OK! recently chatted with Deborah Gibson, the ’80s teen icon formerly known as Debbie, who learned to build her hits on a Casio keyboard and tape recorders set on her mother’s ironing board. One of those songs, “Foolish Beat,” managed to etch her name in the history books of pop music — 17 years old when she recorded the song, Deborah holds the title of youngest person to write, produce and perform a Billboard No. 1. She spoke at length with OK! about her upcoming performances, shared a unique piece of fitness advice and why she wants to empower budding songwritiers with her music camp for kids.
How did you get involved with Camp Electric Youth?
I hold this record for being the youngest writer/producer of a number one in history, not to toot my own horn — on the contrary, that’s to say I can’t believe I’ve held that record for 20 years and no one’s broken it. It’s crazy to me — there are plenty of young singer/songwriters, but even the producing field, it’s still predominantly a male-dominated field and skewed slightly older. I just felt that was one thing — I just want to go back to the original message that I had when I was 17 — to empower young people. Back then I was doing it in a kind of rah-rah, preachy way, but now with 21 years experience in the business, I’ve seen so much, and I’ve seen so many things that can go wrong — much like Britney [Spears], much like Mariah [Carey]’s meltdown, I’ve had the same meltdowns, I just had them in private. And I also always had the desire to be well and happy and healthy. I think I have a lot to teach kids in the way of how to navigate a career long-term. I love American Idol, I’m a big fan, but all about this sensationalized, quick road to stardom, but I think there’s something to be said for… I come from theater and I see a lot of really talented, ambitious kids — I believe the people with that mentality are those that ultimately maintain a long-term career. I’m friends with Dick van Patten, who’s in his late 70s now — that man, I saw him onstage last year, he hasn’t stopped working since he was 7. He never had a career where he was on the cover of magazines each week, which I think is what kids are striving for these days — to be in the media all the time, more than they’re striving to master a craft that’ll carry them through their whole life. That’s really where the inspiration for doing this came from.
What’s it like judging Total Pop Star?
I realized this year that I have something to offer in the way of advice. Not advice because “Hey, I’ve had a hit record every year for the past 20 years” because I haven’t, but advice on how to sustain a career and hone your performing skills. When they came to me, I thought this could be a great hit that explodes or not, but it sounds like a great, great alternative to American Idol. Contestants submit their application online, which is crazy because I remember having to fly to L.A. to audition. It’s such a cool thing to see. It’s a very interesting way to evaluate talent, and based on suggestions, contestants can revise their videos. I’m just doing this because I want to. Nobody’s getting rich, getting a lot of publicity, but this is a really great ground-level thing with a very real record deal at the end. And we’ll actually be writing and producing music for the winner, so that’s kind of a cool thing.
Any diet or fitness tips?
I just went through a six-month bout of disc problems with my back, and I had to stop working out. I learned so much about my body. I learned that you can’t force your body to be what it’s not going to be at certain times. Now I’m happy to say I’ve got the problem solved. I’m so at peace with my body — if I’m doing eight shows a week, I might accidentally get thin — I look at myself and go, “Deb, you need a hamburger.” I’m a fan of a girl with a little meat on her bones, and I don’t think guys really want someone who looks like a 12-year-old boy. I’m glad that there are a lot of role models at this point who are driving that point home. Just people that embrace their bodies. I love dance, tap especially. If people haven’t tried tap, it is the greatest workout — you have to keep your core muscles tight the whole time to be light on your feet. Anything that distracts me from the fact that I’m working out is a good thing. I get very bored on machines — I love things that use the body and the mind and the spirit.
Can you talk about some of the specifics of your upcoming Harrah’s residency?
I jokingly say it’s part Liza Minnelli, part Beyonce, because that’s what I am. I’ve always been older than my years and younger than my years in a way. I’ve always had one foot in current pop culture. Maybe I’m in denial that I’m 37, but I’m always more in touch with younger people. I think that comes out in the way that I perform even the old stuff — there’s a new energy and a new edge to the way I perform that stuff. But then again, I do all the Broadway stuff, and I banter with the audience in a way that’s very inspired by growing up watching the Olivia Newton-John Physical special, and the Color Me Barbra special, and the Liza Minnelli — all that stuff, so I think that I’m kind of a blend of things. It’s kind of who I am, I spent my childhood and my last five years doing musicals, but then there’s the part of me that has that pop spontaneity. I love the freedom to be able to not be in the combines of musical theater.
Any plans for Valentine’s Day?
This is really funny — I will be performing on a gay cruise Valentine’s Day week, so I will have 2,000 Valentines and they will be all gay. Which is so funny, but you know, I don’t have a boyfriend right now, and it takes the pressure off. I love my gay audience, so I think it’s going to be a Valentine’s Day to remember. But I’ll be singing love songs to other couples, so that makes me happy. I will be with the gays.
What’s the best thing about being single?
Oh gosh, everyone that’s involved in a marriage, even happily, there’ll always be compromise, and you always have to check in with somebody. For me, I can pick up and do anything I want, at any time, without consulting anybody. I’m so aware of the fact that that is a luxury, I know that I’ve got it good now. That and being able to have my dog and cat sleep in my bed now.
What do you look for in a guy?
I feel like I need people to understand my life, and also, I want to be inspired. I love people with big dreams, big ideas and creativity. I love humor, I love playing verbal ping pong with someone, matching wits. I hate a first date where people run down a list of possible connections. I really believe in connection, which is why I’m 37 and still single — I believe that you just have to authentically connect with someone. For different people, it happens at different times. Right now, my life is so great with my family and friends and career — it’s got to be a really dynamic person who really adds something to my life for me to put the energy in. Because when I do put it in, it’s 150 percent. Now, I have great male friends that are good standby dates for events and things. That’s kind of the way my life goes right now.
By John-Paul Anthony