Deborah Gibson is a bit flustered. She's just informed the audience that she's going to have to leave a little early tonight. "If I don't make my plane, I'll be ..." She pauses momentarily, considering her choice of words. "... screwed." She giggles to herself and apologizes. "I don't usually use that word," she admits with a what-the-hell toss of her head, "but it fits the occasion." If any of the 25 or so people assembled in front of the stage at the Broadway Studios are shocked by this momentary break in decorum, they don't show it. The room fairly rings with appreciative laughter at Deborah's admission. It's just that kind of night.

Maybe Deborah -- formerly known as Debbie -- Gibson wouldn't be the first person one would turn to for advice on how to navigate the music industry. Especially if you remember her, as most of us probably do, as one of those teen pop sensations of the late '80s, a perky white-bread Tiger Beat cover girl who posed with a giant teddy bear on the front of her debut album. These days, Deb is as wholesome as ever, if a little more low-profile -- dividing her time between songwriting and musical theater (she's played leads in Grease, Les Miserables, and Funny Girl in the last several years), singing backup with the Circle Jerks, and releasing her new album, Deborah, on the small record label she runs with her mom. Maybe she's not quite as popular as she was 10 years ago. But the Deborah die-hards assembled in this room would most certainly beg to differ. And tonight's Learning Annex lecture, titled "Deborah Gibson on How to Break Into the Music Industry," is meant to prove not only that the grown-up Debbie is still a pop star, but that she's gleaned wisdom from her decade-plus relationship with the biz from which we can all benefit.

There's no question that Deborah is a fan's artist. And every fan wants that moment of validation that only some real interaction with his or her idol can provide. Because fans feel that they understand the object of their adulation, they want to feel understood in return. It's why backstage passes are wangled, passionate letters sent, manuscripts Fed Exed, and chat rooms flooded with stories. Tonight's lecture provides an illusion of closeness that could never be attained at a stadium show, and consequently, the interaction between Deborah and her audience goes far beyond a mere moment of validation. This Q&A/performance is more along the lines of an extended group snuggle.

For her part, Deborah does dish the dirt on the inner workings of the music industry, proffering cautionary tales of record executives who attempted to trendify her squeaky-clean image, A&R reps who ignored demos, and producers who just didn't get it. Though she voices the cold realities of a career path like hers -- Major labels will try to mold you! Business types don't know squat about creative vision, and they don't care! Radio is all about numbers! -- every warning and obligatory show-me-the-money joke is filtered through her perky Long Island lisp and somehow comes out the other side sounding, well, not so bad. Like the merest bit of turbulence in an otherwise pristine fantasyland.

Furthermore, she seems thrilled with her role as Answer Lady. Stalking across the stage, she comes off as part Vegas comedian and part Oprah-esque soundbite sage, joshing audience members, offering personal anecdotes, and fielding questions. Has living in different countries affected her musical development? Does she prefer live percussion to drum machines and sequencers? What's her creative process like? Is she planning on venturing into Christian music anytime soon? How does she feel about the Internet? Each question is prefaced by some variation of "Deborah, your music has changed my life, and I just want to say, 'Thank you.' "

Presumably because this lovefest carries a somewhat hefty ticket price ($29-49 on the Learning Annex's sliding scale), we're also treated to Deborah Unplugged. The piano ballads that occur at regular 10-minute intervals may be less of a justification for the high cost of the lecture, though, than a testament to the fact that Deborah really just can't stop singing. Like every good musical-theater character, when words become insufficient to get her point across, she simply bursts into song. "I'm sorry, but I have to get this one out of my system at least once a day," she smiles, before belting out "On My Own," the agonizing weeper from Les Mis.

Each time Deborah opens her mouth to sing, the atmosphere in the room gets just a little more dreamy, until not only can I feel the love, I'm seconds away from being smothered by it. One by one, all the stops are pulled out. We get the "You guys are the greatest audience ever!" speech, complete with the "And I don't say that in every city!" punch line. We get the song where she invites us to provide percussion by clapping along with her. When one woman stands up and gives an earnest speech thanking Deborah for inspiring her daughter, and requesting that she play "Lost in Your Eyes" for them, there's a collective sigh and huge smiles all around. If I were ever going to hug a room full of strangers, now would definitely be that moment.

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