Issue: July 1990
Photographer: Michel Haddi
Interview: Lisa Armstrong
The original LIVING DOLL, Debbie
Harry was, however, always more than a divinely pretty
face. She walks and talks with Lisa Armstrong.
Last November, at the close of a decade that wasn't
always kind to her, Deborah Harry quietly released an
album, Def, Dumb and Blonde, and embarked on a series
of low-key, critically acclaimed concerts. An icon
coined in an altogether different, more fevered ear,
Harry's phenomenally successful manipulation of
teen-dream superficialities - undercut by self-parody
- set the agenda for Madonna and Annie Lennox and
hinted at grit beneath the posing. Yet with the cool
came a curious naivete: a chronic nonchalance about
waterproofing business deals, and some bad habits,
which left her - according to a trail of ghoulish
press clippings - broke, homeless and, God forbid,
Given such conjecture, The Royalton's dimly lit
restaurant seemed a significant choice of rendezvous.
In fact, tiny in a black leather jacket, Harry is an
implausible forty-five-year-old; the angular planes of
her face as finely chiselled as ever, the reptilian
gaze pure azure. "I'm sorry I'm late," she
apologises in high-pitched New Yorkese; "I've
been at the bank." During the hour in which she
was supposed not to be at the bank, but sitting here,
discussing the photographs on these pages, her
reputation as a reluctant interviewee had ample time
to sink in. But then the Press never could make up its
mind about her.
Her image ricocheted violently from corrupter of
the nation's youth to retiring stay-at-home, happy
cogitating existentialism or the origins of rap with
Chris Stein, her partner and co-Blondie founder. And
when the band split in 1982, it was never made clear
whether Harry, in the ultimate gesture of cool, had
grown bored with success, or the other way round.
There followed a desultory acting career, with the
near pornographic Videodrome, a disastrous one night
on Broadway in Trafford Tanzie and, more successfully,
a send-up of herself in John Waters' Hairspray.
Interspersed with this were the tepidly greeted
Rockbird album and a horrific period when she halted
everything in order to nurse Stein through a
near-fatal illness. So now this hybrid of depravity
and saintliness sits picking politely at a salad,
refusing champagne but lining up four strong coffees
in front of her. She is almost touchingly courteous,
ready to ponder every question laid before her, even
if her responses are often banalities of Warholian
proportions: "London is so pretty";
"rapping is really neat". On the subject of
the eighties music scene, where once she was scathing,
she is now understandably circumspect. "I can't
just dismiss everything that's come since - it would
negate what I did myself. I think if I had been more
business minded, I might have done some things
differently. But, you know... [long pause as the
inevitable comparison manifests itself] Madonna has
had huge success, compared with which ours was tiny,
but I don't know if I could ever be that commercial.
I'm not that kind of person."
Being in the right place at the right time is a
favourite conceit of hers. The suggestion that her
career was carefully manipulated, her image cunningly
marketed, elicits some guffaws (actually she laughs a
lot - all the more surprising because in repose that
pout looks as though it never curls into so much as a
glimmer of a smile). It's true that compared with the
slickly packaged Ritts/Newton school of pop
photography, the images of Debbie in gymslips and
suspenders, or Debbie staring blankly out of bleak New
York street scenes now look jarringly amateur.
"We were always under such pressure to keep up
this flow of... commodity. I think if we'd been
allowed to work at a slower pace we wouldn't have
burned ourselves out."
Her image she attributes mainly to Stephen Sprouse
(currently collaborating with Steven Meisel on her
video). "Before I met him I was a total mess.
Don't ask what I wore. First I was a hippy, then it
was cowboy boots and forties dresses." Later,
realising this is disingenuous (Sprouse may have given
her great clothes but she gave them attitude), she
adds: "You know, right from a child I always
thought having a strong sense of your own style was
one of the most important things. Later, when we got
money, it was even more important. But it was never a
cynical package. It was me. What I thought looked
nice." She attributes the blatant exploitation of
her sex appeal to shyness. "I started to explore
the other side, and this became a form of
exhibitionism which shocked me. It was very
stimulating and frightening but I think it gave the
performances an edge."
Harry was anxious to see the finished Vogue pictures.
"Natural light can be scary," she says
softly; "I'm a little older." She seems
genuinely pleased with the way life is shaping up, and
is content to duck and dive into the scene rather than
be a permanent fixture. Asked why she is putting
herself through the mill again, she laughs: "I
was actually questioning myself about that and saying,
don't be jerky... but I decided this is what I do.
Also, I think because we dropped out at a high point I
was stuck in a way - in a small way - with this
legendary status, with people very interested in me;
so coming back and making good on that was very
seductive to me."
Supporting bands like Tears for Fears or playing tiny
venues doesn't worry her (though the smoke does). Nor
does the potential generation gap. On the contrary,
she is in her element. "You know, in Australia
the audience kept coming up to me and saying, 'We
bought all your records when we were eight, but were
never allowed to come and see you,' and it was like,
'Oh, these are my children,'" She laughs again.
"Right time, right place."