Long Island’s Own
Rock Star, Mentor, Fundraiser Extraordinaire
Story by Christine Giordano
Photo by Ray Garcia
Deborah “Debbie” Gibson took the stage again like a rock star. She wasn’t the 16-year-old kid with the baggy clothes, the spikey hair and the black bowler hat anymore. She was the woman who has come into her own, radiant in her talent, comfortable in her skin, and enjoying of all the empowerment of her new decade.
At 40, Gibson is a polished piece of art.
As a teenager, she made history when she sang the words to her hit song “Foolish Beat” and love-anguished teens cried and lip-synced, right along with her,
Now, her trademark tones are that much stronger, that much deeper, and, as she grips the microphone with both hands and sings, “I will never love again…” her soulful eyes searching the crowd … her audience is transfixed, responsive to her emotion, allowed to feel what she feels. She’s working on a new album and expecting to reemerge and catapult back into the limelight.
“I feel more empowered than ever,” she said after a recent performance on Long Island, her blond hair shining, her tank top and sparkling hipbelt revealing a lithe body toned-to-perfection by her disciplined diet and yoga practices.
“Women are more empowered than ever, looking better than ever, with so many more options in life,” she said. “It is an interesting time to be a woman and there is a lot for a songwriter to write about.”
She had touched down on Long Island to support the Head Injury Association, run by family friend and executive director, Liz Giordano. The Head Injury Association’s mission is “to maximize Traumatic Brain Injury survivors’ potential by providing the necessary residential and support programs to Individualize, gain independence, Integration and Productivity.” (See story on page 16) Gibson inspired the glee choir into existence, and found that sometimes, injured people who don’t remember much else from their past, remember music. And music becomes a connector, becomes therapy.
“For someone of her stature to take the time,” said Giordano after Gibson wowed the audience with her pop hits and performed “Lean On Me.” “She flew in from L.A. last night to do this.”
With mere minutes to spare, Gibson practiced for ten minutes with the choir before showtime. “Lean On Me” seemed to be the perfect song for a choir of people bonded by severe injury — some, in fact, relearning how to achieve basic life functions.
“We all need someone to lean on…” they sang in harmony with Gibson taking the lead, reaching out to the audience with her arms wide open, drawing them out, almost imploring togetherness. The audience of more than 200 people responded — clapping, singing, moving with her music, then jumping to their feet in ovation.
“I was so taken with the group of people you saw on stage today,” she said. “These folks up there obviously have challenges in their lives and yet they are in better spirits than most people I know living in L.A., with the world at their feet, you know?”
On May 2, Long Island’s darling will return to hold a fundraising dinner at Oheka Castle to benefit underprivileged children who show artistic promise. Her Gibson Girl Foundation awards scholarships and instruments to talented children who have a desire to attend entertainment camps that are usually very expensive.
“Their talent will just never be nurtured if they don’t somehow find the money to train,” said Gibson.
Over the past three years, her Foundation has given away $75,000 and matched children to whatever camps were best suited to develop their specific talents. Gary Melius, Oheka’s owner, is donating the Huntington castle for the evening. Tickets are $250, and the event will honor Hank Lane (Hank Lane Music) and Ira Wallach (Triangle Distribution/Linear Logistics.)
“Deborah was raised on Long Island for most of her life, so it makes sense to have her gala here in Oheka,” said her mother, Diane, who has managed Debbie’s career for 24 years. Payment is made directly to the camp, and based on level of need.
The idea for the Foundation formed when Deborah launched her own Electric Youth songwriting and performing arts camp. She was amazed by the talent of the children, and moved to action when the trembling economy struck the children’s families.
“There are talented kids who are writing these amazing songs but don’t have the money to demo them, or, you know, can’t scrape together the funds for the arts education,” said Debbie, whose own path to success was sculpted with early voice lessons and community theater in Hempstead, NY.
In her camps, held in places such as L.A and New York (with plans for Chicago, Miami and New Orleans), children are mentored through professional voice teachers to the stars, musicians and directors in a non-judgmental, non-competitive environment.
Gibson recalls a “little itty-bitty homeless girl,” about nine, living out of a car with her mother and sister “for years,” who somehow arrived at her entertainment camp and channeled all of the pain and hardship from her young life into a song. With a voice like Joanie Mitchell, the child sang that no matter what is going on in the world, and in her life, “she gets to wake up every day and see the sunshine and that is all she needs,” recalled Gibson, emotional, her brown eyes filled with hope from the memory. “But at nine. Oh my God…She gets to channel everything she had been through in her young life into music, which is so amazing.”
At the end of the two weeks, the families get to see the children perform. The talent rocks the room and the energy is uncontrollable. Kids are cheering for each other. A sea of hands is in the air, people are moving to the music, and worries of joblessness and the economy drop away. The only thing that matters is the joy of the young child’s potential.
“Music is such an amazing way to keep a family’s spirits up. It is not only for the kids…” she says.
The music lasts, is taken home, resounds in their lives.
“We change their lives, give them hope, teach them discipline and how to read music, dance, record. We train kids that there’s another option,” says Deborah’s mother Diane.
Some of the children have gone onto successful careers and appear on shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and in Adam Sandler movies.
Gibson knows childhood training is crucial, afterall.
Gibson was the teen who, at 16, miraculously battled her own way into the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest person ever to write, produce and perform a number one single, “Foolish Beat.” She wasn’t the child of a Hollywood executive. She didn’t have hard and fast connections in showbiz. Her father, an orphan, was a hardworking TWA employee, her mother managed a medical practice. And she sprouted, far from L.A., on Long Island soil. Yet her historical fete is still unbeaten, and she has since sold more than 16 million albums worldwide.
At five, Deborah started in Community Theater and wrote her own composition. By age eight, she performed in the children’s chorus at the NYC Metropolitan Opera House with artists such as Plácido Domingo
At 11, living in Merrick, Long Island, NY, she borrowed tape recorders from her sisters, lined them up on an ironing board, and used them to sing and play synthesizer in a makeshift multi track version of herself.
“ My mother saw me and said, ‘this is ridiculous, we have to get you some tools,’” Gibson laughed.
Her mother headed to a relative in New Jersey and begged for a $10,000 loan to get young Debbie the equipment she needed to begin recording.
Gibson still credits her mother with a large part of her success. “She was in her early thirties at the time, and I think to myself, what guts that took.”
The teen then locked herself in the garage and built her own recording studio. She wrote and recorded 100 songs to prove to music executives she was prolific. Then she and her mother worked from the kitchen table, sending out demo tapes and pictures and resumes.
Music executives responded that she was a bit young, but to keep in touch, until a young entertainment lawyer, Doug Breitbart, helped them to make a crucial connection with Atlantic Records.
But it wasn’t without another set of hurdles.
The first Atlantic deal offered was $5,000 for a dance single. If the single achieved top ten status, she’d get another deal for a single. If that also achieved top-ten status, Atlantic would finally sign her for an album.
At 16, Gibson was so eager she didn’t realize they were presenting nearly impossible landmarks. With her parents juggling their schedules to valet her around, she used her teenage energy to play an exhausting schedule of “three clubs a night, for four nights a week, for about nine months” and got her first single, “Only in My Dreams,” off the ground. It led to several more top five hits, “Foolish Beat” (number-one single on the pop charts); “Out of the Blue,” which sold over five million copies, followed by the triple platinum “Electric Youth” and another number-one single “Lost In Your Eyes.”
Over the years, feeling lucky enough to live her dream, it seems she hasn’t stopped to breathe. She’s written a teen autobiography, performed for royalty, presidents and world series, and toured Asia where here fans are “very loyal.” She’s performed in Broadway shows such as “Les Miserables” (Eponine), “Grease” (Rizzo), Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (Belle), among others, had a one-woman show in Atlantic City, “Pop Goes Broadway,” written the song “Rise” for her boyfriend’s documentary on malaria “Three Billion and Counting,” lent her glowing complexion as a spokeswoman for Murad skincare products, and saved some time to mentor and fundraise.
With a new album on the way, and planning a summer tour, Gibson believes she is teetering on the edge of the type of “comeback moment” that propelled “Tina Turner and Cher” back into the mainstream. Again, with the same trademark confidence, she knows she can produce and deliver it in her very own “relevant” way.
“I feel like I have had enough real life at this point to write about things that real people go through,” she said.
And, with her trademark tones and first-hand knowledge of life, compassion, showbiz and the economy, she might just be due to break another world record.