The Sunday Times Style Magazine
September 21st 2003

HEART OF GLASS

Written By: Chrissy Iley Photography By: Perou

At 58, Deborah Harry is as cool as ever, but behind the blonde ambition, Chrissy Iley finds a life shadowed by drugs, lost love and ice cream. Photographs by Perou.

Her nose is as perky as ever, and her eyes are wide and multicoloured. Her cheekbones are still riding high, and today she is wearing brown. She manages to make herself look chocolatey, a petit four, edible. And kind of miraculous for a woman of 58.

Deborah Harry was a sort of punk-goddess Garbo, an ironic slut that men wanted to be with and women wanted to be. She has had some wilderness years, in which she totally disappeared, and years when she fell off her pedestal, where she seemed bleary-eyed and a little lumpy. She refers to those as her "ice-cream years". But now she's back, with a new album and tour, and her time feels as right as ever. Personally, I'd much rather look at Deborah Harry in a top that was too tight than Madonna's cold, sinewy curves, because Harry looks kind of dirty - in a good way.

She is staying at Le Meridien Grosvenor House in London's Park Lane - which is strange, as I would have had her down at a cool boutique hotel with a yoga therapist constantly on hand. "No, I like to stay here because they have soya milk, which I find incredibly important. I'm lactose intolerant." Oh, and when did you discover that? "When I was a baby," she says. So what about ther period you refer to as your ice-cream years? "Well, I was so messed up, full of ice cream and having a big lactose moment." Was that more self-destructive than heroin? "Exactly." She laughs, a really big, cackly laugh. "And that's true insanity, isn't it?"

For the record, the ice-cream years, with their self-destruction, menace and extra-wobbly bits, are over. Harry is looking lean, her skin flawless. She puts that down to having some Celtic blood, then she stares right at me and says: "But you've got Celtic-looking skin. In fact, we both sort of look the same."

I'm having a moment. Me and Deborah, we look the same. Right. "We do," she insists. "We have the same kind of facial structure." I have a face that's blushing 50 shades of fuchsia, and I confide: "Just like you fantasised you might have been Marilyn Monroe's daughter, I..." "What?" she cries. "You thought you were mine?" I know, I say, it's biologically impossible. Maybe your long-lost half-sister, who never had the courage to do the blonde thing. She is incredibly amused by this, and knows that, without several tons of peroxide over the years, she wouldn't be who she is today.

The coffee comes without caffine and without lactose. Harry has a wonderfully sly laugh that goes all the way up through the eyes. "I'm embarrassed to be looked at as some kind of icon. I mean, history is so short, but is it so complicated that I have to be an icon?" Well, weren't you the original blonde ambition? Weren't you more of a material girl than Madonna?

"Terribly. I fully intended to be famous, ever since I was a little girl. I focused on it mentally and spiritually - on the idea of fame and the fantasy idea of Marilyn. I loved it. Then I hated it. I am truly not the person who wants to have all that exposure. In the mid-1980s, I found that there was no place I could go, and I found that very uncomfortable. I lost all my access to street life. So then I didn't want to have a public life anymore. It took away from the love that I had of the artistic thing I was doing. I reconciled those extremes, though, to a certain degree, with experience."

Harry's world in the bright, blonde spotlight collapsed when her lover and music partner, Chris Stein, suddenly fell ill with a rare and often fatal disease known as pemphigus. He was virtually bedridden, and she nursed him 24/7. She became a recluse with him, but insists that rumours of her sainthood were greatly exaggerated. "I mean, it just worked out that I wasn't recording at the time. All my business things had fallen apart, everything had fallen apart, including Chris falling apart. And then the band fell apart. And then he got better, but we fell apart."

Did the dynamic of your relationship change while you were looking after him - since, as soon as he was better, he met and married someone else? "No," she says. "It was just a split, and it happened over a long period. I couldn't say how it started, or how it ended. It was a very intense relationship, a collaboration, a love affair, a business affair. I don't know if a relationship like that can go on for very long, really, because it was so very intense."

She nods her head solemnly, doesn't even bother to try and hide her sadness with flippancy. Do you still feel he is your soul mate? "Absolutely. I know that he loves me and I love him deeply. It's just one of those things. I can't explain it, except I feel very fortunate that when I met him, I knew instantly, from the beginning. It doesn't happen like that very often. In fact, if it ever happened to me again, I'd be really amazed."

Has it come close to happening again? "Well, I've had chemistry with some people, but nothing ever quite like it. I don't know that I would really have enough soul in myself to ever have more than one soul mate." You get the feeling that, no matter how rich Harry's artistic life is, or how many wild parties are involved, there is something very fulfilled about it: that it really was enough for one lifetime. There is no other man in her life at the moment, although she says she's open to offers. "I have a pretty adventurous life. I'm always meeting people. My work world is full and expanding. I'm not hiding in a dark corner."

Rumours that she had gone off to start a lesbian commune with Patti Smith are quite unfounded. "I think I would like someone who is fun, knows how to have a good time, a sense of adventure. Why not?" she says. Would you prefer a good boy or a bad boy? "Oh gee, if only life was that simple. I tend to like rascals, I think." And she says the word "rascals" very naughtily. "I like people who are complicated - that intrigues me. I like a challenge. It's the adventure in me. I'd like to go to parts of the earth that haven't been explored yet. But I don't know about dangerous emotional terrain, because it depends how bad the boy is. I don't have much tolerance for a person who's truly, truly bad. It would depend on how secure I felt within myself, I suppose. I would like to think I could give a person a lot of freedom, because I need a lot of freedom myself.

"Disrespect is another matter. I think what I learnt from having this relationship with Chris is that you can evolve from one thing into another to make it work. We balance each other out so well, so one would only hope that if you wanted it enough, anything is possible to balance the other person out.

"But look - how many people do you know that have long, happy, ongoing relationships these days?" she says laconically, managing to be both guarded and up for anything at the same time. Essentially, that is part of exactly who Harry is, and why she is still incredibly sexy.

If you did have a boyfriend, would you care what age he was? "No, actually, because I don't feel an age. I was told by my mother a long time ago that in your head, you're always a certain age, that you never feel you've changed much."

And then she starts laughing: "And then my mother started having dementia that went into Alzheimer's. She used to stand in front of the mirror, and I knew she saw herself as a young girl. She'd be talking like a little girl to herself, with this wonderful freedom, this wonderful dementia. Well, okay, it wasn't a great thing, but she was very happy."

Born in Miami, Harry was adopted at three months, and grew up in Hawthorne, New Jersey. Her mother died five years ago. Her father is still alive, although Harry says her parents are different kinds of people. "My father is not much of a communicator. My mother was a chatterbox." Often children of adoptive parents feel they have something to prove, and instead of searching for original DNA, they just want to make an original impact on the world. Was that the case with her, or did she ever have the curiosity to find her birth parents?

"I did try, but privacy laws in the States were really against that kind of thing. Of course, I think about the make-up of my personality and where it comes from. I did do another investigation, and my mother was contacted, but she had another life and didn't want to open that door, and that has to be respected."

Did Harry never want to have children? "I thought about it. But I think I would have made a terrible parent, as I have no patience. And, absolutely, there were years when I did not want to have children, because I didn't feel I was grown-up enough. I wasn't confident. I didn't have that knowledge, and now I have it, but it's too late. I guess that would be ironic."

She thinks irony has been mentioned too many times. Perhaps she will get it as a tattoo on the back of her neck. "I don't have any tattoos, but recently, a friend of mine died. She was from New Zealand and she had her face tattooed, inspired by the Maoris. I might like to get a tattoo in honour of her. Scary, but what the hell, you know? You might as well try something new, eh?" And then she ponders over her decaffeinated coffee for a second. "I hope I wouldn't get addicted and end up with an entire body covered in tattoos, out of pure boredom."

Harry has not been afraid to experiment with her body in some ways. "I even tried Botox. Yuck. I'm not much of an injection person. Having been a junkie for years, I stay away from needles." She laughs. "I'm fortunate to have good skin. In fact, I'd like to launch a line of make-up. I know - why would anyone think there needs to be more make-up on the market? But I do have some ideas. I've always experimented, and I think I know what I like and what other people like."

Harry is on a creative roll. She's also chopping up her own black sweaters and sewing them into dresses. "Well, I had an overabundance of black sweaters and so I made this interesting fish tail with some see-through areas." So creatively, if not emotionally, her life is very full. She certainly laughs a lot.

"Yes, I'm happy. I'm doing good work. Writing is satisfying, I'm having a good time."

Then I tell her I remember that my mother also told me that, after a certain age, you don't feel any older inside. Harry beams with delight. "Maybe we are sisters," she says. I tell her I'm very happy to have her as my soul sister.

Blondie's new single, Good Boys, is released on September 29. The album, The Curse of Blondie, is released on October 6 (both on Sony)


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