Debbie Gibson talks shop to YSU students

YOUNGSTOWN – There’s no shortcut to long-term success, according to former teen pop star and Broadway veteran Debbie Gibson.

In a talk Monday to about 20 creative arts and communication students at Youngstown State University, Gibson preached the value of training, preparation, hard work and healthy living as the keys to success in entertainment.

But she also stressed that each performer must decide what defines success for him or her.

”Never judge from outside someone’s up and downs,” Gibson said.

Gibson, 43, became the youngest woman to write, produce and sing a number one single with ”Foolish Beat,” which topped the Billboard chart in 1988 before her 18th birthday. Her other hits include ”Shake Your Love,” “Electric Youth” and “Only in My Dreams.”

But at the time she was topping the charts, Gibson said she was suffering from panic attacks and fatigue.

Years later, when she was touring the country as part of the cast of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and the “pop music snobs” were sneering how her career had fallen, Gibson said, “I was so happy. I got to be one of the gang. … The show wasn’t on my back.”

Gibson will be back later this month when she performs with Cirque Musica at the Covelli Centre on Sept. 25 and 26. Gibson wrote two songs for the touring production, a blend of circus and theater accompanied by a full orchestra, but Youngstown is the only city on the tour where she will be performing those songs and a medley of her pop hits live.

Gibson’s career shifted from the pop charts to musical theater in the ’90s. When she first appeared on Broadway, playing Eponine in ”Les Miserables,” Gibson said she hibernated, focusing all of her strength and attention on those hours spent on stage. She still wants to be rested and prepared, but she now believes going out and living life can inform and improve the work on stage.

”I didn’t want to be one of those lonely old theater women with birds and no husband,” she said.

Gibson was interested in music at a young age. She started taking piano lessons as a child but realized a classical music career wasn’t in her future when she would write lyrics for and rock up the arrangements of the classical pieces she was given.

When she signed to Atlantic Records as a teenager, the label didn’t pay much attention to her initially ”I was just another chick on their dance label,” Gibson said – so with her mother as her manager, they went from city to city promoting her record, often playing three shows a night – one at a teen club, one at a straight club and one a gay club, getting to bed at 6 a.m. The experience was grueling and invaluable.

”Because I didn’t skip steps, I can get on stage anywhere and win over an audience,” Gibson said.

Today’s pop stars, many of whom achieved instant fame through a viral video or a reality competition, don’t have the same background.

”Things happen so fast, they don’t have that training ground to make their mistakes,” she said.

And in this age of camera phones, YouTube and Twitter, when a performer makes a mistake, chances are it will be preserved for the world to see.

Her training, her technique and her work ethic have helped her adapt to the ebbs and flows in her career, and she accentuated her talk by singing snippets of “Only in My Dreams” and “Birdsong” (one of the tracks she wrote for Cirque Musica) and playing Billy Joel’s “Root Beer Rag” on the piano.

“I was once you,” she told the students. “I’m still you, always hungry for the next thing.”