Harry, Deborah (Contemporary Musicians)
Referring to the brief fascination the public has with its celebrities before discarding them for a new set, Andy Warhol once said that everyone will have 15 minutes of fame before burning out. If that's true, Deborah Ann Harry has already had her shot. When she was lead singer for the New Wave group Blondie, which got its name from her distinctive peroxide-colored hair, Harry was the femme fatale of the rock crowd in the early 1980s. With her blonde bombshell good looks, pouty mouth, and come-hither-and-drop-dead expression, Harry was out-Madonnaing them while Madonna was still in pigtails.
But after three years of intense publicity and fame in the early 1980s, Blondie disbanded and Harry seemed to disappear. Her departure from the spotlight had to do with a number of thingsatigue, a life-threatening disease, soul searchingut after having been gone for close to 10 years Harry is undergoing one of those rarest of rock achievements: the comeback. And if the rave reviews of her latest solo album are any indication, Warhol may have been wrong. Perhaps some of us are allotted two 15-minute doses of fame.
Harry was born in Miami in 1945. At three months, she was adopted by Richard and Catherine Harry of Hawthorne, New Jersey. Although she has fantasized about being Marilyn Monroe's daughter ("A lot of pretty girls have the same fantasy," she told People magazine), Harry says she has no desire to track down her biological parents. ("I know who I am," she told People, "and it would be an insult to the Harrys.") Harry was a shy young girl. "People thought I had a speech impediment," she told People. "It turned out just to be globs of peanut butter stuck inside my mouth." A sweet child who sang in the church choir, she made her entertainment debut in a sixth-grade stage show. Yet even then, Harry was a bit of a fashion iconoclast. "I was never really satisfied with how I was supposed to look," she told Vanity Fair magazine. "My mother and I had huge battles. When we used to go shopping it was hell. She'd want me to wear little blouses with round collars and sweaters and I'd be looking at black turtlenecks. At that ageight or nineou can't be doing that. It was not the look in those days to be so, urn, severe."
In 1963 Harry graduated from Hawthorne High, where she was voted Best Looking Senior. She spent two years at Centenary College, a junior college, but then dropped out, unsure of what she would do with her life. Eventually Harry drifted over to lower Manhattan, to an Italian/Ukrainian neighborhood on St. Marks Place, where she waited on tables at Max's Kansas City, a hangout for hippies, punk rockers, and Warholites like Nico, Ultra Violet, and the Velvet Underground. It was one of a series of jobs she held downeautician, exercise instructor, Playboy bunnynd one she was not particularly good at. "I was just a hysterical waitress," she told Vanity Fair. "I was so timid in those days. They were just all so wild, they'd come in wrecked out of their brains, wanting a zillion things. I was extremely shy, and I was dealing with a lot of things I had to conquer within myself." One of those demons was a heroin addiction (although she says she never shot up) that she kicked while at an artists' colony in upstate New York.
When she returned to Manhattan she formed an all-female trio called the Stilettoes, came back to Max's sporting what she called "serious makeup," and began singing such original songs as "Dracula, What Did You Do to My Mother?" It was around this time that Harry met Chris Stein, a part-time band roadie from Brooklyn. Stein joined the Stilettoes. When the group broke up, he and Harry collaborated and formed Blondie (which at first was called Angel and the Snakes, then Blondie and the Banzai Babies). Harry and Stein acknowledged that their inspiration came from Buddy Holly, both in music and fashion.
"When we started Blondie in 73, our main goal was to be a dance band," Harry told Vogue. "The idea of performing rock and roll to a stand-up audience that danced was unheard of." But by 1979, Blondie had reached a level of preeminence in the rock world. Through her group, Harry had advanced the boundaries of the punk music scene. Within three years, Blondie had sold more than 11 million records with such hit songs as "The Tide is High," "Rapture," "Heart of Glass" and "Call Me, " the theme from the film American Gigolo. She acted in two filmsVideodrome and Union Citynd although neither was a box office success, Harry received strong notices for both.
Then, in 1983, Harry dropped out of sight. Blondie disbanded. Harry had grown tired of the fast track and of the bottle-blonde, ditzy character she had created. "It was upsetting," Harry told Savvy magazine, "when businesspeople constantly condescended to me. Sometimes they went right to Chris (Stein) because they thought he was my Svengali. When they did talk to me, they did it as if I was a complete airhead created by some outside force." By dropping out, Harry was giving up a lot. But her plan wasn't to stay out of the limelight for long. Just to regroup and establish a more mature character. "I was looking for a short sabbatical," she told Savvy, "not a permanent retirement."
But soon months turned to years. Shortly after Blondie disbanded, Stein became gravely ill with pemphigus, a rare genetic disease. During his six-month stay in the hospital Harry would visit him by sneaking past papparazzi and sleeping on a cot in his room. After he was released from the hospital, Stein required years of personal care, and Harry soon found there were* other things more important than rock music. "It wasn't a case of me being a martyr and throwing away my career for my man," she told Savvy. "I took it as a sign to stop, take a real rest, and see what we were doing. We hadn't taken a vacation since 1975, and Chris's illness was partly stress-related. It was a good lesson for both of us to learn."
While Harry tended to Stein, she watched as a host of other young women, principally Madonna, attempted to fill her pop-trash stiletto shoes. "I always knew that someone would come along, use similar things to what I had used and fit right in the pocket commercially," she told Savvy. "I always felt that if it wasn't me playing the blond, sexy nymphet, then it would be somebody else." Throughout this period Harry remained ephemerally on the consciousness of the Eighties. Through advertisements and small roles in films her distinctive face, with its high cheekbones and sultry mouth, never really vanished from the public eye.
Finally, in 1984, Harry prepared to reenter the pop market, only to face another setback. Legal entanglements with her record company forced her to postpone her comeback again. "It became obvious to me during this period how fast pop stars come and pop stars go," she told Savvy. "When you're hot like Blondie was hot, you've got so much momentum going for you that you don't realize how fragile it all isven though the reality of what happens to fame is all around you, and you're so totally disposable, except to a small, devoted audience. It still sort of amazes me."
But by 1987, Harry's life was finally coming back together. First, Stein recovered. It would be nicetorybookish perhapsf they were still together, but they are not. The two separated, but still collaborate on music projects. The legal problems were resolved, and in 1987 Harry released Rockbird, a comeback album that received rave music reviews. "When I first started the music business wasn't geared to marketing women," she told Savvy. "It wasn't the norm, and it was very difficult to get airplay. This has been the biggest change in the music industryow, the marketing of women has gotten so sophisticated that practically anything can be sold. I wasn't alone in helping make that change. But I was one of the few involved in the transition."
By 1989, Harry was working on another album, Def, Dumb & Blonde. She had appeared to favorable reviews in the television series Wiseguy, playing a has-been rock star making a comeback. And she received positive notices for her work in the John Waters cult movie Hairspray. It is still a long way to the heights she once reached as Blondie, the ditzy yet seductive pop tart that ruled the charts, but Harry says she doesn't look back. Her return to the limelight is as a new person; more mature, with greater character. "Whatever scene people are involved in, it was always better six months ago," she told Vanity Fair. "Everybody's longing for some forgotten situation which was glorious just by the fact that it's fallen into memory. I'm not into nostalgia."
Blondie, Chrysalis, 1976.
Plastic Letters, Chrysalis, 1977.
Parallel Lines, Chrysalis, 1978.
Eat to the Beat, Chrysalis, 1979.
Autoamerican, Chrysalis, 1979.
The Best of Blondie, Chrysalis, 1981.
The Hunter, Chrysalis, 1982.
Koo Koo, Chrysalis, 1981.
Rockbird, Geffen, 1987.
Def, Dumb & Blonde, Sire, 1990.
Harper's Bazaar, August 1981; July 1987.
Interview, October 1981; November 1981.
Penthouse, November 1981.
People, September 29, 1980; March 18, 1981; April 11, 1983.
Rolling Stone, December 25, 1980; October 29, 1981.
Savvy, May 1, 1987.
Vanity Fair, July 1989.
Variety, March 2, 1983.
Vogue, July 1980.