Magazines + Newspapers

Elle Magazine

(UK EDITION) – October 2003
Photography by: Kayt Jones
Written by: Kate Finnigan
It’s over 20 years since Deborah Harry was the wittiest, prettiest girl in pop. But, as Kate Finnigan finds out, she’s lost neither her famous cheekbones nor her evil sense of humour.


Picture this. It’s 1977. New York band Blondie are playing the first night of their eight-week residency at the Whisky a Go Go bar in Los Angeles. This first night, Debbie Harry, the 32-year-old lead singer – a blonde, red-lipped sex bomb – watches the kids in the crowd. They’re wearing their best gig gear: bell bottoms and flowered shirts, muu-muu dresses and those three-piece suits from the early 70s, which they’re all still into. Fast forward a week. At their second performance, Debbie is watching again, this time in some amazement as she sees that tonight the girls are in tight black miniskirts, the boys decked out in narrow-legged suits and skinny ties – an exact copy of the styles worn on stage right now by her and the members of Blondie. Oh my God, she realises, we’ve created A Look.
Deborah Harry, formerly Debbie, now 58, is packing up stuff from her hotel bathroom when she asks me if I’d like to have her used false eyelashes. She puts them in my hand and they lie there like a pair of felled caterpillars, tiny lumps of old mascara crumbling onto my palm as if the critters are popping out little black eggs. What’s that? Do I want the used false eyelashes of Deborah Harry, style icon, punk-pop princess, living legend…? Is she kidding?
It feels like we’re standing inside a TV set or a laboratory. Deborah’s room at the minimalist St Martins Lane hotel is totally white, with floor-to-ceiling windows on two conjoining sides. It’s as if it was designed with the Grande Dame of Rock Chicks in mind. Her white cotton T-shirt and bob of platinum hair are enveloped by the backdrop, with only her red lips and piercing eyes standing out. She’s like an installation or a working experiment: ‘Deborah Harry, pop icon – punk era to present day’.
The 6pm Eurostar to Paris leaves in under two hours and she’s got to be on it. She’s managing to talk, smoke and fast-pack a multitude of black garments into two black cases. Drifting in and out of enthusiasm as if she’s walking through sunshine and showers, at times she’s positively glum. When she’s revved, though, she’s hilarious, fiercely sarcastic and camp as hell. ‘You take yourself too seriously, where does it go from there?’ she shrugs later. ‘I think that’s part of the era that we came from. The punk era was definitely mocking. We were making fun of everybody.’
Born in Miami, Florida, in 1945, to a concert-pianist mother, Deborah Ann was given up for adoption and brought up in New Jersey by Richard and Catherine Harry. Her father worked for a company that manufactured woven labels for clothes and she had a passion for fashion from a young age. She says she dreamt Marilyn Monroe was her mother when she was a kid. People put her blonde ambition down to that. She was only 12 when she started bleaching her hair, dying it violet, blue and ‘all kinds of embarrassing colours’ – outrageous for small-town life in the 60s. She had to get out of the sticks. ‘I knew that if I stayed I’d probably have a nervous breakdown by the time I was 40, so it’s a good thing I left.’ She pauses, so you know a line’s coming. ‘I had my nervous breakdown much earlier. I got it out of the way in my twenties. Heheheh…’
‘Blondie’ was what labourers and truck drivers shouted after Debbie as she shimmied around boho Greenwich Village to her various pre-fame jobs – secretary at the BBC’s New York office, Playboy Bunny, waitress at Max’s Kansas City, which, like CBGB, was one of the bars where New York punk was born.
Her platinum hair attracted men like magpies to trinkets. ‘Hey, Blondie!’ they’d yell, trying to get her attention. It was a good name she thought, back in 1974, for the punk by-the-way-of-60s-girl-group she and ex-art student Chris Stein were starting up. She’d met Chris in a club while she was singing in the all-girl band the Stilettoes – and they formed Blondie with Clem Burke and Jimmy Destri. Chris was Debbie’s mentor, her boyfriend, the love of her life.
Physically, Blondie’s front woman was a ready-made beauty queen – the hair and lips, those cheekbones (still very much in evidence now, thanks, partially, to a little nip and tuck. But more on that later…). Her mother worried about her daughter’s striking physical appearance and told a teenage Deborah not to rely on her beauty.
‘My mother and I didn’t look alike and I think she always had a problem with her looks,’ she reflects. ‘She imparted information to me that she thought was really valuable to her and I think she was right. But I also think you have to use your looks to your advantage. And there are two sides to that coin, obviously.’
The power of that face and body, juxtaposed with the tearaway clothes, launched the Rock Chick as we now know her. ‘It was a deconstruction of the traditions,’ she says of the thrown-together fusion of mod and punk. ‘To wear something that was wrinkled or ripped then was like, “Did you get mugged?”‘ she says in John Waters-style snipe. ‘”Has she been attacked?” But I don’t think it seems so outrageous now, when you look at it.’
Even so, woe betide anyone who lays claim to her territory. ‘There was a famous photo shoot with Shania Twain dressed up in punk clothes taken in CBGB and I was sort of horrified. The last thing in the world is thinking of Shania Twain as a punk!’ she laughs. ‘I mean, back OFF. BACK OFF! If you wanted to be a punk you should have put your ass on the line, got yourself down to CBGB.’ We both cackle like hags at the thought.
Their first album, Blondie, was released in 1976 and was well received but not a commercial hit. They built up a buzz with that stint in LA and tours with Iggy Pop and David Bowie and became household-name famous, first in the UK in 1978 with the number-two hit, Denis, from their second album, Plastic Letters. (Debbie’s subsequent appearance on Top of the Pops wearing a striped swimsuit and jacket and little else caused the BBC to gulp very loudly.)
It was followed that year by Parallel Lines, considered by many to be one of the best rock albums of all time, which finally lead to success in the States. Between 1978 and 1981, the band clocked up six UK number ones (Heart of Glass, Sunday Girl, Dreaming, Atomic, Call Me, The Tide is high) and many US successes. They were Andy Warhol’s favourite band, they consorted with legends – Iggy Pop, the Ramones, Nancy Spungen – and they partied like the best of them, though Deborah suspects her wilder days have now been mythologised.
‘I don’t know if anybody could live that extraordinary lifestyle and survive. Some people I knew who were really heavy drug-takers and wild party people have died,’ she sighs. ‘It’s not so much about the party afterwards. The party on stage is where I’m at.’
Debbie, to the delight of schoolboys everywhere, was the first female pop star to play so provocatively with her image. She wasn’t just sexy, she was cool – guys wanted to sleep with her, girls wanted to be her, and visa versa, actually. Her identity was so strong that it became mixed up with the group’s – people started thinking Blondie was actually Debbie’s name and the rest of the band took to wearing pins reading ‘Blondie is a band’. Tensions rose.
To a certain extent, she was protected from the music-industry madness by her love affair with Chris. But the relationship bore the brunt. ‘I think there was this sense that he was the man and he should protect me,’ she explains, a little sadly. ‘And that was sort of impossible. I needed a bodyguard, not a boyfriend.’ She thinks this contributed to Chris’ illness – in 1982, he was diagnosed with what was thought at the time to be a fatal skin disease called Pemphigus, and Debbie disappeared from public view to nurse him for three years.
‘Chris and I were in love with each other and with what we were doing. It was special. It was a unique experience,’ she says. But having to provide the kick-start to her mentor’s motor was too much of a strain. In 1983, the band split up, exhausted by each other and their demanding record company contract (they were required to produce three albums a year). Four years later, after 14 years together, so did Chris and Debbie. Chris married twice, had children. Debbie went solo and never married.
She made five albums, none of which ever received the acclaim of Blondie (although the singles French Kissin’ in the USA and I Want that Man put a certain va-va-voom into my adolescence). She hooked up with the Jazz Passengers, grabbed suitably out-there roles in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and John Waters’ Hairspray. And then in 1998, Blondie surprised everyone by getting back together and the following year zooming to number one with the single Maria – in their 50s. Sick, eh?
Age has always and never been an issue for Deborah. She was 33 when Blondie made it big. ‘Would a 33-year-old woman walking into a record label be taken seriously now?’ she asks, as we discuss the ‘production values’ (ie no mingers allowed) of the youth-obsessed music industry. ‘No way!’ I exclaim passionately. ‘Write that down,’ she orders. ‘No way.’
Admittedly, Debbie was probably the hottest 33 year old who ever walked the earth, never mind into a record exec’s office, so her own ‘production values’ definitely stood in her favour. But coming back to the music industry at 53, and now again at 58 with new album The Curse of Blondie certainly refocuses public attention on your looks. Specifically, how you looked then and how you don’t look the same now. That’s got to be a drag.
‘Age is a real problem, I think, because unless you commit suicide, you’re gonna live, you’re gonna get old,’ she points out rationally. ‘You might as well be sharp about it and make the best of it because the opposite is no fun, death is no fun.’
For being ‘sharp’ let’s read, having a little plastic surgery. Deborah’s not shy about it. She had a face-lift some years ago, and ‘I’m about ready for another!’ she quips. Then she retracts. ‘Oh, I don’t know if I’m really ready for another. But you look good, you feel good. Why not? Yeah, I think it helps me, makes me feel energised, gives you all the things you need to walk out, be part of what’s going on, be part of the action. I don’t feel like hiding away.’
We’re sitting in the lobby of St Martins Lane now, slightly breathless, having heaved her bags downstairs – no entourage for icons, it seems. But Marvin Gaye is singing Let’s Get it On very loudly and Deborah, her hair topped off with a flowery gardening hat, is on a roll. ‘Furthermore!’ she announces. ‘If I get really old and saggy, I’ve often thought what I’d do is try to become like, Chinese or something.’
‘Oh my God!’ I yelp above Marv. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Have extreme surgery. Be really artistic, as if I was trying to change my identity. Wouldn’t that be cool?’ she nods, like a teenager suggesting she dye her hair violet. ‘I’d have to have a lot of loose skin, so they could twist it up, tie little knots in the corners…’ She’s winding me up, I know, but it’s not that easy to tell.
We talk about the new album (a tresure trove of classic pop songs, sexy dance tracks and jazz tunes, glittered with her usual sharp wit and romantic wisdom), and how she believes love is ‘the answer’. She falls in love a lot, she says, ‘all the time’. I ask if she still thinks about adopting a child because there’s a little girl somewhere who would love to inherit that archive of amazing outfits. ‘That’s right!’ she retorts immediately. ‘And if I had a boy who was gay, so would he!’
Plans are not yet in place for ‘Blondie: the movie’, but she thinks it would be a great story. There’d be a cat fight over that lead role. Who would she want to play herself? ‘Oh,’ she says sitting up. ‘I’m not sure exactly. I’d like to have, what’s her name? Kirsten Dunst. She’s good and we sort of have a similar look.’ I suggest that Kirsten’s cheekbones don’t quite measure up to Debbie Harry standard. ‘Well,’ she cackles evily, ‘She’ll just have to have implants.’
Walking out of the lobby in her flowery hat, she heads to her limo and is snapped by a lone paparazzo. I stand with the paparazzo guy and watch Deborah Harry disappear, a pair of crumbly eyelashes in my pocket – positive proof that an icon came this way.

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