Debbie Gibson stars in UP TV film 'The Music in Me' Sunday, April 12

By RODNEY HO/, originally filed Saturday April 11, 2015

Last year, I spoke to Debbie Gibson for the first time when she judged a short-lived ABC reality show "Sing Your Face Off."

Why? My connection with her has nothing to do with Atlanta. We're fellow native Long Islanders and about the same age. So I grew up fondly singing along to her many hit singles (and reminding less knowledgable people that she is NOT Tiffany.)

She was a delight to talk to last year so when I saw Atlanta-based UP TV "The Music In Me" (Sunday, April 12, 7 p.m.) was coming out with a film starring Gibson, I requested an interview and managed to get a few minutes with her again Thursday by phone.

This is her first film where she is the primary star in a serious role. ("Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus" doesn't quite qualify.)

"I've never been a traditional leading lady until now," Gibson said. "It was a new and exciting venture. And I'm grateful to get the chance so far into my career."

In the movie, Gibson plays a loyal daughter who gave up her dream to be a musician to help take care of an ill parent and run her parent's old school hardware store. Now middle aged, she is asked to take over a choir at a struggling church that is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. She faces a protagonist (a resistant church deaconess played by "ER" star Gloria Reuben), a love interest (a fix-it guy played by Antonio Cupo) and a troubled teenager (Amy Forsyth).

This is UP-TV so it's no spoiler to say she convinces her protagonist that her approach to the choir is right, gets the man and turns around the teen.

In other words, Gibson readily admits this is not exactly a film packed with surprising twists and turns. "It definitely gives people what they want," she said. "It's in the TV romantic drama category. But the writing is not schlocky. I knew the script was for me. I started saying the lines out loud as I was reading it. It felt very natural."

Indeed, she seems very natural in the film. "I love the element of music," she said. "So much emotion and passion comes out of that. That's why I love musical theater. I love the way music is authentically interwoven into the story."

She enjoyed working with experienced actors such as Reuben. "I took as much advice as I could" from them, she said. And Reuben got to sing herself. "She's a great singer and great lady," Gibson said. "I think people will love her in that light."

This role was actually written with Gibson in mind. "They wanted to create something that included music in an organic way," she said. She thought the story was "accessible and relatable for a lot of people in any genre - especially for women who give up careers to get married or have children."

Gibson herself never for a moment considered giving up music. Heck, she had written and performed a hit single at the tender age of 16 ("Only In My Dreams"). "I've jokingly said I was too selfish," she said. But she said if someone in her family had gotten sick and they needed her, "I would have prioritized that. I'm fortunate that didn't happen. I've been able to go forth and pursue everything I've ever wanted."

Her character Jessica, she said, had hibernated so long, she had a hard time coming out of her shell. "In the end, the music reinvigorated her and her community," she said.

She wrote and performed a song for the film "Promises." She was given an important phrase from the script "promises made" and created the tune to fit the film thematics.

I thought I had 15 minutes but was getting signaled by Gibson's handler to cut it short at the 10-minute point. (She was doing the phone interview between in-person interviews and was about to enter Billboard magazine in New York City.) I squeezed in one question about her battle with Lyme Disease and the fact another former teen pop singer Avril Lavigne recently suffered the same tick-borne disease.

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

"When I saw that cover," Gibson said, "I thought, 'Wow. It's like a certain type of person, an overactive person workaholic who is susceptible to adrenal fatigue. It humbles people who think they're unstoppable. I always though I was a superwoman. Nobody is immune to dealing with illness. It makes you have compassion for people who deal with illness and pain on a daily basis. It's humbling, confusing and painful."

Gibson said she is feeling better two years removed from diagnosis. "My bad days aren't as bad as they were last year," she said. "There's been a lot of improvement." She sees medical specialists, gets plenty of sleep and avoids sugar, white flour, dairy and caffeine.

She reached out to Lavigne but has not heard back. She's not hurt: "She knows I'm here. When I announced I had it, a lot of people reached out to me. It took me months to get back to them. I was kind of tired of talking about it. She has a ton of support. She'll get back to me when she can."


"The Music In Me," 7 p.m., Sunday, April 12, UP-TV