Magazines + Newspapers

marie claire

July 2013

Pages 120, 121 & 122

LIFE STORIES – Debbie Harry

She took Top of the Pops by storm with her peroxide beauty and feisty attitude. And three decades later, the Blondie frontwoman still inspires awe. We are not worthy


‘Once I had a love and it was a gas; soon turned out to be a pain in the ass.’ It’s 1979 and Debbie Harry twirls beneath the flashing lights and glitterballs of legendary nightclub Studio 54. With her band Blondie, she’s shooting the video for Heart of Glass. After years of playing the underground club circuit, this is the song that will launch Blondie – and its platinum-haired singer – into the big time. It sold more than a million copies and defined an innovative sound that mixed punk, New Wave and disco. Debbie Harry became an icon. Andy Warhol called her his favourite pop star; Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Lady Gaga copied her mix of glamour and grit.
When she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Harry answered: ‘Famous, of course.’ She was born Angela Tremble in Miami, Florida, in 1945, but was given up for adoption when she was three months old and brought up by Richard and Catherine Harry in Hawthorne, New Jersey. She famously fantasised she was the daughter of Marilyn Monroe, but discovered in the Eighties that her birth father was married, with seven or eight children, when he met her birth mother. Heartbroken, Harry’s birth mother had given her up for adoption, refusing all later contact with her. Harry was defiantly upbeat: ‘I didn’t need that information. I was already successful with Blondie,’ she said. Later, however, she had therapy to cope with her ‘fear and anger’ about her birth story.
Harry longed to escape her hometown. Her childhood was happy but stultifyingly suburban. ‘I don’t think my parents contemplated a future for me other than marriage,’ she said. As a teen, she was bleaching her hair and visiting New York at the weekends. By 20, she had moved to the city, recording an album in 1968 with baroque folk group Wind in the Willows. Drugs were everywhere.
‘LSD and heroin became a part of my social life,’ said Harry. It was a heady time, when she met Warhol and then ran off with a millionaire to San Francisco for a month. ‘He was a “run-of-the-mill” millionaire, but it seemed like a good idea at the time,’ she deadpanned. On her return, she became a Playboy Bunny and used her wages to fund her drug use. Eventually, she burned out and returned home, briefly becoming a beautician. But New Jersey couldn’t hold her. When punk exploded in New York, Harry was lured back to the dark glamour of the city.
She had flings with rockers, including the lead singer of cult band the New York Dolls. Then, when she was performing with a group called The Stilettos, Debbie met guitarist Chris Stein, the man who would become her long-term lover and creative counterpart. He wrote the music, she supplied the lyrics, penning the words to hits including Atomic, Call Me, Rip Her to Shreds, Rapture, Heart of Glass, One Way or Another and Union City Blue. ‘He was magnetic,’ she said. In 1974, the duo quit the band to form the group that would become Blondie (named after the catcalls Harry used to get). It took four years before they recorded their breakthrough album, Parallel Lines, which included the touchstone singles Sunday Girl and Picture This, plus Heart of Glass.
Over the next eight years, the band released one hit single after another and four albums that went platinum. They toured the States and Europe, but back-to-back shows and the intense focus on Harry and her bombshell looks, rather than the band as a whole, caused tensions. The ingrained sexism of the times also meant critics wrote off her contribution to Blondie and cast Stein as a manipulative Svengali character. ‘That’s people not wanting to admit that a woman can be powerful without a man telling her what to do,’ said Harry.
Ironically, what happened next was defined by her relationship with Stein. In 1982, after years of drug use (both he and Harry were addicted to heroin), Stein became dangerously ill with pemphigus, a rare, often-fatal skin disease that attacks the immune system. It meant the end of Blondie and stalled Harry’s solo career. ‘I just can’t think about anything until Chris has recovered,’ she said at the time. ‘My life, my career, my home – they mean nothing to me while he’s like this.’ Stein did get better, but the fallout of his illness, the thousands the band owed in tax debts and the effects of methadone withdrawal pulled their relationship apart. In 1988, punk’s perfect couple split.
Harry was depressed, put on weight and struggled to establish herself in a post-Blondie world. She dyed her trademark hair brown, but her solo output bombed. ‘They wanted Debbie Harry, not Dirty Harry,’ she said. But this was also the decade when she achieved her dream of becoming a movie star, appearing in the cult classics Roadie, with Meat Loaf, Videodrome with James Woods, and Hairspray. Still, she could never leave music. She continued to release solo albums, touring with Stein and a backing band to perform her new work.
This summer, though, Blondie are reforming to play a massive tour of the UK, including an appearance at the Isle of Wight festival, although only Harry, Stein and Clem Burke remain of the original line-up. Harry may be 68, but you can still see the girl with the razor cheekbones and heart-shaped pout who stood on the tiny stage of New York’s CBGB festivals and snarled Rip Her to Shreds (the song appeared in the film Bridesmaids). She’s unapologetic about her cosmetic surgery – ‘I’ve done everything and will continue to do everything. It’s part and parcel of modern living and being in show business’ – but admits that getting older isn’t easy for an icon. ‘As far as ageing goes, it’s rough. I’m trying my best now. I’m healthy and I exercise like a fiend and do that stuff that recovered drug addicts do.’
Stein is married now and Harry is godmother to his two children. She goes on dates but has never wanted to marry and says she was too busy to have kids. ‘It never struck me as being part of survival,’ she’s said. And that’s why she’s still relevant, still playing new music, still doing her own thing. ‘When you like life, you have to go out there and live it to its fullest. You may not be happy about going to your end but, hey, at least I can say I flogged it while I had it.’

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