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You Magazine

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 time.

‘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 it.’
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 blonde wig.

‘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 roles.
‘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 direction.

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

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