Debbie Gibson is a regular girl
Debbie Gibson’s house is very, very white. I don’t mean Debbie’s old house, the amazingly normal one in Merrick where she spent her adolescence doing amazingly normal things like going to school and hanging out with her friends and releasing double- and triple-platinum albums and becoming the idol of millions of teens and preteens. I mean Debbie’s much more secluded new house on Long Island, part star abode and part command center for the Debbie industry, where production and promotion people run in and out all day and where Debbie lives with her mom and younger sister and hopes that her new album, Anything Is Possible, will go platinum too, now that she’s an amazingly normal young woman of 20.
”Hi!” she greets us at the door, her hair in a towel and her pretty face scrubbed clean. We’re barely inside when all three Gibson dogs come romping in, wiggling and wagging and leaping and making everything fun and normal. ”This is Gingersnap, and this is Diega, and this,” laughs Debbie, holding up an ancient and impassive weenie dog, ”is Sam! Oh, and Mel, you have to meet Mel!” she says, running upstairs. She’s back in a minute with a little yellow cockatiel. ”This is Mel,” she says drolly. ”Mel Gibson.” And then — poof! — she’s gone, hurrying away to dress for the photo session scheduled to begin a scant two hours from now.
As I’m sitting on a pink leather sofa that matches the acre or two of pink plush carpet, watching Debbie’s new home video and trying to convince Gingersnap not to eat Mel, a well-dressed, rather tense-looking woman in her 40s sits down and we start to chat.
”The thing I’m proudest of,” she says, ”is that Deborah is very much her own person.”
Since no one would be likely to say such a thing except her manager or her mother, it’s pretty easy to figure out that this is Diane Gibson, who’s both. Anyone familiar with the Debbie legend knows that her mom (recently separated from Debbie’s dad, a customer-service representative for TWA) is no stereotypical pushy stage mother; it was Debbie who knew that she wanted to be a performer by the time she was 5, a tot savant destined to become, at 17, the youngest human ever to write, produce, and perform a No. 1 single. Diane has merely done whatever it takes to make it happen, from chasing down a professional manager when her daughter was 12 to replacing that manager with herself in 1988, reportedly after a good many disputes over his desire to ”package” Debbie.
”I don’t believe in the ‘package,”’ Diane says, and as she’s talking about the importance of freedom to the young creative mind, a teenage boy dressed in black comes loping down the stairs. ”This is Chris Cuevas,” she says, smiling happily, and explains that he’s a young man from Mississippi (”good solid upbringing”) who’s been staying at the Gibson house while he uses its state-of-the-art studio to record his debut album.
How nice, another young performer.
”Oh, we’re working with 12 of them at the moment,” she says proudly. It seems Diane has expanded her management activities beyond her daughter to include other deserving performers Debbie’s age or even younger. ”The youngest is 12,” she says.
Then she suggests with some firmness that we adjourn to the studio to hear Chris’ new album. Several people join us there, including Debbie’s grandparents, the Pustizzis — she in sensible shoes, he in one of those winter hats with earflaps grandpas everywhere wear-solid folk you wouldn’t associate with the slick, frisky dance music coming out of the speakers. Soon Diane Gibson remarks, to no one in particular, ”Gee, Chris is usually dancing all over the place when he puts this music on.” Nothing happens, so she says it again, and this time he starts to dance and lip-synch like the pro he already is. She beams, and the Pustizzis beam, and the rest of us beam, just like a normal happy family watching one of the kids play ”America the Beautiful” on the ocarina. And later, as I’m looking over the rest of the premises, with the pool and the security cameras, the classic T-bird and the new tennis court, fat old Sam the weenie dog waddles over to get his ears scratched. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
”I don’t feel like I’ve made this great leap from child to adult,” says Debbie, sitting on her mom’s bed a few hours later in the only quiet room in the house. ”I hate to dwell on it because people will just think I’m trying to tell them, Look, I’ve grown up! That could come across real cheesy.”
Cheesy is not a word that Deborah Ann Gibson evokes. She still has a cute lisp, still lapses into Long Island locutions, as in ”they were real sarcastic wit’ me.” But behind her steady, slightly wary gaze are a lucidity and intelligence that inspire respect, a self-possession that isn’t in the same league with your basic ingenue poise.
Which is not to say she’s candid, exactly. As an amazingly normal teen role model, she seems compelled to answer questions in politician-like sound bites: ”If it’s squeaky clean not to do drugs, drink, or smoke, well, I don’t do those things. But that doesn’t make me a wimp.” The difference is that if you confront her with a brassy, obnoxious question, she’s got the guts to answer — as she does when I ask if, now that she’s no longer a teen, she still says she doesn’t believe in premarital sex.
”I still say it,” she says, lifting her chin.
”And do you still live it?”
”I still live it!” she laughs, volume rising. ”You’re getting really personal there!”
I suggest that ”no comment” is always an option.
”No, I’ll be honest about it because I’ve never been in love with anybody really, and I’m the kind of person, I couldn’t even imagine fooling around with this one or that one. I heard you guys talking about Playboy before, and no, I’m not posing for Playboy either!”
I assure her I had just been kidding her publicist, but this is not a girl to leave any loose ends. ”It’s so funny,” she goes on with a laugh, ”because I’m always, like, I don’t want to sit in this outfit because my body doesn’t look good. I’m not about to take off my clothes for strangers, no thank you.”
We chuckle, then I ask her if she’s felt patronized because of her age.
”That was what the whole song ‘Electric Youth’ was about,” she says dryly, not sparing me from the lameness of my question in light of the gigantic popularity of her anthem to youthful achievement, and deftly paying me back for the sex stuff. Clearly the press isn’t going to have Debbie Gibson to kick around anymore, though Lord knows it has.
What about that Spy magazine promo, I ask her, in which rock industry types responded to the question ”What do you think Debbie Gibson will be doing in 20 years?” and the answers ranged from ”She may be a real estate dealer for Century 21” to ”They’ll still be debating whether she was pushed from that building or jumped”?
”Oh, pleeease,” she says, rolling her eyes. ”I mean, I know I’ll never jump, you know? So when people speculate, I think, They don’t really know anything about me. I just find that all funny.”
Hardly anyone remains the darling of pubescent America on a permanent basis, however, so what does she want to be doing in 20 years?
”I want to do both film and theater,” she says enthusiastically, as if adults hadn’t been asking her that question since she was old enough to talk. ”I want to be the best all-around performer I can be. You just have to keep getting better and better, and I think that’s how I’ll overcome the teen label and make that transition.” She pauses. ”I realize that the second you stop working at it someone’s gonna sneak up from behind you and pass you right by.”
She says this twice during our talk, and by the second time I’m involuntarily looking over my shoulder, waiting for a horde of teenage pop sensations to stampede into Mom’s room. (In this house, it could happen.) To judge from her new album, she is getting better and better. But will it be enough? Doesn’t conventional record industry wisdom hold that everyone over 15 is too cool to listen to her music? Is it going to be Hollywood for Debbie? Or Century 21?
An hour later I’m returning to Manhattan on a train from hell. Somehow I’ve gotten stuck in a car packed with what appears to be every heavy-metal fan on Long Island, headed into town for a Kiss concert. It’s so bad the conductor doesn’t have the nerve to enter this car and collect our fares.
Mangy and sullen, reeking of cigarettes, Bud, and Clearasil, these kids are everything Debbie Gibson could have become, but didn’t; everything, you might say, that Debbie Gibson was put on this earth to try to prevent. But they’re polite, too, as proven by the fact that when a couple of guys realize they’re spilling beer in my lap, they stop. Then they ask what I’m writing in that notebook, like, am I a reporter or something?
With visions of inciting an orgy of mass ridicule, I tell them I’m writing a piece about…Debbie Gibson.
”DEBBIE GIBSON!” squeals one little big-haired girl next to me.
”You mean you’ve met her and everything?”
I stare. ”You mean you like her?”
”Yeah, she’s okay,” says one of the guys who’d spilled the beer. ”Debbie Gibson. She’s a babe.”
So much for the conventional wisdom of the record industry. The babe’s headed for Hollywood.