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Has Debbie escaped the curse of Blondie?

Saturday 14 July 2007

Center pages 52 & 53

Pop’s sexiest blonde is back in vogue after the success of her early years was brought to an abrupt end by serious illness and dashed romance

by Adrian Lee

WITH her trademark platinum blonde mop and sex kitten looks, Debbie Harry once stared down from the walls of a million lust-struck schoolboys’ bedrooms. Impossibly angular cheekbones, a Marilyn Monroe-style vulnerability and a pout to die for all added to the allure. Although her band wore badges insisting “Blondie is a group”, who cared about the others?
She was a pin-up who could sing a bit. Seemingly always able to stay half a step ahead of the latest music trends, she pumped out a string of hits, including UK No 1s in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.
Now, at the age of 62, Debbie Harry is poised to step into the limelight again. Classics including Heart Of Glass, Atomic and The Tide Is High are to be the bedrock for a West End musical of the cult 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan, which starred Madonna. In London for the launch earlier this week, Harry could barely hide her excitement, declaring herself “thrilled” that the band’s songs are to be revived. She has even agreed to write a new one, Moment Of Truth.
For men of a certain age, Debbie Harry will always be an icon. While their sons and daughters will be familiar with the music – borrowed countless times for dance tracks – they will not quite understand why the mere mention of her name is enough to make dad go all misty-eyed.
Harry has happily admitted to having gone under the plastic surgeon’s knife and using Botox but time has inevitably taken its toll on her striking looks. Gallons of bleach, which she started using when she was 12, have left her hair brittle. Described as rock’s answer to Catherine Deneuve, she now prefers to be called Deborah.
Her story, which began in Miami in 1945, is one of triumph, near tragedy, desolation and, finally it appears, regeneration. At three months she was adopted by Richard and Catherine Harry, who raised her in New Jersey. After leaving high school Harry moved to Manhattan, where she worked variously as a beautician, a barmaid and a Playboy bunny.
Her hairstyle was inspired by movie stars such as Jean Harlow and in the mid-Seventies she became a singer in a glitter rock band, The Stilettos, which later included guitarist Chris Stein. Together they reshaped the group, first as Angel and the Snake, then Blondie. The name came from the shouts Harry drew from truckers and taxi drivers as she walked down the street.
But it was not until 1978, when Harry was already in her 30s, that Blondie broke through in the UK with two top 10 hits. The following year, the disco anthem Heart Of Glass reached No 1. Blondie became the most successful American act in the history of the UK charts, with six No 1 singles in their heyday.
At Blondie’s peak Harry and Stein, who became her lover, were the royal couple of downtown Manhattan, numbering Andy Warhol among their friends. Iggy Pop and David Bowie are both said to have pursued Harry romantically – both were rejected.
Harry claims she did not enjoy the adulation, which included being named in a list of America’s 10 most beautiful women by Harper’s Bazaar fashion magazine in 1981. “I guess I knew I was a sex symbol,” she said. “I just sort of wandered into it.
“I was very wooden when I started. I really didn’t like the way I looked. My goals were to be noticed and to be famous.” After almost five years at the top, the cracks began to appear. Band members fell out and Harry dabbled with drugs. She says now: “Did I have a drug of choice? Well, I chose a lot of drugs.” The group disbanded in 1983 and for two years Harry’s career was on hold as she disappeared from view.
It emerged that Stein was suffering from a rare and often fatal genetic skin disease, pemphigus, which attacks the immune system. Harry nursed him and Stein survived but their relationship faltered and, just like the band, the couple split. Although he married, they remained friends. Harry is even godmother to his two children and still refers to Stein as her soulmate.

SHE was later to admit that she suffered a mini nervous breakdown and tried to shed the Blondie image, which she felt had become a millstone. Years later she was even to title an album, The Curse Of Blondie. Harry tried to reinvent herself as a brunette solo singer, but without success, and during the mid-Eighties, which she described as her “ice cream years”, her weight soared.
There were hits, including French Kissin’ In The USA but Deborah Harry never scaled the same heights as Blondie and Debbie. There was also an attempt to become an actress.
For all Blondie’s success, Harry was not financially astute during the glory years. Legal wrangles meant that it was the hangers-on who made fortunes, so when the band finally reformed in 1998 it was mainly from economic necessity.
Within 12 months, Harry made a triumphant return to the British charts with Maria. At the age of 53, she entered the record books as the oldest female singer to have a No 1 – it was her seventh.
Peter Michael Marino, the writer of the new musical, believes Harry’s music has universal appeal. “She’s kept her fans, like me, from the Seventies and early Eighties,” he says. “When I was a teenager at high school, I thought she was just the coolest. Now a whole younger generation have heard the music in dance tracks. The songs are positive and optimistic and suitable for a whole audience. There are no parental guidance warnings with Blondie lyrics.
“Debbie Harry really paved the way for artists like Madonna and Gwen Stefani. She’s right at the top in terms of her influence.
“Current stars like Lily Allen and Moby were inspired by her. She embraced so many musical styles – punk, pop, new wave, reggae and disco. That is why she is so enduring.”
Marino, 40, confesses that preparing to meet his idol for the first time, at a New York restaurant to discuss the musical, was one of the most daunting experiences of his life.
“It was so nerve-racking because I had no idea how she would react,” he says. “Fortunately, she loved the idea and we got on wonderfully. She’s been very heavily involved in the show’s development.”
Harry still lives, alone, in Manhattan. These days she is more likely to be seen riding her bicycle or walking her two beloved pet dogs than indulging in any rock star excesses.
“It’s kind of boring but I drink lots of water now, especially when I’m on tour, because I get dehydrated,” she says. “I’m getting better at healthy food. But I’m not so good at exercise.”
The launch of the musical comes at a time when Harry has never been busier. She is currently on tour in the UK with Blondie and still performs as a solo artist, with her fifth album due for release later this year.
Kirsten Dunst has been chosen to play Harry in a Hollywood movie. Although the 25-year-old actress was still in nappies when Blondie split up, she is a fan, saying: “I’ll work hard on this character because she is the coolest women of all time.”

KRISSI Murison, deputy editor of NME magazine, explains Blondie’s and Harry’s cross-generational appeal: “Blondie were the ultimate credible pop act, who still manage to unite the snottiest of punk kids and teeny-boppers in their love for the band. They existed in that exact point where mainstream and underground collide to create something era-defining.
“Go to any indie club in the country and you’ll still see girls in black drainpipe jeans and peroxide hair trying to emulate her, while the boys just settle for having her image on their T-shirts.”
Harry’s private life is now a closed book, although she did reveal recently that there have been “a few intimacies”. She added: “My down time I spend with friends. Occasionally, I have a date, which I really don’t like to admit to.”
Although confessing that she regrets never settling down and having children, she seems comfortable with her life and her place in pop history. She now accepts that her stunning looks “worked for her”.
She says: “You know, it’s only now that I sense that I did actually touch people’s lives in Blondie. When we were in our heyday, we had a very young audience – little kids almost.
“Now all those kids are adults and sometimes they come up to me with tears in their eyes and say things like, ‘Oh, when I was eight years old…’
“It’s funny and I laugh it off but we’ve all been there. I find it very, very flattering.” So who would bet against Deborah Harry going back to the top of the charts for a fourth decade?

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