Thirty-three years ago – in musical terms, an epoch – Debbie Gibson was the most famous American teen pop star on earth. At 17 she was as loved by teenagers as Billie Eilish was at 17, in polar opposite ways. Gibson, uncool and critically dismissed, was the wholesome, toothsome innocent who sang upbeat, unapologetically weedy songs about adolescent love. Eilish, peerlessly cool and critically sacred, remains a sad-eyed cynic singing unapologetically disturbing songs about death, sex and generational neuroses. If popular culture is unrecognisable from 1988, as it should be, one aspect remains identical: the constant judgment of female public figures over their physicality, as Eilish always is and Gibson still is, harangued on social media for being “too thin” since her 2013 Lyme disease diagnosis.
“I hope Billie is handling all the pressure as beautifully as she appears to be handling it,” ponders Gibson today. “She seems a wise old soul. Everyone changes, you lose weight, gain weight, dye your hair, change your aesthetic … life just happens. But with social media, there’s unsolicited feedback coming from everywhere. You need a backbone of steel, like the Kardashians. Young minds are not wired to process that. The price of fame these days is definitely high. Look, even I have a therapist on speed dial!”
At 51, Gibson is a significantly more effervescent personality than she was at 17, describing 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. Her first two albums Out of the Blue and Electric Youth – rereleased this autumn as deluxe editions – showcase her enormous, self-written and produced hit singles, time capsules of twinkly, cheery, 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). With Foolish Beat she became the youngest-ever female to top the US charts with a song she wrote, performed and produced herself, a record that stands today. No wonder she has been a staple on heritage pop tours since the mid 00s, including 55 dates in 2019 alongside New Kids on the Block, Salt-N-Pepa and her supposedly deadly 80s rival, flame-haired Tiffany (they’ve been pals for ever). This autumn, she shimmered through a Las Vegas residency duetting with New Kids’ Joey McIntyre.
“People want to reconnect with a more innocent time that made them feel free,” she decides, calling from her Las Vegas home on an old-school, non-visual landline. “Especially right now, with all the problems in the world.”
She, however, has never lived in the past – “I feel the pulse of the world now” – and this August released her first original album in 20 years, The Body Remembers, her signature jaunty sound now evolved into disco-thrill bangers, featuring clubby 90s beats and sophisticated atmospherics. Visually, where once she defined the now-antique term “squeaky clean”, she’s a glammed-up Vegas vision in sequinned frocks, as cartoon camp as Mariah Carey.
“I’ve finally grown into the me I’ve always felt was somewhere inside but I was maybe … afraid to own?” she muses. She says that even in her post-pop decades doing theatre, “I was a little … unsexual, unglamorous. I still feel socially awkward at times, but I have a rock’n’roll spirit and the outside now matches the inside. It just took me longer than most!”
She was a geeky, Brooklynite school kid and a classically trained pianist with a home studio at 14, who idolised Donny and Marie Osmond, Madonna, Olivia Newton-John, Billy Joel and Elton (she never chased cool). “I was weirdly confusing to the executive,” she notes. “A singer-songwriter who wasn’t doing singer-songwriter-ish music; I wasn’t joining the Lilith Fair tour. My music sounded like it was crafted by an older male putting together a teen-pop act. I was prepared. And when preparation meets opportunity, that’s the definition of luck.”
Gibson credits her manager mum, in fact, as the true 80s pioneer. “My mom was a badass,” she announces. “I was ignorantly blissful, doing what I loved. She was a fairly young female manager, launching a young girl into superstardom and had three other girls – four daughters – to protect.”
Gibson needed protecting: behind shiniest pop scenes she endured the menace of several stalkers for years, was sent death threats via letters and faxes, targeted by a man convicted of murdering the actor Rebecca Shaeffer in 1989 (a wall in his home was papered in posters of Gibson and Tiffany). She cites “humour” as her coping mechanism.
“I was threatened with being shot and my teenage brain couldn’t process it,” she reflects today. “It’s what’s happened with young female stars since the beginning of time: the older man thinks: ‘If I can’t have you no one can’. They become psychotic, it’s a paedophilia thing, it’s deep. I remember being on stage and saying to the band: ‘OK, we’re in the city where such and such a stalker is, just to be on the safe side you’re gonna see me dance really hard, I’m gonna be like a moving target …’”
She laughs uproariously, an unexpectedly filthy cackle. Since the 1990s, as the US cultural gears shifted towards grunge, Gibson took the smart approach, adapt or die, emulating her hero Newton-John by playing Sandy in Grease in London’s West End in 1993. Ever since she has been a showbiz presence: musical theatre, movies, talent shows and prime-time celebrity reality TV. An appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s Where Are They Now? YouTube series in 2016 was as close as Gibson has come to a showbiz scandal: asked about the recent death of Prince, she empathised, detailing her own prescription drug dependence and the drugs’ performance-related use throughout “90%” 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, it turned out, mainstream America’s cheerleader-in-chief, had struggled with panic attacks since aged 16 and used Xanax and Tylenol PM through her 20s to help her through the rigours of the theatre road.
“There is a trait to being young and female in the business, and wanting to please, we’re called ‘troupers’,” she says. “‘You’re such a trouper!’, right? Pushing yourself to death’s doorstep for the sake of your art. We’re conditioned like that. Now? I do the amount of work my wellbeing can put up with. You can medicate and mask but eventually you have to stop. Or you will die.”
This week she saw an Instagram post from the Tony-winning Broadway actor Laura Benanti, now 42, who recalled how, aged 22, while starring in a pratfall-heavy theatre role, she cracked a rib and broke her neck, her injuries downplayed by a theatre doctor, then carrying on working for seven years through “intense pain” because she was a “good girl” who didn’t want to appear “weak or difficult”. Today, she’s a “grown-ass woman”, angrily speaking up on behalf of younger actors today. The response was overwhelmingly supportive.
“I thought of Oprah and the backlash I got,” muses Gibson, “and felt: ‘Ah, progress has been made’. I’m very much about conversations that actually help people.”
Gibson has lived with Lyme disease since 2013, a tick-transmitted bacterial illness that causes, for her, severe exhaustion, chronic pain, memory loss, chills, fever, nerve tremors and migraines, some of which is triggered by food (sugar, starch, caffeine, certain oils), some by stress. She manages the condition through clean eating, acupuncture, yoga and calls it, heroically, “a gift – any disease is a wake-up call and I know, now, how to avoid what takes me down”.
Today she lives in Las Vegas with her three dachshunds Joey, Levi and the pointedly named Trouper, is wise owl “Aunt Deborah” to 10 nieces and nephews and, after a decade-long relationship ended in 2019, is single and very happily so. “Listen, someone’s gotta come and knock me over to break up this party right now!” she hoots, merrily. “I’m not missing anything. At 51 my life is focused, uncomplicated, joyous, free.” The evolution of both her music and life uncannily echoes her equivalent in the UK charts, Kylie Minogue: from perky 80s teen pop through chequered career choices, creative triumphs, trouper traumas, relationship disappointments, serious illness and profound fulfilment as she sashayed into her 50s.
“A thousand per cent!” hollers Gibson. “I see Kylie from afar and think: ‘It’s my long-lost sister’. We’re both survivors. Warrior women.”
At least two teen pop stars, then, after 35 years in reality-warping showbiz, have survived psychologically intact. Things may just turn out OK for Eilish, after all. “I look at the stamina of Taylor Swift, the Weeknd, Ed Sheeran, and think ‘wow’, there’s a superhuman element,” she decides. “Younger artists have their own wisdom; they’re going through different things. I don’t sit on the sidelines waiting for the other shoe to drop, I think ‘rock on’!
“All entertainers have to stay on top of their mental health,” she concludes. “I never wanted to be that bratty showbiz kid, and I don’t wanna be that grown-up female diva who abuses people because I don’t have a sense of reality. I do have a sense of reality. Because I’ve lived through real life. My family instilled in me respect for people. We’re all just people, doing our thing.”