16th March 1981
Interview: Fred Bernstein
Photographer: Raeanne Rubenstein
BLONDIE'S NEW WAVE TIDE IS HIGH, BUT NOW DEBBIE HARRY WANTS TO PLUNGE INTO FILMS
It's easier to claw your way to the top than to
stay there - Debbie Harry.
Debbie may be right about the ascent but, at 35,
she also seems to be digging in for a long, secure
stay at pop's peak. Her success story as lead singer
and sex symbol of the New Wave's biggest band,
Blondie, may be the quintessential
rags-to-designer-rags saga of the 1980s. From her
sultry, pouty bombshell looks to her thrift-chic duds,
Harry has forged a hard-edged persona, providing a
wildly eclectic and even alienating vision of popular
culture. She is a chameleon of charisma, picking up
where such previous avatars as Dylan, Jagger and Bowie
left off. Indeed no other musical performer has done
so much in recent years to widen the mainstream and
make room for rock's new undercurrent. Remarkably,
she's crossed over from the dingy decadence of New
York's Mudd Club to Merv. And who else could in the
space of a month appear as host of shows as
antithetical as Saturday Night Live and The Muppets?
It began with The Look - the smudgy makeup, the
studiously dazed and klutzy stage moves, dark roots
and bleachy streaks, miniskirts and wardrobe
refinements like ripped garbage bags and pillow cases
tied with electrician's tape. A Barbie Doll Gone
Downtown, she alone seems capable of beaming
simultaneous images of glamor, sensual funk, sassy
punk, kittenish vulnerability, avant-garde hauteur and
a voracious hunger for celebrity. Once impossible
recherche, Harry has been repackaged as the definitive
female rock-and-roll model for the '80s.
Currently she has two hits, The Tide Is High and
Rapture, off her third straight million-selling album,
Autoamerican. But typically, when this LP, which
ranges from rapping and rocking to lullaby and '40s
swing, was released, critics pounced. Debbie simply
shrugged. "Everything we've ever done," she
says, "has been criticized. I'm not afraid of it.
We don't try to be safe; we try to be different."
The approach succeeds admirably. In three years,
beginning with the band's watershed disco-New Wave
fusion, Heart of Glass, Blondie has sold more than 11
Rock ancestors like Jimi Hendrix never signed
endorsement deals for hippie headbands, but Debbie has
made it in an era where tie-in has replaced the
sellout as a superstar's main artistic concern. So
with all America just wild about Harry, a six-figure
three-year deal with Murjani to hype jeans on TV was
not far behind. And they fit her 5'3" - and p.r.
campaign snugly. "Once commercials meant losing
your status," she says. But these are, after all,
status jeans. "Today it's just the opposite.
They're terrific advertisements for yourself. They
capitalize on your identity."
That identity is so well-known that an L.A. star-lookalike'
service averages seven calls a week for Debbie's dead
ringer, Heather Shane, while denim enemy Jordache has
reportedly been stalking a Debbie type too. But by
virtue of being the genuine article, Debbie is
unchallenged as the Monroe of music. Still, she
worries, "I have only a few concentrated years to
score and earn my living for the rest of my life.
Making the most of that time is just part of the
Cashing in on Debbie's undeniably sexy look is another
part. One old record company poster showed her in a
see-through blouse and asked, "Wouldn't You Like
to Rip Her to Shreds?" She explains: "Sex
appeal makes us happy, complete people and not robots.
People think of sex as depraved but it's the best
thing we've got. Sex appeal comes from a person, not a
body, from the power of positive thinking."
Her Darwinian survival-at-the-top philosophy is luring
Debbie away from Blondie. She and her boyfriend of
seven years, Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, 31, have
already cut three tracks for a new album with R&B
wizards Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic.
Blondie hasn't toured the U.S. in nearly two years.
The reasons: The new cuts, she says, are "too
complex" musically to take on the road;
performing in huge, profitable arenas "is like
being a part of the stage design"; and a small
club tour would lose money. Clearly, Blondie's Stein
and Harry no longer have to spread the spotlight to
their cronies. Keyboardist Jimmy Destri and drummer
Clem Burke have solo projects of their own, and all
the Blondies (as hard-core fans call them) say they
will get back together. Meanwhile, "It's really
time," says Harry of her hiatus from the band,
which evolved out of her three-woman punk-princess
group called the Stilettoes. "It was always
supposed to be more of a collective than a band."
Debbie may be bent on emulating her screen idols -
Fonda, Fields and Clayburgh - but the scripts she's
sent are B-movie material. Stein reports one was about
a "nympho rocker whose manager kills off members
of the audience to get publicity." In another
she'd be a headless Harry by film's end. And, Debbie
adds, most of the lines are four letters long. "I
want a straight part," she says, "not a rock
film. People are afraid to take a chance with me,
since I'm untried, unknown."
One fearless director was young Mark Reichert, who
cast Debbie in last year's Union City. The convincing
boredom of her brunet New Jersey housewife may have
spread to audiences, but the low-grossing flick is
being re-released this month. "If you can capture
live audience," she theorizes, "you can do
anything before a camera." Reichert found,
pleasantly, "none of the prima donna bitchiness
which lots of rockers cultivate. She took a chance on
an unglamorous role and it paid off." (She also
sang and had a few lines in the 1980 Meat Loaf vehicle
MGM doesn't want just any Tom or Dick but has picked
Harry for Alan Rudolph's American Rhapsody, scheduled
for 1983. One current scenario would have Mikhail
Baryshnikov as the Russian pianist who falls in love
with Debbie playing an American pop star. She is
optimistic, with good reason: "Five years
ago," she recalls, "I didn't think I had any
future in music. I couldn't even get air play."
Growing up in Hawthorne, N.J., the adopted daughter of
gift store owners Richard and Catherine Harry, she
claims, "People thought I had a speech
impediment. It turned out just to be globs of peanut
butter stuck inside my mouth." In still stranger
moments, Debbie dreamed of being Monroe's daughter.
"A lot of pretty girls have the same
fantasy," she says. "It comes out of a need
for love and affection." (She has chosen not to
track down her real parents, feeling, "I know who
I am, and it would be an insult to the Harrys.")
A high school baton twirler, she was voted the
"best-looking" girl senior after trying a
dozen hair colors, by her account. Afterward she tried
Centenary College but fled to Greenwich Village,
itching to express herself as a performer. A stint
with a folkie band, Wind in the Willows, was followed
by jobs as a beautician, model and Playboy Bunny.
"After that," she cracks, "I could
climb Everest in high heels."
Things did get pretty steep. A boyfriend drummer
nearly died of an overdose, and before Stein joined
Debbie's Stilettoes she was hooked on heroin herself
(though she says she didn't shoot). Stein, the
Brooklyn-born son of a labor organizer who died when
Chris was 15, was a stabilizing force through the
worst of it. "I got smart," Debbie reflects.
"I was a victim. Addiction," she now warns,
"is never the right thing to do."
Worldwide fame has not altered the couple's studiedly
inelegant lifestyle. Chris estimates their net worth
at a surprisingly low half million ("mostly jeans
money"), and they still occupy the same cramped,
four-room pad a few blocks below Central Park. Debbie
tools around town in her Honda Accord, and she fixes
her own makeup and hair because "only I know how
I feel." As for housework, "I don't think I
could stand having a maid - I'm a little homemaker at
heart." Chris makes the beds and hangs up the
laundry, but she washes the dishes "because I'm
the clean one. It's not a sexist thing."
Their apartment reflects their wildly eclectic tastes,
from the zebra-striped kitchen floor to the crucifix
and lifesize statue of an Ursuline nun at the
entrance. The living room is jammed with $15,000 worth
of audio equipment. Their dark bedroom is decorated
with grotesque metal sculpture and Chris' collection
of military memorabilia, including a piggy bank in the
shape of Adolf Hitler. The more relaxed spare bedroom
is where Debbie writes many of Blondie's lyrics
beneath walls laden with gold and platinum records.
The couple rarely eat out. "Restaurants take too
long," says Debbie, a congenially straightforward
hostess. Instead, she shlepps around in her slippers
and robe and reads the paper during dinner. Chris
likes to put his feet up, smoke a joint and watch TV.
Debbie now avoids junk food ("It gives you flab
and pimples") and pot ("It doesn't do
anything for me") but likes a glass of wine or
They have been spending time producing younger
musician friends and performing with avant-gardists
like Robert Fripp and Walter Steding. Chris has been
putting together a book of pictures he took of the
group, which Debbie will annotate, and they often
co-host a local cable TV rock show.
Neither wants to marry. "We're already a
corporation," Debbie notes, "and it's fine
this way, since marriage is really business - not
sex." Chris adds, "Why push our luck?"
Children are even less likely. "There isn't time
for kids in this business," notes Debbie. What
does Chris think? "I'd like to have them,"
he says, "if it were up to me."
"Well," Debbie shouts back, "it