The youngest person to ever write, produce and perform a number one single, Debbie Gibson first rose to international stardom in 1987. Her debut album, Out Of The Blue, yielded five Top 40 singles – all of which entirely written by Debbie – while her follow-up album, Electric Youth, held the number one spot on the Billboard chart for five weeks. Ultimately, Debbie shared the 1989 ASCAP Songwriter Of The Year Award with Bruce Springsteen.
A few years later, while still recording for major labels, Debbie made her Broadway debut in 1992 playing Eponine in Les Misérables. She continued on with roles in other Broadway productions (e.g. Grease, Funny Girl) in the years following, last appearing in a 2003 revival of Cabaret with Neil Patrick Harris. Debbie is currently writing a Broadway-targeted musical of her own called The Flunky, but more importantly, she will be receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from Rockers On Broadway on Nov. 9 at Le Poisson Rouge.
As if her pop and theatrical careers weren’t enough, Debbie has been busy with a lot of television and film projects over the past three decades. She’s co-hosted award shows (e.g. Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards, the American Music Awards), competed on hit reality shows (e.g. Deal Or No Deal, Celebrity Apprentice) and been a talent judge (e.g. American Juniors, Sing Your Face Off). With regards to acting, beyond her appearance in Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” she acted in a variety of projects like the Mega Shark movie series, a recent TV movie The Music In Me, and the film adaptation of Rock Of Ages.
Although Debbie is still recording new music – her last full-length release was 2010’s Ms. Vocalist, which featured English-language covers of popular Japanese pop songs – she still makes time for a little bit of nostalgia. A few days before receiving her Rockers-presented award at LPR, she’ll be performing as part of the I Want My ‘80s Concert on Nov. 6 at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. She’ll be on the bill alongside Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, Run-DMC’s DMC, Foreigner’s Lou Gramm, Howard Jones, A Flock Of Seagulls, Tone-Loc, and the person who everyone assumed was Debbie’s long-time rival, Tiffany. Hosted by Martha Quinn with all artists backed by tribute band Jessie’s Girl, an evening of hits is to be expected.
Debbie kindly took the time for some Q&A about her past, present and future. Kudos to Laurie Andreev for helping with research. But apologies are due on my end for not realizing that Debbie is no longer is a New Yorker.
For your upcoming performance at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, any idea of what attendees should expect? The hits?
Debbie Gibson: Well, because there are SO many fabulous acts on the bill, obviously we can’t all perform our full sets. It is essentially one full-length concert so each artist will perform a handful of songs. It isn’t Woodstock (laughs) but, instead, a fast-paced look at the whole decade through this soundtrack of the artists on the bill!
When did you play Madison Square Garden for the first time?
D: I did my own sold out show there on my Electric Youth Tour, so it was 1989, I believe. The group Bros. from the U.K. toured with me, and now Matt Goss — formerly of Bros. and still a dear friend — is headlining his own Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas show in The Gossy Room. So cool to see how everyone has evolved! I remember doing a charity event at The Theater at MSG for Larry King with Marc Anthony and other amazing artists. I LOVE that theater!
In the late 1980s, you had regular backup dancers in your live show. Is that something you remember fondly? Have you run into any of your old dancers over the years?
D: (laughs) YES! In fact, Buddy Casimano, who has been with me from day one, will be dancing at MSG with Eddie Bennett, who has also been a friend and dancer/choreographer along with Buddy for 15 years and counting! Even though the set is not too long, I was like “You boys need to come and even shake a tambourine or something!” It is just more fun when you can turn around onstage and see your friends!
What do you remember about the first gig you ever played in New York City?
D: That’s so funny because I just passed the site of my first performance as a recording artist the other day. I performed SO many times as a kid, but when I was 16, I debuted “Only in My Dreams” at Limelight! The big church/club that is now also a David Barton Gym. (laughs) I remember the postcard was green and pink-striped. I remember it said “DEBORAH GIBSON,” not Debbie, and I remember my sequined dress got caught on the mic stand and started unraveling as I “step step step touched” across the stage, and I tore the thread on a downbeat avoiding a major wardrobe malfunction!
When you performed with The Circle Jerks at CBGB, was that the time first exposure you’d ever attended a punk show?
D: YES! And I stage-dove! HEAD FIRST! But the best part was that they were introducing me and I was to enter from the back alley and I could hear them screaming my name and the audience going wild and…the door was locked! It was like a scene out of Spinal Tap!
After that collaboration happened, were there more offers for rock collaborations?
D: Ummm, not so much! Though for some reason I have always resonated with rock acts. We all just get along. Yes I did theater and have always been very disciplined and clean-cut, blah blah blah, but in my personality and in my spontaneity on-stage, I have a rock and roll spirit!
Is there a follow-up album to Ms. Vocalist in the works?
D: Why? Is there a demand for one that I don’t know about? Ahhhh, so many more Japanese songs to cover and not enough time! (laughs) No, that was a one-off. And SO much fun to do. It also got me back to Japan to do a sold-out tour about four years ago, which was amazing.
As someone who grew up in Bellmore, I figured I’d ask when you were last in Merrick…
D: This past Spring I drove through Merrick with my Uncle Carl. He had to go to the dentist out that way and I was staying way out east with my Aunt and Uncle!
Merrick also gave the world Ben & Jerry, Michael Kors and Doug Ellin, to name a few notables. How often do you run into people that want to talk to you about Merrick?
D: More Long Island in general…and ALL the time!
Ultimately, having been around the world a few times, what is it that keeps you on the East Coast?
D: I live on the West Coast. (laughs) I recently stayed in Brooklyn though, which is my new place of choice to stay when I am out this way. It is also where I was born and is the perfect blend of a city feel but quaint, down-home, and with community at its core.
Do you have an accomplishment that you’re most proud of?
D: This may sound silly, but it’s the normal simple things I am most proud of. As a child entertainer there is a team who does everything for you, and many kids grow up still not driving themselves to the grocery store! I guess I am most proud of the fact that I am an independent down-home woman who can turn on the diva entertainer thing when it’s time…and ONLY when it’s time!
The achievement award that you’re going to be presented with at Le Poisson Rouge in November, how does that make you feel? Do the terms “lifetime achievement” scare you at all?
D: (laughs) No…on the contrary. I have lived SO many lifetimes. Marking the end of the last few chapters at this point is fantastic and something to celebrate. If I never added another thing to my resume, I would be extremely proud and satisfied. There is much more to be done, but gosh…if I were a pro athlete, I would be retiring by now! (laughs) It has been 28-plus years of doing this publicly, and non-stop, and to be honored by the Broadway community is the BEST! I remember when I got a new puppy and my two older dogs Rosie and Daisy gave her such a hard time. They did not just let her in the bedroom. They stood in the doorway and made her pay her dues. That is Broadway. There are no free rides. You have to earn the community’s respect. It dang near killed me at times keeping up with it all… I was never one to roll out of bed and hit the high notes…but once you have carried a Broadway show it legitimizes you in a way that nothing else does. The fact that this honor also ties to charity and pop music is a plus! Working with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, as well as working with kids in the arts, has been a huge part of my life. All that said, I still can’t believe they chose me to honor!
When you are not busy with your career, how do you like to spend your time?
D: Laying low! Making no plans! Reading, cooking, eating, hanging out with my man…ON THE WEST COAST! (laughs)
Do you have a favorite album of 2015?
D: Can I pick a single instead? I am OBSESSED with Bebe Rexha’s “I’m Gonna Show You Crazy.” She is also a Brooklyn native and an amazing songwriter! I also did a song on Isabela Moner’s album called “Angel.” I wrote it and Peter Stengaard produced. She is performing at the Rockers On Broadway show and is an insanely talented young vocalist who also plays a mean ukulele! If you haven’t checked her out, please do!
Finally, Debbie, any last words for the kids?
D: HEY KIDS! WASSUP?!? (laughs) But seriously, thank you for all the love and loyalty. Also, I pose this question: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were? STAY ETERNALLY ELECTRIC!
-by Darren Paltrowitz