Pages 26, 27, 28, 29
The blonde with more BOTTLE
Debbie Harry, the unmistakable frontwoman of the most iconic band of the 1970s, is still rocking the peroxide at 66 – with a new album and a UK tour. As she tells Lina Das, the pop world may be going gaga for a certain young pretender – but there’s only one Blondie.
Photographed SARAH DUNN
For an icon of music, style and blondeness, Debbie Harry makes a terribly low-key entrance. Clad in a black wool dress, black tights and black biker boots under a long olive-green coat, she wanders into Champneys health resort in Hertfordshire a tiny, unassuming figure. There is, though, a certain stillness about her, a watchfulness as she carries herself with the easy confidence of a woman used to being admired. When she was on Desert Island Discs recently, even the normally reserved Kirsty Young was moved to remark, ‘When I was younger, I wasted ten years wanting to be Debbie Harry.’
Does it ever get boring being told how fabulous she is? ‘No, it doesn’t get boring,’ she laughs, ‘so feel free. The icon thing, though… it’s actually a word that’s completely overused. Now I realise that when people use the word about me it’s pretty much about the way I looked.’
The way Debbie Harry looked was, of course, extraordinary: a bottle-blonde, punk Monroe with killer lips and a figure to die for. Her group Blondie was one of the defining bands of the late 1970s and early 80s, and Debbie was so much of its focal point that the other members – Chris Stein, Jimmy Destri, Frank Infante, Clem Burke and Nigel Harrison – felt compelled to wear badges saying, ‘Blondie is a band.’ Hits such as ‘Heart of Glass’, ‘Sunday Girl’ and ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ made them famous the world over, and with record sales of 40 million worldwide, they pulled off the enviable feat of being both commercial and cool.
They broke up in the early 80s (in part because Chris Stein, the band’s guitarist and Debbie’s then lover, contracted a serious illness), got back together in 1997, and their new album, Panic of Girls, is their first since The Curse of Blondie eight years ago. The reasons for such a lengthy lay-off were many: ‘I went and did a solo album, Necessary Evil [in 2007], and Chris had two little girls [he married in 1999] and so he needed to dedicate his time to raising a family,’ says Debbie. ‘At the same time, the industry collapsed and labels started going down, and even though we’d had little periods of touring, we wanted to come back with an album. We’ve always tried to be experimental and we like what’s going on with music today – we’re not just sitting back going, “Oh, things used to be so much better.” We like hearing new things and we like the younger artists,’ she says.
Just turned 66, Debbie looks terrific: trim and neat and undeniably pretty underneath the tiniest smidge of make-up. In addition to the album, Blondie will be touring, and in preparation Debbie has been working out with a trainer (‘I wanted to get back to my fighting weight’). Her hair is still platinum blonde, with the pince-nez slung around her neck the only obvious concession to advancing years, and she still manages to exude an effortless cool. ‘I don’t know if anything’s changed that much for me style-wise as I still want to look really cool and sexy and feel comfortable,’ she says. ‘I like to shop around; I do love Topshop, though.’
As a woman lauded for her beauty, has she found it hard to come to terms with the process of ageing? ‘Well, I don’t think any of us want to get older,’ she says, ‘but there are all these things out there that if you want to, you should take advantage of.’ Botox, surgery? ‘I’ve done everything and will probably continue to do everything. I think Joan Rivers has the right idea and I think Cher looks great,’ she adds, though Debbie’s so dry, I’m not sure whether she’s being ironic. ‘We all try to look as good as we can, but I do have moments when I slob around – I don’t wear make-up every day and I’ll just put on some shades when I go out,’ she says. ‘I did go through a period when I let myself go, but I got sick of the way I looked in clothes, so I started working out again. It’s important to me and to the business I’m in that I take care of myself. I guess a lot of what I’ve traded on over the years has been my looks, but I do feel better when I look good.’
Where most women would be loath to admit that their looks have been a significant calling card, Debbie’s honesty is refreshing. She is candid yet somehow remains slightly inscrutable – an intriguing combination that led to photographer David LaChapelle labelling her ‘the definition of cool’. However, she does seem an awful lot of fun. When I mention that every one of my male friends professed to having a crush on her as a boy, she replies, ‘That’s nice. Are any of them single?’
To be honest, the fact that Debbie Harry is single is preposterous. Talented, intelligent, wry and gorgeous, she can frankly take her pick… of both men and women (she’s tried both). ‘I don’t have one boyfriend, no,’ she says. ‘Do I have several? Ah, you want numbers,’ she laughs. ‘You’ll have to guess. I go out and I have lots of cool friends from different fields, not just the entertainment industry, but I’d be happy if I met someone and had an intimate relationship.’
What does Debbie look for in a man? ‘Well, first of all, there has to be some kind of chemical attraction. And then you have to learn about them as a person. You know, I think it would be nice to have an intense companionship – I think some kind of sharing is good for your personality and for your mind. I’d actually enjoy being a little more sort of helpless,’ she laughs. ‘I’m a girlie girl and have a well-rounded personality, but there are times when I really don’t want to make certain kinds of decisions… yet I inevitably end up making a lot of them. If you’re going to have an intimate relationship, it’s a given that you’re going to have good sex. But on the other hand, you can’t really get everything from one person – that’s why we have friendships.’ And would Debbie, who’s never married, ever consider it? ‘Yeah, marriage might be nice,’ she says. ‘I grew up in an era when marriage vows were very limited, so I just thought that the whole thing was a bad deal. I barely obeyed my parents,’ she smiles. ‘Why would I have wanted to obey a husband?’
Debbie grew up in a middle-class suburb of New Jersey, the daughter of Richard and Catherine Harry (both now deceased), who ran a gift shop. They adopted her at three months and told her of the adoption when she was four years old. ‘They framed it in a bedtime story about [a child] being chosen and then said, “And that’s how we got you,”‘ says Debbie. ‘Being adopted gave me a bit more freedom in a way,’ she says. ‘It gave me a licence to expect anything and not be predetermined, which proved great for me career-wise. As I got older, I realised the differences between us – I knew that I was an artist, and although my parents were interested in the arts, they didn’t work in the arts. The funny thing is, I look at myself now as I’m ageing and I see expressions of my [adoptive] mother’s, although I don’t look like her at all. It’s kind of fascinating that, somehow or other, things just seem to etch in.’
She sang in the church choir from a young age, though plans by her parents to shape her into a ‘churchgoing Wasp’ soon fell by the wayside when Debbie discovered the pleasures of boys and peroxide. ‘I was about 13 when I started dating,’ she says. ‘And I started dyeing my hair blonde around that time too, although I kept insisting it was the sun that was making it lighter.’
By 20, she had hotfooted it to Manhattan, ‘just trying out different things’, including being a Playboy Bunny for a few months and joining a girl group called the Stilettos. ‘I think at different phases in my life I’ve been influenced by a lot of different people musically,’ she says. ‘Everyone from Nina Simone and Billie Holiday to Diana Ross, Dusty Springfield and even Lulu. Lulu had more of a Broadway voice and I really liked her vivaciousness.’
It was while Debbie was in the Stilettos that she met art student Chris Stein, then 23 to her 28. He photographed her nude with just a guitar for company for Punk magazine, the couple became lovers and then they eventually formed Blondie, with Stein as guitarist. They released their first album in 1976, but it was their third, Parallel Lines, that turned the band into worldwide stars. One of the tracks, ‘Heart of Glass’, became their first number-one hit in 1979: ‘It was a song about relationships – about how they start off good and then go bad,’ says Debbie. ‘I think it was something lots of people could relate to, although I was thinking about one particular person back then who had sort of become a stalker. He became,’ she adds, ‘kind of crazy.’
Throughout Blondie’s success Debbie and Chris continued their relationship, but they split after 15 years and Chris went on to marry the actress Barbara Sicuranza in 1999. Initially, admits Debbie, it took her and Barbara ‘a little while to build up any kind of relationship, and we had to figure out where we stood with each other and where each of us stood with Chris. We definitely worked at it. But my relationship with Chris was the longest I’ve ever had and also very important. I think he’s a terrific person and I guess he thinks I’m OK, too, as we’re still very good friends.’
Debbie is now godmother to Chris and Barbara’s children, aged seven and five, ‘which basically means I give them really good birthday and Christmas presents,’ she says. Did Debbie ever want children of her own? ‘No, I didn’t,’ she says, after giving the question due consideration. ‘I didn’t really have the yen that a lot of women do, or rather, despite my physical urges, I didn’t think I’d be such a good parent. I didn’t think I’d have the patience to be a really good mother – it’s hard work – plus I’ve always been a working person, and that and all the travelling I do probably had something to do with my decision. I think a lot of the time, people have children because they want to carry on their personality or their life line, and I make no judgement about that, but as far as my ego goes, I think I’m well satisfied.’
Her involvement with children extends to charity work for music foundations in the US which supply instruments to schools, ‘because they’ve cut back so much on music programmes for kids’, she says. She’s also a committed philanthropist and environmentalist (her main involvement is with Riverkeeper – an organisation dedicated to the protection of New York’s Hudson River), insisting that ‘these things are really important to me now. I applaud people like Elton John who have used their position to do so much good and I felt it was something I should do too.’
As one of music’s most respected stateswomen, her opinion on current acts is frequently sought, particularly on Lady Gaga, whose status as the music scene’s premier peroxide-blonde, avant-garde artiste might owe something to a certain someone. ‘Now, I wonder why everyone keeps asking me about her,’ Debbie teases. ‘I think she has good songs and I appreciate her ambition. I like the fact that she’s really into being outrageous.’ Of shows such as The X Factor and American Idol, she is slightly less enthusiastic, ‘although Simon Cowell knows how to work it and how to create a fuss to get interest. There’s good and bad in those shows because they give people a chance and a shortcut to fame, and they’re certainly getting record deals when they wouldn’t normally. But I don’t know if it’s necessarily good business for them with the deals they have to sign to get on the show. I’ve thought about whether I’d have ever gone on one of those shows and I probably wouldn’t have been capable – the stress they go through is horrible.’
In contrast to the blink-and-you-miss-them lifespans of most reality-show contestants, Debbie’s own longevity can be attributed to a willingness to move with the times and to be forever on the hunt for new ideas, new sensations, new passions. I almost fall off my chair when she says that she enjoys bungee jumping but she insists: ‘I did it a while ago and I think it’s about time I did it again. I like flying and have taken lessons, and a friend of mine is trying to convince me to go skydiving. I think,’ she adds, somewhat superfluously, ‘that I have a pretty adventurous spirit.’
Her passion for her work remains undimmed, ‘and I’m just loving it, really – working with great people and doing the thing I adore,’ she says. ‘When you’re alive and you like life, you have to go out there and live it to the fullest. You may not be happy about going to your end, but hey,’ she smiles, ‘at least I flogged it while I had it.’
Blondie’s new album Panic of Girls is out now. Their UK tour starts on 10 July – for details and tickets visit blondie.net