Life... in the Biggest Pop Band in the World
For two years, every song Spice Girls released went to number one. We sat down with Mel C to dissect the height of Spice Mania, the pressures on their mental health, and the legacy they left behind.
Melanie Jayne Chisholm grew up in a small industrial town called Widnes, slap bang in the middle of Manchester and Liverpool. For a long time, back when the pollution from the local chemical factories would form murky green clouds in the sky, Widnes was described as the "the dirtiest, ugliest and most depressing town in England." But by the 1980s, when Melanie lived there, the smog had cleared up and it was like any other small English town: terraced houses, a church, a few chip shops, and the distinct feeling that nothing unexpected was about to happen.
In 1985, an estimated 1.9 billion people around the world turned on their TV to watch Live Aid. Melanie was 11-years-old at the time, and she decided to tape it on VHS because Madonna was playing and she'd never seen her idol perform live. When Madonna bounced on stage in a billowing white jacket and gold hoop earrings, jangling her way through "Holiday", she became completely transfixed.
"I immediately thought, 'Okay cool – that's what I want to do'," she tells me. "She encapsulated everything I wanted to be. But I remember it was like… a Northern girl growing up in a town like Widnes doesn't get to be a popstar or play Wembley stadium, because it just doesn't happen. So I asked myself what the sensible route would be, and I auditioned for a performing arts college in Kent and got a place. I thought I'd just do musical theatre instead."
Three decades later, I'm sat facing Melanie in her PR's office in North London, which is a short walk from the house she shares with her 7-year-old daughter. She's dressed in a t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms and her bare feet reveal bright red manicured toenails. Occasionally, while she's talking or sipping coffee, I have to stop myself from gasping at the sudden realisation I am having a conversation with Sporty Spice. Like most people who existed in the 90s, I had grown up thinking the Spice Girls were five Goddesses who had transformed into humans for the purpose of forming a pop band. Watching Sporty, Scary, Ginger, Baby and Posh flip, high kick, and zig-a-zig-ah their way through "Wannabe" in 1996 was by far the most thrilling thing I'd ever witnessed, and I spent hours drawing each of their outfits in wobbly crayon and writing stories that usually ended with "and then the Spice Girls saved them all". Even now, I have been known to annoy Uber drivers by blasting out Spice or SpiceWorld to soundtrack my 2am journey home, slurring along to "2 Become 1" with the windows rolled down, and plummeting my rating into the ground.
Looking back, the mania they inspired seems remarkable, but their formation was relatively standard. "After leaving college I started auditioning for cruises, but I really didn't want to do them," Melanie tells me in that measured way a person shares a really good story that they've shared a few times. "Then one day I was at this place called Danceworks in London, and someone gave me this ad which read: 'Are you between 18 and 23? Can you sing and dance?' It was for a new girl band, and I turned to my mate and said, 'That's what I'm going to do'. Later that week, I went along to the audition."
After an arduous audition process that involved a lot of dancing and singing (Melanie sang "I'm So Excited" by the Pointer Sisters), the 400 applicants were whittled down to five girls, and in March 1994, Melanie met the other Spice Girls for the first time. "It's so vivid – that memory. I fell in love with Geri straight away because she was adorable and completely nuts. She had these spiky little pigtails and her big punty boobs in this dead tight jumper," she cackles. "Mel B was in this baseball jacket and I thought she was so cool, and Victoria was all demure. It's funny because my first impressions were kind of spot on." It wasn't until later that Emma Bunton joined the group after another girl, Michelle, decided to pull out last minute. "Something magical happened when we met Emma because suddenly the dynamic worked and a little spark lit. It sounds so precocious, but we had no doubt [that we would be successful]. We were so ambitious and driven – it was like we gave ourselves no choice."
Speaking to Melanie about the Spice Girls years later, it becomes clear that she's most fond of those early days, right before they became too famous to live normal lives. "That whole era of the Spice Girls was so ridiculous and it was contagious! Everyone loved being part of the madness I think," she says. It was also around this time they decided to ditch their management and replace them with someone better, aka Simon Fuller. "They'd invested so much money in us, but we never signed anything, so we decided to give them the heave ho. We did a midnight flip from the house they'd put us up in, and we also nicked the demo tapes... Me and Victoria distracted the producer while Geri stuffed the tapes down her knickers," she screams with laughter. "We said we'd meet her at the roundabout, and when we got there half an hour later, she was literally on the roundabout with the tapes! It was like a Carry On film!"
In 1996 they released their debut "Wannabe", and very quickly went from five young working class girls from regional towns to the biggest pop band the world had seen in decades. The track was number one for seven consecutive weeks, and still holds the record for highest-selling single by a female group in UK and US history. "After that, everything we touched seemed to turn to gold – it was kind of freaky," Melanie tells me. With its jumble of made up words, overtly catchy chorus, and what we'd recognise now as "viral" success, "Wannabe" had all the ingredients of a one-hit wonder, but the girls pushed and pushed, and every track they released that year also reached number one – and it was the same the year after.
"Once things started to go well we had a lot to lose, so we were really tough on each other, and that was quite suffocating at times," Melanie tells me, when I ask her what it felt like being in the eye of the tornado. "When you're in that world, you're working constantly, you're going from continent to continent, venue to studio, you're picked up from door to door, and you're in this bubble that's completely protected. You literally don't see the outside world, and it's hard to explain what that's like. It can be fun and exciting, but it also really messes with your head. It's like we were on this ride which was everything we'd ever wanted, but we couldn't really acknowledge what was happening... I think we were a little bit in denial."
It didn't help that the rise of the Spice Girls coincided with the rise of the British tabloid press, who honed in on the band like flies to fruit. By the time they'd released four singles, thirteen ex-boyfriends had sold their stories to tabloids. An old glamour shoot of Geri was leaked and she was promptly slut-shamed for it (The Independent called her a "slapper" and a "bimbo"). One notorious article in The Spectator took the piss out of the girls for not being political enough. In a 1997 interview with Rolling Stone, Melanie spoke about how she'd once come across a "Spice Girls death site" where one commenter had said, "The Adidas bitch goes first". And that was on top of the relentless articles that scrutinised the size and shape of the girls' bodies (one newspaper nicknamed Geri "Podge Spice"). In fact, if you read any article about the Spice Girls from the mid-late 90s, you'd be hard-pressed to find one that didn't aggressively undermine them. In a tale that's as old as pop itself, it was as if the press couldn't deal with five young successful women who were just as loud and raucous as their male Britpop counterparts.
"I think that was probably the hardest part," Melanie says. "The Spice Girls were a real turning point for celebrity [culture] and we were criticised constantly; lies were written about us, and I think as a young person, just reading about yourself is really hard, especially when it's based on an image made up of opinions. I wasn't outspoken, but [as Sporty Spice] I had this reputation for being a loudmouth, even a bit aggressive. But I was so at odds with this person I was reading about. It was really difficult and confusing for me. Like a lot of people, in my early 20s I was really vulnerable – I didn't know who I was or who I wanted to be, I was just feeling my way."
It wasn't just the tabloid press that Melanie found hard to navigate, but the Spice Girls themselves. When I ask her at what point it went from "fun" to "not fun anymore", she takes a while to consider her answer. "There was always an underlying pressure," she explains. "We were so hard on each other and you just couldn't fuck up – we were our own police. If I said something off in an interview I'd get pulled up about it by the other girls. Everybody had a very different experience in the band, and we still talk about it now. I personally lived quite a lot in fear; in fear of doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing. We're older now: we're mums and our priorities are different – but there was probably a lot of competitiveness and jealousy back then."
Two years after they'd released "Wannabe", a steady culmination of these immense pressures meant that real cracks began to form, and Geri became the first to leave. She was suffering from depression, she said, and the power struggles within the band – specifically between herself and Mel B – were getting too much to handle. "For me, that was the beginning of the end," says Melanie. "It's always a shame when a member leaves a band, but with the Spice Girls, we were like a jigsaw puzzle and when there's a piece missing it's not complete. So we went off to do the American leg of our tour as a four piece, and then Melanie and Victoria fell pregnant, and that was that."
But Melanie had been struggling with her mental health as well. "I wasn't eating properly and I was obsessively exercising," she tells me. "I was pretty fucked up at that point, but I was too scared to stop. By the time Geri left in '98, we were all knackered, we were so burnt out basically, and we'd lived on adrenaline for a year… But I was like 'I'll make a solo record!' It was like I had to stay on the treadmill and just keep going and running away from my problems – literally! When I released Northern Star, I was really angry and frustrated, but I felt like I wanted people to recognise me for doing my own thing and being my own person."
These days, conversations around mental health in the music industry are fortunately more common, but in the 90s, they didn't really exist. Reading Melanie's words to The Mirror in 1999 seem wise way beyond the world around her: "It's an illness and nothing to be ashamed of. I hope that I can dispel the stigma attached to this condition." Does she think there should be more support for those who are struggling in music? "I think all young people in the music industry should have therapy," she tells me, nodding vigorously. "No one can prepare you [for fame]. It's not just about being recognised, or having to read things about yourself, or being away from your family, it's also little things like how – if you're lucky enough to make money – your family dynamic can change. If anybody starts getting successful, the record label or management [should] take responsibility by taking care of the mental health aspect of things, because it's a major head fuck. Especially when you're very young. I really believe that."
The Spice Girls changed the course of pop culture to such an extent that it's very easy to forget they only reigned supreme for around three, almost four, years – almost half the time that One Direction came closest to doing something similar. And in the years since 1999, Melanie C has done a hell of a lot. She's released six albums with another on the way, appeared in musical theatre productions like Blood Brothers and Jesus Christ Superstar, but also generally lived a more "normalised" existence.
"I feel like I'm at peace with everything now – I feel really proud of my past," she says, smiling. "I quite quickly realised that my passion was performing and music, and being recognised and photographed didn't fulfil me in any way. When we started we were all fucking clueless. I'd had training as a singer, and I knew the basics, but I had no clue about the industry, and what better way to learn than on the job? We were in studios, we were working with incredible songwriters and producers, and that's when I really found my passion and I thought: 'What an incredible environment to be in, to be able to learn from the best'."
Her latest album, Version of Me, is the first album she's ever had complete and utter creative control over – an experience she describes as "really, really fun". At eleven tracks long, it's a positive, introspective pop record, and it doesn't sound dissimilar to the music she was releasing when she first left the band. "I'm 42 now, and I've just found myself in this place where I'm just like 'fuck you all!'" she says, laughing and smacking her hand on the table. "I'm going to do whatever I want! And even if it's a terrible idea, I don't care! It's my record, my money, my mistakes! With this album, I just feel like I've finally listened to my gut. From the production, to the choice of songs, to the videos and artwork, I've become a lot more involved and confident in my own choices."
As an artist who has not only won countless awards and broken international records, but arguably changed the style and attitude of an entire generation, Melanie has a lot to be proud of. The Spice Girls were anarchic and ramshackle and loud as fuck, and they completely re-defined pop culture at a time when it was overrun by Britpop lads like Oasis and Blur, or boy bands like Take That and East 17. As Tara Joshi explained in Noisey earlier this year, "The Spice Girls saved 90s pop from boring, male-dominated death." For that, we can be truly thankful.
But Melanie C's achievements extend far further than being one fifth of a band. As "Sporty Spice", she championed an identity that, before then, girls weren't "supposed" to have. As somebody who has always been a tomboy, Melanie showed me and my peers that it was absolutely fine to wear a tracksuit instead of a dress, or want to do flips instead of sit there looking cute (but if you didn't, that was cool too). That said, while the rest of the world remains obsessed with their own nostalgia, Melanie is decidedly forward-facing. When I ask her the inevitable question ("What is your proudest moment?"), she answers without missing a beat. "This new record. I feel proud of myself that I've finally trusted my own instinct. For me, success is being happy and satisfied, and I am."
You can follow Daisy on Twitter.
(Lead illustration by Dan Evans)