Debbie Harry will forever be the Queen of Cool. Since her rise as the frontwoman of Blondie in the early ’70s, Harry became an iconic force of the New York City punk scene. In addition to being one of the era’s most accomplished songwriters, she’s acted, modeled, and helped water the burgeoning art scene that was sprouting up below 14th Street. In her new memoir, Face It, Harry recalls the triumphs and traumas of her life while dishing on what it was like to smash glass ceilings, chase one’s dreams, and pioneer new paths for women in music.
Harry was adopted when she was just three months old and learned about it at the age of four. The truth of her origin story instilled a profound love for her encouraging parents, but also a gnawing fear of abandonment she’d carry with her for most of her life. Growing up in northern New Jersey, Harry was drawn to the dangers and excitement of New York taking on a smattering of odd jobs before she became one of the most photographed faces in rock. She immersed herself in the city life cutting her teeth waiting tables at Max’s Kansas City and go-go dancing at local discotheques. She scratched the itch to perform joining early acts like The Wind in the Willows and the Stilettos before taking a page out of Marilyn Monroe’s book. She embraced the bleached bombshell look and spun art, fashion, and sexism in her favor, eventually becoming a regular headliner at the legendary CBGB.
“I was playing up the idea of being a very feminine woman while fronting a male rock band in a highly macho game,” wrote Harry. “I was saying things in the songs that female singers really didn’t say back then. I wasn’t submissive or begging him to come back, I was kicking his ass, kicking him out, kicking my own ass too. My Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side. I was playing it up, yet I was very serious.”
Face It paints a gritty picture of a rough-and-tumble 1970’s New York, one filled with characters like The Ramones, Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, and David Bowie. Harry recounts run-ins and collaborations with these NYC scenesters and more, retracing her steps of climbing the art world ladder. Then there’s her near-deadly run-in with serial killer Ted Bundy and another close call during an apartment fire. Her stories are from a world lost to time, bizarre and circumstantial, yet her undying hunger for expressionism pushed her forward.
Harry reveals plenty of shockers. While reaching artistic highs and critical acclaim, Blondie was broke thanks to sheisty contracts and shady managers. Despite the financial misfortunes, Harry became a sex symbol and rock goddess leading to more modeling opportunities, an acting career that included a David Cronenberg film, and a steady solo career. She spun once-in-a-lifetime opportunities into gold, weaponizing her sex appeal. But when a label showcased her nipples on a billboard, she was understandably pissed. “Sex sells, that’s what they say, and I’m not stupid, I know that. But on my terms, not some executive’s.”
It’s mystifying are how unbothered she seems by things that would shake others to their cores like her incidents with a stalker or a sexual assault she reveals for the first time. Coming home from a show one night, she and boyfriend/Blondie guitarist Chris Stein were attacked at knife-point by a man who tied Stein up, stole their gear, and raped her. Harry wrote: “I can’t say that I felt a lot of fear. In the end, the stolen guitars hurt me more than the rape.” It’s a brief mention that she doesn’t elaborate any further on. (Harry did tell The Guardian: “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.”)
And then there’s her relationship, both romantic and professional, with Stein. Harry writes that the two never talked to the press about their break-up, but there was never a question as to whether the two would continue working together. They remained each other’s muses even after the band—and their relationship—exploded. What actually transpired, she doesn’t say. It’s admirable that Harry keeps some things private, but also puzzling that she’d mentioned the secrecy (in a memoir, nonetheless) only to shrug it off and not give us the tea.
In between her frenetic stories are some famous photographs of Harry taken by Stein, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Mick Rock among others. Also included are curated handfuls of fan art as a thank you to those who gave her their time and attention. The pages are printed on thick paper stock giving the package dual life as part-coffee table book, part-autobiography. Of course Harry would want her book to be a work of art itself.
Face It is a gripping, almost unbelievable account of an artist who took the art world by storm at a time when women barely existed in rock’s darkest, dingiest clubs. She says she has more to tell, but it’s hard to imagine what else could possibly lie in Harry’s memory. For a woman who’s survived drugs, a crime-ridden city, sexual assault, tangos with death, and even the volatile, sexist ’70s-era music industry, Harry barely seems shaken. She unfolds her life’s story with that ever-calculated cool of hers as if to say, “Yeah, this happened. Whatever.” Always a punk.