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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, fat.

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.”

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