Debbie Gibson: Electric Advocate

The pop and Broadway singer talks about hitting superstardom in the time of AIDS, being a mentor to LGBT youth, and channeling Liberace.

BY Jase Peeples

May 01 2013 12:35 AM ET

Photo: Troy Smith

Debbie Gibson may be best known for her part in shaping the musical landscape of the 1980s, thanks to unforgettable pop songs such as “Only in My Dreams” and “Lost in Your Eyes,” but the sweet siren has been having an equally impressive impact on lovers of musical theater since she made her Broadway debut in 1992 playing Eponine in Les Misérables.

Throughout her career, Gibson has been a staunch supporter of the LGBT community, performing at numerous Pride and charity events around the globe, with the battle to end HIV a cause that has been particularly close to her heart. At the age of 14, Gibson lost a friend to the disease. Hitting superstardom only two years later — at the height of the AIDS crisis — meant the pop performer would witness many more friends and loved ones affected by the illness in the years that followed. The experience has motivated her to add her voice to HIV charity events for more than 20 years — a cause she insists will never shake her love.

At San Francisco’s One Night Only cabaret performance — a concert benefiting both the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foudation and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS — we interviewed the pop and Broadway princess, and she spoke about how the disease has affected her life, being a mentor to LGBT youth, and channeling Liberace.

The Advocate: The Supreme Court recently heard arguments regarding the constitutionality of Prop. 8, California’s voter approved same-sex marriage ban, and the Defense of Marriage Act. As a longtime supporter of the LGBT community, how do you feel about the current state of equality in the United States?
Debbie Gibson: It’s my personal belief that the government shouldn’t be involved in anyone’s relationships. However, if they’re going to be, it should be everybody’s choice. So the fact that they’re even hearing arguments is ridiculous. What could the argument possibly be, still? People have got to evolve and realize when people are able to share in the same traditions as everybody else, should they want to, it’s a wonderful thing. In fact, my man and I were at my friend Steve’s wedding to his partner this past year, and my man — who grew up in the South, where being gay was taboo for way longer than it was where I grew up in New York — was in tears at the ceremony because it was so moving. Every time you get to see that kind of moment, where there is a victory, it’s beautiful.

Many of your songs can easily be adapted to the LGBT experience. “Out of the Blue” for obvious reasons, “Think With Your Heart” can be interpreted has as a song about coming out, and “Electric Youth” as an anthem for the young LGBT community. Is that something you’ve ever thought about?
Actually, I have. I started these summer boot camp recording programs for young people and remember the first time one of the kids came up to me and told me he was gay. For some reason, kids in those programs feel very comfortable discussing their sexuality with me, and perhaps that has something to do with my music. I’ve been able to be there for them as an older sister and mentor, and I think that’s so amazing. I love being that person for them.

You hit superstardom at the height of the AIDS crisis. Were you witnessing the effects of the disease on people you worked with at that time?
Not as much in my pop touring world, but definitely during my time in the theater world. It seemed like we were always losing somebody. Many times I would finish a show and find out that a former cast member passed. It was really hard. I remember I was in a production of Les Misérables with an actor who was HIV-positive. He was strong as an ox, had an amazing spirit, and played his part beautifully — he was just extraordinary. And the next thing I knew, he passed from HIV/AIDS.

Have you ever considered writing a song about the people who’ve inspired you throughout your life who have battled HIV and AIDS?
I’ll have to percolate on that now that you said that. The songs I’m writing now are very spiritual and they’re about many things, and I’m a fan of not saying dying, I say passing. I don’t even say I write songs, I say I channel songs. I don’t usually refer to people in the past tense. I believe they’re still around, so maybe I’ll go that route with a song someday. We’ll see.

Have you been channeling a lot of new music lately?
Oh, yeah! Writing for me lately has really taken the forefront. I actually own one of Liberace’s old glass-and-mirrored pianos, and I swear he channels through, because I’ll find myself playing chords I don’t know and this incredible sound comes out. I would say I’ve been in, like full channeling mode because a lot of the music lately has been coming in the middle of the night. It’s this inexplicable amazing creative thing that happens.

Does that mean a new album is on the way?
I will be doing another album at some point, but I want it to come when it’s really ready and really amazing rather than throw it out there before it’s time. Tina Turner is my idol, and she was 44 when “What’s Love Got to Do With It” came out,  and she was never more relevant than at that moment. Everyone had counted her out and she came back with a great pop album. I’m 42, now and I feel like I’m sitting on that moment with my music, but I need to be in a certain headspace when I get into the studio and I don’t want to rush it. So whenever that moment happens is when it’ll happen.

For more on Debbie Gibson visit her official website.

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