Magazine: You Magazine
Issue: 7th November 1999
Photographer: Nitin Vadukul
Comments: Great interview and gorgeous
photos of Debbie especially on the cover.
Thanks to my mum for saving this
magazine for me!
Wild about
Why Deborah is still
our Sunday girl


'I guess without peroxide I might have had a different sort of life,' grins Deborah Harry, who reckons Madonna stole her thunder. But now she's back and proving that there's no one else quite like her. 

Encountering one of pop's most ironic faces in the flesh is an unnerving experience. It's like a first glimpse of the icon's home town, New York City - a mixture of the ineffably familiar and the unexpect- edly awe-inspiring. Similarly, even in a cold-induced sotto voce, Deborah Harry's voice is instantly recognisable from the dozen hits such as 'Denis', 'Atomic' and 'Call Me', with which she and her group Blondie carved their niche in the collective memory of the 80s. In minimal make-up, Deborah at 54 may no longer be the svelte Barbie doll of yesteryear, but she is still blessed with a vivacious beauty. Unfeeasibly radiant, with razor-sharp cheekbones and sensuous lips that naturally relax into the same Bardot-esque pout that seduced a generation, she is that rarest of things - a positive advert for the rock'n'roll lifestyle. What's more, after more than two decades in the business, la Harry remains the epitome of bohemian glamour. Even dressed down in a cowboy shirt and jeans, offset by a gold skull necklace and matching rings, the woman who, for a photo shoot, once fashioned an impromptu shift dress out of a pillowcase and some gaffer tape exudes unforced cool. Her enduring looks are not the only reason for Deborah to be feeling pleased with herself as the century draws to a close. For, while most of her contemporaries from the punk and new wave scene from which Blondie evolved a quarter of a century ago are now consigned either to history or the seedy revival circuit, Deborah and her cohorts are once again enjoying residence at the business end of the hit parade. In fact their single 'Maria', which topped the UK charts at the beginning of the year, distinguished Blondie as the first act ever to have number ones in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Not that Deborah's fast-lane career has been without it's wilderness years. Indeed, after their 1978 to 1982 purple patch, the Blondie hit machine all but disintegrated under the pressure of constant touring and the overburdening expectations of a record company reliant on every ne release being an instant international success. Coupled with that, Deborah's long-term partner and Blondie co-founder Chris Stein was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening skin disease, which enforced a three-year hiatus from the music business, during which Deborah did little else but nurse him back to health - often keeping all-night vigils beside his hospital bed. It was a crucial absence from the fray which put paid to Blondie and allowed other artists to steal a march on Deborah. That clearly still rankles: 'I had to be with Chris - it's what anyone in a loving relationship would have done. But I resented people like Madonna coming through and replacing me. I felt she'd stolen my whole thing - only it was such a bland, bourgeois version of it. I liked some of the music and the production, but it wasn't saying anything. I felt usurped.' Partly because such pretenders had stolen her crown, Deborah (who had dropped the girlish Debbie by this time in a bid for grown-up credibility) found her subsequent solo career meeting only sporadic success, and instead gravitated towards esoteric music projects and film roles. When, in 1996, Chris Stein volunteered the idea of a comeback, Deborah was 'dead against it. It took me a year to come round. Chris had a hard job convincing me that the timing was right and that we could do it with some dignity.' 
Although Deborah ended the romantic relationship with a well-again Chris Stein in the mid 80s, she still counts him as her best friend and creative confidant. Significantly, while Chris has gone on to marry, there is no one else in Deborah's life. 'We still talk just about every day - we've been through so much together. I really believe Chris is a genius. I would work with him in a flash; it was all the baggage that went with the name Blondie that troubled me.' And there were other hurdles to overcome. 'We had all sorts of business problems to straighten out before we could ever begin to function as a group: old accountants, old lawyers... We all went through such a hellish period after the band broke up, what with drugs, financial difficulties and general bitterness; it's been very encouraging in terms of human nature that we're getting along again and having another chance.' It's a view that even once - sceptical critics now seem to share. 'We're finally getting our due as innovators,' says Deborah. 'In the past people couldn't get beyond the Blondie image - they didn't see the irony in me letting my roots show, or the knowingness in the lyrics. And a lot of what we did has been proved to be prescient; we were the first group to really put rap in the charts [with the song 'Rapture'] and look at that now.' And Deborah is finally being taken seriously as a contributor to Blondie's musical identity rather than simply being it's photogenic figurehead. 'I had alot of negative reactions from the word go,' she admits wearily. 'To the chagrin of other bands, I was always interested in glamour and identity, although it was the idea of the sex symbol that intrigued me. Of course, I wanted to be a bona fide pop star ...but at the same time I was feeding off a whole range of differennt influences - jazz, cinema,60s girl groups, conceptual art... Blondie had all these layers of meaning that got passed over because I looked a certain way. People rarely commented on whether or not I was a good lyricist.' Deborah's undiminished predilection for exhibitionist chic hit the headlines last autumn when the reunited Blondie won a lifetime achievement gong at the prestigious Q awards in London. It was an occasion for Deborah to, almost literally, cut a dash in a ravishing dress made entirely from razor blades. As she said at the time, 'Fashion should always be dangerous.' The dress was designed by her long-time friend, the enfant terrible of New York stage costumiers Michael Schmidt: 'It's a wonderful dress that Michael designed especially for me. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is about to stage an exhibition of rock costumes and they're taking a lot of the things that Michael made for me.' Stage clothing is once again a priority, as Blondie launch another world tour. 'Right now I'm into long hobble skits,' she reveals. 'They help me to move in a certain way on stage. People say I'm a hopeless dancer, but I think I'm great - especially when my movements are restricted in one of these skirts.' Brought up in the 50s in suburban New Jersey by adoptive parents, Deborah puts her penchant for startling costume and head-turning looks down to a teenage thirst for escapism. It's a craving which led her on a meandering path during her 20s, one that involved everything from the hippiedom of the woodstock festival to a stint as a bunny girl at New York's Playboy Club. 'My image-consciousness really comes from the movies - all those 50s starlets. I just experimented with how I looked. I've been bleaching my hair since I was 12. It's been all the colours of the rainbow. I guess without peroxide I might have ended up with a very different sort of life. It just so happened the whole Blondie thing clicked into place when I was in a blond phase. The band could easily have been called Redhead.' Even for a woman so physically unravaged after half a lifetime of hectic trailblazing (she does admit to some minor cosmetic surgery 'to deal with the sags'), Deborah is not without a sense of vunerability when it comes to the ageing process. 'Getting old really sucks,' she admits. 'I've been fortunate in that I've aged well. But it's still scary, it makes you look at yourself and question who you are on the inside.It's especially hard for someone in the limelight. But I look to people like the Stones. I mean these are guys who were inspired by old blues men - and that's what they've become. My ambition is to wind up like Ella Fitzgerald at 70 or whatever, up on the bandstand in a giant Crimplene dress, belting it out like there's no tomorrow.' 
Deborah's telegenic virtues have endeared her to film makers, in roles such as the kitsch-loving housewife in John Waters's camp comedy Hairspray, or the heroine in David Cronenberg's sci-fi shocker Videodrome. Recently, though, her roles have been restricted to cameos in the occasional art-house flick. 'I'm choosy about scripts,' she concedes. 'I still get mostly stereotypical "rock chick" things. I like to think the work I've done has proved I'm more adventurous than that.' Such a comparatively low profile doesn't stop Deborah from being recognised on the streets of New York. 'What's weird, 'she says, 'is that complete strangers will act like they really know me. It's funny because I feel like I'm only just beginning to know myself. I marvel at Madonna - it's another crucial difference between us: she really does seem to know exactly who she is.' Such an admission of fragility seems odd coming from the sex symbol who once commanded the world of chart celebrity with gum-chewing chutzpah. She was, famously, Andy Warhol's favourite pop star, after all. 'I was never an intimate friend of Andy's,' Deborah says, 'but he played an important role in my life. He was an example. He was an outsider somehow simultaneously acceptable in every social circle. He made me regret not having had more education in art and literature. Andy knew about every single painter who had ever lived.' And she feels that something of New York died with the artist in 1987: 'The city is just so expensive now. Young artists can't afford to move here like I did. I live in Chelsea nowadays, which up until the 90s was just a no-go area near the docks. I have a nice rented apartment which I share with my pug dog Chi Chi. Everything's gentrified and safe. It's great in some ways, but kind of boring in others - the dangerous spirit of the Warhol era has gone.' Would she ever consider a move to Britain - a country plainly still fascinated by her? 'I've been touring Britain on and off with my solo work for all these years and the question was always being posed: "When will Blondie reform?" The British audience were just about the first to get Blondie back in the 70s - I've always felt at home there. ut I'm single right now and looking for a completely new stimulus in my life. Ideally I'd go back in time and live in the New York of the 50s, the coffee- house scene with Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets. I would have made a great beatnik girl,' Deborah has more feasible plans for a new domicile. 'I'm looking into South America at the moment, somewhere unusual - though it'll have to be a city; I do need an urban environment with some life to it. I guess there's a part of me that will always be this street girl - it's something I intend to hold on to.' 
Blondie's UK tour begins in London today 2001-2008.  About | Contact | Search