11 Powerful Takes on Aging, Creativity, and Embracing Second Acts from Pop Idol Debbie Gibson
For so many of us whose memories include the year 1987, Debbie Gibson earned a dazzling place in our hearts. It was then, at 16, that Gibson found fame, bursting onto the Billboard Pop Charts with her hit single ‘Only in My Dreams’, a song so bouncy and fun it felt like the musical equivalent of a lap around the roller-skating rink. Soon after, the singer-songwriter-dancer dropped more hits including ‘Foolish Beat’, which landed her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest artist to have written, produced, and performed a hit single—a record she holds to this day.
While Gibson’s albums of the 80s and 90s are likely to remain what a vast portion of the public mainly links to her, Gibson’s expanded creative career over the last three decades is arguably her most acclaim worthy. She’s starred in nearly 20 musicals including Les Miserable on Broadway and Grease in London’s West End. She’s produced and acted in television and film. She’s founded a music camp for kids, launched and hosted a radio show, and even served as a celebrity judge, all while consistently writing music. Creativity pours out of her. “I’ve always just lived my life in a very organic flow,” she tells me over the phone.
Which is the vibe Gibson, who is 50, gives off: real. In her new soon-to-be-released pop album, The Body Remembers, her first in 20 years, she gets raw, taking listeners on a journey that is both nostalgic and modern. Through each song, she expands on “everything, for me at 50, that I’ve gone through,” she says. (You can watch the video for her just-dropped single below.)
With two Broadway musicals and a film project in the works, as well as a live Vegas show with Joey McIntyre slated for August, Gibson is a kaleidoscope of creating and doing. Yet still, when we talk about all of it—her creativity, aging, life pivots, expectations—she speaks with a generosity that feels as if she has hours to spare. “I’m very grateful,” she says about her second act, “it’s this day-to-day feeling of giddiness. Like, what’s next? I’m open to receiving.”
11 Lessons on Life and Second Acts from Debbie Gibson
#1 Trust life’s timing.
“This is just a moment where it feels like the music was just ready to leave the nest,” Gibson says of her new album. “I’ve had different musical incarnations in the past 20 years, but it never felt like the group of songs that I wanted to represent my next chapter like it does now.”
Considering the pandemic and all that she went through personally in the last decade, which included battling Lyme disease and going through “a very intense long-term relationship,” this album’s group of songs “has a warrior spirit and energy,” she says. “It’s not a soft album. It was originally going to be a six-song dance EP during lockdown to lift everyone’s spirits, and then it started evolving. At this point it’s 15 songs that really round out the picture of where I am now and all of the subjects I wanted to speak on.”
#2: Tap into what’s real.
Whether it’s from her songs, social media posts, or Broadway shows, the main thing Gibson wants people to take from her work is a feeling that they’re not alone. “I’m a very down-home, real-life girl,” she says. “I go to all the corners of my emotions. I will be curled up on my floor sobbing one minute and then doing the inner monologue and the self-talk that gets me up off the floor and saying, ‘okay, how can I make a shift and how can I go toward the positive?’ the next. That’s just the way I’ve always lived my life. I’ve always had challenges. I’ve always really fought for what I’ve wanted. Nothing’s been handed to me. And I find that that’s most people.”
#3: Always seek the opportunity to learn.
Rather than simply venting about her problems, Gibson says she likes to be constructive—as best she can. “It’s about saying, ‘well, what am I going to do about them? Or how am I going to change? In a song like ‘Runway’, where I say, ‘my life’s a runway and I’m the star, your life’s a runway and you’re the star.’ This is a very simple but important message, which is: Live your life with joy and see everything as an opportunity to learn and to grow.”
#4: Look back with admiration and forward with excitement.
In her new album, Gibson pairs up with fellow pop idol, Joey McIntyre, for a remix of her hit ‘Lost in Your Eyes.’ She says she loves how McIntyre approaches his work with a fondness for what was and a willingness to embrace what’s ahead. “He tours with The New Kids and he pays homage to his past, but he’s always looking to do something new,” she says. “I love that, that energy in him.”
#5: Collaborate with people of all ages.
“Working with young talent has always been a passion of mine,” says Gibson, who often praises her song co-producer, Sean Thomas, who is 30-years her junior. “A gift I inherited from my mom is being able to recognize talent in young people. When I met Sean, and I heard him singing […] I knew he had perfect pitch and he was a musical prodigy. The reason I love talking about him is that my creativity has always come from this youthful, joyful perspective—and it still does.”
#6: Take joy seriously.
“If I ever encounter kind of more rigid bitter people, no matter how talented they are, I get really turned off,” says Gibson. “I don’t care if you’re 19 or 90: Come to the party with joy and all your creative flags flying. Because to me, this is a glorified hobby that turned into a career. I’m so lucky I get to do this every day. It’s what got me through being really sick: I had something that I was passionate about to wake up for every day. I think that was really was a motivating factor.”
#7: Keep going and dreaming.
“There are all kinds of things that I can look down the road at in my life and think, I can see that,” says Gibson, who one day would love to score films. “I don’t necessarily need to be the person out front and running around all the time. This chapter is meant for that. I’m ready. But I don’t think that’s going to be every chapter.”
#8: See age as a discovery tool.
“I feel way better than I felt a decade ago, which always is a reaffirmation to me that age really is just a number,” says Gibson. After going through “some really tough stuff” from when she was 33 to about 47, Gibson says she’s embraced listening to her body and what it tells her. “I’m constantly trying to figure out what was imprinted in my body—hence the title of my album, The Body Remembers. What is buried in my body from some experience or trauma? That’s been a gift of age. I’ve been slowly uncovering things and breaking cycles.”
#9: Do you.
Gibson goes through “all the things” commonly associated with aging, especially so for women, she says. “We look in the mirror, we see the filters on Instagram and wish those filters could just kind of somehow follow us around all day. I wish my little cameo light that lives by my piano could just follow me around. I love projecting that part of myself that’s filtered and blown out and then I also want people to realize that that’s a choice and a style, but I do not look like that in the light of day.”
She continues: “I am all about choices. I think everyone’s on their own path. Everyone needs to do what makes them feel good at any age. I do not judge others. I do not judge myself. We have so much unsolicited feedback in the world these days, and everyone’s just got to do what they feel—every step of the way.”
#10: Don’t let anyone put you out to pasture.
“I was told even in my thirties: ‘You’re never going to have a hit record again.’ I was like, you’re put out to pasture in your thirties, really? What about all the people alive and well in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, and beyond? They would like someone to resonate with. And younger people are constantly discovering my music as well, just because everything old is new again.”
#11: Believe in second acts.
Gibson sees this period in her life as a renaissance. “I feel like I’ve had 14 chapters over the last 30 years, but this is also really a true second act for me. I do believe that if you stay in your authentic self, eventually the stars align and there’s a moment where the universe says, ‘okay, it’s your time. People need to hear your message right now.’
Whatever I represent right now, maybe it is needed in the world. Maybe people need that affirmation or that message of agelessness or that message of inspiration. I’m just grateful. And I’m really enjoying it.”
Watch Debbie Gibson’s new video for ‘One Step Closer’ here: