar potential. Fashion designer Anna Sui recalls: "Debbie became the punks scene symbol of the most beautiful girl in the world - in the same way that Marianne Faithfull or Nico were for their scenes. In everyone's mind she is the icon of that time."

But for all her beauty and talent, for all her being the "It" girl, Harry's fame flickered. At the height of Debbie-mania, Chris Stein, Harry's lover at the time (and still occasional collaborator), became ill with a mysterious disease, and Harry dropped out of sight to nurse him back to health. By the time Stein regained his health, Harry's shot at megastardom had passed.

Interestingly, Harry seems to regard her mid-level fame as an artistic choice. And in fact, it has served her well. While mega-artists such as Madonna find themselves in something of a gilded cage, balancing the demands of fans with their need for artistic growth, Harry has had the freedom to eat to her own beat.

But even as she slipped in and out of the limelight, Harry has never really gone away - only mutated: into a solo artist (Koo Koo, Rockbird, and most recently, Debravation); a Broadway actress (Teaneck Tanzy and the Venus Flytrap with Andy Kauffman); a movie star (a housewife in Union City, an on-air shrink in Videodrome. The Old Woman in the Shoe in Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theater, a pushy mother in JOhn Waters's Hairspray); a jazz singer (with the Jazz Passengers); and a CD-ROM presence as the proprietor of an Egyptian-themed hotel. Yet, despite all her artistic wanderings, her core group has never left her. Indeed, she gathers new followers with each artistic foray.

One group that has loved Harry in each and every re-incarnation is the gay community, who has held her up as some kind of icon. Extra Fancy's openly gay lead singer Brian Grillo explains the phenomenon like this: "There are very few rock performers who can hold a whole room's attention without jumping around - she is one of them," he says. "There is a statue of four goddesses at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. And you know what? They should just have four Debbie Harrys. She is the total godess."

But the very essence of Harry's enduring appeal extends well beyond the gay community, and the reason why is perhaps best captured by music historian and pop culture writer Gerri Hirshey. "Her face is the only image from the '70s that makes you smile instead of wince," quips the respected journalist whose work appears in Vanity Fair and GQ. "She's a game American dame, willing to try anything from cabaret to CD-ROM games as long as they pique her interest and keep her laughing. Hanging out with her is like spending time with Claudette Colbert in Lycra and leather."

Designer Sui adds, "You know? When people look at Debbie they still see the most beautiful girl in the world."

This summer finds Harry in the studio cutting some new songs (including a duet with Elvis Costello), as well as promoting her latest on-screen effort, Heavy. The movie is director is James Mangold's poetic look at middle-aged denizens of an upstate New York bar as they struggle to come to terms with life's disappointments and sort out their dwindling options. By contrast, Harry seems unconcerned with disappointments, and she eagerly entertains a wealth of options.

PETER McQUAID: You're aware that at this point in your life you're regarded as an icon, particularly by gay men?

DEBBIE HARRY: Yes, but it's only by accident. I mean, [sigh], it's never really something that I drove myself to be. I never envisioned it, it just happened. All the pieces fell together in the right way at the right time.

PETER McQUAID: But by some strange circumstance, you seem to have always stayed at a certain level where you're well known and admired, but not rich and famous with that superstar status...

DEBBIE HARRY: At the second stage, where I was supposed to blast off, I just evaporated. I've just stayed in the art world, and in that respect, it's kind of lovely.

PETER McQUAID: A situation like that might ultimately make a lot of people bitter, don't you think?

DEBBIE HARRY: But most of the time I really adore my life. And now, doing this other kind of music - jazz with the Jazz Passengers - and having a different visual character, it's really nice. And I can become Blondie at will [laughs].

PETER McQUAID: Do you ever look through pictures and clippings from your Blondie days and want to scream: "What was I thinking?"

DEBBIE HARRY: When I look through the pictures I think, Oh my god! At the time though, I wasn't thinking at all - to tell you the truth.

PETER McQUAID: Thinking or not, your musical persona opened a lot of doors for you. You've already done quite a bit of movie work, and now you're in this movie, Heavy, with Shelley Winters as a domineering mother, Pruitt Taylor Vince as her emasculated son, Liv Tyler as a clueless Catskills ingenue, Evan Dando as her self-obsessed boyfriend...

DEBBIE HARRY: It's a very sad, depressing kind of story. Very real. It's not an entertainment thing, it's spiritual.

PETER McQUAID: You're a barmaid named Delores in the movie. What's her story?

DEBBIE HARRY: She's a former high school sweetheart type, an older version of Liv. And like Liv's character, Callie - who is also a waitress at the same place - my character graduated and got confused and started working. My character looks at Liv and is pissed off at seeing someone else make the same mistakes she did - and so she acts out.

PETER McQUAID: Did you have to research this character?

DEBBIE HARRY: It was pretty clearly written. I try to keep things as simple and clear as possible. I felt like with my own natural sense of depression coming through, I couldn't lose [laughs].

PETER McQUAID: How did you find this project?

DEBBIE HARRY: I got involved through Bebe Buell, Liv's mother and an old friend of mine from the [legendary New York rock club] CBGB's days. Liv and Bebe were excited about it because it was a sensitive - not commercial - thing. Liv's very serious about acting and doesn't want to be another flip of the page. I met with [director] Jim Mangold, and he was great. Sooo...

PETER McQUAID: So we know what Delores was like in high school. What were you like in high school?

DEBBIE HARRY: I wasn't a class leader. I was kind of quiet. Kind of a shy bohemian. I took art classes, and I was a hair-hopper. I always dyed my hair different colors.

PETER McQUAID: You moved to New York and worked as a waitress at Max's and you ended up falling in with Andy Warhol and the Factory crowd. Was that part of a plan? One of those high school, "I'm gonna move to New York and become fabulous" things?

DEBBIE HARRY: It's funny, in high school I didn't know anything about those people. But I always knew I wanted to move to New York, and when I did, somebody told me about this restaurant where you could make a lot of money - that was Max's. That's how I got my Max's stripes!

PETER McQUAID: What's the wildest thing you ever saw there?

DEBBIE HARRY: After seeing those people every day and every night, month after month, nothing seemed weird. But Candy Darling was stunning and beautiful; you couldn't stop looking at her.

PETER McQUAID: You've been touring with the Jazz Passengers, and you have a single on their last album. Can we expect a record in the near future?

DEBBIE HARRY: I'm gonna be working on a couple of new songs with Chris [Stein]; and the Passengers and I are going to record a couple of tracks next week. I'm also going to do a duet with Elvis Costello. That'll be fun.

PETER McQUAID: But now you're singing jazz?

DEBBIE HARRY: It's kind of like fake jazz, really.

PETER McQUAID: Years ago, Blondie recorded "Heart of Glass" and "Call Me" and pulled off the ultimate musical transgression by crossing over from rock to disco and back again. To this day, there is a great deal of animosity between the rock camp and the disco camp. What do you think about that?

DEBBIE HARRY: I thought it pretty funny. People were furious. People were like, [hissing] "Death to disco! How could you do that?"

PETER McQUAID: One thing in particular about the punk scene was the sense of propriety everyone had. Every band started out with a small, fanatical following, yours included, and as they got more and more popular, the core group would end up becoming increasingly disenchanted...

DEBBIE HARRY: We started on a very small level in the clubs, and then it became bigger, and the audiences who had supported us from the beginning became pissed off when other people started coming around. But you know, I was like that with The Dolls.

PETER McQUAID: The original drag queen rockers, except all the boys in it were straight...

DEBBIE HARRY: Oh, boy was I mad when other people started coming around to like them. They were mine.

PETER McQUAID: Are there any scenes around in the '90s that remind you at all of the punk scene in the '70s - that kind of energy, the outlawness, the sense of sexual, artistic, intellectual, and social experimentation?

DEBBIE HARRY: There was a sense of discovery and excitement that's missing now. Everything's become so corporate. I mean, the only thing that has any sense of clandestine to it is those people from the far right, the survivalists - and I would touch that with a ten-foot pole.

PETER McQUAID: How old are you now?

DEBBIE HARRY: Do you really want to print that? People will hate me when they find out.

PETER McQUAID: They got over "Heart of Glass," they will get over this.

DEBBIE HARRY: I'll be 51 this year.

PETER McQUAID: Growing up in an era that you first came to notoriety in, nobody seemed to envision themselves living past 30 - much less making it to 40 or 50. Did you ever think you'd live this long?

DEBBIE HARRY: Yeah, but I'm still the same asshole I ever was [laughs].

PETER McQUAID: Are there any artists coming up now that you hear or look at and go, "Oh, God, that's us!"?

DEBBIE HARRY: Not especially. People have proclaimed themselves to be based on Blondie, but in fact we took our references from other things too.

PETER McQUAID: Are there any artists from the original scene that you run into or keep in touch with?

DEBBIE HARRY: Once in awhile I see Richard Hell, who I absolutely adore, and who has a book coming out. Who else? Gee... A lot of them are gone. But I still see Joey Ramone a lot, and Johnny, from the Ramones - they're winding down from their farewell tour.

PETER McQUAID: Who are you listening to now?

DEBBIE HARRY: The last band I went to see was Coyote Shivers. I saw a really hot show of Iggy Pop's - the band was real crunchy, abd Iggy looked so great. Saw the last Ramones show. Love Morphine. I like to see bands live.

PETER McQUAID: Besides appearing with the Passengers, you've been appearing live solo recently...

DEBBIE HARRY: I did the Long Beach Gay Pride Festival - it was quite a thing. I did another gay party at the end of last summer in Provincetown, and I did the New York/Boston AIDS Ride. I guess I'm in the swing of the whole gay thing now.

PETER McQUAID: Are gay rights and AIDS issues of particular importance to you?

DEBBIE HARRY: Yeah, I mean the AIDS thing is a lot like being in a war and I'm angry about it. People are so bigoted and prejudice. These politicians go on about destruction of the American family and morals. So what? Maybe we'll go on to something new. I mean, get a grip, times do change. It's such a shortsighted approach to human progress.

PETER McQUAID: Years ago, you did an interview with Chris Stein in which you both talked about what came to be known as the harmonic convergence, where all the planets in our solar system formed a line. There was a school of thought that this occurrence would spark a new, heightened awareness of some sort. In retrospect, do you feel this event fulfilled its presumed promise? Are you disappointed?

DEBBIE HARRY: Things like the harmonic convergence have more of a long-term effect than an immediate one. They put a chain reaction into place. And although Chris would disagree with me, I don't think they affect our lives that much. Our lives are determined in other ways. Ask the Unabomber - he knows.

PETER McQUAID: The Unabomber?

DEBBIE HARRY: He went about it the wrong way, but he does have some interesting points. He is looking ahead. I saw some guy on TV who made the point that of all the people to be concerned with the future of mankind and the environment, he'll probably end up being St. Theodore, along with Kevorkian.

PETER McQUAID: Back to you. Have you suffered any major disappointments over the course of your career?

DEBBIE HARRY: I thought that the Broadway show I did, Teaneck Tanzy and the Venus Flytrap was great, a lot of fun. The audiences loved it, and then we opened officially and the critics loved it. Andy Kauffman was in it too, which in retrospect was kind of incredible, but it closed almost instantly. I really wish that it could have had a run. My other disappointment I guess is about Blondie, I would have handled the whole thing differently.

PETER McQUAID: Are there records you would burn if you could?

DEBBIE HARRY: Nah, I'll leave everything the way it is.

PETER McQUAID: At one point in your life you worked at an S&H Green Stamp redemption center in New Jersey. Ever miss it?

DEBBIE HARRY: [Laughs] No.

PETER McQUAID: What about when you were a Playboy Bunny?

DEBBIE HARRY: [More laughter] That was quite an experience. Hard work, really. I think people's fascination with that is, again, an icon image. It's spurs the imagination. All those Bunny spurs. My Bunny spurs.

PETER McQUAID: How did you feel when you were described as "The Marilyn Monroe of Rock"?

DEBBIE HARRY: [Laughs] Oh, God. Move over.

PETER McQUAID: Who's your best friend?

DEBBIE HARRY: My dog, Chichan.

PETER McQUAID: Have you slept with any famous rock stars?

DEBBIE HARRY: Good God. I don't know!

PETER McQUAID: What do you look for in a man?

DEBBIE HARRY: It's chemical...it's an animal response. If he chews gum well - that kind of stuff is important.

PETER McQUAID: Could you ever be with a man who didn't like music?

DEBBIE HARRY: That would be very difficult.

PETER McQUAID: What's your favorite TV show?

DEBBIE HARRY: Geez, I don't know. I guess Twentieth Century. I like investigative reports and stuff about serial killers.

PETER McQUAID: What do you do about split ends?

DEBBIE HARRY: I cut them off.

PETER McQUAID: What do you do when you want to get away from it all?

DEBBIE HARRY: I like to go to the beach. Any kind of beach.

PETER McQUAID: When you were starting out, a lot of critics praised you for your ironic distance. What do you think about that?

DEBBIE HARRY: I think Ironic Distance is a good name for a racehorse.

PETER McQUAID: Do you have any addictions you'd like to confess to, such as shopping? Computer chat rooms? Chocolate? The music of Stevie Nicks?

DEBBIE HARRY: All of the above. Plus, I'm grossly addicted to the telephone and TV.

PETER McQUAID: Do you still wear mules?

DEBBIE HARRY: Oh, yeah. Sure. And I'm just about to go for a pedicure, a leg waxing, and, [laughs], if they have time, a bikini wax.

PETER McQUAID: What do you love most about your appearance?

DEBBIE HARRY: I guess my eyes.

PETER McQUAID: What do you like least?

DEBBIE HARRY: I guess my midsection, although it's not too bad. I'm mad at my stomach today, it's too round.

PETER McQUAID: What's your happiest memory?

DEBBIE HARRY: Sitting in a small van, driving around New Zealand after my first bungee jump.

PETER McQUAID: What is your fondest wish?

DEBBIE HARRY: I guess to be in love.

PETER McQUAID: What's the first thing you do when you get up?

DEBBIE HARRY: Pee.

PETER McQUAID: Do you have a motto? What is it?

DEBBIE HARRY: I'm not afraid.

Peter McQuaid whose work appears in Harper's Bazaar and In Style, is more of a brownie than a blondie.


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