It’s hard to see how anyone could upstage Debra Svensk. She was a Playboy centerfold, then put on a bikini for Coppertone billboards nationwide. She measures 36-24-35; her husband, Peter Criss, is 34, 5’10” and 155 pounds. Debra, 22, is a blond stunner; Peter is prematurely gray and is having his lower teeth straightened. Still, when they are together, everyone eyeballs him: Why? Peter is the first member of the rock group Kiss to reveal his looks to the public.
For eight years Peter never went onstage without the feline makeup that was his trademark. But the “Cat” (as his friends still call him) found it “frustrating not being recognized,” and six months ago Criss quit the band. A further problem was that Peter wrote music too mellow for the band’s heavy metallurgic fare. Kiss co-founder Gene Simmons, Peter claims, wouldn’t let the group record his songs (though Beth, which Peter wrote with Stan Penridge, went gold in 1976). “It always had to be Gene’s way. It was an ego thing,” he says, adding, “There’s more to music than three chords.”
Last April Criss announced he was leaving, and in July the band hired drummer Eric Carr. Of the group’s current overseas tour, Peter says, “I miss the boys and hope they miss me. But I’m glad I’m not there.” No wonder: His new solo album, Out of Control, is taking off, and Peter is rehearsing with a new band for his own tour, probably in December. As lead singer, he’s working with a choreographer (“so I don’t trip over any wires”) and aiming for “a more sophisticated following. I don’t want to duck bottles anymore. I’ve had it with fire and bombs onstage. I see myself in a tux in Las Vegas.”
The changes in his private life are just as radical. He and his childhood sweetheart, Lydia, separated in 1978 after eight years of marriage (“It was never close”). Then at a party at Rod Stewart’s Bel Air mansion in 1978, Peter met Debra, who had recently posed nude for Playboy. She arrived with Hugh Hefner, but Peter grabbed her hand and asked, “You want to go for a ride?” “I didn’t know who he was,” she recalls, “but he kept saying, ‘I got a Rolls, I got a Porsche.’ ” So she went with him to Vincent Price’s house (which he was renting for $17,000 a month) and didn’t make it back to Hefner’s to pick up her purse until three days later.
Returning to New York they took a $2,400-a-month two-bedroom pad but had to keep their relationship secret until Lydia’s divorce settlement was final. As it is, she got more than $1 million. “It isn’t going to make her happy anyway,” says Debra, who insists the breakup wasn’t her fault. “I went out of my way to be nice. I told him to go back to her, but they were destroying each other.” Says Peter: “I wanted to have kids, but she kept putting it off. That was the reason for the split.”
With Debra there’s no such problem. They married last December—Debra having survived the acid test of a Kiss tour—and already she is six months away from giving birth to Peter Michael or Maggie Clara Criss. She admits, “I’m doing it for him. It’s not a burden, but I’ll be glad to get it over with.” One reason: Debbie has quit modeling until she delivers. Instead, she’s busy moving the family from Manhattan to a 170-year-old, 22-room Connecticut mansion she and Peter bought last spring for more than $500,000. While she supervises, he is free to work on his music. Debbie figures, “It’s his turn. Marriage should be, ‘First I root for you, then you root for me.’ ”
If her encouragement doesn’t work, at least Criss will never have to worry about money. He is still vice-president of Kiss and one-fourth owner. “Gene’s the treasurer,” jokes Peter of his shrewdest bandmate, “so you know the money’s safe.” Indeed, Peter may have bitten the band that feeds him. So far a lot of teenage fans say in letters that without Criss they’ll stay away. Peter defends, “Even the Beatles broke up.” But the analogy’s ironic: One fan sent Debra a telegram blaming her for the breakup and calling her “the Yoko Ono of Kiss.”
Peter was born in Brooklyn, where his parents, Loretta and Joseph Criscuola, own an antique shop. He started his first band at 16 and was a Golden Gloves boxer in high school, but even more successfully he fought induction into the Army by finagling a deferment. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t see, I acted gay. I just didn’t believe in going to Vietnam.” Peter took drum lessons from Gene Krupa (his current teacher is Jim Chapin, Harry’s dad) but couldn’t find a promising band. Then in 1972 he took out a now-famous classified ad: “Drummer will do anything to make it.” The first call was from Simmons.
In their prime the group’s onstage antics were sometimes equaled offstage: “Once we made a fire in a fake fireplace,” Peter recalls. Another time he and guitarist Ace Frehley drilled through a hotel wall ” ’cause we were lonely.” He also drove one Mercedes off a cliff, injuring his knees, and two years ago crashed through the windshield of his Porsche, leaving him with impaired vision in one eye. “God doesn’t want me up there yet,” he figures, “because I’m too much aggravation.” Since he married Debbie, Criss has calmed down considerably. “Now people call at 8 or 9 in the morning, and I’m up. She’s settled me down.”
Born in La Palma (south of L.A.), Debra, who’s one-fourth Cherokee, “had no ambition as a child.” She was studying at Pierce College when a man stopped her on the street and asked her if she’d like to meet Hugh Hefner. “I didn’t want to pose nude,” she says, “but the money was good.” (It included $250 a day for promotional work.) Afterward she worried: “It was the most terrible thing you could ever have to tell your parents. But no one objected.” She and Peter are now worried that Playboy might run her pictures again. Shrugs Peter, “It’s inevitable. She’s got a gorgeous body.”
For Christmas he’s thinking of covering it in fur, and the one she has in mind is a $100,000 lynx. She already has 150 pairs of shoes. “It’s nice,” Peter explains, “to be able to walk into a store and buy something without asking how much it costs.”
Besides shopping, Debbie spends her time watching soaps (they hate traveling to countries where there’s no American TV) and refinishing old furniture. Peter tends his rifle and pistol collection, races mopeds and plays badminton with live-in handyman Chuck Elias. Recently he’s bought a lot of toys for the baby, but “they’re way too old, so I play with them myself. I’m still a child. I get into the bathtub with frogmen who go underwater.” He does pushups and situps in hopes of taking off 20 pounds, but says, “It’s hard when your pregnant wife is always eating.” So far Debra has learned to cook pork chops and biscuits and to make martinis—Peter takes three olives. Suburbia seems to agree with them, but Debra confesses, “I’ll probably be friendly with our neighbors’ daughters; they’re my age.” And Peter, perhaps contemplating $500,000 in decorating costs, admits: “It was more fun in the years when I was struggling.”