She’s still got it. When Debbie Harry walks into her suite at London’s Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge, it’s hard to believe that Blondie are celebrating their 40th anniversary. The outline of the heart-shaped face with the famous cheekbones may have softened but, dressed in black, the punk priestess and rock icon still oozes sex appeal and New York cool.
And, of course, there are the celebrated tousled platinum blonde locks: before Madonna and Lady Gaga, hers was the look that launched a generation of young blondes. ‘I never got commission, you know,’ she says in mock outrage when, settled on the plush sofa together, I tell her she is to blame for many a radical hair change. ‘And I’m completely fed up with that!’
Perhaps L’Oréal should have been paying her, I joke. She laughs. ‘Of course they should, and they’re not. The dirty dogs!’ But she adds, ‘It wasn’t an original idea of mine, you know. I took it from Hollywood and just put it in front of a band.’
Heart of Glass
To devastating effect. Together with guitarist Chris Stein, her co-writer and then boyfriend, Blondie launched a string of worldwide classic hits such as Picture This, Dreaming, Call Me and Rapture, and, of course, their mega-hit Heart of Glass, which racked up sales of more than 40 million records, still relevant and beloved today.
To celebrate their anniversary they are releasing a two-disc package, Blondie 4(0) Ever, a greatest hits album and the brand new Ghosts of Download. Along with Clem Burke, their original drummer, and a new line-up, they will be playing Glastonbury this summer.
‘We played there once before, in the Nineties, when we first got back together, so I’m really looking forward to it.’
Another famous blonde, Dolly Parton, will be performing as well. ‘I’ve met her and she’s very sweet, very smart. I think she’s terrific.’ A duet? ‘That would be nice.’
After all these years, where does the energy and enthusiasm come from? Debbie, who turns 69 in July, says, ‘I guess we’re very fortunate to be doing something that we like to do, that we still can do.’
Does she feel like a survivor? ‘I feel like I’ve had a great time of it, for good or bad, and I’m not giving up yet. I’m not dead yet.’ She laughs again and repeats in a perfect mock English accent, ‘Not dead yet!’
On turning 70
It’s more than 30 years since we last met, and the Debbie I see today seems more relaxed since the band’s hectic heyday when I travelled to interview her in Europe and the US. She laughs a lot and seems very much at ease.
I remind her that I once visited the penthouse apartment with the wraparound balcony she shared with Chris in New York. ‘Oh, the one on 58th Street,’ she says.
‘Did I imagine it, or did you have a pet rabbit hopping around?’ I ask.
She laughs. ‘That rabbit! I’d planted all this clematis and was so proud. It was going up the wall nicely, and one day the rabbit chewed it right off at the bottom. All I had left were dead leaves and vines. After that I took it to the Central Park petting zoo.
‘They said, “We don’t take rabbits.” I said, “You gotta take it. It ate my clematis!”’
She seems comfortable with her age: ‘Well, I guess I sort of can’t believe it,’ she says. ‘I know where it went, but it went quicker than I imagined. Actually I forget whether I’m 67 or 68, and sometimes I have to go back and say, “Yes, born in ’45, that means 68”.
Seventy next year doesn’t fill me with dread; it scares other people more than me, and it would call for a big party. But I think getting to 69 is good – I’m happy with that.’
Life as a caregiver
When we first met, in the late Seventies, she and Chris had been a couple for some years, personally and professionally; they seemed inseparable, a cool duo riding the new wave, achingly hip and hugely successful. But in the early Eighties Chris was diagnosed with pemphigus vulgaris, a rare, life-threatening auto-immune disease of the skin. Blondie was put on hold and Debbie spent the following four years helping to nurse him back to health.
‘Difficult for me? Much more difficult for him, obviously,’ she says. ‘People say that I nursed him, but I was his mate, you know, and went to the hospital and stayed with him, but he was very much under professional care.’
He recovered, but they split up. Nevertheless, it has been the defining relationship of her life and their musical partnership has survived the illness, drug use, the split and Chris’s subsequent marriage (he now has two daughters). They got back together professionally as Blondie in the late Nineties.
‘The reason we were successful as partners when we were together as a couple is the same reason that we’re successful as partners when we’re not a couple,’ she says. ‘We love and respect each other. And we like each other. As regards to Blondie, we have a co-dependence.’
Children and relationships
That’s a very adult attitude, but does envy ever come into it? Does she never think, ‘I could have had children’? ‘No, it doesn’t, no, no,’ she says calmly. ‘I’m pretty sensible in that area; I just don’t have time for that. It’s destructive, and I think I’ve had enough experience with pettiness and jealousy and things that suck the life out of you. Just suck the life out of you. You just say, “I don’t want that, let’s get rid of it”.’
‘Not everyone could do that,’ I say.
‘They can if they try,’ Debbie replies. ‘But a lot of times people thrive on the pain, and the pain then becomes the reality.’
The couple worked together on her solo projects in the late Eighties: ‘We have a professional relationship, we had a personal relationship. It seems to work. I can’t explain it other than that. It seems quite simple to me.’
Chris and Debbie met in 1973. ‘He was pretty much like he is now,’ she recalls. ‘Fun and interesting and cute. And we just had a good time together. Our personalities blend – we spark off each other.’
She thinks day-to-day astrology is a bunch of hooey, but recently on a cable TV show an astrologer did their charts on a computer: ‘She said, “My God, now I can see why you’re perfect for a partnership. It’s like gears that mesh.”
‘Maybe we were old souls together, but all I know is that I have a terrific amount of fun with him – he’s really funny. To make people laugh is just the best.’
I tell her that I’ve been with an Australian who has made me laugh for 24 years: ‘Oh, lucky you!’ she says and laughs.
‘No,’ I say, ‘but no regrets, and fine for me.’
‘I’m pretty much the same,’ she says. ‘I hear women talking about getting some real physical urge, this yearning to have a child. I never had that. So there you go.’
She is godmother to Chris’s two pre-teen daughters. ‘I see them all the time,’ she says. ‘They’re wild, they won’t leave me alone, but they’re in school and very busy. When we’re on the road, though, they come out too, and I put make-up all over them. Fun stuff. I get to have fun with them.’
These days she does take good care of herself. In admitting in the past that she and Chris were drug addicts, she has called herself an idiot. ‘I wasn’t careful with my health in the Eighties, but who was?’ she says. ‘Looking back, I think, “God, I was reckless, but thank God I survived!” I wanted to experience different things, and I did. It was part of life, part of modern culture. I can’t recommend it or forbid it.’
Debbie has a fitness regime for when she’s working: ‘I go to the gym because I have a standing appointment with the trainer and I go. That’s it – I just go.
‘We do lots of core training and balance, and one day we’ll work upper body, then another we’ll work legs. I must say, I think I’ve improved, and I do miss it when we’re on the road. I don’t have the same discipline in a hotel gym.’
She cites 81-year-old Yoko Ono as a dynamo and inspiration: ‘If you’re active mentally and interested, that’s the key to it. You keep on learning.’
I tell her I am learning French. ‘I’m so jealous,’ she says. ‘I can read a bit, but my pronunciation is terrible.’ But she sang in French?
‘I know, but I cheated. Somebody stood in front of me going, “Fwahfwahfwah” for me to copy.’ And she watches what she eats. ‘Being five-foot-four, it’s important to keep a proportion, because I can get very round very quickly.’ She rolls her eyes and laughs.
‘I want to feel good, and with time feeling good is more important than spoiling yourself with a flavour, and regretting it. I guess that’s one benefit of ageing.’
She steers clear of red meat, but always has a good breakfast: ‘Or I have a nice protein shake I make with coconut milk, but I’m not a juicing fanatic.’
Her skin is clear and luminous. ‘I cleanse and all the regular stuff, but I don’t wear make-up every day. I go round and horrify people as much as possible!’ She grins that beautiful wide smile. ‘But we get what we get genetically. I guess I’ve been lucky.’
Lately she’s caught herself in the mirror and thought, ‘God, you’re making an expression just like your dad!’ Or ‘That’s how my mother used to look at a certain time.’ And yet, Debbie was adopted. ‘We don’t look alike, so how can it be that I see the same expressions? I guess as babies and children we imprint, and these things come through and there’s no escaping it.’
Has she been affected by being adopted? ‘In some strange way I think it’s given me an open door to be the person I wanna be,’ she says. ‘I think sometimes you feel, “Well, I’m just like my mother”, and you’re sort of stuck. But I knew that there are other things genetically that are completely different.’
She has tried to trace her birth parents. ‘I wanted to track them down; I figured I should do it before they were gone. But I was limited by the legalities of that kind of search in the US.’ So what happened?
‘Nothing. Sad, and frustrating? Probably, to some degree. But I was an adult, already well along the road with Blondie, and I had a life. You know, a good life. If I was a lost person that would have been different. But I wasn’t that person.’
Enjoying life alone
Apart from her time with Chris, she has always lived alone: ‘Very brave!’ she laughs. ‘I’ve had room-mates, I have guests, I have friends, and I seem to be OK. But I would love to experience what you’re experiencing. A longtime relationship is divine.’ Then she adds mischievously, ‘I almost had an assignation with the maître d’ last night. Very cute, but I was too tired.’
She has had relationships that the public has known nothing about (‘I’ve got to have some privacy’), but have there been any long-term relationships other than Chris? ‘No, nothing,’ she says. ‘Nothing. I do fall in love, sure. But it doesn’t always work out. I sometimes fall in love with the wrong person.’
She laughs uproariously. ‘But I saw a very old, wonderful friend at a party the other night, and I was very happy to give him my new phone number. So, you know, I’m out there.’
This is a good time for her. ‘I love this configuration of the band, the business end is in good shape, and, most important, the music on this new collection is great and I’m very happy with it. There are lots of very satisfying things in my life. I think, “Well, I guess I did OK”. I guess I am who I am, and with age you sort of get used to living with yourself.
‘I’ve always been pretty demanding of myself as an artist, been very critical. I really want it to be good. Over the years I’ve gotten better at it, so that’s very satisfying. But I’d love to be in love, and be able to look to the future with a partner.’
It can still happen. ‘I know, but it becomes rarer with age. And if I’m going to have a relationship, I want someone who has the same frame of references, so it would have to be someone almost the same age as me. She pauses, grins wickedly and adds, ‘Although a boytoy now and then wouldn’t hurt!’ As we both laugh, she leans towards my tape recorder and shouts, ‘Hello? Are you there?’
‘Seriously,’ she adds, ‘this is a really good time for me. What could be bad about it? I still beat myself up for not being perfection, but then I look at myself and say, “What? Get over it, you know”.
‘We all have those days, we look at ourselves in the mirror, and go, “Hmmm”. And then other days we go, “Whoa! Not so bad. Not so bad”.’ Not so bad at all.
Read more about Debbie Harry on her Wikipedia
This article was published in the May 2014 issue of Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition for this and more great articles delivered direct to you every month