Magazines + Newspapers


Photography by Nick Vaccaro
Styling by Meg Goldman for Oversee
Hair by Moiz Alladina for Pierre Michel Salon, New York City
Dress by Jean-Paul Gaultier

April 1990

Pages 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61

Give ’em Hell, Harry

By Krisahn Williams

Cynical and sensuous, Blondie was the incarnate of sexuality, pleasure and youth. With a style that was as vulnerable as it was menacing, some compared her to James Dean – though the only real similarity was her impact on the American consciousness. She became one of our classic cultural icons, a cult figure, as significant and recognizable as Marilyn Monroe or Andy Warhol. With bleached blond hair, chiseled cheekbones, pouty lips and steely eyes, Deborah Harry became the most photographed face in the rock music world.

Born in Miami, Florida in the mid-40s, Deborah Ann Harry was adopted when she was three months old by Catherine and Richard Harry of Hawthorne, New Jersey – where she grew up. An ordinary kid from a middle-class neighborhood, Harry was brought up on traditional, conservative values. (She still makes a point of going home for Christmas each year.) She made her singing debut in a sixth-grade stage show, and in high school was a baton twirler and a member of the student council. But Hawthorne was too small a town to fill her big dreams and, after a brief stint at college, she moved to New York City’s East Village – the mecca of fledgling “artistes.”

Harry supported her singing by working as a beautician, Playboy Bunny (“I only did it for the money. I’d never do it now.”) and waitress at Max’s Kansas City restaurant, a favorite hangout of the Warhol set. In 1874, she met Brooklyn-born guitarist Chris Stein, who changed her life and became her lifelong musical collaborator and friend. Blondie evolved out of their union, and became a regular act at NYC nightclub and punk birthplace, CBGBs. By the early ’80s, Blondie – one of the only “punk” or “new wave” bands to successfully cross over to a mainstream audience – achieved mega-status with hit singles “Heart of Glass” (Blondie’s breakthrough hit), “Call Me,” “The Tide is High” and “Rapture” (the first rap song ever to hit the airwaves).

Blondie’s gone. But Deborah Harry is back and stronger than ever. She’s packing in concert halls across the country with fans ranging from inexperienced beer can-clutching teens to sophisticated downtown trendies to older, Blondie devotees. They fill the concert halls and wait patiently, expectantly, for the legend that was Blondie. Without the great fanfare required by lesser performers, she’s suddenly onstage – looking and sounding as hot as ever – proving the eight year absence was only yesterday. Her absence was noticed, her return triumphant. Clearly, Deborah Harry is the reigning Queen of Rock.

For a woman of her level of international celebrity, she is refreshingly humble. She says, “Celebrities are not the people to listen to.” Harry fiercely guards her privacy – giving as much or as little as she wants to give. She doesn’t leave herself open to prey as do the many media-hungry stars that shine in their meager fifteen minutes of fame.

Though gentle and mild-mannered, she get impatient with glibness and banal conversations. “She’s a real artist,” says Australian artist Vali Myers, “as brave as she is beautiful.” Deborah Harry has reached beyond the confines of her Blondie shell to bring something new to the table this time around. She is much more than a glorified icon with only one trick in her bag. Her quest for challenge and personal growth has endured decades of change.

Photography by Nick Vaccaro. Styling by Meg Goldman for Oversee. Makeup by Lorraine Beckie for Oversee. Hair by Moiz Alladina for Pierre Michel Salon/New York

Deborah Harry is now embarking on a film career. Her latest feature film is Tales From the Darkside in which she plays a suburban housewife with an evil twist. Though not particularly partial to horror, she enjoys material that tends to lean towards the bizarre.

As I spoke with Deborah Harry, I was most astonished by her sense of humility and, frankly, her good looks. Years may have passed, hardships endured, but you would never know it from looking at her. Up close and without any makeup, she’s naturally beautiful. With a mystique that’s larger than life, in reality she’s only 5′ 3. Her eyes have a vice-like intensity that is only relieved when she smiles or laughs. Her skin is taut and smooth and her body is lean and strong. She’s primed for the comeback. In this interview she was reflective of her past and hopeful about the future. She revealed her views on staying alive in the music industry, her return to the public eye and her genuine sense of self.

KRISAHN WILLIAMS: What’s more important to you at this point in your career, being a commercial pop star success or an avant-garde artist, as you were when you first exploded on the music scene?
Deborah Harry: I think now it’s much clearer to me about what I am. I’m more interested in being creative and artistic. I haven’t started working on a new album yet, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while.
KW: Weren’t you satisfied with the last album, Def, Dumb and Blonde?
DH: I think that this album is really good, but it took too long for it to come out. It’s like two and a half years old. I should have come out when we finished it. We had to wait for a while to get it out.
KW: Some of your other albums, Eat to the Beat and Autoamerican, were very exploratory in terms of mixing styles, particularly disco and rap. Do you feel that you’re taking a safe route with the new album?
DH: This record is just a statement of who I am and who Chris (Stein) is and what we’ve done in the past. That’s all this record was meant to be. It was supposed to be a reintroduction to myself and the work that we had done together. That was the whole theory behind this record. That’s why I say it took too long for this one to come out.
KW: I was at your concert at The World in New York City. A lot of the fans were teenagers. How do you feel when you look out into the audience and you see a lot of young kids? Does it make you feel old?
DH: It’s very funny. I don’t think about age very much. I know that it’s kind of a frightening prospect and nobody really wants to lose their zest for life and nobody wants to die, but it’s just something that’s never really preoccupied me. I never lived with that hanging over my head. I’m very lucky that way.

Left – Studded turtleneck midriff top by OMO Norma Kamali. Right – Hat by Kokin, v-neck dress by OMO Norma Kamali

My audiences have always been very mixed. In the Blondie days it was really even broader. Sometimes you’d see young parents with little, tiny children and the little, tiny children were the fans. That was the funniest thing and that happened a lot.
KW: Does living in New York give you and Chris a greater opportunity to tune in to what’s happening around you in the music scene?
DH: I don’t know. I hear things and I go around. I think New York has this tremendous interaction and communication. Basically, I don’t know if things really change. When I first came here in the ’60s, there were certain kinds of music happening in different areas, and different kinds of people doing different things. There was this sort of weird, free music and then there was more controlled R & B, there were the metal groups, the hippie bands and the pop groups. Everything has always existed, just to different degrees at different times.
I think that one of the main things that’s changed is there are more women, more girls, doing stuff in the arts and succeeding – having a life in the arts instead of just being wives and girlfriends of artists.
KW: I know you have strong feelings in regards to how women are presented – and present themselves – in the media. Many female artists – actresses as well as singers – prefer to play up the submissive role, the sex-toy images, rather than make a strong, independent, feminist statement.
DH: Well, let’s face it, that’s what survival has traditionally been. Women would survive through man’s survival. So taking you own stand now is totally the right thing. Sexuality should be exploitable and acceptable. That’s just exactly what it is and if you want to do that, you can do that and not have it be exclusive of anything else.
KW: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
DH: Just by being female, yes. Absolutely. And intellectually, definitely. I mean, I’ve made certain choices. I think it’s very necessary that I do that.
KW: Can you be both – feminist and a sex symbol?
DH: Absolutely. There’s no question in my mind.
KW: Going back to the music – the breakup of Blondie. It’s been said that one of the factors that contributed to

Jewelled bustier with tulle by Dolce e Gabbana

Blondie’s breakup was poor management. What is your new management like and how is it different from past management?
DH: I can’t really say that it was totally poor management for Blondie. I think that it was incorrect management. It just wasn’t the right thing for us. Technically, it was good management. There were some things that were done… but there was such a variety of people that were involved in Blondie. It seemed like there were six people as well as the band, I’m not talking about six people in the band, I’m saying there were five or six people – agent, business manager, lawyer, manager and so on – besides the band. It was just a mass of confusion. Things were happening really quickly and it became more and more confusing.
Because Blondie was a band that was truly a corporation, it wasn’t a situation where people would call me up and I would give them a decision. It was a situation where everyone had a say and had an involvement in the direction of their career and their lives. We tried to make it like that and it was very important. The problem with it was it was a grandiose idea and definitely inefficient.
KW: There was no way you could switch management once you were at that level?
DH: At that point we were working at full tilt for seven or eight years without stopping, I think that everybody was really burned out. Everybody was burned out with the concept. There was no chance to sort of step back and say, “Okay, let’s be clear-headed.” Everybody was sort of angry with one another and I think people had outgrown it. That’s the simple truth. You outgrow stuff. I mean, you wouldn’t ask an actor to play a part for five years and not go crazy. You’d want to shoot yourself. You just become trapped in this little thing and it’s a small indication of who this person is. It just wasn’t good, not only for myself but for everyone involved.
KW: In other words, Deborah Harry is not Blondie. It was just a part that you played.
DH: That’s the nature of entertainment. I don’t think that anyone is totally themselves at all times when they’re performing. I think that they perform and present a certain aspect of their personality and then they have other things. I don’t think you could maintain sanity if you were completely out there all the time.
KW: I was comparing your idea of playing a part to some of the rock groups who claim to live the sex, drugs, rock’n’roll theme so prevalent in their music, take, for example, Guns ‘n’ Roses…
DH: I like Guns ‘n’ Roses. I like their sound and I like their look. But Axl, he’s the singer, right? I saw a picture of him recently – he’s starting to look pretty burned out, man. He’d better be careful because he’s a pretty boy. If he starts looking too frayed, he’s going to be in deep trouble.
It’s so passé to me, the whole idea of being a victim of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. It’s so preposterous and so passé. It’s like, “Okay, what else can you do?” One of my favorite bands is the Child Peppers. They’re so eclectic. They combine everything in their music as well as in their lifestyles.
KW: How are you going to avoid burnout this time around?
DH: I don’t know. I think that burnout is always available on every level – whether you’re working and performing under a huge demand or whether you’re just pressuring yourself and stressing yourself because of wanting this or that. Burnout is always available.
Being involved in a corporation tends to cause burnout because of the product demand. You know, someone like Axl and the guys in Guns ‘n’ Roses are under terrific pressure at all times because there’s a lot of people making money from them and there are a lot of demands. Now, whether they have really great management is the key, it’s really the key factor in keeping a band together and keeping your sanity and your health.
I just have one little cue or clue that’s sort of relevant to that whole thing about a manager. To me, after doing this and doing it really hard for a long time and then coming back to it again, I think that the best way for a novice or somebody new coming into it is to think about a manager as a coach. A coach is very concerned with an athlete’s health and stamina. Nothing gets in the way of that. I think that’s a real good way to think about a manager.

V-neck dress by OMO Norma Kamali, sunglasses by James Arpad

KW: How will you deal with the music industry differently so you can work it to your advantage?
DH: The business is the business and there’s nothing wrong with the business – it’s whether or not you can make right decisions. I made right decisions before, it was just that time was up for that particular thing. A lot of things happened simultaneously, so I really put the brakes on my recording career for a while.
KW: Do you ever regret it?
DH: Sure, I regret that I sort of stopped working for a while. In a way I regret it and in a way I don’t. I made a lot of progress without working and perhaps that was important for me at that time. I don’t really have that much perspective about it yet.
KW: What did you do during that time, during the quiet, low-profile period when you weren’t touring or playing?
DH: I did different things. I still worked. I did some television, some records for soundtracks. I did a play, some movies.
KW: What did you gain from that period when you were not on such a public level?
DH: I guess it’s sort of like wood-shedding. You get to practice a little bit without being under such heavy focus.
KW: Do you feel stronger and wiser now about what you want from music and what you want from yourself?
DH: Not today.
KW: Is it harder to make it in the music industry now or do you think the opportunities are greater for artists?
DH: It seems that there are tremendous amounts of product being put out and the record industry is, of course, hugely successful and tremendously big. The corporations are very strong, very powerful. There aren’t very many small labels. I don’t know if I would really want to try to get into it now. We started when there were a lot of small labels, indie labels and a lot of local stuff going on. That was exciting and the big labels were paying attention to that. I don’t know if that really exists so much now. Actually, there are a few indies that do things and it’s starting to happen again which is kind of interesting.
KW: Chris has been a devoted friend and musical partner. You’ve been working together since 1974. How does the creative process work between the two of you?
DH: It’s very funny how a lot of times we come to the same conclusions separately. One of us will say, “I was thinking of this,” and then the other one will say, “Oh, yeah? Me too.” All kinds of things happen. I don’t think there’s any set occurrence. Chris really writes the music and I come up with the lyrics, although he writes very nice lyrics too.
KW: How do you manage to work together through the tough times and still remain close friends? Do egos ever get in the way?
DH: Egos always get in the way. I think that one of the things that I’ve learned from working with Chris is the value of collaboration. He’s a very communicative person. People often don’t have a great ability to communicate and they don’t have good language abilities – therefore their communication stops before it starts. It takes a lot of work to sit down and really listen. That’s one of the things I learned about acting. To really be a good actor, you have to listen to what the other person says.
KW: How ambitious are you and how ambitious is Chris? Do you have similar ideas of where you want to go with the music?
DH: I don’t know if we have that completely worked out. This is my project basically, and he’s helping me with it. He does other things that are a bit more esoteric. He’s not really interested in doing commercial records although he would like to put out a dance record of his own music. He’s very talented in a lot of different areas. He did a bunch of unknown bands from New York. I don’t know if that’s ever going to come out but he recorded a bunch of bands. He’s interested in a lot of different things, a lot of different music, a lot of different scenes.
Because I’m a singer, I’m more of a front person. I have a whole different approach to my career. His career is more of a behind the scenes nature. He thinks of himself as a lead guitar player, but I don’t think he thinks of himself as wanting to front a band. He’s a little more diversified in that way. I can perform with a band, without a band, on a stage, in theater or in film. Our careers are much, much different.
KW: How has your acting experience enhanced your singing and performing?
DH: I think that one has really helped the other. Acting is really interesting to me. I don’t know whether I’m a good actor or not, and I don’t know whether I ever will be. I know that every time I do something and every time I study and work at it, it’s very, very rewarding for me. It’s really helped me in my singing and in my performing as a singer. It’s been terrific.
KW: What are you doing right now to develop your talent in acting?
DH: Well, lately I haven’t been doing anything because I’ve been on the road for three months. This past summer I’ve had a couple of parts – one was a funny part for Shelley Duvall in this Rocky Mother Goose thing that she did.
KW: Fairy Tale Theater?
DH: Yeah. I played the Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe, which was sort of very campy. And then I did a part for Lorimar, but it’s going to be released by Paramount – Tales From The Darkside. Those are the only two things I’ve done recently. Before that I was studying with a coach and I did a little bit of Shakespeare workshop which was good.
KW: What kinds of roles do you want to play in the future?
DH: I don’t have it nailed down right now. I think that because of the nature of who I am, the parts that get offered to me are sort of character parts, character roles. The characters that I’ve played haven’t been extremely big parts or very well-developed characters. They’re more like outlines. I’m really happy to do anything really.
KW: What are your standards for the kinds of roles you choose to play?
DH: I want something that makes me work harder. I want to do something that’s going to make me struggle.
KW: Does Chris encourage your acting?
DH: Oh yes, he always has… very much so.
KW: If you got offered a leading role in a film that would require you to put your music on hold for a while, would you do it?
DH: I’m sure I would. Absolutely. No problem. However, I think that people like me – trying to cross over from one area to another – are open to a lot of criticism. I think that actors always want to make records and do concerts, and singers always want to act. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. When you think about it, the competition for these parts is so incredibly keen, it’s just ridiculous. The odds of me getting a leading part versus Debra Winger are out the window, you know what I mean? There are so many really great actors around.
KW: You were taking before about criticism. Are you good at handling criticism? How will you handle it from the press when Tales From the Darkside is released?
DH: I think criticism, good criticism, is invaluable. What you do with it again, is your own responsibility. I think that emotional criticism and criticism that isn’t impartial or subjective is really disgusting. But good criticism and real criticism is wonderful.
KW: Are you interested in producing or directing in the future?
DH: There’s so much. Directing… my God! I can’t imagine. As a singer or a band member or a front for a band, I direct myself and I put my own words in my mouth. As an actor, it become totally the opposite. I mean, it’s really extraordinary for me to be in both those positions. I think one of the problems people have crossing over is taking criticism or direction – however you want to phrase that – because criticism and direction are very close when you’re working. Somebody says, “No, no, you’re not…,” it’s like, “Aah!”
KW: Were you intimidated when you first started acting?
DH: Oh, yeah. I’m sort of a timid person anyway. I’m odd. I’m timid but yet I’m very brave. I’ve had pretty good experiences with directors. I’ve worked with some really great directors. They’ve really helped me. Someone was saying how Paul (Mazursky) was an actor and how great it was to work with a director that was an actor. Having done a little bit of both, it really is remarkable the difference in the kind of direction you can get from somebody who’s a little more sensitive to the actor. It’s just worlds and worlds apart.
KW: Have you since overcome your timidity and shyness?
DH: Ummm… yeah, I think so. I never really enjoyed being shy. I think that being shy or painfully shy is a drag. Pain is a drag. There are so many things that you miss. I guess I tried to overcome it.
KW: To get a bigger taste of the world.
DH: Yeah.
KW: Did you ever think you’d come this far?
DH: I always had big dreams, but I never knew I would do anything…
KW: Like you have done?
DH: Yeah. I was always totally in a dream world.
KW: How do you feel about the comeback and the direction you’re presently taking?
DH: I’m pretty satisfied with things. I’m happy to be working again. I’m really satisfied with playing, doing shows. I would like to get some more acting parts. I think that’s probably enough to really envision at one time. I know that I’ll probably be doing another record and I want to make a very sort of strange record this time.
I’m really sick of pop songs. I mean, I like them and I admire good ones and perhaps I will write some more but I’d like to do something that’s a little strange.
KW: Are you more aggressive in the pursuit of success this time around?
DH: I don’t know if it’s aggression, but I think that self-esteem is something that you have to really work on. Some people have so much self-esteem and so little talent that they survive and they succeed on self-esteem which is totally outrageous to me. I’m sometimes a bit too analytical, I think. That’s the only thing I can say about that.
KW: How’s your self-esteem?
DH: I think that it’s very flexible with me. My self-esteem changes from minute to minute. It’s really very radical.
KW: What other personal qualities have contributed to your success?
DH: Perseverance and tenacity.

Show More

Related Articles

Check Also
Back to top button