February 28th 1999
Photography: Bob Barker
Cover Photography: Scope
Interview: Liz Van Den Nieuwenhof
As a child she fantasised she was Marilyn Monroe's
daughter. As an adult she became the blonde icon of
her generation. Then Madonna stole her act, did it
better, and Debbie Harry fled into obscurity, got fat
and learned the lesson every beautiful woman must
learn one day - what it feels like to be plain and
LIZ VAN DEN NIEUWENHOF meets her.
Adulation becomes Deborah Harry. On stage, squeezed
into a get-up designed to take strain, Blondie's
ageing babe appears to have lost none of her allure.
But the morning after having played shamelessly to the
entranced and, dare I say it, greying crowd who had
come to pay homage in Sydney's Capitol Theatre, Harry
is nowhere near as captivating. Petulant more like.
Through a media flunky she lets it be known she
wants to pack and make as earlier flight to Los
Angeles and would therefore like the interview cut
short. We're not off to a good start.
In fact, from the outset, the interview proceeds
doggedly and there is a distinct chill in Harry's
manner. Her arms are crossed tightly over a body that
has, on closer inspection, not adhered to the
bombshell image. She has packed on a few kilos since
the day she reigned as the iconic blonde with a voice
that inspired lust, and the roots of her bleached
locks need urgent re-touching.
Yet back in the 1970s and '80s Harry was the
cynosure of sexiness and she milked that vampy image
for all it was commercially worth. After all, it was
her brazen blonde ambition and pouty, Monroe-esque
appeal that got her crowned punk's bad girl. She was
it's ultimate pin-up, possessed of a beguiling mix of
fire and ice.
Unfortunately I meet with the ice. It's in the
glacial blue of her eyes and the artic edge to her
voice. This reception, though, is not altogether
unexpected. I'd been forewarned that Ms Harry, 53, is
infamous for her truculent turns.
Thankfully drummer Clem Burke, considered the most
laidback member of Blondie, is on hand to apply
conversational first-aid. She had insisted he be
present for the interview and it proves a godsend.
Still, everything crawls along an alpine gradient and
it's proving a slog for all concerned.
But Burke valiantly sets to work. They're all
thrilled, he says, with the reception the resurrected
Blondie got in Australia. For nostalgic reasons it was
important to include Australia on their concert tour
for it was here, thanks to Ian "Molly"
Meldrum's Countdown, that they rocketed to the top of
the charts with In The Flesh.
Blondie was formed in 1974 when art student and
guitarist Chris Stein teamed up with Harry, a former
waitress and Playboy bunny with a penchant for dayglo
Steven Sprouse. A year later they were joined by Burke
and keyboard player Jimmy Destri.
With chart-toppers Heart Of Glass, Sunday Girl,
Atomic, Call Me and The Tide Is High, Blondie was
credited with forging the new wave punk era. But the
group always refused to be categorised, preferring
their work to be seens as a fusion of new wave, funk,
disco and art.
Then in 1982, following rumors of dissension, they
hit the skids. First their album The Hunter failed to
ignite, then Stein, the band's bedrock, was struck
down with a life-threatening and rare genetic disease
called pemphigus. The group fell apart.
Harry, who had been Stein's lover for 18 years,
stayed by his side and devoted herself to nursing him.
It took Stein two years to recover.
Although they split up not long after, Harry and
Stein remained close. Indeed, it was Stein who begged
Harry, then fronting vocalist with Jazz Passengers, to
come back on board the reincarnated Blondie. She was,
she admits, not entirely convinced they could
recapture their past glory.
"I thought it was a stupid idea," Harry
says flatly, refusing eye contact. "I thought it
was problematic and I was very involved with what I
was doing. Musically I was exploring a new area for me
and it was proving a great adventure. I probably
wouldn't have been a huge, popular success, but I
found the intrigue of jazz very, very
On top of that she'd scored hits as a solo artist
with French Kissing In The USA and I Want That Man and
had appeared in a couple of films, most notably as the
deranged mother in John Waters' Hairspray. Also Harry,
who shares her Manhattan apartment with her pet dog
ChiChi, has grown accustomed to the singles scene.
"I date, when I have time," she says,
smiling weakly. "I have a lot of great friends
and a pretty good social life but I don't go into what
you might consider traditional night life."
It seems the once-outrageous party animal has
embraced a more sober act. She says that while the
rest of the band had partied on until four in the
morning she was in bed by 1.30, then up at the crack
of dawn for a brisk power-walk followed by a swim.
Burke gives her a horrified look and Harry responds
with a deep, throaty laugh. It seems the ice maiden is
slowly starting to thaw.
Life on the road, she says, suits her. It always
did. "I've found that life presents you with
problems even if you end up staying in one
Raised by her adoptive parents in New Jersey, Harry
spent much of her childhood indulging in grand
fantasies that she was Marilyn Monroe's daughter and
destined for great things. Although hers was a largely
happy childhood she admits she was desperate to break
"My mother and father loved being in their
home and staying in one place. Other kids used to come
in and out of my life. They seemed a lot more
transient and I fantasised about what it must be like
Taking to the road with Blondie evidently fulfilled
the fantasies. When Blondie disintegrated it left her
shattered and emotionally adrift. "It all ended
so chaotically. In fact it held such bad memories and
bad feelings for me that I really didn't want to go
back to that."
It took Stein close to three years before he
finally enticed Harry back into the fold. "He was
very determined and because my love and trust in his
instincts and his intelligence knows no bounds, I gave
The regrouping, she says, proved remarkably
trouble-free. From the outset, though, all the band
members were emphatic that they would hit the comeback
trail armed with new material. No Exit, their new
14-track album, described as a perfect evolution of
Blondie, caused an instant sensation on its release
and the single Maria rocketed to number one in the UK
this month. In Australia, it has languished at the
back end of the charts ahead of the album release last
Not surprisingly Harry finds herself, once again,
occupying centre stage. Her past media exposure was
said to be the cause of some friction within the band
and she is determined not to revisit that terrain. It
explains her insistence on having other band members
present during all interviews.
Yet the fascination with Harry continues. Only now
there seems to be an almost universal fixation with
her advancing age. She's getting mightily vexed over
it. So much so that when Maria shot to number one,
Harry let it be known she was not bent on "being
the latest and hottest pop star". She has been
there and done that. Not that there's a risk of her
playing down her sexy image. It's as much a part of
Blondie as her distinctive voice. A reunited Blondie
without its blonde deity seems inconceivable.
"Debbie has been an icon for a lot of young
women, always has been and that has continued,"
concedes Burke. "And I guess there's an element
Harry tries to be philosophical about the
attention: "I can't really look in on myself. I
don't think it makes for a good perspective," she
says, sliding me a penetrating look. "I am,
believe it or not, a pretty sane person although I've
gone through my crazy periods.
"I now just want to concentrate on my job and
the work I do. I try not to think of what people think
of me. What's important is getting my songs across and
making sure my technique is up to the standard I'd
like it to be."
Burke wades in with a compliment that draws a
dazzling smile from Harry: "I think Debbie is
singing better than ever. But then we've all had a lot
of life experiences in between that have no doubt
helped us in our music. We're a bunch of punk rockers
who've evolved musically."
Both Burke and Harry fastidiously avoid the word
"comeback". Says Burke: "It's more a
continuation of where we left off. It just took us a
long time. I think musicians live in dog years."
For the first couple of months after their reunion
the group spent much of their time holed up in Stein's
basement just enjoying being a band again.
"That was the fun part," says Harry.
"Then, somehow it all just flowed. I think that
was one of the things about Blondie and why our music
endured. It's a part of us, it's a force to be
reckoned with. Everyone is so-o-o into it, so-o-o
excited about it. There's this pressure that builds up
and everyone gets into it. It's really very exciting
making a record with this band. In some sense it's
this healthy competition ... sometimes a very
dangerous area that you walk in ... it sort of works
for us and we get very fired up and work hard,"
she says animatedly. Burke calls her back to earth.
The combination of all our talents contributes to
the sound," he says. "When the four of us
get together it is a great starting point. It kind of
just evolves from there."
The title track, No Exit, was originally called
Gothic Cups and written by Destri as a gangster rap
"That was until Chris got his hands on it and
slammed some guitar in," Harry says.
The new title was supplied by Burke who remembers
sitting on a couch at the rehearsal studio looking at
an exit sign. "It brought to mind Jean Paul
Satre's Hell Is Other People."
All the band's energy is now being channelled into
getting their world tour happening to promote the
"This is a pretty organised attack," says
Harry. "We weren't interested in a nostalgic tour
because it would have been a waste of time and
If there is one regret, though, it's that Mike
Chapman, the Australian record producer, won't be part
of their renewed success. It was Chapman who, in 1979,
helped Blondie hone its radio sound and created the
album Parallel Lines.
Says Harry: "Joining forces with Mike was the
turning point for us. He came to see us in a club in
Los Angeles and became instrumental in us achieving
what we did. I think our recording career would have
ended had it not been for Mike."
There were a couple of false starts with Chapman
who was initially keen to work with the reunited band.
"But there were too many problems. His
lifestyle has changed radically. He's married and
leads a more secluded, settled life," Harry adds.
Would having children make it that much harder?
"How the hell should I know," she snaps.
Harry, who divides her time between New York and
Los Angeles, has made it known the thing she regrets
most is that she never had a child with Stein. I don't
have the courage to verify this for fear of prompting
another arctic blast.
We briefly return to safe ground with strained talk
of how much the industry has changed since Blondie's
heyday. Much of it she sheets home to the advent of
"There's no longevity factor," she
"There is this glut of material and product
that seems very short-lived. It's a pity really
because people want to relate to artists. They want to
have a relationship with them, so to speak, and to
chart their lives according to the music they
Blondie did do that to a large extent. It may do so
Meanwhile, Harry has a plane to catch. She excuses
herself to go to the loo and I take a cue that my
audience with pop's greatest survivor has finally
ground to a halt.
My last view of La Diva is of a retreating figure
dressed in diaphanous white culottes revealing skimpy
black knickers. She always loved making a saucy exit.