Few music stars have been the subject of such idolatry as Debbie Harry.
Alannah Sparks speaks beauty and style with the music legend EXCLUSIVELY for TWENTY6.
I saw Debbie Harry in concert four years ago at Lovebox festival in Victoria Park. Wearing a clinging black pencil skirt, a Breton top and a pair of Rayban Wayfarers, Harry made her way to the front of stage to address a riotous crowd. A crowd who weren’t even born when The Tide Is High was released. A crowd that was high on things that probably weren’t even invented in Harry’s day. And yet despite the gulf of generation, the crowd was unanimous in their awe: the resounding statement that tumbled out of thousands of slack-jawed club kid mouths as Harry opened her mouth to sing was,
“I definitely still would.”
Ice-cool but red hot, Debbie Harry has enough sex appeal to send your body thermometer into overdrive. All chiseled cheekbones, perfectly pouting lips and a post-punk mane of Hollywood platinum blonde hair, Harry’s image is one that has transcended into iconic status. The inspiration for countless beauty shoots, fashion collections and even for fancy dress costumes, it’s a look that’s often copied – but never equaled.
When I speak to Harry – by telephone, on a scorching hot summer’s day, having jumped off the train en route to the races at Goodwood in order to take this once-in-a-lifetime call – I’m curious to know whether it bothers her that she has become a fancy dress costume?
“People can copy my hair, my makeup and what I wear as much as they want,” she breezes, “Well, I copied other people’s look didn’t I? It’s so hard to do anything entirely new in this world, you just re-appropriate and make something your own. That’s the fun of it.”
Debbie Harry’s proverbial ‘look’ is in no way accidental. She was inspired by the silver screen glamour of bombshell film stars such as Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe when first carving out an image for herself in the early days of Blondie. And with further visual invigoration coming via her long nights surrounded by the club kinds on New York’s punk scene, she spent time perfecting that image.
“It’s all about trial and error for me, and I’m fortunate that it’s something I just like to do. I’ve always enjoyed it, using myself as a canvas and then just trying out loads of different things – I never really tire of it.”
Fortunate enough to possess the kind of ‘canvas’ that most people can only dream of, Harry has tried everything from heavy pink metallic eyeshadow to green tinted hair. From the shaggy, just-out-of-bed mane and plumped up glossy lips in ‘Heart of Glass’ to barely-there nude makeup and a blunt fringe in ‘The Tide is High’ she’s run the gamut of beauty experiments. But far from being a chameleon she’s got a few failsafe tricks in her beauty routine.
“For me it’s all about the eyes, I like them black and I like them bold. Loads of eyeliner, and always, always false eyelashes. Some people like mascara but I can’t be bothered with that, big full falsies are better for me.”
While most women in the public eye would demure from talking about any fake aspects of themselves, with Harry, there is no beating around the bush. There’s no smoke and mirrors, no coy euphemisms: false eyelashes? Sure. Facelift? You bet. It’s perhaps this raw candor, this absolute confidence in herself that makes Harry still – at 66 years of age – so forcefully compelling. It’s also what’s earned her a reputation of being a difficult – if direct – person to interview.
“People can copy my hair, my makeup and what I wear as much as they want”
Which is why I steer clear of the inevitable aging subject. That Dorian Gray question mark that hangs so heavily above her head. What do you do when your youthful face has been made icon, when people worship that younger you – and outside the photo frame, you continue to grow old?
“Look, I’m like everyone,” she says pointedly, when I ask her what makes her feel sexy and beautiful, “I have good days and I have bad days – it’s all down to mood. But these days, I’m a lot smarter about what I need to be doing if I want to look and feel my best.”
Health, she says, it what makes her feel more beautiful than anything else. Having been through various stages of heavy drug abuse as well as a freak stage of heavy ice-cream abuse (“butter pecan was my favourite – I went through tubs of the stuff”) she is now at a point in her life where she is conscious of treating her body well. She has a personal trainer, she watches what she eats, and she’s updated her beauty routine to go with it.
“Before I used pretty crude products, just splashed any old thing on my skin, but everything has got so much more sophisticated, the technology more advanced, so now I think I take much better care of my skin. Everything has changed in beauty so I guess I’m a little bit less DIY nowadays.”
Though she may be less DIY in the beauty stakes, her fashion sense has the same unerring personal direction as it did in the Seventies, when she used to spend her nights at the famous CBGB’s club in New York, deftly picking up inspiration from the so-hip-it-hurts punk crowd. Back then, Harry’s go-to uniform was a torn rock t-shirt and skinny jeans but for performances, photo shoots and concerts she’d try out anything from futuristic foil jumpsuits and day-glo Stephen Sprouse jackets to mens’ suits or tiny babydoll dresses. Nowadays she counts designers like Marc Jacobs as close friends and gets to work with the world’s top stylists, but she still prefers the trial and error process of shopping and dressing herself.
“That’s the fun of it for me, going out to clubs, checking out the crowd, and then making it my own. I never get bored of looking at stylish girls.”
It’s lucky that the relationship is reciprocal, because stylish girls never get bored of looking at Harry either. When I ask her if she ever tires of people telling her they want to be her or be with her, she laughs: “What kind of person in their right mind would ever get bored of something like that?” She’s still got a youthful fervour that applies to all aspects of her life, in particular her performing, which she describes as “better every time”. She’s just finishing a tour of Europe performing Blondie’s new album 'Panic of Girls' when I speak with her, and describes a performance at Somerset House as “easily one of the best shows we’ve ever done.”
It seems there’s little that will slow down this supernova. Her lust for life is almost surprising, considering what she achieved at the top of her game. But for Harry, there was no top of the game, no end game - just a game that she’s determined to keep on winning as long as she lives.
“There was a time I didn’t think I’d make it past my twenties at all,” she says, distractedly, and I begin to understand. “This whole thing with Amy Winehouse really brought that back to me. Now in retrospect, I’m so glad I did make it past. It’s sad she didn’t as she had a lot to contribute. You think when you’re that age that there will be nothing beyond your twenties but what you don’t realize is it actually gets better.”
And Harry, 66 years of punkish platinum attitude, is even better proof than ever that blondes really do have more fun.