Debbie Gibson was a teenage pop superstar in the 1980s, but her dizzying success was always grounded in the foundation set in New York’s Brooklyn and Long Island boroughs of her childhood.
The singer, whose 1988 single “Foolish Beat” earned her at the age of 17 an entry in Guinness World Records as the youngest person to ever write, produce and perform a No. 1 hit, says she grew up in an environment that fostered generosity—even when her family couldn’t really afford it.
Mom Diane and dad Joseph nurtured her musical ambitions with lessons and a garage full of professional-quality recording equipment. But they also “encouraged me to use my talents for charity,” Gibson says, sipping a cup of afternoon tea in a San Fernando Valley coffee bar near her Los Angeles home.
“Although they were juggling finances, they never let on,” she says. “I was always aware of those less fortunate. Whether it was donating old clothes to Goodwill or volunteering, charity was a part of my upbringing.”
It was charity that drove Gibson, now 41, to join the latest cast of the NBC reality series Celebrity Apprentice, which pits teams of stars against each other in often grueling, sometimes emotionally charged challenges to raise funds for their respective causes.
“There’s no way I would have run all around New York if I hadn’t been doing it for Children International!” she says with a smile.
One fateful day when she was 19, Gibson was driving by a local Catholic home for boys. Remembering that her own father had been a foster child, she turned her car around, parked, went inside and asked what she could do as a volunteer.
“I began taking some of the kids out on weekends bowling, or to Burger King, and family holidays,” she says. “I’d also take some musically inclined kids into the studio with me.”
About the same time, Gibson saw an ad for Children International in Seventeen magazine, a publication that featured her regularly in those days. She showed it to her manager and asked that a check be sent to sponsor a couple of needy children in the Philippines—then three, then four.
A year later, when she toured in Southeast Asia, she got to meet “her” sponsored kids, an experience that made a life-changing impression. “It was amazing. They came to my hotel and had a room-service hamburger with me,” she says. “You would have thought it was the feast of all feasts.”
Fighting for her cause
In 2011, after more than 20 years of check-writing, Gibson became the official spokeswoman for Children International, a 76-year-old organization based in Kansas City, Mo., that assists children and their families struggling in poverty around the world.
“She’s supported us since 1989, and she repeatedly demonstrates her capacity for giving back,” says Jim Cook, president and CEO of Children International. “We’re fortunate to have her.”
“It’s very easy for us to be sitting in our air-conditioned homes and forgetting that places exist where children are putting on the same dirty clothes every day,” Gibson says.
Donald Trump Jr., who assists his famous father each week on Celebrity Apprentice in deciding which team wins each competition, discovered that Gibson was a real fighter for her cause, for which her efforts raised $50,000.
“Debbie’s passion for charity was only outdone by her passion for music,” Trump Jr. says.
Gibson also helps children through her Gibson Girl Foundation, a nonprofit organization that “helps kids make the music that’s in their hearts” by providing music education opportunities to underprivileged children. “It really is amazing how the arts give kids confidence,” she says.
Beyond the music
As for confidence, she’s gained quite a bit of it herself through a lifetime of experience since her debut album, Out of the Blue, went triple platinum, selling 3 million copies before she graduated from high school. The success of her infectious radio singles and accompanying music videos for “Only In My Dreams,” “Shake Your Love,” “Lost In Your Eyes” and “Electric Youth” sparked a teen fashion explosion of side ponytails, crimped hair and tight rolled-up jeans. Revlon and Natural Wonder launched perfume and cosmetics lines under Gibson’s name.
As the wave of teen pop stardom began to recede, she headed to the stage, appearing on Broadway in Les Misèrables and Grease, later starring in American and British productions of Funny Girl, Cinderella, Chicago, Cabaret and The King and I. She also dabbled in movies. Last year, she thrilled audiences in a nationwide reunion tour with fellow ’80s teen pop princess Tiffany.
While Gibson has never married, she is in a four-year relationship with Dr. Rutledge Taylor, a preventive medicine doctor, who says Gibson “means what she says and says what she means. Someone like that cultivates integrity and truthfulness in others.”
Gibson says she’s moved back full-circle to music, writing songs like she used to do in her bedroom, tunes that take her back to her parents’ Long Island garage. “I’ve been writing the deepest songs that I’ve written in many years,” she says. She expects to release a new single this spring and a new album by the end of the year.
“I recently got a call to audition for a sitcom, and there was a time that I would have loved to,” she says. “But I thought, ‘Why would I get out of bed every morning to do that?’ It just didn’t do it for me. If I don’t feel something 150 percent, I don’t do it.”
Just like helping others—she does it because she feels it, 150 percent.
“I know I’m very blessed, and very lucky,” she says. “I will always have something extra to give. People need to know that all people are equal, and never without all they need—namely love.”