Magazine: You Magazine
Issue: 11th July 1993
Photographer: George Bodnar
Interview: Chrissy Iley
UK Magazine that came with The Mail On Sunday
An end to
With her wide eyes, sultry pout and trademark
peroxide locks Debbie Harry was the original blonde
with attitude, conquering the charts with her band
Blondie. She retired from the spotlight to tend her
sick boyfriend in the early 80s, but now born-again
brunette Deborah is back, older and wiser, but not,
she admits, entirely grown-up.
She's quiet, downbeat, almost dismal. There are
vestiges of the old Debbie Harry, but she's startlingy
unblonde. Deborah is wearing an ancient brown and
wheat jumper and slob-mode baggy pants. She could be
anybody. Then something extraordinary happens. It's
not just delving into the make-up box; it's a switch
that goes on in her head: go be Debbie Harry now. And
you wonder why you didn't notice earlier - the big,
wide-apart eyes, cheek-bones so pointy you could
sharpen pencils on them. Her skin is translucent. This
is icon, not bygone.
The face that furnished a thousand fantasies in the
70s and 80s is back with a new album, Debravation.
With Blondie she was the Madonna prototype,
alternating between vunerable and tough. Teenage boys
wept with longing in front of their posters; girls
tried to be her.
Then, in 1981, just as she was riding high (25 million
records sold with swooning songs like 'Heart of
Glass', 'Denis', and 'Hanging on the Telephone'), her
boyfriend, mentor and co-writer in Blondie, Chris
stein, collapsed with stress. HIs skin erupted in
watery blisters and doctors thought he was going to
die. It was months before they diagnosed pemphigus, a
rare wasting disease which attacks the immune system.
Deborah had been with him for 11 years. It took a
further three years to nurse him back to health, but
the illness changed everything. She couldn't be
bothered with her career, her movements were sluggish.
She was overweight and overwrought.
They survived, no longer lovers but friends. (He
collaborates on the new record.) She survived playing
a woman wrestler in Trafford Tanzi which opened and
closed on Broadway in a day, but won acclaim for her
performance in David Cronenberg's Videodrome and as a
parody of herself in John Waters's Hairspray. She
recently moved into an airy apartment in a brownstone
on New York's Upper East side, which she is in the
process of decorating. Insiders say she is not
well-off, but she is a survivor.
She says she has the heart of a gremlin and can throw
the odd baleful look. 'I have a basic animosity
towards the rest of the human race. That is the
discipline that's kept me going.'
She's kept going and she's never done anything
excuciatingly naff. She's not gone cosy, she's not
gone stupid. Somehow the enigma has remained intact.
'It wasn't orchestrated. I am not driven by pleasing
people. I don't have to prove anything to myself any
more. I keep going because I have something to say.'
A punk star in her early 30s, her background was that
of an adopted child in the middle-class American
suberbia of New Jersey. It was a hushed, small-town
existence with no appreciation for the arts, which was
what made her desperate to find a creative edge.
In her early 20s she flung herself into Manhattan low
life during the Warhol era. She worked as a bunny girl
and as a waitress in sleazy bars. She once made love
in a tiny phone booth at the place where she worked.
She took drugs, which expanded her mind and distorted
'I enjoyed the drama of living on the edge. It's just
a way of feeling empowered, that you are different.
You don't have to be tough to survive, you have to be
vunerable, because it's that vunerability and
sensitivity that makes you know how other people feel,
makes you know how to reach them.
'I am naturally moody and I use that. If I was
organised and controlled I wouldn't have the need.
Learning how to deal with criticism is hard. I have
been too thin-shelled.
'I used to be mad crazy for going on stage, but
terribly nervous. If I read the reviews I'd be so
nervous I'd be falling over, not focused on what I was
doing, just concentrating on the criticism. It's taken
me till now to go out there, feel excited and nervous
but really love it.
'I used to think that being empowered meant making the
decisions before other people got to make them for
you. That was the marketing plan, although I didn't
think of it as such, for Blondie - it was easy to do
that, a compact theatricality that was easy to
understand. I made my own image, then I was trapped in
There is a sense that it wasn't just Chris's illness
that split Blondie. It was the outward display of a
terminal inner disintegration. 'I couldn't escape
myself. Everywhere I went I was Blondie. It was great
for a while, then it didn't fit, it got too small. It
was why I stopped being so public.' She was a recluse
and only went out to look sullen.
'I wasn't trying to throw it all away, I just wanted
more and it took time. Now I don't feel locked into
anything. I can take on a role, balance, go to and
fro, in and out.'
She clucks at her dog Chi-Chan, chastising her for
making a nest with the bits of focaccia she's found on
the floor from our deli sandwiches. She's slipped into
mama mode, with a 50s silk suit and and cover-girl
'I am someone else. It's like I was a little girl: I
had a dressing-up box of my mother's old evening gowns
and the neighbours' wedding dresses. I still get the
same thrill. I like to slip in and out of it, though.
I've never had any problem slipping in and out of
'When Chris got ill everything changed. I was suddenly
holding everything together. It was the hardest time,
it got unequal. He was never mentally incapable,
always astute, but it forced me into different areas.
I didn't fit that role of keeper very easily. He had
always been the mentor. He had always been the funny
one and suddenly it was not ligh-hearted. Before then
I'd always felt perhaps too serious. Different roles?
One of my specialities,' she says wryly.
'It had always been when one of us couldn't pull it
together the other one could, and in a way that
balance kept us together. We still throw creative
ideas back and forth. I'm just sorry that I didn't
have a baby with Chris. It would have been a nice
thing, but we were so busy, working hard. As a lead
singer I couldn't have gone on the road pregnant.
'My parents had such a decent humility. They were not
terribly achievement-minded: all they wanted was that
I got married and had kids, but I was always a rebel.
But that's not just why I never had one. I could still
have one,' she says, a little too forcefully. She's
47. 'If the right man came along I would do that,
absolutely. I could easily adopt one.' Although
Chi-Chan has already rather assumed that role.
These days she's a good housekeeper, although she
worries that being tidy means she's less moody, less
creative. 'Chris once said - ' there is a wistful
pause - 'that he felt our records were our children.
He's a very sweet person, he used to say such nice
things. We kept reaching out, we never wanted to
repeat anything. We never wanted to do another
"Heart of Glass". We needed to stretch
ourselves...' Her voice wafts off as if she thinks
she's stretched herself too far and in the wrong
With Chris she had the worst and best times. 'I'm not
at my happiest now, but I'm at my most confident,
because I've learnt how to reprogramme myself. I've
been an emotional masochist all my life, but I'm
learning to be a good sadist,' she giggles.
'I don't go for scalps. I just tried to stop making
the same mistake. You can't go on doing that, can you?
You reach a point where the penny drops and I reached
that not long ago. There wasn't one particular moment
where a change came, they are always gradual with me.
Going to acting classes, learning how to develop a
character, reprogramming myself - that technique
probably helped. Plus, of course, I took 40 tabs of
acid... no, no, just kidding. I couldn't do that wild
stuff any more. I'm middle-aged. I don't feel
depressed about it. I feel a different person to who I
was ten years ago, although not entirely grown-up. I
still screw up. But I can look at myself and feel
completely aware and happy with myself.
'Some days I used to think, "God, you're so
miserable looking. You look like a beast."
Confidence comes from within, it doesn't have anything
to do with physicality. Sexuality comes from within.
It was scary at first, confronting the world with my
own hair, but now I can say, "Well, you're not
getting any younger, are you?" I don't care, I
really love it, because I was trapped for so long.
'I used to have a compulsion to be as thin as
possible. I'll never be that way again because I've
got used to my body type and I know what it can and
cannot do. When I'm not working I can put on weight,
so I had a phase of weight training. It became
addictive and then I got too bulky. Now I do aerobics.
Because I was very thin at one time I made headlines
with photographs when I put on any weight at all. It
comes with the territory. Actually, I always felt I
could sing better when there was moe meat on me.'
She lights up a Marlboro. She only started smoking a
couple of years ago when most people stopped. 'Yes, I
know I'm very contrary, always going against the
grain.' She has the detachment often apparent in
adopted people. Did this make her more of a rebel?
'I did always feel alienated, that's why I'm always
searching. Maybe my parents created that need. I toyed
with the idea at one time of tracking down my real
parents. It's the curiosity; you want to know who you
are like, why you are like that. In some ways I've
sublimated that need by finding different characters
for myself, and that is part of why I do what I do.'
Striving seems a lonely place. Does she fall in love
easily? 'I don't. Sometimes it works. I thought with
Chris you have to work with it, you have to fine-tune
it. But sometimes I think it's like this dog. She goes
out in the street; some dogs she likes instantly, some
she stays away from. You need that chemistry.
'To some degree I am in love at the moment,' she says,
pulling a tortured face. 'It was miserable for a
while, and now it's like, ah well, onwards, anything
can happen, I'll pretend to be Houdini. I always want
to escape. Perhaps I should work at it harder. But I
owe it to myself not to be less of a person than I can
be. I inimidate men by being myself, but I'm not ready
to tone myself down in order to work at it.
'If I fell crazy in love with someone I would bend
over backwards to make them happy. It hasn't happened
for me like that. The male ego has to feel dominant,
it's part of what makes us procreate. I have no
quarrel with that whatsoever. I just haven't found the
right person to quarrel with... but I'm ready for a
good argument. So, you son of a bitch, where are you?
Let's get it on!'
Debravation is released by Chrysalis on 19 July