On the one-year anniversary of the death of her mother and former longtime manager, Diane, pop legend Debbie Gibson was at the airport, on her way home from doing a run of concerts, feeling “really wonky” and relieved to have an open calendar for the first time in months. She thought to herself, “I am done singing for the year! … I can really let my hair now! I’m going to eat pizza in the airport on the way home,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment.
But that’s when Gibson received a phone call saying another celebrity had just dropped out of a Masked Singer taping due to a COVID scare. Could she make it to Los Angeles by the very next day and belt out an ABBA song dressed in an owl costume? Gibson said yes — because she saw the invitation as a message from her mother, the “OG momager.”
“I was having pizza, crying with my sisters on the phone on the one-year anniversary — you wouldn’t be eating pizza the day before you’re singing on national TV,” Gibson chuckles. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I literally have been crying, eating pizza, and I’m on a plane to Vegas. Howam I going to…’ But then I was like, ‘You know what? Why not?’ I just feel more and more, life is about moments. And the universe, or my mom for sure, [was telling me to do it]. … I mean, on the anniversary, it was kind of bizarre to get this call.”
Diane Gibson, the “badass” woman who guided a young Debbie to stardom 35 years ago and died in January 2022, is apparently still watching over her daughter, now age 52. Debbie, who still holds the Guinness record as the youngest female artist to write, produce, and perform a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — which she did at age 17 with “Foolish Beat,” long before Taylor Swift, Lorde, Billie Eilish, or Olivia Rodrigo came along – credits “Mama Diane” to helping her blaze that trail.
“Without my mother, I would not have been 14 years old, pounding the pavement on my own, convincing a bunch of male record executives to let me produce a record,” Debbie says, recalling the mid-‘80s label meetings she attended with her mother before she eventually signed a development deal with Atlantic Records. “Typically the producers were older male… by ‘older,’ I mean like 30 or 40 years old, but for teenage girls [that was old]. Those meetings… I never want to sound ungrateful to those executives, because ultimately those executives gave me my break, and I’m still very grateful for what they did. And they did eventually acquiesce to Diane Gibson. She literally was pounding her fists on the table saying, ‘My daughter knows what she wants this record to sound like! There’s no mystery to it! Listen to the demo — she’s going to get with the right musicians and glorify this demo, and it’s going to be the finished product.’”
Diane was a “self-taught, self-made” manager who “did not go to college” and “just learned as she went,” but she instinctively knew what was right for her daughter’s career. “When Atlantic signed me, back then… there were stacks of those stacks of dance artists and they just thought, ‘We’ll just throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.’ Well, Diane Gibson, Mama Diane, she’s all with the rolling pin in the kitchen, like, ‘What do we have to do to like get it on the radio?’ And they were like, ‘Well, it has to go top five [on the] Dance [chart].’ They were setting up these nearly impossible hurdles — but they didn’t know me and my mom! She was like, ‘Let’s get a club booking agent, then. Let’s get you out in the clubs.’”
The Gibsons then became “like the Von Trapp family,” with Diane overseeing everything and Debbie’s older sister Karen doing sound and lights, and Debbie says, “I’m very glad that I had to really earn my stripes in those clubs, because those audiences were my training ground for everything I’ve done since.” She admits that it was “a much more innocent time” when she started out and she’s glad that she didn’t “come up as a teen artist in the time of social media,” even though she wasn’t always comfortable being a “little girl in this grown-up world.” (The self-declared “late bloomer socially” even recalls having a “full-blown panic attack” at an after party for Atlantic’s 40th anniversary concert.) But Mama Diane was, of course, always looking out for her.
“The brilliant thing about my mom is I don’t have a #MeToo story — which is unbelievable, starting how I started,” says Debbie. “The applause again goes to my mom, because she was that mama bear who’d literally throw her body in front of anybody who was even thinking of doing anything. And she was not-so-beloved for that reason — but she didn’t care. Because she was like, ‘I am out here for you, not my reputation.”
Decades later, Debbie is keeping it in the family, as she is managed by Heather Moore, “who worked for my mom for eight years back in the ‘90s into the early 2000s. I was praying she would say yes and come and take over my career, because she was the one and only [person for the job]; there was nobody else for me.” In 2021, Debbie released the acclaimed dance-pop album The Body Remembers, and she just announced a tour for the record, which she considers to be sort of a sequel or a companion piece to her massive 1989 album Electric Youth. “I think the expression of Electric Youth was still in that phase where nobody was putting their hands in it. It was so pure. And that’s what The Body Remembers was for me,” Debbie explains. “It was [created] in my house during the pandemic, really writing and cutting those vocals and working virtually with people, and it was just very pure. It feels connected to a time and a place.”
Although Gibson has worked steadily since the ‘80s, The Body Remembers is her first studio album of original material in 20 years, and she had to slow down in the past decade after she was diagnosed with Lyme disease. “I’m just very candid about [my health], because life is imperfect,” she says. “I just have to deal with whatever the universe gives me at any given time. … I do feel like on this album, more than any other album I’ve done, the lyrics are more visceral. I just feel like the body remembers trauma. … The body remembers for me literally not knowing how I was going to get out of bed, literally not knowing how I was going to get on a stage. I referenced laying on the cold bathroom floor [in “Freedom”] because the floor was cold and it was like, ‘Oh, I can feel the cold of this floor, so I know I’m alive. I know that there is hope.’ I’m connected to all those experiences, and they all feed what I do now in the most beautiful, empowering way.
“The transitions we go through in our lives are not always pretty, and while we’re going through it, we’re like, ‘Why?’ And then when you kind of get spit out the other end of the vortex, you were sucked into for 10 years, like, ‘What happened to me and just so many areas of my life?’ And so much of that purpose for me was this new music,” Gibson continues. “And as an artist, it’s such a beautiful thing to know that any time you’re going through something painful, you might get a good song out of it. A song might be born. That’s just so life-affirming.”
Gibson can still be hard on herself: While the seize-the-day attitude she developed after overcoming her health issues is what made her take a chance and sign up for The Masked Singer at the last minute, she admits of her Night Owl performance, “I could pick my vocal apart like nobody’s business,” claiming that she “sounded really crappy in the verse.” But, she says, “I do my own mental work. I have a moment where I’m like, ‘Oh, I didn’t like the way that sounded,’ and then I go, ‘Deb, you were off a 15-hour travel day. You weren’t going to do a Grammy Award-winning performance. You were going to fill in, save the day, have a giggle. And I did all of that. … Like, my throat was dry from the pizza and the crying, but it’s the tone of my voice that is God-given, and it popped out.”
Gibson says she’s “had to develop an extreme amount of trust” in her singing abilities and become less of a perfectionist as she manages her health while still regularly working. “I think performers and athletes, we pride ourselves like our bodies are instruments; we have so much attachment to our bodies. Sorry, I’m going to get very emotional, but it’s OK. I have just had to accept what my body can and can’t do,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s delivered for me. But there have been times where I’ve literally been debilitated, when your voice isn’t just a voice — it’s how your whole body’s feeling. It’s what your adrenals are doing, and what your nervous system is doing, and what your immune is doing, all of it. … There has to be an acceptance of that, like, ‘These are the cards I have today.’ I have to really do a lot of mental work to remind myself, ‘Well, that wasn’t my best, but that was my best today.’ … I meditate and I vocalize and I eat well, and so if something goes wrong because I’m in a health crash, I have no control over it.
“I had to relinquish that control at a certain point, and that ended up being one of the most empowering things,” Debbie continues. “It is empowering to be like, ‘This is not comfortable, but I’ve had this night before. I’ve been through this before. I know I’m going to come out of it.’ I’m constantly in cycles where I’m having to figure stuff out. But I’ve learned that I came to be a very good intuitive listener. I listen for the voices that guide me to the right practitioner or the right supplement or the voice that says. ‘You gotta take a week off, you gotta take a month off,’ or whatever the thing is. I listen for it.”
And Debbie still has Mama Diane’s voice to guide her — as, in yet another full-circle career development, she looks ahead not only to this year’s “The Body Remembers Encore” tour, but to next year’s Electric Youth anniversary, which will hopefully see the reissue of her long-discontinued Electric Youth fragrance (“We keep trying to get Revlon to do it!”) and, hopefully, a series of international concerts at which she’ll play landmark Electric Youth album in its entirety. “I think essentially recreating that show would be epic,” she says excitedly.
Those anniversary celebrations may help shine more light on Debbie’s legacy, but as for whether she and her mother truly get credit for paving the way for the Swifts and Eilishes of the world, that’s another thing that Debbie has learned to let go of. “My songwriter and producer heart is like, ‘I don’t really care if everybody in the street knows,’” she shrugs. “People who I respect know. They edited it out [of The Masked Singer], but [judge] Robin Thicke was saying, ‘Oh my God, when I was that kid trying to make music in my garage, you were out there!’ Robin Thicke’s an artist I think the world of, so to know that he was looking to me for songwriting and producing inspiration as a kid – like, ‘If she could do it, I could do it!’ —that makes me so happy.”
Portions of this interview are taken from Debbie Gibson’s career-spanning appearance, moderated by Yahoo Entertainment music editor Lyndsey Parker, at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
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