by Scott Kearnan
Thursday Jun 4, 2009
Teen fame can go a lot of different ways: for every singing starlet who transitions smoothly into an adult career, there are countless others who wind up broke, boozed-out, or just plain boring.
Luckily, Deborah Gibson has found herself firmly in the former category. As “Debbie,” she was the ultimate teen idol of the late ’80s, one who paved the way for the next generation of pop princesses (Britney, anyone?). But even then Gibson was more than a marketing team’s nubile puppet; she was writing and producing her own songs, and still holds a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest female to write, produce and perform a #1 Billboard hit (“Foolish Beat”). Her high energy dance-pop and heart tugging ballads – other hits included “Shake Your Love,” “Only in My Dreams,” “Lost in Your Eyes” and “Electric Youth” – were the theme songs to a million proms (teased hair and garish, off-the-shoulder dress not included).
But when her adolescent fame dimmed, Gibson took the high road by continuing to release her own music on independent labels and immersing herself in an impressive musical theater career, taking on challenging roles on Broadway and in London’s West End. Amid the changes in her career, though, she’s never been out of sight or mind for her gay fans, who she credits amongst her earliest.
Deborah Gibson will headline PrideFest ’09 for Rhode Island Pride, and we chatted with the original pop princess about getting her start in the gay clubs, baring it all for Playboy, the campy trailer – which has become an online hit – for her straight-to-DVD flick Mega Mouth versus Giant Octopus, and where she’s going next with her most serious endeavor: music.
You know, I was watching the finale of American Idol last night and couldn’t help but think, wouldn’t you be the perfect judge!
At one point we were talking about it when Paula didn’t want to return. I ended up doing American Juniors. It was kind of uncomfortable, to be honest. Criticizing children on television doesn’t make for great reality TV! But that [Idol] would be the opportunity of a lifetime, on one hand. On the other hand, while I was doing that show [Juniors] I was commuting to Oklahoma City doing Chicago, and I was like, “I’d rather be the one on stage than the one judging.” My camp thing [Deborah Gibson’s Electric Youth, a performing arts camp for young people] is different. That’s very nurturing, different than just sitting back and judging. That was a little bit uncomfortable, but talk to me again when I’m sitting in a chair on the judge’s panel. [Laughs.]
Hey, I won’t tell!
Oh, don’t worry. One thing I learned a long time ago is that your thoughts and feelings on things change over time. I’m sure you’ll bring it up later, so I will now: when I was 18 years old, I would have said, “I will never do Playboy!” It was naughty or nice, bad or good. But things change year to year. Your opinions about things change and one thing I’ve learned is to not get held back by my own preconceptions I have of myself.
You weren’t held back, even at the beginning. You’re credited with launching a template for the pop princess mold, but unlike most you were writing your own music at the outset. What was it like to have that kind of control at such a young age?
It was something you had to fight for because people thought they knew better. They’d stick me in a room to write with a bunch of 40-something-year-old men who don’t have a clue of what teenage girls want to listen to. But I fought very hard to have that control, and my mom fought hard on my behalf. When “Foolish Beat” went to #1 – that was the first song I produced on my own and wrote – that was the best “I told you so.” I didn’t have to say it; the song said it for me. I just never wanted to be that just-stand-up-at-a-microphone-and-sing girl.
Was the gay community with you from the start of your career, or is it an audience that developed over time?
I think the gay community embraced me more or less when I started. A lot of people don’t know this, but the first nine months when “Only In My Dreams” [Gibson’s first single] was out, it was bubbling under in the clubs. So I would play teen clubs, straight clubs, and a gay club, four nights out of the week. I was 16. I remember being in an all-lesbian club with women hugging me and kissing me, and here I am a 16 year-old girl from Long Island. It was like, “Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore!” [Laughs.] I loved it! I loved it, and I couldn’t wait to get to the gay clubs. The teenagers were into the music, but they had to act cool; at the straight clubs they were drinking, picking people up and there I was, disrupting their night with music. I felt the gay audience was always there for the music. I always felt such a positive vibe, I always felt a connection and I didn’t quite know why. Even today, people will ask, “Why do you think that is?” And I don’t know… but I do think the gay audience is this perfect blend of wanting to have fun, but also being discriminating.
I would play teen clubs, straight clubs, and a gay club, four nights out of the week. I was 16. I remember being in an all-lesbian club with women hugging me and kissing me, and here I am a 16 year-old girl from Long Island. It was like, “Dorothy, yo
In terms of theater, any favorite roles?
Probably the ultimate for me was Cabaret. Because I really felt like the acting side was so important [to the role Sally Bowles] so I got to dive deeper than I ever have. Also I had two weeks of notice. They called me and said, “Can you come into rehearsal tomorrow, and open in two weeks?” So I had to really just trust and go, be brave. … And playing a character that was so completely self-destructive, which is so completely not like me, it was hard to find parallels. The thing I did relate to was that she was fearless, and here I am carrying a Broadway show in two weeks. Sally Bowles didn’t have a lot of talent, but she was fearless. I say, not with regard to talent, but you know, Madonna isn’t the greatest vocalist in the world, but boy will she commit and bring everything she’s got. That’s what makes her a star.
So… Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus. The thing is an online phenomenon! What is this flick, and how did you get involved?
It’s so funny! In terms of how I feel about it as an acting role, I tell my friends seeing this film, “Thank God you’ve seen me in Cabaret so you know I can act!” [Laughs.] It was supposed to be this little under-the-radar side project. My agent was like, “Do it if you want to have some fun, nobody’s getting rich off it, it shoots for two and a half weeks and it goes to that sci-fi niche.” And Lorenzo [Lamas, co-star] is a friend of mine… so I said, I’ve never done anything like this, carried a film or done sci-fi. It’s absolutely ridiculous, one of those “so bad it’s good” type movies. Then all of a sudden I’m taking these calls, MTV wants to talk, and the trailer has 40,000 hits in a day. It’s crazy!
It’s like the new Snakes on a Plane.
Yeah, except we didn’t have a multi-million dollar budget! But it’s funny because it’s so ludicrous. I had a friend text me saying, “Oh my God, I’m driving home over the Golden Gate Bridge. I hope a shark doesn’t eat it!” [Laughs.] I’m actually enjoying it. That’s the thing, there’s never a dull moment in life. I love not taking things so seriously that I feel stifled and I feel I’ve managed to always work and stay under the radar. If not, you can’t do crazy little things like that! If you’re on a Jennifer Aniston level, you could never do something ridiculous like this. But it makes me laugh, and now my teenage nephew finally thinks I’m cool.
I remember when you posed for Playboy back in 2005. People were shocked: “But she’s supposed to be so wholesome!” Did you find that your gay fans were cooler with it?
Completely. I had so many gay men come to my signings around the country saying, “Oh my God, this is the first Playboy I ever read!” [Laughs.] You know, I was 34 years old. It wasn’t like I was 22 trying to grow up really fast and shed my whole teen image. I could have been a mother of a teen at that point. I felt like it was a fun thing to do, no big deal, even though I knew it would be a big deal to other people, which made me want to do it even more! … And I got to shoot it the way I wanted. … They really want celebrities to show it all, but I was like, “Boobs and booty, that’s it.” When you do the shoot with Playboy you can be as explicit as you want, but I had total control over what shots got used. I thought they were amazing, cool and professional in that way. It was fun, it was freeing, but ultimately when I looked back at the shots, they [the most explicit] weren’t the sexiest to me. Being explicit doesn’t make it sexy. I felt like what was going on behind my eyes … pictures where I showed no sense of discomfort and was owning the feeling that I had, those were the pictures I wanted to use. Or those where I was smirking, like the cat that’s swallowed the mouse, cause I knew that this was going to make a little noise, those were the pictures I wanted to use. … I did it in a very stylized way, very theatrical. … I got creative, turned a vintage rhinestone necklace into a g-string. I got as creative as I could and just had fun with it.
Living in California right now, what do you think of the whole Prop 8 issue?
I guess I forget because I live in West Hollywood, and obviously this is probably the biggest gay community here, you forget that California isn’t all West Hollywood and San Francisco. It’s a big country. Same thing with New York. You think of it all as being Manhattan. You forget there’s all of the narrow-minded, stuck-in-a- time warp areas of New York. I can’t even believe that gay rights are an issue.
What’s next for you?
Well, most exciting is that I’m working on new music. I remember … back when Tina Turner had “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” and Cher had “If I Could Turn Back Time,” how those were real, official radio comeback moments. I hate using the word comeback because I’ve never gone anywhere, but I understand that I’ve been absent from pop radio. But I really see some artists, I did this too, you know you do the indie thing for a while and I think it’s almost because you’re scared to really put it out there. I’m ready to really put it out there again. … I’m not sure if it will be later this year or the beginning of next year, but at some point in the not-so-distant future there will be a new album, and I’ll come out with guns blazing.