The 1980s pop star picked up records by Kylie Minogue, Bonzie and Phil Spector. Her latest album wasn’t available yet.
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Debbie Gibson, the 1980s pop sensation and multi-hyphentate, stood outside Rockefeller Center last month, singing an acappella carol when a man in his 20s, born at least a decade after her peak stardom, stopped her. Had he recognized her? No, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“That very cute gay boy just said, ‘You look amazing,’” she said. “I’ll take it!”
Ms. Gibson, 51, had flown in from Las Vegas to appear on Fox’s “New Year’s Eve Toast & Roast 2022.” Fox had canceled the special, citing the surge in Omicron cases. But she planned to make the most of her time in the city (“I don’t imprint disappointment,” she said) visiting family and shopping.
She hoped to pick up a few treats for herself, which had brought her to the doors of Rough Trade NYC, the vinyl record store, which recently relocated from a cavernous space in Brooklyn to a tidy, light-filled storefront in Rockefeller Center filled with racks of new and used LPs.
On the sidewalk, she peeled off a furry green coat to reveal low-rise jeans, a black blouse with puffed leather sleeves and boots that a high-fashion elf would choose. She had topped it with a newsboy cap, a wink to the fedoras of her youth.
Ms. Gibson, who still holds the world record as the youngest person to write, produce and perform a Billboard No. 1 single (“Foolish Beat,” 1988), has loved vinyl since her Long Island childhood. As a tween she used to win radio contests that asked her to name 30 favorite albums in 10 seconds. As a prize, the station would send her to a nearby Tower Records and gift her every one.
“And then a year later my music was in Tower,” she said. She has since adapted to Apple Music, but she still prefers records when she can get them.
At Rough Trade, her approach was brisk and efficient, her demeanor relentlessly sunshiny. As a person who lives with Lyme disease, Ms. Gibson has sometimes struggled with health and stamina. But as she shopped, she never lacked for pep. She gravitated first to the used records, eyeing one by a singer-songwriter named Bonzie, which showed an androgynous face wreathed in glitter (“That cover is gorgeous,” she said), then moving onto pop.
“I was always not ashamed to say that I love a catchy pop song,” she said. “I think there’s such a brilliance to it.”
She held up a Bangles album and the new Lana del Rey record, flipping past Billie Eilish, Aslyn and Grimes. Then she moved onto soundtracks, noticing a pack of Grunge Tarot cards on the way. “That is so cute!” she said. “Basically grunge came in and I was out.”
Out, but not exactly down. Ms. Gibson has worked constantly since her teen years, heading to Broadway and the West End after she fell off the pop charts, making movies like “Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus,” performing in a Vegas residency opposite Joey McIntyre of New Kids on the Block. She has recently returned to music, recording the album, “The Body Remembers,” released in August and a single, “Christmas Star,” released in November.
“I was always a master of pivoting,” she said.
These days she is single, child-free and only intermittently in the spotlight, and seems mostly reconciled to the arc of her career, even as she knows that the arc probably would have had a different shape if she had done what the mostly male record executives had asked of her: “fix” her nose, “fix” her lisp, dress sexier. She didn’t want to.
“I was a reverse rebel,” she said. As a teen sensation, she wanted to hang on to her electric youth as long as possible. Instead of taking a boyfriend on the tour bus, she took her teddy bear.
“I was that little girl speaking to my audience of little girls,” she said.
Those girls grew up and many deserted her, which she understands. “When kids are emancipating, they want to leave everything to do with their youth behind,” she said. She also forgives the “rockists” who sent hate mail to MTV for playing her videos. “It’s just like the nature of people. They want to build something up and tear it down,” she said.
Ms. Gibson has never really abandoned her roots, her style or her taste in music, which she refers to as “newstalgic,” meaning nostalgic, yet forward-looking. In that vein, she selected a Phil Spector Christmas album, then circled back to pop, picking up the Bonzie album on the way. In pop, she found Kylie Minogue’s “Disco” album.
“That’s the fun prize,” she said. “I always feel like Kylie is my long-lost sister.”
A seven-inch by a band called Habibi caught her eye and she asked an employee in a burnt orange jumpsuit about the single. “Really psychedelic,” the employee, Lauren Jefferson, said. “Do you want to hear it?” Ms. Gibson did.
She took the seven-inch, too, plus an iron-on patch with a picture of a van and a legend that read, “Holidays in the Sun.”
She thought about adding a hand-knit pink sweater, but passed when Ms. Jefferson told her the price ($310). “That’s an investment for a novelty sweater,” Ms. Gibson said. And she declined a set of remastered Billy Joel albums, as they seemed like a lot to carry on the plane. Besides, she already had all of the originals.
Before paying, she asked the store manager if Rough Trade carried any of her records. She hadn’t seen them in the pop section. “Are they actively still in print?” George Flanagan asked. They weren’t. But a vinyl issue of “The Body Remembers,” her tenth studio album which was released last year, was due out on Jan. 21.
“Come back,” Mr. Flanagan said. “Sign some copies.”
“That would be fun,” she said.