Debbie Harry, alongside Patti Smith and Nina Simone, is one of the most extraordinary women in rock music. As the frontwomen to groundbreaking 1970s new-wave outfit Blondie, she helped redefine women’s role in the music scene whilst consistently defying expectations. Her confrontational stage presence and hard-edged style made her an icon of the underground punk scene in New York and helped establish Blondie as one of the most successful acts to emerge from the CBGBs generation. A striking beauty with daring outfits and two-tone bleached-blonde hair, Harry was so focused upon by the media that the public started to think “Blondie” was her real name, a mistake which led to the “Blondie is a band” button campaign promoted by the group in 1979.
But before she was a worldwide punk icon, Debbie Harry worked a variety of surprising and sometimes downright bizarre jobs, including a secretarial role with the BBC in New York and a short stint as a Playboy bunny. She had just moved to New York and, as she explained in a Radio 4 interview, “The economy was shit”. So like so many of her downtown contemporaries, she had to find somewhere cheap to live and a way of earning some decent money. Her reaction was to travel to New Jersey to become a bunny at the Playboy club.
“I guess I wanted to rise to the challenge,” Harry began, responding to the question, “Why a Playboy bunny?”. “I don’t know, I think it was something leftover from a friend of my parents, who was a member of the Playboy club, and he always made it seem so exotic and so exciting,” she added. “And I also thought it would be a good way to make money, which it was. So I tried it, but I think I worked there for eight or nine months.”
It comes as a surprise to discover that a woman, who has since been adopted as something of a feminist icon, once worked in an environment generally regarded as being degrading and deeply misogynist. But Harry’s past is proof of the complexity of feminist ideology. It is an example of the way in which women are often forced, by circumstance, to contradict the principles of this ideology. For many, women cannot be sex symbols and feminist icons at the same time, but Harry has always seemed to suggest that it is possible to be both, speaking openly about being the victim of sexual violence in her memoir Face It.
Many Playboy bunnies have attacked the controversial Playboy club, but Harry seemed to regard it as a means to an end. Responding to the question of how she coped with the environment in the club, she said: “Well, I like to dress up, so it didn’t really bother me. I probably did much crazier or funnier things to myself over the years. But it was kind of curious because they took very good care of us. We became like performers you know. We were important to them. We were important to the business.”
Harry’s past is an interesting example of how our transformations as young people inform our adult selves. In a letter she wrote to herself when she was 16, Harry wrote: “Just because you have a lot of different names, and maybe feel like there’s a lot of different yous, don’t be confused. Give yourself some time and all the ideas and possibilities that these names conjure up for you will become clear to you. The pieces of the puzzle will reveal themselves and all you have to do is keep finding out what makes you feel happiest and this oftentimes will be the easiest thing for you to do.”
Certainly, throughout her early years in New York, Harry treated life as something of an experiment. She took many paths and allowed each of these to inform the woman she eventually became with Blondie. Although her short stint with Playboy may be controversial, I wonder if it’s best to look at it, not as negating all of her pioneering work for women in the music industry, but as a formative moment in the life of an individual who embraced the complexity of modern womanhood.