Singer/songwriter Debbie Gibson, who grew up in Merrick, has a special message and song for her fellow Long Islanders.  Credit: Debbie Gibson

When Long Islanders hear the name Debbie Gibson, an image of a smiling fresh-faced girl-next-door full of spirit and song gets conjured up. On August 31, the pop star from Merrick, who hit it big in 1987 with her multiplatinum debut, “Out of the Blue,” is turning 50. That girl, now a woman, is still making music with the same spunk today.

“If you are going to write a song called ‘Electric Youth,’ you better walk your walk. I’ve always been a fan of agelessness,” she says. “I’m embarking on a new chapter that feels more profound in a lot of ways than the first.”

NEW LEASE ON LIFE

 Debbie Gibson performs at the "I Want My 80's" Concert...

 Debbie Gibson performs at the "I Want My 80's" Concert at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on November 6, 2015 in New York City. ( Credit: Getty Images/Dimitrios Kambouris

These days Gibson lives in Las Vegas with her trio of Dachshunds, Joey, Levi and Trouper. She’s embracing this time, which she says has been creatively fulfilling. 

“I haven’t been in the zone musically like I am in years. There’s a flow happening and it’s very exciting,” says Gibson, who is simultaneously working on two albums. “I love a good ‘I told you so moment’ because I’ve been counted out and told ‘no’ so many times. I’d love to be 50 putting out an album that people of my generation can relate to that also feels modern.”

This year, Gibson returned to the Billboard charts with her dance hit, “Girls Night Out,” her first top 10 single since 1989.

“When Tina Turner came out with ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It,’ nobody thought about her age. She looked and sounded fabulous, she was relatable and her song was super current in the moment,” says Gibson. “I feel it happening for myself in that way right now.”

STAYING GROUNDED

Singer Debbie Gibson, 16, practices in the studio in the...

Singer Debbie Gibson, 16, practices in the studio in the basement of her home in Merrick on June 11, 1987. Credit: Newsday / Stephen Castagneto

Back in 1987, when her first album was selling millions and her songs were all over the radio, Gibson remained  at Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick through her senior year.

“I was determined to be ‘normal’ and thought staying in regular school would keep me grounded,” she says. “It did keep me tethered to reality, which was good for my music.”

By the summer of 1988, Gibson was headlining Jones Beach Theater.

“It was such a thrill because I grew up seeing concerts there. Half of my school was in the crowd — my teachers, my family and friends,” she says. “Literally three years before that I was super excited because this lifeguard from the Newbridge Park Pool I was dating got me tickets to see Paul Young there. I even saw the Stray Cats with my sisters at Jones Beach.”

At age 17, Gibson got into the Guinness Book of World Records for being the youngest person to produce, write and perform a No. 1 song on the Billboard charts with her ballad, “Foolish Beat.” Thirty-two years later, she remains the youngest female to ever produce, write and perform a No. 1 single.

“I really credit my mom [also her manager at the time] a lot with that,” says Gibson. “We were up in the Atlantic Records offices and it was all men in the conference room in their suits. She really pounded her fist on the table that day saying, ‘I want Deborah to produce ‘Foolish Beat.’ I trust her with it and I want you guys to trust her.’ They were kind of laughing. The ultimate victory is the song went No. 1 and put me in the Guinness Book of World Records.”

MOVING FORWARD

Singer Debbie Gibson is seen in this early December 1991...

Singer Debbie Gibson is seen in this early December 1991 photo in New York City. The singer is about to make her Broadway debut on January 7, 1992, as Eponine in the musical "Les Miserables."  Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Although her career started with hit singles and platinum albums, Gibson didn’t always bask in the spotlight. Later albums like 1995’s “Think With Your Heart” and 1997’s “Deborah” were critically acclaimed but didn’t connect with the public.

“Piano-playing women writing melodic ballads weren’t being embraced in that moment really. I missed some pop culture window,” she says. “I never set out to be Madonna who figured out how to be in the current musical landscape. I do what I do and when the stars align, they align. I’m not a strategist. I was OK with it.”

Gibson learned to pivot and expand her career palette by taking on Broadway roles in “Les Misérables” and “Beauty and the Beast.” However, her favorite was playing Sally Bowles opposite Neil Patrick Harris in the Rob Marshall-directed revival of “Cabaret” in 2003.

“I really discovered that I’m more grit than gloss. When I did ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ I loved it but I had to sing in this pristine part of my voice that wasn’t really me and I had to keep everything contained,” says Gibson. “ ‘Cabaret’ is a very rock & roll show. All the raw edges are embraced and doing something where I did not have to be contained in the context of Broadway was incredible.”

GRAPPLING WITH LYME DISEASE

Back in 2013, Gibson was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which she feels was brought about by stress stemming from both her personal and professional life coming together and wearing her down. 

“It was a wake-up call. I’ve always been a super Type-A perfectionist and it’s not a healthy mindset,” she says. “I’m somebody who pushes through pain and exhaustion. I had to learn how to pull back.”

Because of this condition, Gibson is particular about what projects she takes on and how many.

“I’ve become the master of balancing my energy,” she says. “It took me getting pushed into a corner into a life-or-death situation to restructure and rethink the way I was living my life.”

BACK TO LONG ISLAND

Debbie Gibson performs on ABC's Good Morning America in New...

Debbie Gibson performs on ABC's Good Morning America in New York, Friday, July 29, 2011.  Credit: AP/Charles Sykes

Gibson returned to Nassau Coliseum in June 2019 to perform on “The Mixtape Tour” with New Kids on the Block, Tiffany, Naughty By Nature and Salt-N-Pepa. It was almost 30 years after she headlined the arena as a 19 year-old.

“Three decades later and it was really like not a day had passed in so many ways. These music fans come out and they are so vibrant,” says Gibson. “The meet-and-greet was filled with the same people that were there 30 years ago. I always feel embraced by my hometown. I feel like ‘hometown girl made good’ and my town celebrates me.”

The tour brought about a reconnection with her old pal and pop music colleague Tiffany. Back in the day, the teen magazines used to paint them as rivals but Gibson claims that was far from the truth. 

“We always had nothing but love and support for each other,” she says. “We are two girls with this long history of shared experiences — separate but shared. It’s very sisterly. We have a connection but we respect each other’s differences.”

When asked what she plans on doing to celebrate her half-century birthday, Gibson says she feels the pressure is off because of the pandemic.

“I’ll probably do something super safe and low key,” she says. “Maybe I’ll just stay 49 for another year.”

LONGTIME JOEL FAN

As a young singer/songwriter from Long Island, Debbie Gibson was enamored with Billy Joel’s music despite its mature themes.

“I remember feeling the rebellion in songs like ‘Big Shot’ and ‘My Life.’ It made me want to dance and play the piano,” she says. “I wanted to take my classical pieces and figure out a way to rock them up Billy Joel-style.”

Gibson’s mother/former manager Diane even sent her daughter to Joel’s former teacher Morton Estrin in Hicksville for piano lessons.

“I figured whoever taught Billy Joel has got to be the best,” says Gibson. “He was a Juilliard professor who was very hard on me and wanted me to be a concert pianist.”

When Gibson finally got to meet Joel backstage at the Grammy Awards in 1988, she immediately connected with him.

“Billy does not put on airs. He’s just a sarcastic Long Island guy who happens to have this extraordinary talent,” she says. “Everything about him resonated with me.”

Gibson’s dream came true when she got to perform with Joel live on stage twice — once at Madison Square Garden in 1988 on the Beatles classic, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” together with Elton John and then again in 1989 at Nassau Coliseum playing Joel’s hit, “Keeping the Faith.”

“One of Billy’s crew guys came and grabbed me before the encore. He said, ‘Billy wants to know if you’ll do ‘Keeping the Faith.’ Take the grand [piano] downstage and he will take the keyboard upstage,” Gibson recalls. “I was a nervous wreck on the inside but brave on the outside. But, I just had to do it.” — DAVID J. CRIBLEZ

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