Debbie Gibson on unrealized 'Star Search' dreams and bogus teen-idol rivalries: 'I just have to take a moment to say Tiffany's voice is un-freakin'-believable'

Gibson, who considers herself a "songwriter first, vocalist second," unsuccessfully tried out for 'Star Search' 10 times. But she eventually found her place in the teen-idol space.

Tiffany and Debbie Gibson attend the afterparty for Gibson's 'Electric Youth' tour New York concert in 1989. (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
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Debbie Gibson established herself as a songwriting prodigy to be reckoned with at age 17 with her hit ballad “Foolish Beat” — setting a Guinness World Record, which she still holds to this day, for the youngest female artist to write, produce and perform a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment music editor Lyndsey Parker on a recent “Teen Idols”-themed episode of the Totally ‘80s podcast, Gibson celebrated the 35th anniversary of that chart milestone — but she also took time to celebrate her fellow teen idol, Tiffany, whom she was often pitted against in the press when they were just starting out.

“I just have to take a moment to say Tiffany's voice is un-freakin’-believable — it was then, and it is now,” Gibson proclaimed. “I listened to [Tiffany’s own No. 1 single] ‘Could've Been’ the other day in my bedroom, like at night like you do when you're a teenager, and I was like, ‘Get it, gurl!’ Like, oh my God. She is such a naturally gifted vocalist, so powerful. You know how you always want what you can't have? My voice was always that pristine bell voice, and she had this texture that, like, Bonnie Raitt has. She has this texture that you're born with. And I was like, ‘How do I get that? That's so cool!’ Her voice is so rich and thick, and it still is.”

Back in 1987, when Gibson and Tiffany both released their massive debut albums, Gibson was a Tiffany fan from the start, and the feeling was mutual. “I used to have the Walkman with the split headphones, and me and my younger sister Denise used to listen to ‘I Think We're Alone Now’ every time we were on an airplane taking off; it’s very cinematic. I was a fan, and [Tiffany] says that to me too: Her sister had my poster on her wall. It was all very supportive and still is.”

But while Tiffany had success with covers of Tommy James’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” and the Beatles’ “I Saw [Him] Standing There,” Gibson charted with self-penned singles like “Out of the Blue,” “Only in My Dreams,” “Shake Your Love,” and the history-making “Foolish Beat.” Tiffany may have been considered the superior vocalist, even by Gibson herself, but Gibson, because she was a songwriter, garnered more critical respect. Gibson never quite understood this media-concocted rivalry — journalists' sensationalistic tendency to constantly compare them.

“Why can't multiple artists occupy the same space? There's like a different No. 1 song every single week. There's a hundred songs on the charts every day. There's plenty of room for everybody,” Gibson said. (It should be noted that in the ‘80s, there was ample room in the pop market for both Gibson and Tiffany: The two sold a combined 17 million albums before their respective 20th birthdays.)

“I used to defend [Tiffany] when people would say, ‘She doesn't write her own songs.’ And I'm like, ‘Yeah, but neither does Whitney Houston.’ Does anyone ever bring that up?’ No, because some people are vocalists first,” said Gibson. “I've always said I'm a songwriter first, vocalist second. That's just the way the universe made me. So, it's a great marriage when you find the great song and the great vocalist, and they come together. And who cares? Like, does anyone ever stop and think when they're listening to Elton [John], ‘Well, he didn't write the lyrics’? I don't. That's an Elton John song. Yes, I know [lyricist] Bernie [Taupin] wrote it too, but now [Elton is] embodying it and bringing it into the world. So, I was always like, ‘shut up’ to that.”

Before her MTV success, Tiffany, with her mighty power vocals, made a splash on television in 1985 on Star Search, finishing in second place overall. Other teen singers who later competed on that show, with varying degrees of success, included Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Aaliyah, Alanis Morissette, Destiny’s Child, Usher, LeAnn Rimes and David Archuleta. But interestingly, Gibson was rejected from the show after multiple attempts.

“I auditioned for Star Search quite literally 10 times and didn't get on,” Gibson chuckled. “I auditioned with covers. I remember doing [Connie Francis’s] ‘Where the Boys Are.’ I remember I did my songs: I did ‘Only in My Dreams’ before it ever came out, and I was told my songs would never be hits. I was told my voice was too this or that or whatever. I did not even get onto the show. It's crazy. But that's the thing: I was always, I think, a quirkier artist. I remember Gwen Stefani saying if she was on The Voice as a contestant, she didn't think she'd get through. There are certain artists that are about their tone and about their vibe and about their songwriting, but not necessarily the slickest contest-winning vocalist.”

Gibson and Tiffany eventually appeared on TV together in an iconic, Dynasty-style catfight in the SyFy cult classic Mega Python vs. Gatoroid (shot by Madonna/Go-Go's/Janet Jackson video director Mary Lambert), which poked fun at their supposed (read: non-existent) feud. “Oh my God, that scene goes on and on and on. It's like, ‘OK, some male executive masterminds dreamt this up to see me and Tiffany in hot dresses, whipped cream, kicking over tables, slapping each other,” Gibson laughed. “You would think at some point our collaboration would've been musical, like, ‘OK, we're going to write this amazing song together.’ But we were like, ‘No, this opportunity is presenting itself, and it's too kitschy and funny and cool to pass up.’ My exact words to my agent were, ‘What? Is this gonna ruin the movie career I don't have? Yeah, let's do it!’ Tiff and I were giggling so hard the entire time. We did have stunt doubles. … We weren't doing, like, the backflips, but we were doing a lot of it. … The slap was real.”

Back in 2019, when Gibson and Tiffany embarked on the hugely successful Mixtape Tour with fellow former teen stars New Kids on the Block, Salt-N-Pepa and Naughty by Nature, Tiffany told Yahoo Entertainment that she did always believe that she and Gibson “would do music together, and so far hasn't happened — but it might, on this tour. We do have some time and she plays beautiful piano. Maybe there might be a ballad in there for us. … There might be time to hop on Deb's bus or her hop on mine, and see if we can write a ballad together. I'd love that!” That collab still hasn’t happened, but Gibson told Totally ‘80s that she too is up for it.

“She and I didn't collaborate, but I wouldn't rule that out,” said Gibson. “I'm open to everything. I mean, I think she and I are musically quite different. I almost wonder what it would be like if she wrote me a song, and I wrote her a song — like, ‘Hey, this is my vision for you,’ and she went, ‘This is my vision for you.’ I think that would be kind of interesting, because actually I do have a vision for her, in the kind of country-pop [vein]. Again, I [think] Bonnie Raitt in my head; I go to Wynnona [Judd]. … That could be interesting. You never know.”

Tiffany and Debbie Gibson attend the 'Mega Python vs. Gatoroid' premiere in New York City.  (Photo: Jim Spellman/WireImage)
Tiffany and Debbie Gibson attend the 'Mega Python vs. Gatoroid' premiere in New York City. (Photo: Jim Spellman/WireImage) (Jim Spellman via Getty Images)

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