Night & Day - Sunday Magazine supplement
live - THE MAIL ON SUNDAY November 27th 2005
Pages 16, 17, 18, 19
Q: What do you call the new Blondie?
A: Anything but Debbie
Deborah is back - and she's every bit the diva her fans remember. She tells Rebecca Hardy about getting back with Blondie, sex at 60, how being adopted defined her career - and, for the first time, what made her go in search of her natural parents.
What do you call a smart blonde?' Deborah Harry asks. Don't know. 'A golden retriever.' My turn: 'How can you tell a blonde's computer?' She shakes her head. 'Tippex on the screen.' We fall about. Nobody can tell a blonde joke quite like a blonde. The only thing is, Blondie isn't blonde any more. She's just become a red-head. And, as we all know, she's not even Debbie any more. Before this interview, I'm reminded on no account to call her Debbie.
Frankly, it's going to be hard. Deborah was Debbie for half a century, a time during which she reached the giddy heights of rock 'n' roll icon, selling an incredible 40 million albums worldwide. She was the dirty, aloof version of Marilyn Monroe; the sassy bleached blonde that teenage girl desired to be, and the blonde that teenage boys... well, desired.
Deborah is 60 now. She hold four-and-a-half decades of peroxide responsible for the new hair colour. 'My hair started really breaking off,' she says. 'It was reacting badly. I was over-bleaching it.' But the rest of her is hanging together pretty well. She still has the sort of cheekbones that could slice metal, big lips and smooth, clear skin. Today, she's slim, fit and kitted out in the trendy, casual 'cargo' look of the moment: jeans, white T-shirt, camouflage jacket.
In truth, she looks far from her age. 'I don't have a boyfriend, though,' she says, 'even though I sometimes feel even more sexual now than ever. It's very hard as you get older to meet people. I have a great social life; on a good night I'm up until 1am or 2am - I have an image to keep up!
'But it's not really based on the traditional twentysomething idea of dating. And there are days when I'm feeling lousy and go, "Oh God, I'm old." But I'm not unhappy. What is age? You don't look 40,' she remarks generously.
'You don't look 60,' I tell her with sisterly solidarity. 'Well, I have a face-lift,' she grimaces. 'God damn it, that's my job.'
It is indeed. Because Blondie are back with an album of classic hits. Mail On Sunday readers with get ten of these - including Heart Of Glass, Hanging On The Telephone and Union City Blue - on an exclusive CD free inside the paper next week.
Before meeting Deborah, I saw her perform in Monte Carlo at the Prince's Trust Fashion Rocks event (the band are currently in the middle of a UK tour). She was brilliant, pure Debbie Harry - outperforming pop stars a third her age; apparently, she was the only act to sing live that night.
She takes care of her body - she exercises and drinks decaffeinated tea. But she also admits, for the first time, that she tried Botox for a while - though she says, 'I don't like it. I think it's creepy. I didn't like the way it made me look: plasticky, kind of frozen.' Her story is, of course, well-trodden ground: illegitimate and adopted at three by middle-class parents in New Jersey, she dyes her hair at 12, rebels in her teens, works briefly as a Playboy Bunny and then meets guitarist Chris Stein, with whom she immediately starts a relationship. In 1974 the pair form Blondie, and four years later have their first hits, Denis and (I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear. On they go through the late Seventies and early Eighties, when Chris contracts a rare, and often fatal, form of skin disease. In 1982, Blondie break up. She nurses him for years before they split, when she is in her late forties (he went off and got married).
What I've never heard her talk about, though, is that adoption. And it emerges that when Blondie collapsed, Deborah set out to find her natural mother. She tells me, 'I found out some personal history. I went to the agency that I was adopted through and I spoke with the representative. She took out all my files, and the files from that period were very, very in-depth - I was adopted right after the war, and people kept good records because there were so many lost
loves and so much confusion going on - so many children...'
Deborah discovered that she was a love child, and that her father, who was married at the time with other children, was dead. She never met her mother. 'One of the things I was really excited about is that I have, somewhere, some half-brothers and half-sisters. I have no way of ever knowing who they are. That's really curious. It's not really this need, or anything like that. It's just this fascination - and then sometimes it doesn't even feel like it has any relationship to me at all.'
Deborah says she's always been obsessed with identity and fame; both are bound up in her adoption. She wanted fame and attention, to shout to the parents she never knew, 'Hey, this is what you gave away.' Certainly, the absence of birth parents in her life allowed her to push the boundaries, to imagine herself to be who she wanted. 'When you're growing up, your skin is always too small or too big for you. You're just this exploding element.
'Having a big question mark about your identity, especially when you're a kid, because you're always trying to figure out who you are anyway, led to this double portion of ambiguity - the great unknown. One of the things I've always felt about not being identified, not knowing exactly what I was supposed to look like or what I was supposed to do, was that I could be whoever I wanted to be. And I really, really wasn't like anybody. I think that's helped me, but it was also difficult at times.'
These days, of course, identity is a thorny issue. For her first comeback in the late Eighties, she didn't want to be Blondie any more, so she dyed her hair dark brown and stopped working out. She describes the period as her 'ice-cream years'. She worried, for a while, that Mr Whippy had put an end to her music career.
'That was a difficult time for me,' she says. 'I didn't have any control over that, because I was so involved with Chris and his health. In the long run it helped shape me, made me quite clear-headed. It was so weird being a superstar and having all that focused on you.
'It's an unreal existence - you're untouchable, never wrong. Then, being reduced, being brought back down to your humanity, to your simple level of basic survival - flesh and blood - it's a shocking revelation, and revelations don't come to you much in life.'
These days, Deborah, in interview, normally insists that Debbie Harry's gone, dead, buried. Only she's not really. Deborah's friends still call her Debbie and, as it emerges, she doesn't care a jot when I slip up and call her Debbie too. 'Deborah was one of my manager's ideas,' she says. 'I think it's always been obvious that I've chosen the personality for the kind of life I have at a particular stage. There are times I've actually sat down and decided who I'm going to be.
'I think it's to do with my fascination for film stars as a child - for personalities, actors, performers. You try on all these coats, as it were, just imagining yourself to be someone else. I think acting or playing a role is just an automatic function of my personality. As a performer, that really works for you, but sometimes, as a human being, that might be a little confusing.'
Deborah's fascination for film is an integral part of the Blondie story, so much so that it has been said she used to fantasise that Marilyn Monroe was her natural mother. Intriguingly, when this interview begins, she enters the bar of the west London hotel we arranged to meet at with the adopted hauteur of a movie legend.
And when she first speaks her voice is faint, whispery, Monroesque. I think she loses it somewhere between talk of sex at 60 ('I really like it,' she confides) and the blonde jokes. 'I was fascinated with film stars. And that developed into the Marilyn thing. I adored her. I don't think I was quite as specific as wanting her to be my mother as a child; it was more a general fascination with the silver screen and all those bleached-blonde women.'
Deborah grew up in the sort of household in which rock 'n' roll was considered to be a dangerous thing. 'They all thought it was going to corrupt everyone and turn everyone into sinners. I just loved it. It was fun. It was exciting. It was sexual.'
She says she first became aware of her sexuality aged six, and had her first proper boyfriend at 14. She can't be as specific when it comes to drugs. 'When was I experimenting with drugs? When wasn't I? That's an easier question to answer. I know that the first time I was exposed to pot was in 1964. All those drugs - LSD, heroin - became a part of my social life. I didn't shut myself off from anything. I really wanted to embrace it all. So I did.'
Tellingly, though, she never lost herself to the drug culture. 'I can't say I ever totally lost control,' she says. 'I'm really a control freak.'
Fame shocked her, though. 'When I was 50, it came to me that I was this icon,' she says. 'And I thought, if they only knew what an a**hole I was. I'm just a human being. I make mistakes. Love, for example. As I get older, I think to really love somebody and keep that going is the hardest thing. It's much easier to get fed up and walk away from something. I think about people nowadays who just get rid of their relationships and move on; in fact, it's important to hold on to the good parts of a relationship - remember the important parts of something - and let the other things go. There are a couple I wish I hadn't cast aside, but I can't beat myself up that way. I have moments of regret, but I don't really like to stay there at all.'
I ask if she regrets the end of her relationship with Chris Stein, who is widely regarded to have been the love of her life. 'It was an accumlative thing and was probably mutual in an odd way. I'd have liked to have been with someone and have children, so yes, that's a regret. But when I was with Chris, I was too unsettled. I didn't really have very much time to have children. I was working all the time. I think I was very selfish and very career-orientated and I knew I didn't want to hurt a child with my ambition.'
She says she's still ambitious - she's been writing and intends to perform an off-Broadway play in the new year. 'A few years ago I was in a play called Crave. It was like a dream come true. When I was in high school I used to take the bus into New York City and walk around the West Village and just fantasise about being on stage. Then one night recently I was walking to the theatre, through the West Village, and it all came flooding back. I thought, "Wow, my dream came true; this is actually happening.'"
In recent years, Deborah has also been performing with The Jazz Passengers. She says it was 'like becoming an instrument and not being the front person. It was a relief to be part of this thing - to be visible and invisible at the same time. I think being an icon is like being stuck in a character role. Some actors in films are stuck in hero roles and it's very hard to get out of them. It takes a lot of age and endurance for Al Pacino to go from being a young lead to other great roles.
'But ageing also points you towards the realisation that the end of your life is closer than the beginning of your life. That's a sort of regret; that I don't have much more, and that I want more - more life.'
At the end of our conversation, Deborah sits up straight and slips back into the role of rock 'n' roll icon.
I ask her a final question. 'Do you ever feel lonely?'
Instinctively, Debbie begins to answer. 'Sometimes...' Then, Deborah muscles in, 'But I don't stay there.'
MAIL IN SUNDAY
EXCLUSIVE BLONDIE CD
INCLUDES: HANGING ON THE TELEPHONE - HEART OF GLASS - ONE WAY OR ANOTHER - UNION CITY BLUE - THE DREAM'S LOST ON ME - END TO END & MORE...
The Mail On Sunday Newspaper
Adverts for the free Blondie CD on pages 14 & 79
Text from page 79 below.
Don't miss your Mail on Sunday next week when we will be giving away another fabulous FREE CD - featuring hits from pop supergroup Blondie and their legendary singer Deborah Harry.
Our brilliant CD features many of the band's great chartbusters from the Seventies and Eighties, such as Heart Of Glass, Hanging On The Telephone and Union City Blue.
But it also shows another side of Deborah Harry, as it includes tracks featuring her with The Jazz Passengers, the avant-garde New York band she has regularly fronted both on record and on tour over the past few years.
Blondie were formed in 1974 by art student guitarist Chris Stein and Harry, a former Playboy Bunny. Her striking appearance along with the band's exciting songs propelled them to the top of the pop and style charts.
Blondie released their first album in 1977, scored their first UK No 1 with Heart Of Glass in 1979 and had their sixth chart-topper in 1999 with the international hit Maria. They are currently on a UK tour.
This collection of hits is a must for all pop fans, so make sure you get your Mail on Sunday next week.
One way Or Another
Hanging On The Telephone
Heart Of Glass
Union City Blue
(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear
Imitation Of A Kiss - The Jazz Passengers featuring Deborah Harry
The Dream's Lost On Me
When The Fog Lifts - The Jazz Passengers featuring Deborah Harry
The Tide Is High - The Jazz Passengers featuring Deborah Harry
End To End
PLUS 4 BONUS TRACKS TO PLAY ON YOUR PC
Doncha Go Way Mad - The Jazz Passengers featuring Deborah Harry and Elvis Costello
Dog In Sand - The Jazz Passengers featuring Deborah Harry
Kidnapped - The Jazz Passengers featuring Deborah Harry