In 1977 the hit single “You Light Up My Life” propelled 21-year-old Debby Boone to stardom by capturing the number one spot on the charts and staying there for ten weeks. Debby, of course, is the third of four daughters by Pat and Shirley Boone. She grew up in the world of show business, and chose it as her career in 1970 while performing with the Boone Family.
“You Light Up My Life” was her first solo effort and sold more than four-and-a-half million copies. It surpassed the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” as the longest running number one record of all time. The hit earned her the title of Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards that year. It also won the American Music Award for Favorite Pop Single and an Oscar for Best Original Song. Debby received a second Grammy for Best Inspirational Album in 1980 for her solo gospel album With My Song.
Since then, Debby has made a name for herself with numerous television appearance, two of her own prime-time specials, and her acting ability. Most recently, she finished a year-and-a-half tour and a run on Broadway with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
With all that behind her, it’s not surprising that at 25 she wrote an autobiography, Debby Boone – So Far. She is married to Gabriel Ferrer, son of Jose Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney. Debby’s first child, Jordan, was born in 1980.
Now at 27, Debby has re-entered the limelight with the birth of her twin girls, Dustin and Gabrielle, last September and the release of her new contemporary Christian album, Surrender on Lamb & Lion Records.
Despite her remarkable accomplishments, Debby Boone is not taken seriously by large segments of both the secular and Christian worlds. To the secular world, she’s a stereotypical goody-two-shoes, a self-righteous Mrs. Clean, and a one-hit artist. The Christian community perceives her a secular performer who dabbles in gospel music and, perhaps, even soft-pedals her beliefs.
Both images are totally inaccurate and have caused her considerable pain and anguish, Debby confides. She also shares her dream of a more fulfilling acting career, her surprising views of nudity on the screen, how her sisters coped with her phenomenal success, and her fears about raising children in today’s threatening world.
Was it a tough decision to decide to increase your family rather than go on with your career?
It would have been a hard one, but I sort of changed my whole center for making decisions. When I was making the career decisions two, three years ago, I’d look at my career and what it needed, and just set out to do the things that would advance it. That’s how I made my choices.
Before I decided to have another child, I realized that I was really going about things backward as a Christian. To look at my career and see how can I keep my career going and then how can I use it for God was a really backward way of thinking. I decided that first and foremost I needed to get close to God, to please Him, to hear His voice, and seek His direction. The career part of it was really up to Him. If that’s where He wanted to use me, He would direct me in that way.
The most freeing experience of my life was to say, “Forget it. I don’t need it. And You don’t need me here. I’m not Your saving grace in the entertainment business. And I don’t need to feel the pressure of being that. So I’m going to find out where it is You want me to be, even if I have to take off for a few years.”
The two specific directions that we really thought we got as we just got quiet for a week in Hawaii was to do an album and complete our family. Little did we know what that meant, but that’s what we came home setting about to do. We had no [recording] contract, didn’t know which company to record with. So it took a long time. I thought that I’d go home, I’d be pregnant, I’d whip out an album, and I’d be maybe well on my way doing something else by now. But it really has taken a long time.
The album was finished just when I was waiting for the last finishing touches of my pregnancy. They both got done together. It seems that when the Lord plans things, there’s an order about it that I could never have figured out. But that’s what I’ve spent the last year of my life doing – having these children and finishing the album.
Was there ever a period in your life when you lost touch with God’s direction?
I’m not placing any blame. I just want to preface this by saying that I once went through over three months of Youth With A Mission training. It was there that I had gotten so much teaching about serving the Lord every second of my day. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I found myself being driven by guilt and obligation, instead of love and joy and freedom in the Lord. So, when I left there, to get a haircut was a major prayer concern. It wasn’t their fault, it was just my own bad interpretation. I couldn’t make any decisions. “God, should I get a haircut? Should I go to the dentist today?”
It was so heavy when I left, that I couldn’t live like that. Every time I’d go against what I thought was the voice that said, “No, don’t get a haircut. Don’t go to the dentist,” something bad would happen. I was so driven. This could not be the voice of the Lord. It was anything but gentle. It was “Don’t do this. Don’t do that. What kind of a Christian do you think you are if you watch TV tonight?” I made a choice and said, “Alright. Forget all this! I’m not going to listen to those thoughts anymore. I’ll just try and do the best I can.”
That’s when I sort of settled into a very comfortable two years or so of just not being directed or led in that way at all. I’d go to church and get advice from people and make choices the best I could. But I really feel that in those two years I wasted a lot of time and opportunities that were there for me, because I had not taken the time to develop an intimate relationship with the Lord, who would have been the only one who could have directed me in a more fulfilling time.
You’ve had phenomenal commercial success over a period of years. Does it bother you that there are a lot of people out there who still don’t take you seriously?
Yes. It has bothered me more in the past than it does now. But yes, it’s bothered me a lot, because I’ve always had this image of a one-song artist and that I don’t really sing anything else, that I’m just Pat Boone’s daughter who had a big hit record.
But I always considered myself to be a very strong singer first and foremost, and that that’s how I got that opportunity. Yes, I am Pat Boone’s daughter, and that afforded me connections that I never could have gotten any other way. Maybe I could have been the strongest singer ever, and without those connections maybe no one ever would have known it. But had I now been able to sing, I could never have sustained a career for five years beyond that song.
It does frustrate me at times, especially the kind of material that was sent to me over the last five years. They’d send me these sappy, nothing songs, or these parts where a poor, little, country sap girl sings a song in a movie. It was just nothing that would take any talent to perform whatsoever – vocally or as an actress or anything. And all the jokes, which I don’t really mind except it just furthered the image of this non-thinking, always-smile-on-her-face, naïve daughter of Pat Boone.
But in a way that worked for me, too, because when people thought of me, they thought of something. A lot of recording artists have a problem, because nothing comes to mind when you think of the person. You don’t know who they are or what they are. A least I definitely have an image.
That problem was probably exaggerated among people of your own generation. Certainly you must have been lifted up as an ideal kind of daughter image by a lot of parents?
That was a hard part for me. I always had an audience. That was a part of why I didn’t like nightclubs. I would go in and there would be a lot of old people and a lot of kids at the dinner show. They’d bring their kids that liked me and that song. As far as anybody my age that I could relate to, they just weren’t there.
So, it was no wonder that I’d come out on stage and wonder why I felt so confused at who I was. I’d see this sea of blue hair, and at the dinner show these little kids, and nothing in between. I wondered, “How do I communicate with these people?” I always felt like such a phony. If I was going to please the older people that came into the nightclubs regularly, I had to talk like the seasoned nightclub performers who’d been doing it for 20 years. I wasn’t that, but I couldn’t be a young person and say the things that came naturally to me, because they didn’t in that setting. Once “You Light Up My Life” was over, it was “I want to go home, Mommy.”
I couldn’t go to a college campus. I never played a college campus, and they wouldn’t have had me there for a second. It would have been the most humiliating experience of my life. And here I was their age when I started. I think a lot of it was that I was a threat – that I somehow said to them, by my image, that I’m better than you. I’m somehow telling you that your morals are bad, and unless you live your life like I’m living mine, I’m telling you you’re wrong and you’re going to hell – whether I ever said anything like that or not, which I obviously would not have said.
I chose my lifestyle because I believed in it and it made me happy, and I never meant to judge anybody else….I’ve watched people when I’ve been on a nightclub stage or Vegas or someplace, and they’ll be having a fine old time. If I would say anything like, “I’m singing this to the Lord,” it would ruin their entire evening. But I could see that I would probably react the same way if I was sitting there listening to some music and somebody said at the end of his concert, “Buddha is the only answer.” I would feel manipulated. And I realize I used an approach that wouldn’t work on me. I can’t be that way anymore. I’ve got to be honest with myself and with other people.
Do you see yourself back on stage? How much opportunity is there for a Christian performer in theater?
There’s not really much of an opportunity. The parts are so limited. When I first got back from the Broadway experience, I got an agent working real hard and sending me scripts. I had a long talk with him about my morals and standards, but believed that there was some good, wholesome entertainment to be found out there. I wasn’t looking for lightweight, silly little movies. I think there are movies being written with parts that are substantial, maybe more than one-dimensional parts. They would send me these scripts that were filthy. There’s just no getting around it. I’d be shocked reading this stuff. I was embarrassed to read it, let alone think of myself doing it. And I’d send them back and say, “No, try again.” And I realized there aren’t a lot of opportunities out there. Plus these people don’t understand. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to have to be a divine plan of the Lord, and He’s going to have to put together all the pieces….
God’s infiltrating the entertainment industry with His people. There are Christians in writing, production, films, records, TV, everywhere. And we’re all going to join forces on a project one of these days and come out with something that’s just going to bowl the world over. It will be first-class quality all the way and, yet, have a very strong message. It’s not going to be subtle. That’s what I got bored with – trying to sneak in these little “bless you’s.” You have to have more than subtle, little messages.
Have the doors to the choice parts in the movies been closed on you because of your faith?
Oh sure. In the entertainment industry it’s not a popular thing to be Christian or to say, “I won’t say these words.” Obviously, you’re looking at somebody who’s not going to be in any nude scenes, but it’s not just even that with me. I have moral standards and principles. If I felt a movie was uplifting things that my whole life is against, I couldn’t do that part, even though there’s not a swear word or nude scene.
That isn’t my only criterion. In fact, I’ve come closer to seeing an opportunity where there might be some slight nudity. If the movie says everything that my whole life stands for, and somehow nudity came in there, I could come a lot closer to seeing myself doing something like that. As shocking as the Christian world might find that statement, I could see that I’m a lot closer to that than some movie with a real clean, PG rating or even a G rating, yet somehow says adultery is okay. You know, that relationship didn’t work out, so, too bad they got a divorce. But she ended up happily ever after with the guy who was really the good guy anyway.
Those subtle movies make me crazy, and they’re so much fun that you root for the wrong thing. You root for her to leave the jerky husband and end up with the really cute, funny guy instead. That’s what I don’t want to be a part of….
One of the best Christian films I ever saw was The Hiding Place. It was a wonderful movie. There was nudity in it. It certainly wasn’t sexual nudity. It just showed them in the showers getting deloused. But there was nothing wrong with the reality of what was shown on that screen. So, if I can’t condemn anyone else for doing it, it could almost follow suit that I could say I could do that. Except, maybe, because my image is so strong that to see my body in the showers might be another story. So I’d have to think that through a little better. But to me, there was nothing wrong with that nudity on the screen.
You started out in the business as part of a family act and went on to have a big success on your own. Has that ever caused any sibling rivalry?
I think there had to have been some moments. The reason that I just can’t say yes or no, definitely, is because I wasn’t living it through their heads when it happened. All I know is that the three of them were so supportive, they literally looked like they were as excited about my success as I was.
I know my younger sister and I have talked at times of there being some hard times for her, because she had maybe more aspirations than the other two ever did. That was difficult to see. Not that she begrudged it to me, but that she wished that she had it too. There were times when she wished she were traveling to some of those places or working with some of those people or doing some of those things. It was hard on her, and there were times when she thought, who am I? What am I amounting to here? Yet, she was my biggest fan. She wanted to come to every place and watch me work. I felt like, “You’re too good to me!”
What would you like to do next?
I’d like to do so many things. I loved working on both the TV specials that I did. I loved the play. I love recording. I eventually would love to be involved in some movies. And I love to perform on stage.
It was just that two shows a night – and that midnight show with a bunch of drunks staring at you – it was so depressing to me. I wondered how people could spend their whole lives like that. I couldn’t understand. I was not cut out for that, and yet I could watch my father or Gabriel’s mother just handle it like it was the most pleasurable experience of their lives. They always related to an audience very well. Nightclubs are quite different now than they used to be. They used to be a lot more glamorous, and my father and Gabriel’s mother were raised learned that rapport with the audience and feeling secure.
If I saw anybody say anything to anybody, I just wrote a script in my head that they were saying, “This is the worst show I’ve ever seen.” I’d torture myself on the stage. Then there would be nights that weren’t like that, and I would think they loved me. Those were probably just as imaginary as the ones were I thought everyone hated me. To walk out vulnerable every night like that, to have to literally sell yourself to be out there, was not my style. It was too vulnerable a position for me to subject myself to twice a night. And then critics on top of it!
A lot has been made of the strict discipline that your father used in raising you and your sisters. You have three children of your own. What, if anything, will you do differently with your children?
I think I’m going to be a very similar kind of parent. I’m sure that you could never come up with a count of how many times as I was growing up I said I would never be like my parents. I hated growing up. I’ve been very open about the hard times that we had and my rebellion against their restrictions and authority.
But I’m also very open about the fact that, as I’ve come a little more full-circle, I’ve grown to respect it and appreciate it. Even though I think they made their mistakes, as any parents are bound to do, I think that I would rather have them on the little overly stick side than too lenient. I think that children stand to suffer a lot more harm from parents who are more lenient than from those who are a little overly strict, especially the way the world is now. Every year it gets a little more difficult.
The fact that I’ve come to really love is that my parents didn’t take the easy way out. I always thought that’s what they were doing – that it was easier not to let us go do things, have our freedom. What I came to realize as I got a little older is that it was much more difficult to say no than to say yes. I appreciated the fact that they were consistent, and I began to see that it all had come out of a great deal of thought, prayer, concern, and love, and that it wasn’t just rambling. When I was younger I thought it was cruelty, growing up, for the most part, or a real lack of understanding that I was a much more mature person than they gave me credit for being.
Later, I began to see that I could not have handled the things that I always thought I could, and I was very glad that they didn’t subject me to certain kinds of circumstances and environments that I wanted to be subjected to at an early age. I really fell that I’m a stronger person now for having gone through those restrictions, even if some of them were ridiculous – and I think some of them were.
My parents came into a knowledge of deeper things spiritually when we were already in our teens. I know, now, things spiritually that they didn’t know when they were raising us in our younger years. I’m hoping that I will get a real understanding that it won’t be the struggle it was for my parents and us. We didn’t know, didn’t understand, that they didn’t. So, they couldn’t impart to us how the Lord works and the principles that are sure-fire, that you can depend and base your life on. We just knew that the Bible was supposed to be true and you were supposed to live by these rules and regulations. Any kid’s going to rebel against that unless he sees it working. If you can see a clear picture of that at a young age, you’re going to make choices for yourself.
I’m hoping I’ll be able to have kids who can make choices for themselves. Then, as they come along in the teenage years, it won’t be me constantly saying, “No, you can’t,” and making their choices for them.
Our world is changing. It’s a very unpredictable place and things are happening so fast. Do you worry about the kind of world you may be bringing your children into?
Yes, I do. The only saving grace is that we have a knowing and loving God. But I do find this a terrifying place to raise children. That was one of the reasons that we consciously decided that we wanted only two. But God, in His wisdom, is giving us three.
When I look at what’s happening in the newspapers, it scares me. If you think about it, it’s frightening. But I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I don’t know God’s timetable. People a lot more knowledgeable than I disagree on that subject. But I think God wants us to live our lives, raise our families, and try to make this a better world while we’re still here, even though we’re expecting His return soon.
Debby and Gabriel Ferrer were only planning to bring one more child into the world. But God has a surprise for them.
On Saturday, September 17, Debby gave birth to twin girls. Gabrielle Monserrete was born at 8:13 a.m. She was 19 inches, brunette, and weighed 6 pounds, 15 ounces. At 8:30 a.m., a blond Dustin Boone, at 21 inches, 7 pounds, 21 ounces was delivered. The twins were the fifth and sixth grandchildren for Pat and Shirley Boone.
A few weeks after the birth Debby said her anxieties about raising twins were mostly dispelled. “They are a little more time consuming,” she said. “But certainly not twice as much work.”
The twins’ three-year-old brother, Jordan, adjusted to his new family situation quite well, Debby said. “He adores his baby sisters, showers them with kisses, and shows them off to strangers at the park.”
Although they are only a few weeks old, Debby claims to see significant personality differences between the girls. “They are quite different. They’re fraternal, so they don’t look anything alike. Their personalities are very different. Gabrielle is much more – let’s see, can a baby be outspoken? She really makes noise when she wants something. Dustin is much more laid back and lets things go for awhile before she gets serious. Dustin also will smile when you play with her. Gabrielle will smile when you’re not playing with her, and you can’t get her to smile for the world when you try.”
Mama and Papa Ferrer are having no trouble smiling at this unexpected double blessing.
Jospeh Farah is Executive News Editor for the Los Angeles Herald.