She’s been through stalking, sexism and drugs – and had her house taken by the tax collector. But at 74, the Blondie star is still irrepressibly creative, and happier than she’s ever been
It wasn’t until she was 31 – relatively old by pop-star standards – that Debbie Harry became famous. This goes some way to explain how she managed to cram in so much before she became the superstar frontwoman of Blondie. To name but a few of her experiences, as a child, she survived being in a coma as a result of pneumonia; as a young woman in New York, she worked for the BBC, hung out with Andy Warhol and other New York faces, escaped an abusive relationship, became a driver for the New York Dolls, started a girl band, formed Blondie and believes she had a lucky escape from the serial killer Ted Bundy. “I’m sure I don’t have all my experiences on tap,” Harry writes in her new autobiography, Face It.
I meet her in a suite at the Savoy in London. She appears alone, wearing sunglasses. Harry is tiny (despite her platform trainers) and pale, with her instantly recognisable peroxide hair swept back. She looks as delicate and ethereal as a dandelion clock, but the sunglasses come off and her eyes are quick and determined. She seems warm and tries to ask me as many questions as I ask her – I can’t decide if it is her enduring curiosity or a deflection technique. Perhaps it is both.
She remembers staying at the Savoy once with Chris Stein, her Blondie bandmate and then boyfriend, while Prince Charles and Diana were attending a party there. She recalls, with a laugh, that security came to interrogate them because of Stein’s collection of ceremonial weapons.
She seems to have stories about everything, which makes Face It an often very funny read. Was it sometimes difficult looking back? Harry is 74, and has been through some traumatic events. “Sometimes, yeah. It wasn’t something …” She pauses. “I tend to move on, get interested in something and see what’s about. I guess there were moments when I thought: ‘God, you were such a fool.’ You look back, and you think about all the mistakes you made: ‘Why did I ever do that?’” She smiles. “But, all in all, I guess I’ve been very lucky.”
Her biggest mistake, she says, was money. “That I didn’t pay more attention to business, and that I was really only interested in making music and performing.”
In the early 80s, Harry and Stein – they were in a relationship for 13 years – lost everything. Their debut album, the eponymous Blondie, came out in 1976, and for years they toured the world; they had six No 1 UK hits, including Heart of Glass and Call Me, and sold 40m records. When the US Internal Revenue Service hit them with a huge bill for unpaid tax, they lost their New York townhouse; the IRS even took some of her clothes, she writes. Worse, Stein was in hospital recovering from an autoimmune disease – Harry would spend the next few years looking after him – and they were not sure how they would pay his medical bills. It also meant the end of the band.
At the time, they were both on heroin. In her book, Harry, who would bring the drug to Stein in hospital, writes: “I think that doctors and nurses knew that he was high all the time, but cast a blind eye because it kept him relatively pain-free and mentally less tortured.”
Harry had first tried heroin with an old boyfriend, but judging by old interviews it doesn’t seem to have been a problem for her. How would she describe her relationship with it? “I don’t actually regret taking it, but I do regret the amount of time … it’s a time-consumer. But I think at that point it was a necessary evil. To some degree, it was self-medicating. It was a rough, depressing time of life and it seemed to suit the purpose, but then it outlived its benefits.”
She got off it, she says matter-of-factly, “just the way anybody does – go to a programme, or go into therapy. It’s not easy.” Her eyes widen and she changes tack. (She does this a lot.) “Now, the whole opioid crisis [in the US] is even more serious,” she says. Her aunt became addicted to painkillers. “She was a little bit older than I am today when she had this problem. It was hard for her to get off of all this.”
Harry, who was adopted as a baby, grew up in small-town New Jersey. She writes movingly about how a fear of abandonment has lasted all her life: “I guess somewhere in my subconscious, a scene was playing on a loop of a parent leaving me somewhere and never coming back.”
Was it painful to revisit that in her book? “Not at this point in my life because I’m an adult. I think we all have a little area of clutter that’s nagging sometimes and it’s often hard to get rid of. Maybe this is my purge.” Did it feel cathartic? “Well, you know,” she says with a sigh, “I think I’ve solved a lot of those problems that were hanging on and I’m glad it’s sort of done.”
She spent a few years in New York after college, waitressing, failing at auditions and playing in bands. It wasn’t working out, so she moved back to New Jersey and started a relationship with a man who was possessive and controlling; one night he broke into her flat, thinking she had another man there, put a gun to her head and threatened to rape her. “That was crazy, wasn’t it?” she says. She denies it had much of a lasting impact. “I was just happy to get away from him and move on with my life. Fortunately, that’s when I met Chris, so that was one of the best things in my life, if not the very best. We’ve had a long run of great friendship and creative success so, my God, I can’t ask for more.”
She is similarly dismissive of another horrific incident. In the early 70s, when she and Stein were coming home after a gig, a man followed them and forced them at knifepoint to let him into their apartment. He was looking for drugs and equipment. He tied up Stein, then Harry. Once he had piled up the equipment he was going to take – guitars, Stein’s camera – he raped her on the bed.
In her book, she writes: “I can’t say that I felt a lot of fear. In the end, the stolen guitars hurt me more than the rape.” Can this be true? “Yes,” she says. “I mean, I was angry and I felt victimised. I wasn’t beaten or harmed physically, it was all emotional or mental. Being raped – or fucked – by some stranger against my will at knifepoint, you know …” She pauses and sighs. “It wasn’t a happy moment in my life, but I really, seriously, empathise with women who are beaten. That would be something that [would lead to] emotional ramifications for the rest of my life. But this doesn’t.”
She knows it may seem hard to believe. “It is ludicrous,” she says, “and it is kind of funny that I would say it, but, truly, I wasn’t physically molested. Afterwards, I was with Chris, and I was, you know …” She makes a sound to signal the horror she must have felt. “I went on with my life. But as I say, I wasn’t beaten or assaulted and I think that, coupled with being sexually violated, is truly awful. Then you are really made to feel powerless.” But she was tied up at knifepoint. Didn’t that make her feel powerless? “Yeah. Not the same. It wasn’t for me anyway.” She didn’t have counselling, and says Stein was supportive “and we moved on”.
People, me included, have found it hard to fathom her reaction. For this reason, she says: “I’m sort of wondering if I should have left it out [of the book], but it’s part of the story.” It feels wrong to push her on it too much. “I can’t explain it,” she says, as she talks about whether it had any lasting impact. “I didn’t want it to. I just said: ‘I’m not hurt, I’m alive, I’m doing what I want to do, I have a wonderful boyfriend’ – and that was it. I had to consider what was important to me, and being a victim was really not who I wanted to be.” Perhaps, I suggest, minimising it has helped protect her from it? She smiles. “Yeah. Absolutely.”
Few women have been objectified as much as Harry. Her face – those killer cheekbones and heart-shaped mouth – is immortalised on Blondie album covers and in Warhol’s famous portrait. Was she always aware of men’s reaction to her? “I think we all have issues of self-esteem and I’m not clear of that,” she says, by way of an answer. “I also think that because it’s my occupation – to be a performer and to attract attention and to appeal to sexuality – it’s sort of a given in showbiz.”
Did she feel objectified? “There was a time in the earlier Blondie years when I was trying hard to perform, sing and write, and all of those contributions would be overlooked [by critics]. And that was, well …” She doesn’t finish the sentence. She was furious when Blondie’s record label put out a poster with a picture of her wearing a see-through blouse. In the book, she writes: “Sex sells, that’s what they say, and I’m not stupid, I know that. But on my terms, not some executive’s.”
Did she feel dismissed because of the way she looked? “Yes. A bit of fluff.” Wasn’t that infuriating? “Yes, but, you know, in a way it was good because I can sneak up on them unawares. I think times have changed in that respect. Women are serious wage-earners, and we create great things, and it seems clear to me that we can be supportive of one another regardless of what sex [we are].”
I suspect the revelations from the #MeToo movement can’t have come as any surprise – her book is full of incidences of being abused, stalked and generally mistreated by men – but she says incidences of harassment in her career were rare. “I was working as a team and in a relationship. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable being a solo artist and I’m sure that those girls have a lot more to say about that than I do. I never went into meetings trying to get a record deal by myself, so it’s a little bit different.” The most important part of the #MeToo movement, she says, “is that it makes men stop and think about their accepted behaviour”.
She is pleased with how far women have come in the music industry, with more representation and power than before. “It’s a radical change,” she says. “I always admire young women who are so gifted [at] writing and performing. It’s wonderful and that’s an inspiration for me, even though I’ve gone over the hill, as it were.” She laughs, mimicking clawing her way up. “I’m climbing up the other side.”
How does she feel about getting older? “It sucks,” she says with a laugh. But later, when I ask her when she was the happiest, she says: “I’m pretty happy now.”
There was a time, just after 9/11, which she watched unfold from the window of her apartment, when she longed for the 70s. “You look back and everything looks a little bit rosier, but it was a good time. It was a good time to be a young person.” And to be an artist because you could afford to live in pre-gentrified New York? “All of that,” she says. “Everybody in the 70s was living in squats and everything; it was kind of romantic.”
She has outlived many of her friends and the New York characters who populate her book, such as David Bowie, Warhol and Joey Ramone. “There have been times when I’ve had to face mortality and, as a person with strong survival instincts, I’m blessed in that way,” she says. Her numerous brushes with death include accepting a lift at about 2am in New York, from a man she believes was the serial killer Ted Bundy (people have said Bundy wasn’t in New York at that time, but she is convinced it was him). “I know that I’m really lucky and the longer I live, the more I know it, so it has led me to do things that are not about myself,” she says. She is “really concerned” about environmental issues and despises Trump: “Being stuck with the administration we’ve got now, and the lack of decency, is appalling to me.”
Harry is a survivor. There isn’t much she would have done differently, she says. “We all make mistakes, but the thing is to learn from them. And make different mistakes.”
It is only recently, she says, that she has thought she might have liked to have had children (she is godmother to Stein’s two daughters.) “I sort of thought: ‘Gee, maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad to have kids.’ But I don’t know if I could have done it while I was working so much.” Because she would have had to give up some of her freedoms? “My natural inclination is to really throw myself into things. It wouldn’t be like I could hand over the baby. I would really want to be involved.”
She is still working, writing and touring. She would quite like to do “a real serious role in film or in TV, but that’s sort of wishful thinking”. There may be another solo album at some point, and another book.
She reaches into her bag and brings out two small notebooks – her “snippet books”, in which she writes ideas for songs, words and phrases. “I’m always coming up with ideas,” she says. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be working, but I enjoy it – it’s my life, and people still want to see me.” She says, not for the first time: “I’m very lucky, and I think I know it more and more.”