Debbie Harry Performs Her Femininity

Debbie Harry Performs Her Femininity

As an adult, Debbie Harry cultivated her theatrical sensibility while working as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City, witnessing Jackie Curtis and others’ backroom shenani­gans and learning several lessons from the Off-Off-Broadway world. “I approached the songs from kind of an acting perspective,” she said. “With each song, I could be a new character.” One of those characters was inspired by the streets of New York, where truck drivers and construction workers used to yell “Hey, Blondie!” at her. Harry eventually appropriated this catcall as the name of her onstage alter ego. “I originally saw Blondie as something like a living cartoon character,” she said. “I was thinking pop. The band was always into that pop aesthetic—B movies, comic books, combining pop culture and art and rock ’n’ roll and dance music. Mainly, I wanted the Blondie character to be funny and sassy and colorful.” Harry augmented her ratty blonde hair with thrift store clothes and cheap sling-back shoes, a style that was influenced by the drag queens they hung around with. “Her look definitely came from that trash aesthetic,” said Chris Stein. “It came from the Dolls and that whole scene, and all that came from Jackie Curtis.” When Harry became an international superstar, many of the straight guys who pinned her posters to their walls had no idea they were lusting after the image of a woman imitating men who were dressed as women. Onstage, Harry often played the straight role of a hot and horny woman, but she also broke character to reveal how femininity was just a performance, an act. “Blondie, as a character, was kind of bisexual or transsexual, and would change perspectives,” she said. “Or sometimes she would observe things from a third person point of view. Blondie was always morphing and taking on a new identity from song to song.” Her emphasis on acting over authenticity—fragmentation over cohesion—reflected what was happening around her in the underground theater scene. Harry’s image was an assemblage of tropes drawn from glamorous 1940s Hollywood starlets, seedy 1950s pinups, sneering 1960s rock rebels, and in-your-face 1970s glam queens.

From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore


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