It's easier to claw your way to the top than to stay there.
Debbie may be right about the ascent but, at 35, she also seems to be digging in for a long, secure stay at pop's peak. Her success story as lead singer and sex symbol of the New Wave's biggest band, Blondie, may be the quintessential rags-to-designer-rags saga of the 1980s. From her sultry, pouty bombshell looks to her thrift-chic duds, Harry has forged a hard-edged persona, providing a wildly eclectic and even alienating vision of popular culture. She is a chameleon of charisma, picking up where such previous avatars as Dylan, Jagger and Bowie left off. Indeed no other musical performer has done so much in recent years to widen the mainstream and make room for rock's new undercurrent. Remarkably, she's crossed over from the dingy decadence of New York's Mudd Club to Merv. And who else could in the space of a month appear as host of shows as antithetical as Saturday Night Live and The Muppets?
It began with The Look—the smudgy makeup, the studiously dazed and klutzy stage moves, dark roots and bleachy streaks, miniskirts and wardrobe refinements like ripped garbage bags and pillow cases tied with electrician's tape. A Barbie Doll Gone Downtown, she alone seems capable of beaming simultaneous images of glamor, sensual funk, sassy punk, kittenish vulnerability, avant-garde hauteur and a voracious hunger for celebrity. Once impossibly recherché Harry has been repackaged as the definitive female rock-and-role model for the '80s.
Currently she has two hits, The Tide Is High and Rapture, off her third straight million-selling album, Auto-american. But typically, when this LP, which ranges from rapping and rocking to lullaby and '40s swing, was released, critics pounced. Debbie simply shrugged. "Everything we've ever done," she says, "has been criticized. I'm not afraid of it. We don't try to be safe; we try to be different." The approach succeeds admirably. In three years, beginning with the band's watershed disco-New Wave fusion, Heart of Glass, Blondie has sold more than 11 million records.
Rock ancestors like Jimi Hendrix never signed endorsement deals for hippie headbands, but Debbie has made it in an era where the tie-in has replaced the sellout as a superstar's main artistic concern. So with all America just wild about Harry, a six-figure three-year deal with Murjani to hype jeans on TV was not far behind. And they fit her 5'3" body—and p.r. campaign—snugly. "Once commercials meant losing your status," she says. But these are, after all, status jeans. "Today it's just the opposite. They're terrific advertisements for yourself. They capitalize on your identity."
That identity is so well-known that an L.A. star-lookalike service averages seven calls a week for Debbie's dead ringer, Heather Shane, while denim enemy Jordache has reportedly been stalking a Debbie type too. But by virtue of being the genuine article, Debbie is unchallenged as the Monroe of music. Still, she worries, "I have only a few concentrated years to score and earn my living for the rest of my life. Making the most of that time is just part of the business."
Cashing in on Debbie's undeniably sexy look is another part. One old record company poster showed her in a see-through blouse and asked, "Wouldn't You Like to Rip Her to Shreds?" She explains: "Sex appeal makes us happy, complete people and not robots. People think of sex as depraved but it's the best thing we've got. Sex appeal comes from a person, not a body, from the power of positive thinking."
Her Darwinian survival-at-the-top philosophy is luring Debbie away from Blondie. She and her boyfriend of seven years, Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, 31, have already cut three tracks for a new album with R&B wizards Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic. Blondie hasn't toured the U.S. in nearly two years. The reasons: The new cuts, she says, are "too complex" musically to take on the road; performing in huge, profitable arenas "is like being a part of the stage design"; and a small club tour would lose money. Clearly, Blondie's Stein and Harry no longer have to spread the spotlight to their cronies. Keyboardist Jimmy Destri and drummer Clem Burke have solo projects of their own, and all the Blondies (as hard-core fans call them) say they will get back together. Meanwhile, "It's really time," says Harry of her hiatus from the band, which evolved out of her three-woman punk-princess group called the Stilettoes. "It was always supposed to be more of a collective than a band."
Debbie may be bent on emulating her screen idols—Fonda, Fields and Clayburgh—but the scripts she's sent are B-movie material. Stein reports one was about a "nympho rocker whose manager kills off members of the audience to get publicity." In another she'd be a headless Harry by film's end. And, Debbie adds, most of the lines are four letters long. "I want a straight part," she says, "not a rock film. People are afraid to take a chance with me, since I'm untried, unknown."
One fearless director was young Mark Reichert, who cast Debbie in last year's Union City. The convincing boredom of her brunet New Jersey housewife may have spread to audiences, but the low-grossing flick is being re-released this month. "If you can capture a live audience," she theorizes, "you can do anything before a camera." Reichert found, pleasantly, "none of the prima donna bitchiness which lots of rockers cultivate. She took a chance on an unglamorous role and it paid off." (She also sang and had a few lines in the 1980 Meat Loaf vehicle Roadie.)
MGM doesn't want just any Tom or Dick but has picked Harry for Alan Rudolph's American Rhapsody, scheduled for 1983. One current scenario would have Mikhail Baryshnikov as the Russian pianist who falls in love with Debbie playing an American pop star. She is optimistic, with good reason: "Five years ago," she recalls, "I didn't think I had any future in music. I couldn't even get air play."
Growing up in Hawthorne, N.J., the adopted daughter of gift store owners Richard and Catherine Harry, she claims, "People thought I had a speech impediment. It turned out just to be globs of peanut butter stuck inside my mouth." In still stranger moments, Debbie dreamed of being Monroe's daughter. "A lot of pretty girls have the same fantasy," she says. "It comes out of a need for love and affection." (She has chosen not to track down her real parents, feeling, "I know who I am, and it would be an insult to the Harrys.")
A high school baton twirler, she was voted the "best-looking" girl senior after trying a dozen hair colors, by her account. Afterward she tried Centenary College but fled to Greenwich Village, itching to express herself as a performer. A stint with a folkie band, Wind in the Willows, was followed by jobs as a beautician, model and Playboy Bunny. "After that," she cracks, "I could climb Everest in high heels."
Things did get pretty steep. A boyfriend drummer nearly died of an overdose, and before Stein joined Debbie's Stilettoes she was hooked on heroin herself (though she says she didn't shoot). Stein, the Brooklyn-born son of a labor organizer who died when Chris was 15, was a stabilizing force through the worst of it. "I got smart," Debbie reflects. "I was a victim. Addiction," she now warns, "is never the right thing to do."
Worldwide fame has not altered the couple's studiedly inelegant lifestyle. Chris estimates their net worth at a surprisingly low half million ("mostly jeans money"), and they still occupy the same cramped, four-room pad a few blocks below Central Park. Debbie tools around town in her Honda Accord, and she fixes her own makeup and hair because "only I know how I feel." As for housework, "I don't think I could stand having a maid—I'm a little home-maker at heart." Chris makes the beds and hangs up the laundry, but she washes the dishes "because I'm the clean one. It's not a sexist thing."
Their apartment reflects their wildly eclectic tastes, from the zebra-striped kitchen floor to the crucifix and life-size statue of an Ursuline nun at the entrance. The living room is jammed with $15,000 worth of audio equipment. Their dark bedroom is decorated with grotesque metal sculpture and Chris' collection of military memorabilia, including a piggy bank in the shape of Adolf Hitler. The more relaxed spare bedroom is where Debbie writes many of Blondie's lyrics beneath walls laden with gold and platinum records.
The couple rarely eat out. "Restaurants take too long," says Debbie, a congenially straightforward hostess. Instead, she shlepps around in her slippers and robe and reads the paper during dinner. Chris likes to put his feet up, smoke a joint and watch TV. Debbie now avoids junk food ("It gives you flab and pimples") and pot ("It doesn't do anything for me") but likes a glass of wine or vodka.
They have been spending time producing younger musician friends and performing with avant-gardists like Robert Fripp and Walter Steding. Chris has been putting together a book of pictures he took of the group, which Debbie will annotate, and they often co-host a local cable TV rock show.
Neither wants to marry. "We're already a corporation," Debbie notes, "and it's fine this way, since marriage is really business—not sex." Chris adds, "Why push our luck?" Children are even less likely. "There isn't time for kids in this business," notes Debbie. What does Chris think? "I'd like to have them," he says, "if it were up to me." "Well," Debbie shoots back, "it isn't."