Debbie Gibson was the most renowned American adolescent pop diva on Earth thirty-three years ago — an era in musical terms. She was as popular among teens as Billie Eilish was at the age of 17, but in polar different ways.
Gibson was the wholesome, toothsome innocent who sung peppy, shamelessly weedy songs about teenage love, unfashionable and critically rejected. Eilish is a sad-eyed cynic who sings shamelessly unpleasant songs about death, sex, and generational neuroses.
She is peerlessly cool and critically sacred. If popular culture has changed dramatically since 1988, as it should, one aspect has remained constant: the constant criticism of female public figures for their physical appearance, as Eilish has always been and as Gibson continues to be, chastised on social media for being “too thin” since her Lyme disease diagnosis in 2013.
Today, Gibson ponders, “I hope Billie is handling all the pressure as beautifully as she appears to be handling it.” “She appears to be a wise old soul.” Everyone changes; you gain or lose weight, colour your hair, alter your appearance… life occurs.
However, with social media, uninvited critique may come from anyone. Like the Kardashians, you’ll need a strong backbone. Young brains aren’t equipped to deal with such information. The cost of celebrity these days is undeniably considerable. Look, I’ve got a therapist on speed dial as well!”
Even if she did wear double denim, a porkpie hat, and two Swatch watches, Gibson is a far more vivacious personality at 51 than she was at 17. She describes her oddly sensible teenage self as “an adult as a kid” who employed 100 people, even if she did wear double denim, a porkpie hat, and two Swatch watches.
Out of the Blue and Electric Youth, both reissued as deluxe versions this fall, include her massive, self-written and produced big songs, time capsules of twinkly, cheerful, sax-parping synth-pop and whimsical balladeering (from the tot-pop jamboree Only in My Dreams to the teen-dream colossus Lost in Your Eyes). She became the youngest female to top the US charts with Foolish Beat, a song she created, sang, and produced herself, a record that still remains today.
It’s no surprise that she’s been a mainstay on legacy pop tours since the mid-2000s, including 55 concerts this year with New Kids on the Block, Salt-N-Pepa, and her purportedly lethal 80s rival, flame-haired Tiffany (they’ve always been friends). She shone in a Las Vegas residency in fall, duetting with Joey McIntyre of New Kids.
“People want to reconnect with a more innocent time when they felt free,” she declares, dialing an old-school, non-visual landline from her Las Vegas home. “Especially now, with all of the world’s problems.”
She, on the other hand, has never lived in the past – “I feel the pulse of the world now” – and in August published The Body Remembers, her first original album in 20 years, with her distinctive jaunty sound evolving into disco-thrill bangers with clubby 90s rhythms and complex atmospherics. She’s a glammed-up Vegas vision in sequinned frocks, as cartoon kitsch as Mariah Carey, where she once invented the now-antique phrase “squeaky clean.”
She wonders, “I’ve finally grown into the me I’ve always felt was somewhere inside but was maybe… afraid to own?” “I was a little… unsexual, unglamorous” even in her post-pop decades of performing theatre, she admits. I’m still socially uncomfortable at times, but I’ve developed a rock’n’roll attitude, and my exterior now fits my inner. It took me a little longer than most!”
She was a dorky Brooklynite schoolkid who idolized Donny and Marie Osmond, Madonna, Olivia Newton-John, Billy Joel, and Elton John, and was a classically trained pianist with a home studio at the age of 14. (she never chased cool). “I was strangely perplexing to the executive,” she admits.
“I wasn’t going to join the Lilith Fair tour because I wasn’t a singer-songwriter doing singer-songwriter-ish music.” My music sounded like it was put together by a middle-aged man putting together a teen-pop band. I had planned ahead of time. And the definition of luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”
Gibson considers her manager’s mother to be a real 80s pioneer. She declares, “My mother was a badass.” “I was blissfully ignorant, doing what I loved.” She was a very young female manager who had three other kids to protect while pushing a little girl into superstardom.”
Gibson need protection: she was stalked for years behind the brightest pop scenes, had death threats through letters and faxes, and was targeted by a guy convicted of killing actress Rebecca Shaeffer in 1989. (a wall in his home was papered in posters of Gibson and Tiffany). Her coping strategy is “humour,” she says.
She recalls now, “I was threatened with being shot and my teenage brain couldn’t process it.” “It’s always been this way with young female stars: the older guy believes, ‘If I can’t have you, no one can.’
They go insane, it’s a paedophilia issue, and it’s serious. ‘OK, we’re in the city where such and such a stalker is, just to be safe, you’re going to watch me dance extremely hard, I’m going to be like a moving target…’ I recall saying to the band on stage.
She laughs hysterically, an uncharacteristically nasty chuckle. Gibson chose the sensible approach, adapt or die, in the 1990s, when the US cultural gears moved towards grunge, mimicking her idol Newton-John by portraying Sandy in Grease on London’s West End in 1993.
She has been a showbiz presence ever since, appearing in musical theatre, movies, talent shows, and prime-time celebrity reality television. Gibson’s appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s Where Are They Now?
YouTube series in 2016 was as close to a showbiz scandal as he has gotten: when asked about Prince’s recent death, she empathized, detailing her own prescription drug addiction and the drugs’ performance-related use throughout “90 percent” of the entertainment industry, especially Broadway (after negative headlines, out of context, she posted a video clarifying her thoughts and apologising to her beloved theatre community). Debbie Gibson, America’s cheerleader-in-chief, had suffered from panic attacks since she was 16 and relied on Xanax and Tylenol PM throughout her 20s to get through the rigors of the stage.
“We’re called ‘troupers’ because we’re young and female in the business and want to please,” she explains. “Didn’t they say, ‘You’re such a trooper!’?” For the sake of your craft, pushing yourself to the brink of death. That’s how we’ve been conditioned.
Now? I put forth the maximum amount of effort that my health will allow. You may medicate and disguise for as long as you want, but ultimately you’ll have to quit. Or you’ll perish.”
She saw an Instagram post this week from Tony-winning Broadway actor Laura Benanti, now 42, who recalled how, when she was 22, she cracked a rib and broke her neck while starring in a pratfall-heavy theatre role, her injuries were downplayed by a theatre doctor, and she continued working for seven years despite “intense pain” because she was a “good girl” who didn’t want to appear “weak or difficult.”
She’s now a “grown-up woman,” passionately speaking out on behalf of today’s younger stars. The outpouring of support was amazing.
“I thought of Oprah and the backlash I got and thought, ‘Ah, progress has been made,'” Gibson mused. Conversations that truly assist people are extremely important to me.”
Gibson has had Lyme disease since 2013, a tick-borne bacterial infection that causes extreme weariness, chronic pain, memory loss, chills, fever, nerve tremors, and headaches, some of which are induced by diet (sugar, starch, caffeine, certain oils), and some of which are provoked by stress. She uses clean diet, acupuncture, and yoga to manage her illness, which she describes as “a gift – any disease is a wake-up call, and I know, now, how to avoid what takes me down.”
She now resides in Las Vegas with her three dachshunds, Joey, Levi, and Trouper, is the wise owl “Aunt Deborah” to ten nieces and nephews, and is unmarried and quite happy after a decade-long romance ended in 2019. “Listen, someone needs to come knock me over right now to break up this party!” she exclaims happily.
“I don’t think I’m missing anything.” My life is focused, simple, joyful, and free at 51.” From cheerful 80s teen pop through mixed career choices, artistic successes, trouper tragedies, romantic failures, major illness, and deep fulfillment as she sashayed into her 50s, the trajectory of both her music and life uncannily parallels Kylie Minogue’s counterpart in the UK charts.
“One hundred percent!” exclaims Gibson. “When I see Kylie from afar, I think to myself, ‘That’s my long-lost sister.’ We’ve both made it through. Women who are warriors.”
After 35 years in reality-bending entertainment, at least two young music stars have emerged mentally unscathed. After all, things could just work out for Eilish. “I think there’s a superhuman element to Taylor Swift, the Weeknd, and Ed Sheeran’s stamina,” she concludes. “Younger artists have their own wisdom; they’re going through their own experiences.” I don’t sit around waiting for the other shoe to drop; instead, I say, “Rock on!”
“All entertainers must keep track of their mental health,” she says. “I’ve never wanted to be that brattish showbiz kid, and I certainly don’t want to be that grown-up female diva who abuses others because she lacks a sense of reality.”
I am aware of my surroundings. Because I’ve experienced real life. Respect for others was taught in me by my family. We’re all simply ordinary individuals going about our daily lives.”
Thanks to Sylvia Patterson at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.