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Mirror.co.uk - 7th November 2003
CURSE OF THE ATOMIC KITTEN
AFTER SUCCESS AND PERSONAL TRAUMAS, DEBBIE HARRY AND BLONDIE HAVE SOMEHOW SURVIVED.
By Gavin Martin 07/11/2003
It is now more than 30 years since New York art student Chris Stein met former beautician and bunny girl Deborah Ann Harry and became the oddest couple in pop. He was the nerdy, bespectacled amateur photographer and guitarist, she was the vivacious Marilyn Monroe-influenced glamour queen who simply oozed sex appeal and had a voice to match.
Blondie, the band they formed, revolutionised pop in the '70s and early '80s. Debbie was the sort of female sex symbol who'd never been seen fronting a real rock band, and she and Stein had the guts and ingenuity to merge their punk rock roots with disco, reggae and rap.
This combination spawned classics such as Heart Of Glass, Atomic (she was the original pop kitten) and Hanging On The Telephone. Their sales surpassed 40 million and everyone from Madonna to The Strokes owes them a huge debt.
Their 1999 return with the No 1 single Maria underlined Blondie's incredible knack for survival. Like any group who have lasted three decades, they've had their run-ins with drugs, suffered management problems, seen their popularity dip and band members leave.
But what makes Blondie a little different is that for the first decade of their career, Chris and Debbie were lovers. The relationship ended in 1986 after Harry had nursed Stein for three years as he fought the potentially fatal skin condition Pemphigus Vulgaris.
Debbie pursued a solo career, became an increasingly respected actress and changed her name to Deborah. She admits to "a few intimacies" since their split, but it was Chris who got married and settled down. Now 53, he has just become a proud father for the first time, to a three-month-old baby girl.
Harry and Stein are sitting together on the sofa of a swanky London hotel suite, here to celebrate the release of their eighth album, The Curse Of Blondie. Ignoring the name change, Chris still calls his former partner Debbie. And although 58, Harry still has enough beauty, magnetism and stage presence to be the envy of performers young enough to be her granddaughter. But she must find it odd still working with the man who was once her lover.
"It's always been strange, right from the start," grins Debbie, and Chris sighs, "That's one way to look at it. She always has a witty reply."
But why did they split up? They admit they had talked about having kids, so don't they regret not making a go of it?
"It was a difficult period," admits Debbie. "We actually should have gone into therapy or counselling and maybe we would have weathered that storm. We were both really pressed to the limit. Chris was sick but I was ill too," she adds, circling her index finger at the side of her head to indicate the nature of her illness.
"We worked very hard for a long time without any breaks and I think I was probably having some minor nervous breakdown. Or maybe it was a major one. Anyway, the pressure was just too much for me. I wasn't dealing with a full deck."
Although she was already in her thirties when she became a pop icon, Harry says fame hit her hard.
"People these days become famous so young," she frowns. "I was probably keen to be famous when I was that age too, but fame to me meant getting a sense of worth or satisfaction.
"But really it was just a lot of work, always being propelled at a faster rate - an unnatural rate - trying to keep up. It was like being marched straight into the sea, always facing deadlines and so on."
Although she's now hailed as the woman who started a rock 'n' roll sexual revolution, reaction wasn't always positive
"It was a double-edged sword and sometimes it worked against us," Debbie says. "I think I was totally innocuous compared to all the exploitation that goes on today. Times have changed. Christina Aguilera enjoys the way she looks and I think that's relevant. I really feel with her that she is that person.
"But some of the girls are styled in ways that maybe they don't feel that comfortable with. I can't be judgmental about any of it because that is very hard on the brain."
Both Chris and Debbie admit the current album and tour are payback time - a chance to claw back some of the money they never got during their heyday. But what they did experience was all the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll action New York had to offer.
Dead junkies such as Sid Vicious's girlfriend Nancy Spungen and Dee Dee Ramone were among their friends, and they hung out with art and literary legends such as Andy Warhol and William Burroughs.
"The drug experience was edifying and illuminating but the other side of that is that it was habitual and destroys brain cells," says Debbie frankly. "Did I have a drug of choice? Well, I chose a lot of drugs!"
Chris thinks that there should be research done into the mind-expanding possibilities of LSD, and Debbie was once a willing guinea pig. "I had revelations on LSD about the size of things," says Debbie. "You realise that your relative importance in terms of the universe is really small. I think that's why people have bad trips because they realise how small they are. That was the biggest revelation for me.
"I don't do drugs now because I eventually found I'm not interested. I'm glad I learned that and I'm also glad I took drugs. I'm not a person who will ever tell a younger person not to take drugs. I'm just not that person. I can only speak from my own experience."
One day she may even write her autobiography. So could we expect any juicy revelations?
"If I'm candid and I can remember anything," she laughs.
While Stein is bringing up a baby, Debbie still lives alone in New York. She enjoys live performing and acting more than ever, as well as fighting the ageism which she says is rife in society, particularly in the music industry.
When at home, she likes riding her pushbike around the city, taking her dogs for a walk and occasional nights with her girlfriends. So is it like Sex And The City when her posse hit the town?
"Nothing is like Sex And The City," she says.
"Unless it's four gay guys having a weekend together," laughs Chris.
But when I raise the subject of having kids, Debbie looks glassy-eyed. She devoted so much of her earlier life to her career and looking after Chris, does she regret not finding time for motherhood?
"In some ways," she replies, "but at the time I wasn't really ready to be a parent. I am now. I could handle it quite well, but I don't think I could have back then."
Realising it's a sensitive subject, Chris jokes, "If you put a note on the internet a whole lot of them will show up." But then Debbie snaps out of it. After all, she's meant to be a tough survivor.
"I don't feel frustrated," she says. "If I want to have children I can always adopt. Or I can go out and steal them. I'm sure there's someone who would give me theirs."
Mirror.co.uk - 7th November 2003