It’s half past midnight at a marquee tent in a Brighton park that smells of sweat, booze, and several hundred ecstatic queer people who've been up dancing since 10AM. Of course, this is Brighton Pride. Melanie Chisholm (AKA Melanie C now, rather than Mel C) is on stage, in a hammered silver breastplate that makes her look like a space-age Joan of Arc, draped in the blue, pink and white colours of the trans rights flag.
“This is a flag that we don’t see often enough,” she tells the screaming crowd. “This is a flag we want to see a lot more of. This is for trans and non-binary [people].” Cue: the cascading, shimmery intro notes of “2 Become 1”, which Melanie proceeds to perform note-perfect while surrounded by drag queens dressed as the Spice Girls. It’s a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ cultural moment: Sporty Spice, a member of one of the world’s biggest girl bands coming out for trans rights in a country that’s made headlines for its hostility against the community (So much so that the New York Times even had to publish an explainer for baffled readers).
“I didn’t even know the trans and non-binary community had a flag,” Melanie tells me over the phone. She was introduced to it by Margo Marshall, a non-binary member of Sink the Pink, the LGBTQ drag collective that started out as a messy east London club night and is now performing at Pride festivals all over the world. Just over a week after completing the breathless, joyous Spice Girls reunion tour, Melanie joined Sink the Pink to play New York, São Paulo, Amsterdam and Stockholm. Next stop on their Pride tour: Ireland in September. That’s ostensibly what I’m here to talk to Melanie about, but first she’s keen to unpack the reasons why people in the UK might not support the trans community.
“I think it’s all fear,” she says. “It’s this social thing; it’s tradition and it’s gone through families. It’s this fear and ignorance... All these things, they all come from fear and just not knowing. Fundamentally, that’s where the problem lies. But if you get to know these people, it dissipates because you think, ‘God, they’re just people too.’ We’re all just people, we all just want the same things.’ That’s one of the reasons why I feel very lucky – not everybody has the opportunity to really spend time with people in the trans and non-binary community.”
She says that she felt ”very passionately” about sending a message with the trans flag. “I have friends with children and some of them are questioning whether they’ve been born in the right body,” she begins. “Young people know immediately. As soon as they’re able to express that, they need support systems put in place that families can go to.”
“They always say, ‘It’s a phase and they’ll grow out of it.’ You know what, maybe some of the children will, but some of them won’t. It’s a very sensitive subject, but it’s something that I think needs to get more acknowledgement.”
Melanie displays an empathy about the wobbly confusion of youth, no doubt built on her own experience of fame at a young age. “In your twenties, you feel like you’re grown-ups, but looking back you’re very vulnerable and there’s a lot of self-doubt,” Melanie tells me. She’d gone from a childhood in industrial Cheshire town Widnes, to being a Prodigy-loving teenager (“the first time I saw them live, I was about 18 at a nightclub in Warrington”) partying at drum’n’bass raves, to one-fifth of the biggest girl band in the world. “There’s a lot of growing and learning as I didn’t know what I wanted to be, and all of a sudden these pressures are being put on you." From the peak Spice Girls years to Melanie's following releases, she's always lived by the values that first got her through the strains of the spotlight: honesty, compassion and knowing when to step back and hit pause.
Around the release of her 1999 solo album, Northern Star, she crumbled. “My body finally said enough is enough. That was really hard.” She spent Christmas in LA with her family and found herself paralysed, both physically and emotionally. “I was crying a lot and I just couldn’t move or get active at all.” As someone who literally backflipped through their twenties at work, that scared her. “I thought I was going mad.”
She’s pragmatic recalling this, as she was when diagnosed with depression, talking openly about it in the early 2000s, long before mental health became a media and marketing buzzword. “I felt like I didn’t really have a choice,” she says. “I wanted people to see there was a reason I wasn’t being myself or looking the way people were used to seeing me look. Looking back, people really didn’t talk about it often.”
When she saw Billie Eilish – a young woman on her own rocket-powered pop journey – perform at Shepherd’s Bush in west London in March, she offered her some advice backstage: “I just told her to make sure she got some chill time because it’s very important... You’re not a robot.”
So why did Melanie keep going? Beyond Northern Star, she released six more albums, starred in West End musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Blood Brothers (picking up an Olivier Award nomination), and even now is working on new music – she previewed a pleasingly rousing slice of “love yourself” disco-pop titled “High Heels” in Brighton. Was there ever a point where she thought, well, enough? “No, really I love what I do.” How much pressure was she under to surpass what she’d done with the Spice Girls? “I think,” she says measuredly, “to have ever felt that would be foolish. Nothing any of us ever do will be as big as the Spice Girls. It’s impossible. I wouldn’t even want to.”
And that’s fair – not much could compare. But you get the feeling that her Pride tour with Sink the Pink comes close – especially when she found herself hanging on for dear life on top of a float going down a main boulevard in São Paulo, Brazil. “Doing three nights at a sold-out Wembley Stadium was phenomenal,” she says, “but when I was up on that float I thought, ‘You know what? This is on par.’”
She remembers feeling struck by “the enormity – how far the people spread, so far they were as far as the eye could see. The colour, the noise, the bass… It was all the senses being attacked at once.” Celebrating Pride in a country that had just elected a right-wing bigot in the form of Jair Bolsonaro only served to give it a “very special” touch.
Twenty-one years after they officially disbanded, It’s never been better to be a Spice Girl. Their reunion tour sold out, Melanie says they’re in “very early development stages of making a movie with Paramount Pictures”, and even her preferred look – popper tracksuits, stompy trainers, teeny tank tops – is back in style after being reclaimed by younger LGBTQ people (see: the Instagram account @dykeyspice).
There are lots of girl bands who didn’t endure the turn of the millennium, and lots of girl band singers who couldn’t unite a tent full of leather daddies, twinks, drag queens and the odd hen do mum. But in Brighton, as I watch Melanie Chisholm pull the trans flag off her shoulders with a theatrical flourish, you think – 'well, of course.' It was always going to be Sporty who managed it.