Great Debbie Harry interview
The Interview: Debbie Harry on sex, exhibitionism and searching for her birth mother
“I took down all of my mirrors. The world made such a big deal of the way I looked.”
Interview by Eve Barlow
Debbie Harry walks into a private members’ club in Chelsea, New York, looking like a ninja. She’s covered up in black, a hood tightly wound around her head, with sunglasses as wide as her heart-shaped face. She removes the hood, the glasses, the coat, and — voilà! — there she is, the owner of the most iconic mug since Marilyn Monroe. A copy of The New Yorker pokes out of her handbag. For the front woman of Blondie, Manhattan’s punk-art-fashion stars, that’s as close to proof of identity as a birth certificate.
Harry, 71, has lived on the island since the mid-1960s: at 20, she fled the New Jersey suburbs to lose herself in the metropolis. She worked as a Playboy Bunny, waitressed at dive bars and sang in folk groups. “It was the hippie era of freedom, love, blah blah blah,” she explains. By the mid-1970s she was hanging out at Studio 54 and CBGBs, the original punk hovel, with Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and emerging musicians such as Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Ramones and the New York Dolls. In 1974 she formed Blondie with the guitarist Chris Stein. Stein became her lover and Blondie became arguably the most famous and influential of all the New York bands of the period. Harry’s face still adorns T-shirts wherever you look in Manhattan.
She is amused by her band’s pre-eminence. “We were definitely the losers,” she says. “I don’t know if [the other bands] liked us. They were all very defined from the get-go. We were all over the place.” But it was the collision of styles — punk, pop and later disco and hip-hop — that gave them their commercial appeal.
There is history all around. Only 10 minutes’ walk from us is the Chelsea Hotel, the place where, in 1978, Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols allegedly murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, one of Harry’s best friends. Vicious was charged, but died of a heroin overdose while on bail.
Today, we are here on official Blondie business — the band are back next month with their 11th studio album, and so Stein is accompanying Harry for our interview. The pair met in 1973, when he was a 23-year-old art student and Harry, 28, was in a band called the Stilettos. Stein joined the Stilettos after taking nude photos of Harry wearing nothing but a guitar for a magazine called Punk. He is still a renowned photographer and has come with his camera — and a bike chain draped from his black jeans. Having been there at the formation of America’s punk scene, they are as anti-establishment as ever and it is only seconds before talk turns to Trump.
“I put up this thing on Blondie’s Facebook,” says Stein, showing Harry a picture of Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony juxtaposed with a shot of Blondie playing to a far larger audience. “Oh, the alternative facts!” Harry chuckles, blowing a raspberry.
Harry orders a bowl of tomato soup. The steam hasn’t settled before she calls Madonna, a star heavily indebted to her, an “asshole”. She is referring to the speech Madonna made during the women’s march in Washington in January, when she talked about having “thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House”. Harry is disapproving. “I don’t feel like I have to be an asshole and say stupid things like ‘Bomb the White House’, but I am speaking out on politics now. I’m sleepless since Trump’s election.”
“Maybe there’ll be a resurgence of counterculture in the underground,” Stein says hopefully. Harry nods vigorously. “There’s gotta be a resistance of some sort — a protest,” she says. “Music is about to regain its edge.”
Heart of Glass, Call Me, Rapture — over 40 years and 40m album sales since Blondie’s inception, their hits remain ubiquitous. You hear them in nightclubs, hair salons, shopping centres, gyms. The new album, Pollinator, contains a who’s who of cool young collaborators, including the Australian singer-songwriter Sia, who pens ballads for Beyoncé and Rihanna, as well as the British chart-topper Charli XCX.
“Blondie are the best,” Charli XCX tells me. “They’ve never made a move where I’ve thought, ‘God, what were they thinking?’ They’ve always been the epitome of cool, especially Debbie.” Last year, Charli interviewed Harry for her own radio show on Beats 1. “I asked that rookie question, ‘How does it feel to be a sex symbol?’ And she just said, ‘Sex sells.’ That was so badass, so awesome, and it’s that attitude that makes me realise, ‘Everyone still wants to be Debbie Harry.’”
Even Kanye West, the biggest rapper in the world, once picked up the phone to them to discuss a potential collaboration. It didn’t happen. “He got all shy,” says Harry, tickled.
Harry and Stein haven’t been romantically involved for nearly 30 years, but they still come across as soulmates, with Harry giggling every time he pulls out his iPhone to show her another political meme. Stein talks relentlessly, perhaps compensating for a life lived in the shadow of one of the most striking women ever to walk into a room. (Try and find one bad picture of Harry. It doesn’t exist.) Harry, though, is quiet. Interviewers have been stumped by her aloofness and mystique over the decades, but to me she gives off warmth, too bright to be distant. “Maternal” is how friends describe her. If anything, she’s a little timid. She still carries herself like an outsider.
Harry lives alone, not far from this club. Since Stein, she has had relationships with both men and women, but none has stuck. She likes painting in the mornings and is often found pounding the streets of Manhattan, unfazed by her fame. “Some people are surprised to see me walking around. Others are completely horrified,” she laughs. A keen lyricist, she always jots down ideas for songs, but isn’t forthcoming about inspirations: “Y’know, listening to other music, going to movies, hanging out with people,” she offers, loosely. One of her best friends is the performance artist Marina Abramovic.
Pollinator is Blondie’s best album in years. Its themes are sex and desire — a “rebirth” in Harry’s words. In the single Fun, she claims she can’t get enough of a new love interest — “You’re all over me, can’t deny it. You make a room come alive” — while the lustful Gravity goes: “I drink your cherry cola, I let you win me over /You’re nicer when you’re sober.”
In person, she is coy about discussing her own sexual desire, admitting that relationships are different now she’s in her seventies. “It’s not so completely hormonal. It’s not as innocent,” she says. She chose her own independence over starting a family long ago. Harder to fight is her natural instinct for companionship. “It’s the human condition to want to share your existence with somebody,” she sighs. “In that sense, we are pack animals. Sex is a survival instinct.”
Society still renders it taboo for older women to talk about their sexual desires. “It is retarded, I must say,” Harry says. Stein says there are no such restrictions on older men. The pressures to stay looking young are also more likely to cross Harry’s mind, too. Her image has always been fundamental to the success of Blondie. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she “swears by” plastic surgery. “In my business? I mean, come on,” she laughs.
She admits that the preoccupation with her looks did take a psychological toll upon her. “There was a time when I had to take down all the mirrors [in my house],” she says. “I felt like I was looking at myself too much. The world made such a big deal of how I looked. It’s problematic.” Now she’s content with her appearance. “I’m lucky I was born this way. It’s perfect for showbiz.”
She has always oozed sex appeal, appearing onstage in spandex, sequins, leather, lace, hotpants and lots of eyeliner. It was provocative then, but would barely raise an eyebrow today. She is complimentary of the new breed of attention-grabbing stars such as Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga and Rihanna. She calls them “showgirls” and believes she would be just as risqué if she had a chance to start over. “I should be more of a nasty girl now,” she laughs. “I should be harder. I used to always tear my clothes off. Would I be naked onstage all the time now? Probably. It might horrify everyone, but …”
Similarly, she wishes she could still be as physical. “I wanna go out onstage and do flips and bang around on my knees, but I know I might have a hard time getting back up. It’s such a drag.”
She has previously admitted trying every illegal substance going, including heroin. Has her relationship with drugs changed now that she’s older?
“Oh, yes. I want them a lot!” she jokes.
Born in Miami, Harry was given up for adoption at three months old. In the 1980s she hired a private investigator to find her biological parents. He tracked down her mother, went into her house, and found a secretive woman who didn’t want to discuss her past. “She didn’t wanna meet me, so I’ve never met her,” says Harry, awkwardly. “It’s like auditioning for parts. You face rejection and it’s harsh.” In 2014 she was more sanguine, telling an interviewer: “I was an adult, already well along the road with Blondie, and I had a life. If I was a lost person, that would have been different.”
Her adoptive parents were gift-shop owners from New Jersey called Richard and Catherine Harry. “I didn’t get along perfectly with my mother or my father. They had a more conservative sense of being. But I certainly lucked out on a survival level. My God, I was well cared for, doted on and loved. How can I complain? I wanna complain, but I can’t.”
Harry and Stein stand up to look around the multifloored members’ club. It reminds them of their own five-storey piece of domestic bliss that they shared in the late 1970s. “We had a big townhouse like this uptown,” says Stein. “One night Bowie shows up with Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall in the middle of the night and I got to sit on the couch and smoke a joint with Mick. It was f****** awesome.” They laugh.
Blondie initially called it quits in 1982 after Stein was rushed to hospital when he collapsed at a show. Eventually he was diagnosed with pemphigus vulgaris — a rare, sometimes fatal autoimmune disease of the skin. Harry pretty much disappeared from view from 1983 to 1986 and nursed Stein back to health. The disease left him with blisters all over his body and inside his mouth and throat. He couldn’t swallow solid food and it took four years for him to recover fully. He went on to produce Harry’s solo records, while she also took on movie roles, most notably in David Cronenberg’s 1983 psychedelic sci-fi film Videodrome.
Harry and Stein’s relationship eventually ended in 1989. Stein wanted to settle down and have kids, Harry did not. “There came a point in my life where I had to make a decision,” she says. “I was always haunted with the desire to do music. I felt I would have had a nervous breakdown by the time I was 40 if I followed the life my mother and father expected me to have — to raise a family, to live close to them. Music happened for me easily. I uprooted myself to the city and it was a simple transition,” she says.
Ten years later, Stein fulfilled his ambition by marrying the actress Barbara Sicuranza and having two daughters: Akira and Valentina. Harry is their godmother. Sometimes they’re snapped on the streets of NYC — Harry, Stein, Sicuranza and the kids. Harry admits she was initially jealous when Stein first met his wife, but the two women have worked on their relationship and she clearly dotes on the whole family.
“I still love Chris,” says Harry, simply. “I still love Debbie — a lot,” Stein responds. They look at each other sweetly.
Stein muses about a Blondie biopic. “I’d want Ed Norton to play me in a movie, but he’s too old,” he says. He fancies the idea of Kirsten Dunst as Harry or even the young pop star Sky Ferreira. “Sky’s a total nerd. She reminds me of Debbie. She’s uncomfortable and confident at the same time: a great combination.”
It must have been hard for them to keep the band going through the implosion of their own relationship — or perhaps the added drama helped the creative frisson? They wouldn’t be the first couple to mine their personal lives for creative gain, I say, thinking of Beyoncé, who regularly documents her supposed marital woes with the rapper Jay Z . Stein prefers to answer with his own slice of Beyoncé gossip.
“You know we have it on good authority that the fight in the elevator was to sell more tickets for their tour at that point?” he says about the infamous altercation between Jay Z and Beyoncé’s sister Solange, caught on CCTV in 2014 and leaked to the media.
It is time to leave the club. Harry reapplies all her various layers of disguise, and we bundle into an SUV en route to a photographer’s studio some blocks away. In the car, Harry pulls two Blondie T-shirts out of her handbag to give to me. Both of them have her face on the front. “It’s also good for pyjamas,” she smiles, encouraging me to wear her to bed.
Stein, who is constantly on his iPhone, finds out that the actress Mary Tyler Moore has died.
“Aww,” says Harry. “She was 80? Wow.”
The losses of David Bowie and Lou Reed hit them hard. Stein saw Bowie for the last time four summers ago, a few months before Reed died. “We were talking about Lou, concerned about him,” he sighs. When Bowie’s album Blackstar came out days before his death last year, nobody realised it was about his final throes. “Right after David died, I thought, ‘That’s amazing.’ It makes me proud to be an artist,” says Stein.
“Yeah, and it makes me think that’s something we should do,” adds Harry. Stein looks at her, confused. “A posthumous record?” he asks. “Well, an outro,” she replies. “Simply an outro.”
Blondie’s new album, Pollinator, will be released on May 5 on BMG
Thanks for posting. I am seeing Blondie in concert for the first time in August. So excited!
I'm glad for you, Debbie Harry is still a great performer from what I've seen.
I was surprised how good the 4 preview tracks from the new album are. I have been listening to a lot of new artists and all of a sudden Blondie comes on and it's like: thank god, a real band.
And I'm not even a Blondie fan per se, but I do respect the band and her.
Pollinator is easily their best album since Eat to the Beat..can't stop listening :blob1:
They were great on Fallon last night.
Thanks for posting the interview. I didn't really know much about her personal life. I saw Blondie a while back here in my home state. I was really close to the stage, too, & they put on a good show. I've read mixed reviews for this album, but maybe I'll have to get it.
DJ just played Long Time & now he's playing Call Me. :blob1:
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