Who knew a pug could be such a wonderful icebreaker? Having been a humungous fan of Belinda Carlisle and The Go-Go’s since Beauty and the Beat smothered the airwaves in 1981, interviewing the sometimes media-shy frontwoman and solo sensation made me a wee-bit nervous. When I found out she loves pugs, I mentioned I had one, and that unmistakable, L.A.-tickled voice went mad about the breed.
“Aren’t they just the best dogs?” she jumped in, wanting to know his name and rhetorically asking if I agreed that “Once you have a pug, that’s just the way it is.”
No, we weren’t scheduled to talk about dogs or animal rights, but Carlisle’s reaction was an indication of where her life is at in 2013…in the present. The singer has released a new single, “Sun,” along with a collection of her solo hits, Icon: The Best of Belinda Carlisle, but if you expect to see a social media firestorm or tabloid takeover, you’ve got the wrong girl.
“I don’t want to be on the treadmill, I don’t care about being famous,” says Carlisle. “I don’t want to be on the hamster wheel. From age seventeen to forty that was my life.”
What Carlisle wants is to work on projects that excite her. “That’s the only way I can work these days,” she says, referring to “Sun” and her 2007 French-language album, Voila. “I knew it would take something really amazing to get me to do another song. I’ve done it and I’ve done a really good job with it. It would take something on par with my career.”
“Sun” is a pop-bounce-rock tune that has a familiar Belinda Carlisle flair, the kind of song that makes you want to jump in a convertible on a summer day and head out in the, well, sun. It’s not surprising, since she and the track’s co-writer Jane Wiedlin, along with her other Go-Go’s band-mates, perfected the New Wave sound from a girls’ point of view (they were either innocent-looking bad girls or bad girls who were slumber-party innocent), and made history as the first all-female band to write their own music and play their own instruments and reach number one. They still tour every summer, and for Carlisle that’s enough of a workout, treadmill or otherwise.
“I get exhausted just looking at a photo of her,” says Carlisle on age-equal Madonna. “Come on lady, don’t you want to eat chocolate and go to the beach and get fat? It’s hard work being on the road, and it’s really taxing on a fifty-something-year-old woman.”
Carlisle laughs at her own comment, but there’s a serious side to her take on fame. When the video for The Go-Go’s debut single, “Our Lips Are Sealed,” debuted in 1981, one of the main things people noticed was that the lead singer of America’s hottest new group did not look like a Barbie doll. When the video for Carlisle’s 1986 solo hit, “Mad about You,” premiered, people noticed that a goddess was born.
“Americans are weight-obsessed,” says Carlisle. “For me, I never really thought about it, how much I weighed or how I looked until people wrote about it. I was too chubby or too slim. It really fucks with your brain.”
“Now, you can tell yourself that men like women with curves, but women are in for other women; it’s about the competition. I live in France part of the year, where people have a normal attitude about food, then I’m here in L.A., where women are obviously obsessed with being thin, cause they are wearing their skinny jeans and are super skinny.”
Carlisle punctuated her quote with a pattern of candor that could easily be called a Belinda-ism: “I just got through eating a box of See’s candy before I talked to you. I’m normal.”
Every Go-Go’s fan knows the song “This Town,” and the lyrics mirror a group of L.A. girls so glamorous that everyone wants “to be one of us.”
In perspective, maybe not.
“I live in West Hollywood; I think everyone where I live is a big alcoholic,” says Carlisle, who wrote about her struggles with sobriety in her 2010 New York Times bestseller Lips Unsealed. “I’m really aware of the crystal meth problem. I see people at two in the afternoon, unsteady, and it’s not alcohol.”
If there’s anything media-shy about Carlisle it disappears on a sober note. “I don’t mind talking about it, because if I can get sober anyone can get sober. You can teach an old dog new tricks. Even at a time later in life it really doesn’t have to be that way. Since I was a practicing alcoholic from age seventeen to forty-seven, I know what it’s like and I know how painful it is.”
She also says she wouldn’t have made it out alive were she to have become famous in today’s 24/7 media age.
“I was kind of like the Lindsay Lohan of my time,” says Carlisle. “The only reason why I made it was because there weren’t all these cameras around, and the whole world didn’t know I was a mess. I get it. I know how hard it is without the cameras. The fucking paparazzi are the worst. The intrusion does really cross the line. Everyone is so cheap now. Even somebody’s life is cheap.”
Carlisle has even made political waves of late, speaking out in favor of same-sex marriage, in part because she has an openly gay son, James, now 20. “I’ve always been sympathetic to gay rights,” she says, adding, “When my son came out to me, I thought ‘What kind of world is he going to be up against?’ I want the same rights for him as anyone else. I will fight tooth and nail for gay rights because of my boy.”
We all know Carlisle doesn’t have to fight for gay fans, even if the accumulation is a bit of a mystery. “I don’t look out at concerts and go, ‘Oh my God, they’re gay, they’re straight’, she says, adding that the group always had a gay following, which she says became more noticeable after the release of 1984’s Talk Show.
“Believe me, I’m really happy about it,” she adds. “Gay people are at the forefront and have the best taste. I’m glad they like me.”