Singer Belinda Carlisle, 51, has seen life from both sides now — from reckless princess of punk on the Sunset Strip to a jet-setting solo pop siren with hits like "Heaven Is a Place on Earth." Though the media attributed her transformation to sobriety, Carlisle was harboring a painful secret. While singing party anthems like "We Got the Beat" with her pioneering girl group the Go-Go’s, Carlisle had developed an uncontrollable addition to cocaine that, despite reports to the contrary, she hadn’t managed to kick when she disbanded the group in 1985. Even by standards of the most decadent rock star tell-all, Carlisle’s just-published memoir, Lips Unsealed, is a shocker.
The singer, who now lives in France with husband Morgan Mason and son James Duke Mason, candidly and honestly reveals her harrowing drug dependency, abusive relationships, epic partying that intimidated even male rock stars, searching the dangerous back streets of Rio for cheap coke, drinking alcohol while pregnant, and ultimately her struggle to survive and start over. Now really sober since 2005 and weeks before embarking on the reunited Go-Go’s farewell tour, Carlisle speaks with The Advocate to share her remembrance of bisexual punks, lesbian groupies, and the personal reason she’s an outspoken advocate for gay marriage.
The Advocate: Why did you decide now is the time to write your memoir?
Belinda Carlisle: I finally had the lucidity to do a good job and some time in sobriety and distance to look back and really see what it was all about. I’ve had an extraordinary life, and I’ve always felt I had a book in me. I just didn’t know what the angle would be. Little did I know that it would be about making changes later in life. My book is about being able to start over again at an age when most people write you off.
When you began your solo career, a lot of stories in the press attributed your success to being drug-free and sober. How did you feel when you read these stories, knowing they weren’t true?
I was very careful not to say I was sober in the beginning. I let the press say it. I said I wasn’t doing cocaine anymore. At a certain point, I couldn’t bear to hear the word "sober." I was too embarrassed to correct them. I would say that I was using the 12 steps to live my life by, which was a complete joke because I wasn’t. It was really shameful and horrible to carry that around, and it was hard work.
How do you think your career would have fared without the cocaine binges?
I don’t know if I’d have been more productive. The drugs definitely affected the Go-Go’s. The band might have been around longer if it wasn’t for the drugs. I think that even with all the drugs, I did pretty good. I was just blessed and protected, I think.
You credit Buddhism with your spiritual awakening. How did it change your life?
I grew up forced to go to Sunday school, but I never bought into those Bible stories. Even when I was 7 or 8 years old I would roll my eyes when I heard them. But all through my life I was pretty sure that something was out there. The Buddhist philosophy always made sense to me, and chanting made me more introspective. It made me realize what a mess I was. I was trying to connect myself to whatever was bigger than me. Once I got sober I was able to make that divine connection, which is a big part of my life now. My 12-step program and my chanting all go hand in hand. It’s all the same thing at the end of the day.
You began your career during L.A.’s punk heyday in the mid 1970s. How prevalent were gay and lesbian people in that scene?
I think it was more about being bisexual than gay or straight. There were no boundaries, and anything was acceptable.
You discuss your own experimenting by making out with fellow punk Alice Bag. What do you remember about that experience?
I remember that we were on a bus bench on Vine Street in Hollywood, but back then everyone made out with each other. It was a genderless thing that you did and didn’t think twice about it. It was cool to be bisexual. There’s not a lot that I remember about it, but I’m sure Alice remembers it.
You were briefly a member of the seminal punk band the Germs and knew the band’s notorious front man, Darby Crash, well. There has been a lot of debate about Darby’s sexuality. Do you think he was gay?
He was totally asexual as far as I knew. I never saw him with male or female. Well, I saw him make out with girls, but you never knew with him. I had my suspicions, but like I said, it was more about bisexuality than being one or the other.
Were the Go-Go’s ever pursued by lesbian groupies?
The girls were much more aggressive than the boys. [Laughs] The boys were always intimidated by us, so we never really had any male groupies. I can’t remember any one instance, but we’ve always had gay fans and groupies. Speaking only for myself, I’ve never had sex with groupies — male or female — because that was a scary thing. It wasn’t about sex with us. It was about having a good time and having a party.
The Go-Go’s are embarking on their Happily Ever After farewell tour this summer. Is this really the end, or are you ladies pulling a Cher?
[Laughs] This is really it. Everyone in the band has a different opinion on when it should end or should have ended. I think now is the perfect time. I personally don’t want to work that hard anymore. I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor. My life is pretty much in Europe and Asia, and it’s become harder for me to make commitments and that was frustrating for a lot of people. Thirty-two years of being a Go-Go is a long time, and I’m grateful for the band. It’s been a great run, but for me it’s important to go out with dignity.
The Go-Go’s were set to perform at the Lilith Fair show in Phoenix on July 8. On Facebook you posted a message that urged promoters to change the date in protest of the new immigration law in Arizona and the Phoenix show was canceled, and depending on their viewpoint, some blogs blamed/credited you.
Oh, God, that got so blown out of proportion. I posted a status on Facebook, which I thought was the right thing to do, and it was up for maybe five minutes. Our fans said, “Don’t punish us for that stupid law,” and I thought, They’re right, so I took it down. I felt slightly uncomfortable crossing that line that you’re not supposed to cross. I got lots of hate mail about it. I thought it was a free country and I can say what I feel. That wasn’t the reason the date was canceled.
Last year you filmed a public service announcement for marriage equality. Why is this subject so important to you?
My son is gay, and I want the best for him. I don’t understand why gay marriage is such a divisive issue in the first place. My son has political leanings and he’s outspoken about it and he got me riled up, so we filmed the video in our backyard. I’ve always been really opinionated, and I think at this point in my life I don’t have a lot to lose by saying what I feel. These are things I believe in.
Speaking of your son, James Duke, he came out as gay when he was only 15. In your book you mention being shocked and having no idea he was gay. I found this really surprising since you’re so savvy and have been around gay people throughout your career.
Well, I had little hints along the way that maybe he could be gay. Most of my friends are gay and lesbian, but when it’s your own kid it’s different, regardless of how open-minded you are. It took me by surprise. It was shocking and it wasn’t shocking. The first thing I thought about was how difficult it could be for him. The world can be harsh. Once I got over it, I had to think about how to tell my husband. My husband is also very open-minded, but for a lot of men it’s a reflection on their own masculinity. It was a big, intense process. It took six months to a year for the dynamics in our family to adjust, but I wouldn’t want him any other way, honestly.
He’s moving to Los Angeles this summer. What advice have you given him about drugs and avoiding the pitfalls of the city and people who might take advantage of him?
I can’t give him advice. He won’t listen to anything I say. I just get yelled at. I was his age once, and I know how it is. I just tell him to be careful and practice safe sex and try to be smart. I think that everyone has to learn the hard way.
There have been films made recently about other ’70s punks such as Darby Crash and Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. If Lips Unsealed gets the movie treatment, who would you like to see play you?
The first person who comes to mind is Scarlett Johansson. She has an edge and a voluptuous look. That’s who I see. I don’t know when the film would start, so she might be a bit old for it now, but she’s the one I would pick.
There’s an all-male band in L.A. called the Gay-Gay’s, who perform cover versions of your songs. Have you heard about them?
Oh, yeah, I know who they are. I haven’t seen them, but I’ve heard of them. I think it’s hysterical. I love it.
With your final tour with the Go-Go’s coming up and having already published your memoir, what’s next?
I’m going to India for five days. I love to disappear to India. I’m working on my website, Carlisle-Mason.com, so it’s a good way for me to justify the time I spend there. I want to sell beautiful bags, coats, fragrances, home wares, and jewelry from India. Whatever it is I do, I have to be inspired. I don’t know what direction my life is going to take, but if I ever do something musically again, it’ll be inspired.