From 1987 to 1990, Debbie Gibson was the teen pop princess. With 9 top 40 hits, 2 multiplatinum albums and constant video rotation on MTV, she was on top.
As the pop stardom inevitably cooled, Gibson found a home on Broadway. She made forays into reality TV and kept writing and recording music independently. She also worked with children in summer music camps.
Gibson drew on this experience to star in Summer of Dreams, a TV movie that will premiere on the Hallmark Channel on Aug. 27.
In the film, Gibson plays Debbie Taylor, a former pop star who moves to suburban Ohio to teach music to a talented group of misfit kids. (Draw your own parallels.)
Gibson, 45, sits down with PEOPLE to talk about the film, her career, and how she feels seeing herself on film.
You pitched this idea to Hallmark. How much of this is drawn directly from your own story?
In my own real life, Atlantic Records and I amicably parted ways due to creative differences. As a 21 year old, I chose art over commerce. I gave up the forthcoming advances in lieu of spending my own money on independent releases. I always felt that was a very empowering move.
In the movie, I’m more of a victim at the start. The falls are low and the stakes are high. There are also fun little things like I had a make-up line with Revlon. In the film, I gift my niece my makeup kit. All sorts of fun “homages” to my life and career!
There are some fun similarities to real life in this film – your sister Denise, your manager, Ray, and your last name of Taylor! Are there little tidbits like this throughout the movie for Debbie Gibson fans to spot?
Glad you picked up on those! Yes! My manager is named for one of my besties, Ray Garcia. My sister is Denise in real life, although she is a fashion designer and not a vice principal. My man’s family name is Taylor and I also thought it was a fun homage to Taylor Swift. It plays well into the whole “teen idol” thing. Also, the keyboard that was given to me by Billy Joel in the script is a DX7, which is what I recorded all my early demos on. There are so many more little nuances, and I look forward to seeing what my fans pick up on!
In the film, you end up investing in the lives of kids, which you do in real life.
I spend enough time in the spotlight. It’s a different type of fulfillment to watch young artists who have it all in front of them – and to impart what I know without being parental or preachy.
To the kids I work with, I see myself more as a cool Aunt or Fairy Godmother. I am content to be in the background, and to watch them grow and evolve.
Apart from what you see on screen, there was even more singing, vocal warm-ups and informal conversations about the business and art. It was art imitating life and vice versa. On days I worked with the kids, I was happily exhausted, like when I am running my music workshops, because they demand of your energy in a way that keeps you fully engaged every moment. They were soaking up all advice like little sponges!
Tell me a bit about your cast mates.
This movie could not have been perfectly more cast! Pascale Hutton is adorable and vivacious. Robert Gant is so charming as Noah. Ken Tremblett, as my manager Ray, has a perfect blend of being a bold business man and a caring friend. Little Lauren McNamara, who plays my niece Natalie, is beyond adorable. Mike Rohl is an incredible director. The list goes on and on!
You wrote and recorded a new song for this film.
It’s called “Wonderland.” In the script, my niece Natalie says that I remind her of Alice. This song really describes the journey we all go on in this movie. It’s kind of like “life is what happens when you stop making plans” and when you accept that you have no idea what’s going to happen next. It is the prom theme for the kids that I write for them, and develop with them. I am encouraging them to use their own voices as opposed to us doing some overused song as our prom theme.
Joey Finger, who works with Donny and Marie and will be musical directing my upcoming concert for Fox & Friends, produced the song. All local Las Vegas musicians played on the song. Recording it gave me the bug to go back into the studio and do a full-length album!
You do an acoustic version of “Only in My Dreams,” which was your very first single.
It’s wild to be going on the 30-year anniversary of the release of this song, to have been the same age as the kids in this movie when I recorded it, to have re-recorded an acoustic version, and to see the song having a new life.
Probably the most surreal thing was to see 200 background actors dancing to it at the prom, and these new, up and coming actor/singers singing it. It was so heartwarming!
You’ve spoken about Lyme disease and your health in the past. How is your stamina these days?
I started this film hot on the heels of live concerts all over the country. The folks at Hallmark were so super excited about this project that they fast-tracked it.
I did everything within my power to keep moving forward, and it worked. I came off of 16-hour days healthier than I was when I went in. It is so funny how no one ever knows the personal victories one may go through.
I had surface moments of doubting myself, but the deep voice within knew I could rise to the occasion. I had not worked this many consistent long days in many years.
I am grateful for the new friends who helped me through this movie, my close support system of my man, family and professional team, and so thankful for the fact that I was able to overcome this crazy thing that can threaten to take over ones life. I am proof for anyone out there reading this who is going through something similar. Keep digging and don’t stop because there are answers to be found. And, the old cliché “leap and the net will appear” can be true for you!
What else do you want PEOPLE readers to know about this film?
I am first and foremost a real woman who happens to love music and the arts. When I see myself on camera, I feel like any woman on any given day. Some days it’s, “Yeah, I’m feeling my vibe today!” Other days it’s, “Wow, I am a bit worn down today!” I don’t use Botox and my weight fluctuates. I am not perfect.
I feel like this film represents that woman I am describing and it takes everyone on a perfectly, imperfect journey. I think it is such an important message to impart to viewers that yes it’s great to dream. But when you can take your eyes off the picture you have of your life, you may actually start living yours. And, it just may be better than you ever imagined!
Summer of Dreams premieres Aug. 27 on Hallmark.