Marie Claire (UK EDITION) - June 2007
166 - JANET STREET-PORTER INTERVIEWS DEBORAH HARRY Punk's icon on her musical comeback.
Page 114 & 116
Extract from the Kirsten Dunst interview
Director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep) has signed her up to play Debbie Harry in the biopic of that prototype of pop starlets. 'Deborah Harry picked me, so anybody who doesn't like the choice, you can blame her,' she jokes, unneccessarily defensively. 'I know I can do it. People haven't seen all of me yet.'
Why? Have people said you're the wrong choice? 'I'm sure. I'm sure people are like, "What the F?"' Are you going to sing? 'Yeah, I'm going to sing.' Her favourite Blondie songs are Deaming and Atomic.
Pages 166, 167, 169, 170, 173, 174
JSP meets Debbie Harry
From a Playboy Bunny in the Sixties to punk's Marilyn Monroe in the Seventies, the Blondie frontwoman has lived a life of iconic moments. And, as Janet Street-Porter discovers, she's not even close to slowing down. Photograph by Platon
IN A SUNNY STUDIO IN NEW YORK SITS A WOMAN WHOSE FACE IS ONE OF THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED IN THE HISTORY OF POP MUSIC. Debbie Harry retains an aura of mystery that only true icons possess - not to mention, her cheekbones are still remarkable. She has fronted Blondie for over 30 tumultuous years, during which time the band have sold over 30 million albums, and have split up and reformed numerous times. They are about to return to Britain for a 'final' tour this summer, and Debbie has just finished recording a solo album, due out this autumn.
Blondie went from playing at the dingy punk club CBGBs in New York in the early Seventies to storming the singles charts, notching up five number ones in Britain between 1978 and 1981. Prior to fronting the band, Deborah (as she likes to be called these days) held down a variety of jobs, including waitress and Playboy Bunny. Then she met art student Chris Stein, who became her lover and her partner in the group. When he became sick with a life-threatening illness in the Eighties, Deborah stopped everything and nursed him back to health. These days, their relationship is still as intense, yet on another level - Chris is married with two kids, and Deborah is their godmother.
But what's Debbie Harry really like? She's said that, in Blondie, she projected a sexier version of herself - a Marilyn Monroe for punks. But pop is notoriously fickle, where double standards prevail: men can grow old, but women are expected always to be beautiful. So, why keep going? Why not just walk away?
Around the time the band first split in 1982, I attempted to interview Deborah on a late-night chat show I was fronting for ITV. She spent the afternoon in her dressing room, emerging hours later, totally spaced out and clearly the worse for wear. The result was a disaster - loads of mumblings, no answers.
When I ask her if she remembers any of it, she says, 'The guys were the ones who partied hard. Chris and I were a couple, the mum and dad of the band - we weren't the partiers.' This is definitely not my recollection of the encounter, but there's no point aggravating the notoriously thin-skinned Harry right at the beginning of our chat. So, I decide to adopt a conciliatory approach.
JSP - Well, you had to get out there and sing and hold the whole thing together, while Chris had to write all the songs. So, when I read about the drink and drug excesses, I thought, 'Well, she always put on a show, she always turned up and she always sang in tune,' which is more than you can say for most people.
DH - I certainly had my drug experiences, but it wasn't when I was working with Blondie.
JSP - As a band, you seem to have a great deal of trouble staying together. All of you had strong personalities, and you and Chris were a highly intelligent, creative couple. It seemed like a real 'them' and 'us' situation.
DH - It really was, unfortunately. It caused problems. When we were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [in 2006], one of the guys showed up drunk and made a fool of himself. It seemed par for the course in the long run and made good television, so I guess it wasn't so bad.
JSP - To end up being inducted in the Hall of Fame is a strange thing. There's a sense that, once you've been put in there, you've retired. It's an accolade in one way, but I always think of it as rock's equivalent of the House of Lords in Britain.
DH - It's an honour and it made me feel good, but I think it's very commercial. It's like any major awards show for any industry.
JSP - Don't you think the industry has changed tremendously in the three decades that you've been involved in music?
DH - The only way bands can really make money now is by having a really good record deal or by constantly touring. That's the only way you can survive.
JSP - So what made you reform Blondie at the end of the Nineties and tour again?
DH - It was Chris's idea. He felt that if he didn't do it at a time when everybody in the band was still alive, he'd regret it. And he was getting a lot of emails from fans, suggesting the idea. Personally, I would never have thought of it. But it was good. I always did enjoy playing live shows.
JSP - When I saw you in Los Angeles six years ago, you were on a serious diet - I think it involved only eating green things.
DH - It may have been a macrobiotic type of diet, with fish oils, root vegetables and brown rice.
JSP - Didn't it get on your nerves?
DH - It was kind of hard to stick to.
JSP - I remember sitting next to you at dinner and you ran me through what you were eating, and I couldn't believe it. I though, 'Christ, this woman is going to be as miserable as sin after two weeks of this.'
DH - Well, that's the thing about these extreme diets - and you can never do them on tour. You end up saying, 'Oh, it's impossible.'
JSP - One of the things I find really tough is the pressure to look a certain way. We're surrounded by women who, by the age of 30, have already had loads of cosmetic surgery, and they're anxious about being a size zero.
DH -I think it is ludicrous. I really wish that people had a bit more personality and were willing to break this sort of uniformity. Personality does break through once in a while - somebody will emerge who is totally outrageous and you will just have to say, 'I love them!'
JSP - Well, at the moment, there is Amy Winehouse. She just looks fantastic, doesn't she?
DH - Oh, man, yeah. Her voice, the whole thing. I'm really digging it.
JSP - The interesting thing about her is that she looks completely unconventional, really striking. How do Americans take to her?
DH - She's going down well over here, but she's not massive. She's more of an underground favourite.
JSP - The record industry puts so much pressure on women - they are so full of marketing crap. Take someone like Joss Stone, for instance - this woman has dyed her hair pink. Why? Surely it's because someone in the marketing department decided that she needed to be jazzed up.
DH - I don't agree. I think she looks cute. I saw her at the Marc Jacobs show earlier this year, and she is adorable. She's a very pretty girl. Maybe she's just going through a phase. I mean, everybody fools around with their hair, right? Just don't do those 'manic panic' colours.
JSP - You've been pretty steady with yours. It looks good with two colours at once. But your look is very much 'your look'. You can't really alter it much - although it's shorter now.
DH - My hair has more red in it now. I cropped it for the tour - it was an automatic thing to do.
JSP - I can't imagine what it's like living in America, because everybody is so body-conscious. I spend most of my days thinking how to get rid of that wobbly bit around my middle without going on a diet. But you're in really good shape.
DH - I'm in training.
JSP - What is your regime?
DH - I'm working out with a fucking marine! I do these core exercises that are really difficult. I could almost become a paratrooper.
JSP - How many hours a day?
DH - I try to do three days a week for an hour and a half. It's a lot. But, you know, I think it's paying off and I feel really good.
JSP - It must give you more energy.
DH - It does, and I can definitely tell that it's sped up my metabolism. It took a while for it to really kick in - that's the frustrating part, because when you're younger, it kicks in a lot faster.
JSP - I do Pilates now - it calms me.
DH - I used to have this amazing Pilates instructor - actually, you'll love this story. Somehow or other, I was allowed to use the gym at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. It was the mid-Seventies, and I was living there for a while. The instructor was a Dutch ballerina who had suffered a very serious back injury - but she was a genius at Pilates. Then, one day, I saw Christopher Reeve in the gym, getting ready for Superman. He was pumping iron and groaning, and I couldn't believe it. So, I went over and said, 'You're Superman - you're not allowed to grunt.' He gave me such a dirty look! Poor guy, though - it takes amazing character to do what he did after he had that accident.
JSP - Yes, absolutely incredible. But you must be quite a strong person mentally, too, because you looked after Chris for all those years, and put your own career on the back burner. That was a real act of devotion.
DH - I've never thought of it as such an extreme thing. I felt that we were a team, and I would have expected the same from him. And I did do other things - different projects that just weren't so visible. But what many people don't realise is that, at the time Chris was sick, our record label had dropped us as well, our business had turned to shit, the tax people were attacking us. Everything sort of went down the tube at the same time, so it appeared that I was devoting myself to him - but, in reality, things had just collapsed. I was holding everything closer because we had everything to lose, and we were losing most of it, and after all that success.
JSP - But, now, you're touring with Chris and he's married to someone else and has kids - and you're godmother to those kids. How has your relationship changed? Do you ever think, 'I wish I lived with somebody'?
DH - I'm quite happy, but sometimes I think, 'What's wrong with you? Why aren't you needy?' I'm just not. I'm quite happy, and I have great friendships. I would love to be in love, I would love to have that going on in my life - that would be fantastic. But it's not like I'm miserable. Should I be?
JSP - You can't go through life looking for Mr Right. Look at me - I've been married four times. As you get older, you realise that there is no such thing as 'Mr 100 per cent'.
DH - Not only that, but people might consider me to be a difficult person to live with. I can be a lot of fun, but then I can be remote and cold and in my own little world - and who is gonna want to live with somebody like that?
JSP - Don't do yourself down. Surely the other thing is, when you've lived by yourself for long periods of time - and you've been by yourself for most of your life - it's hard to live with someone else because you've got your own routine. Do you think you could accommodate somebody else?
DH - I don't know - good question. I think if I found someone really charming, I could. That was the miracle of having a great relationship like the one I had with Chris: when the one was off, the other was on, and we sort of pulled each other through situation after situation - good times and tough times. I would certainly expect nothing less from another relationship.
JSP - Are you in counselling?
DH - Not now. I was for a while, off and on for four or five years. Did you ever go?
JSP - Only when I married a man I'd met at a party when I was 49. We married in Las Vegas at 3.30am, when I was completely drunk. Have you ever been tempted to star in more movies?
DH - Yes, but for whatever reason, I'm not really part of that industry. I absolutely love David Lynch [director of cult film Blue Velvet and, more recently, Inland Empire] - I actually know him a little bit. He's wonderful. But, I don't know, I think you have to really pursue a career like that - it's so competitive. There are so many great actresses out there, and there are really not a load of great parts. I might be better off writing a film rather than trying to get into the acting business.
JSP - You've sold over 30 million albums as Blondie, so you can just tour and do your greatest hits and, in some ways, that is all the audience wants. It must get very boring for you. Do you ever feel like you're trapped in a groove?
DH - That's so true. But you can get away with doing your old hits. I remember seeing Lulu doing To Sir with Love on American Idol - she was fabulous. She looked great, and she sounded amazing.
JSP - She's a good friend of mine.
DH - Oh, is she? She has that real croaky voice. She sings with her throat. She whips it right out.
JSP - To Sir... is a great song - and it's a hard song to sing.
DH - No kidding. But she nailed it. It was great to see her do that.
JSP - What she finds depressing is that, when she goes out and performs, everybody wants Shout and a few other songs.
DH - Can you imagine how Ray Davies [of The Kinks] feels? I just want to hear Lola and Waterloo Sunset. That's the beauty - and also the torture - of it, I suppose.
JSP - What about your latest album - what is it about?
DH - It's all about sex.
JSP - That's a good selling point. People spend their whole life agonising about sex. When the whole punk thing started in the Seventies, the attitude to sex was so naive. Johnny Rotton [of The Sex Pistols] said that it was just 30 seconds of squelching - I can't remember the exact quote - but he was only saying what everybody secretly thinks. But, now, everything has to be so sexy.
DH - And it's such an incredible, impossible thing to define - because it really is a chemical reaction, and every chemical reaction is totally different.
JSP - But there's a big difference between what people say they do and what they really do.
DH - A little bragging goes a long way.
JSP - I can imagine that, in ten years' time, you'll look exactly the same as you do now.
DH - What about you?
JSP - I'll be the same, but more wrinkly. There's one more thing I want to ask you: do you ever have a day when you think, 'Fuck it,' and just get out of bed, put on track bottoms and go out looking like shit?
DH - Yeah, I put on my shades.
JSP - So, you can put your shades on and no one will recognise you?
DH - No, people will recognise me, but I still put my shades on.
JSP - Do you own track bottoms?
DH - I don't wear them on the street that much. I used to, but I'm not as in love with them anymore. They are comfortable, though.
JSP - I can't imagine you walking down the street looking anything less than together.
DH - I have my street vibe down pretty well. I don't think it would go down as well in London as it does in New York, but London has become much more casual over the years - almost sadly. I used to love the fact that all the British girls wore such high heels and, now, it's just jeans...
JSP - Our standards have slipped. I can't imagine you in jeans.
DH - I own a pair of jeans. But you know what the best thing about wearing denim is? If you wear a really tight little denim jacket, then it looks really hot. It's more of a statement. I like that.
JSP - I've tried that, but my middle part blobs out of the bottom of the jacket. It's not a good look.
DH - You've got to do these core exercise things. They're awful - but they work. You go on the floor and it's as if you're gonna do a push-up, but you put your elbows on the floor and you brace up and keep yourself off the floor...
JSP - With that, I leave, determined to work on my flab. Deborah, meanwhile, walks out looking as trim and iconic as ever.
Blondie tours the UK in July