Sunday Herald Magazine - 4th February 2001
Australian Sunday magazine that came with the Sunday Herald Newspaper.
This is the same interview as was printed in 'Night & Day Magazine - 2001'
DEBORAH HARRY HAD IT ALL - BEAUTY, ICON STATUS, THE MAN SHE LOVED AND NO. 1 HITS. THEN, AT THE HEIGHT OF HER POWER, SHE QUIT THE STAGE. WHEN SHE TRIED TO RETURN - AGED AND FADED - A DECADE LATER, THEY RIPPED HER TO SHREDS. JIM SHELLY TREADS WARILY.
I am looking for Deborah Harry - Debbie Harry as she once was, the sardonic, sexy blonde icon from the late '70s perfect pop band, Blondie.
I do not expect to find her. Since her return to the pop scene in the mid '90s, after nearly a decade in reclusive semi-retirement, the press has branded Harry an unbearable disappointment, a disastrous shadow of her former glory - a kind of cross between Big Daddy and Miss Piggy. 'Scruffy, overweight and past it,' one critic put it. 'Gone were the razor-sharp cheekbones,' wrote another. 'The luminous skin was dulled, her golden hair had become dry and straw-like, and her battle against the extra pounds had been lost.'
Such is the price you pay for being beautiful.
Her pursuit, in later life, of careers in jazz, the theatre and art might suggest she has become mundane and respectable, which I am certain wouldn't suit her.
So, now, as a fan, arriving at the North London studios where we have arranged to rendezvous, I am not looking forward to meeting her.
The only person in the grey foyer is a nondescript, middle-aged woman standing lifelessly, waiting for the lift. Her face is buried, hidden, deep inside an enormous green parka and a kooky green hat she has tied up on her head.
It is Deborah Harry. I recognise her by her voice as she launches into a rousing rendition of 'Oh Canada', seemingly to entertain herself.
This is the first sign that, even though she might not be the ultra-cool bombshell she once was, when songs such as 'Atomic', 'Denis', or 'Heart Of Glass' were among Blondie's 13 Top 20 hits, she remains post-punk's most appealing, natural star. The second is her earing - a long, plastic lizard dangling from her right lobe. It is not remotely precious, appealing or artistic, but the most basic, cartoon-like design of a lizard, like something improvised from a child's toy.
'My little lizard?' she beams, pleased. 'It's cute, huh?' And, 'My dog actually picked it out for me,' she adds offering no further explanation.
In the lift, we talk about the American elections. She says how much she admires Hillary Clinton, but doesn't think America will vote for a female president. 'Not in my lifetime, anyway.'
She seems less enamoured of Hillary's husband, even though he plays the saxophone. 'Yeah he does,' she drawls, 'but he plays it really badly.'
When we walk into the canteen, the dozen musicians with whom she is rehearsing for a performance of Roy Nathanson's jazz CD, Fire at Keaton's Bar & Grill, greet her arrival with genuinely heartfelt cheer - the sort that used to greet Norm in Cheers when he walked into the bar.
'Hey Debbie, you're working that hat, man,' one of the guys shouts. Touched, she suddenly looks at home, and settles down alongside the guys to tuck into some soup and cadge a cigarette.
If she would rather hang out with the band than start the interview, you can hardly blame her. Deborah knows what's coming.
She is at that age (her mid-fifties), and at that stage (the icon from another era; the ageing beauty whose face was so much an integral part of the band that she gave it her nickname, Blondie), when the key questions are obvious. None of them is pleasant, either to answer or to ask. But she knows they will all be worked in somehow.
'How does she cope with growing old?' and 'What is it like losing your looks?', are two of the most fundamental, the most interesting, and harsh.
'What is it like playing in the reformed Blondie?', given that, despite their number one single, 'Maria', last year, they will never be as big as they once were.
Then there is her personal life - a topic which in Blondie's heyday Harry never had to discuss much, because it was so straightforward, because for 11 years, throughout Blondie's career, she was inseperable from the band's guitarist, Chris Stein.
She knows that there will be the question about the three-and-a-half years she spent nursing Stein through a life-threatening illness, which he survived, but which their relationship did not.
Not to mention such issues as as how she is facing her life ahead - approaching her sixties, alone, with no partner and no children.
Harry herself takes it all very well, though, with the combination of gutsy humour and poise that was part of what made Blondie unique. When I ask her how her love life is, she answers, with a kind of Zsa Zsa Gabor flourish, 'I'm open to suggestions, darling.' Even so, you get the impression she has adapted a jolly attitude to the future because she has to.
Although she always said marriage was 'bondage, a form of slavery', she has admitted that she doesn't want to end up 'a spinster at 70'. (Stein got married.)
'I haven't been dating much lately,' she shrugs, suggesting she is used to life in her Chelsea apartment with 'a pug called Chi-Chen' and 'a calici cat called Peaches.'
Her one regret, she has said, was that she and Stein had not had a child. As far back as 1993, she was talking of adopting and, even from a brief meeting, you feel what a missed opportunity this may have been.
'I think it's probably one of the few things I regret. Years ago, I would've been unsure about it because of my emotional state of mind - whether I would've been a good influence. I wasn't sure I could provide what I feel would be a responsible or strong environment.'
The obvious assumption is that this was something to do with having herself been adopted, in Florida in 1946, by a salesman, Richard Harry, and his wife.
'I take it seriously because of my own adoption,' she acknowledges, 'but I don't think it was the biggest issue.'
The truth, one suspects, is that she simply didn't want to do it without Stein.
'It doesn't mean that I can't still adopt, though. I could be a terrific parent - even at this stage of my life. But I don't want to do it alone. I don't want to try and create a family living alone.'
Although we probably both know that the chance has almost certainly gone now, I suggest that, on her own, she would be more than enough. This, visibly, rather poignantly, lifts her spirits.
'Well, maybe I will do it. You're being very encouraging to me, thank you. I like that. That's very nice!'
She has remained reluctant to track down her birth parents. No doubt her reasons are complex, but she says simply, 'I know too much about valuing my own privacy to want to intrude on someone else's.'
Asked if she worries about growing old, she answers with commendable aplomb - 'What, with all the advances in plastic surgery, I should say not!' - but with enough dry irony to make it clear that the subject makes her uneasy. 'Maybe they'll come up with some hormonal thing and all that elasticity will zip-zap right back!'
In the meantime, thanks to her unenthusiastic regime of aerobics and swimming, she is certainly sleeker than she was during the spell she calls 'the ice-cream years', adding 'I looked like the Michelin man.'
Her face is rounder, paler with age, but the knowingly reckless expression in her eyes, her secretive semi-smile, and caustic Noo Yawk humour that made her a gorgeous, punk version of Mae West, are immediately evident.
The only time she shows any sign of brittle temper is at the mention of the other Eighties icon whose emergence plagued her: Madonna.
'Can we talk about someone else now, please?' she smiles through firmly gritted teeth, even though we have barely talked about her at all.
For years, Harry was openly bitter about the way that - while her own career was sidelined as she cared for Chris - Madonna single-mindedly replaced her, with what Deborah called 'a bland bourgoise version' of her act.
She accused her record company at the time (Warner Brothers) of failing to support her solo career because 'they were all more interested in some other blonde'.
'I'm older and wiser now. Madonna is really a superlative pop star. She's magnificent and she's great at stardom. I think she's terrific,' Harry drawls, as if nothing could impress her less.
'I wouldn't want what she got. I don't think I could've done what she has done, anyway. She is totally General Public. That whole thing about her sexuality, her liberal attitudes, is just marketing. It doesn't mean anything. The things she writes about are not a challenge intellectually.'
There is something rather sad about Harry's need to stick up for her own songs.
'Some of the things I put into my songs - if you see them or if you don't - there's always a double edge to everything that's there.'
This was Blondie's secret - the way the group combined an instinctive, addictive talent for effortless, euphoric music, with the darker and more knowing ironies of Harry's vocals and persona. Debbie Harry was different and unreachable, if only because she was older and smarter than her strident contemporaries (she was already in her thirties when Blondie had their first hit, 'Denis', in 1978).
Punk was meant to be a reaction to, and a dismissal of, exactly the sort of conventional beauty she exemplified. With Blondie, she flouted her sexuality, despite all the sexism and stereotypes that consequently came her way. Record company executives habitually addressed business conversations to the male members of the band.
You could sense the benefits of her beauty were ambiguous. 'Pretty people are not expected to be serious. They don't have to be - they can survive on being pretty. I have a terrific amount of tenacity and drive, but I'm also smart - smart enough to be nervous of attention. Did I get it for the reasons I wanted? Obviously not.'
Her sense of alienation is possibly rooted in the fact that she was put up for adoption. 'I think children without parents for any period of time are traumatised. They need attention.' When she was a teenager, her favourite singers were Peggy Lee and Billy Holiday, and legend has it that she identified so closely with Marilyn Monroe that she used to fantasise that Marilyn had been her real mum.
Once, when she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said, 'To be famous, what else?' (No wonder she was Andy Warhol's favourite pop star.)
'Yeah, I did, quite badly. I was always interested in glamour and identity, although it was the idea of the sex symbol that intrigued me. I think I was looking for recognition. You know, some kind of attention. And to be a person that somehow I could relate to, feel comfortable with, and feel a sense of belonging. I came from a small, conservative, suburban town (Hawthorne, New Jersey) and I felt like I needed to make a statement. I was always in the arty circle, always wearing black.'
At school, she says, she was 'kinda quiet. I was very shy' - before casually mentioning that part of the 'statement' she was making was that 'I had blue hair and stuff like that. In those days [the early sixties], blue hair was really kind of out there'.
It probably still is, I point out.
'I guess. I started to dye it when I was 12. I had blue and white and violet - all the old lady shades, really.'
For her adoptive parents, she agrees, it must have been particularly difficult to know how to react. 'They were good people - humane people, with a very moral sense about them. I think I must have brought a scary element into their lives. They did give me a little talking to, and looked at me askance, but they would never, ever have tried to stop me.'
I suggest she must have been quite something.
'Well I was extraordinary looking, I think,' she admits seriously. 'But a lot of people thought I was in a different world than I was. My inside world was a lot different from my outside world.'
Despite the outwardly outrageous image she presented, her reticence and anxiety always made it hard to tell how wild she really was.
She had been a Playboy bunny and was a veteran of the New York punk scene, hanging out with such bands as The Ramones, Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls. One of her best friends was Nancy Spungeon, the girl who was eventually murdered by the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious. But, at the same time, she was sweet, funny and goodnatured, eschewing all the offers and attention she got from men, spending the whole period 'mostly with Chris'.
'Chris and I were with each other all the time. He was my best friend and my partner and my lover. It was a very intense relationship.'
Before Stein's illness, even after they had sold 25 million records and conquered the world, Harry always had an aura of sadness. In his book, Please Kill Me: an oral history of punk, writer Legs McNeill said, 'Debbie was gorgeous, but she was also hysterically funny. After success, she just seemed lonely.'
'It wasn't fun anymore. We were all really disillusioned because "Heart of Glass" had gone to number one in America and, simultaneously, the legal department of the record company announced that we had broken our contract which said that we had to make three albums per year.'
She had already grown sick of being so recognisable as the public face of Blondie when, in 1982, Stein became ill with Pemphigus, a rare, often fatal, stress-related skin disease that attacks the immune system.
'For six months he couldn't eat, then his skin went, losing all its oils. He was told, in that condition, 10 or 15 years earlier, he would've died.'
Although she is fond of saying that 'reports of my sainthood are greatly exaggerated', she did disappear to nurse him for all those years, seemingly seizing the chance to kill her image. (Eventually, to a lot of critics' chagrin, when she did come back it was as a brunette.)
Hardly surprising, given the gravity of Stein's illness, Harry stopped caring about her own appearance, eventually returning to the limelight looking worn and depressed, clearly demoralised by the effect that the guitarist's illness was having on her career - as well as her personal life, of course.
'When Chris got ill, everything changed. It really did derail us totally. We were so close. He had always been the mentor. He had always been the funny, positive one. Suddenly, it was not so light-hearted. Suddenly I was holding everything together.'
Professionally, she felt her record company couldn't cope with the fact that, for the first time, she had come back looking more her age.
'It's an industry that's based on youthful output and appearance, and the record company wasn't really interested. I wanted to do a tough, more mature, more aggressive version of Blondie. And they didn't really want that. They didn't want Dirty Harry!'
Having put up with all kinds of insulting, dismissive and sexist stereotyping - because of her looks - during Blondie's heyday, she has (perhaps like a pop version of Bardot) suffered virtually continual criticism about her changing looks ever since.
As long ago as 1983, the knives were already being sharpened when the Sunday Mirror ran a story headlined, 'POOR OLD DEBBIE: No Picture, She Said, And I Can See Why.' One interviewer complained that she was 'enormous. Bizarrely enormous. So enormous that I keep thinking about [rotund] Eric Stoltz in The Mask.'
'At that point, I never thought I would have a viable pop career again. There's only a few artists that have ever managed to mature with their audience. I really thought that I was finished.'
The truth is, of course, that Deborah Harry has lost a lot more looks than most people ever had. And nowadays, now that she is comfortable with having lost some of the excessive weight, she is growing into that phase where she looks like a glamorous, dramatic siren; a post-punk Lauren Bacall or Hutton, adopting an attitude of trying not to care.
'It varies from day to day,' she considers, quietly. 'But if you're not going to be smart enough to adjust to the inevitable, then what kind of idiot are you? Some people are really concerned with getting old, and other people are really concerned with getting on with living. Tell me, what do you think is the most important thing?'
It's not easy, I say.
'Nothing is easy,' she says bluntly. 'Nothing is ever easy.'
I wonder if she had ever convinced herself it would have been easier to be plain or ordinary.
'No,' she says immediately, with her characteristic gusto. 'I think it's a privilege to be considered pretty or beautiful or good-looking, don't you think? Growing old sucks, basically, but you can either let yourself get miserable about it or you can find something that makes you feel good. It becomes more of a challenge to put yourself together, surviving with a little bit of style. When you see somebody in the street that's older and got that spirit, I think it's a turn on, right?'
Blondie has returned, reunited and - unique among other money-grubbing, nostalgia-peddling bands from that era - are writing and recording adventurous new material, even though every band from Moloko to The Cardigans are brazenly copying them.
'Having Blondie back together is kind of curious after all these years. It's been interesting. I'm not sacrificing things I want to do for a kind of frozen pop image.'
She is enjoying the only benefits of her Grand Dame status - the facility to explore other art forms: short-story writing, photography, art and acting on Broadway in Sarah Kane's play Crave.
Her movie career seemed promising, with her eyegrabbing performance in weird-but-wonderful films such as David Cronenberg's Videodrome and John Waters's Hairspray. But the opportunities have not come pouring in. 'I don't really understand it myself,' she ponders, wryly. 'But I do have some films coming out
shortly. Some funny little parts I've done.'
In terms of her personal life, she somehow carries the aura of someone who is resigned to being single, stuck with the sadness of knowing she lost the love of her life, and is gamely carrying on.
She said as much once when she described the type of man she was looking for as 'small, furry, and able to sit in my lap while I drive'.
The notion of Deborah Harry, growing into her later life, having to cope with the traumas of her lost beauty, lost love, on her own, with no man and no children could seem quite dispiriting.
Somehow, though, it rather suits her. The aspect of faded beauty, of romantic tragedy and, despite all this, her resolute humour, only adds to Deborah Harry's imperious air of glamour.
As she says, 'It's more of a challenge to put yourself together. Surviving with a little bit of style.'
After all, this is what real legends do, of course, and this is what she does.
She says that she aspires to end up 'like one of those jazz singers, like Ella Fitzgerald, looking great at 70 and still up there, on the bandstand in a giant Crimplene dress, belting it out like there's no tomorrow.'
When you watch her in rehearsal, it takes just one line of a song to convince you that the voice that made Blondie so distinctive and so intriguing, is still as strong and as wry as ever.
Then there is that earring - exemplifying the fact that her spirit is not only strong but, essentially, the same.
'I don't know what sort of lizard it is,' she ponders. 'It's not really a regular kind of lizard, is it? It's just this sort of make-believe little lizard.'
Whatever it is, Deborah Harry still wears it well.