Its 20 years since Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm went solo, but, she says, it has taken until 2019 ironically, the year of the bands reunion tour for her to really find herself
Its often said that meeting a Spice Girl feels a lot like encountering a cartoon character. You can see it with unfiltered Mel B, poised Victoria and Emma, still resolutely family-friendly at 43. Geris modern lady-of-the-manor act is the antithesis of her old outrageousness, yet she is stillswimming in camp. But with Mel C or Melanie C as she styles herself these days thats not the case.
Even if she was your favourite Spice Girl, and you have never met one before, and she turns up to your interview in a closed Kings Cross bar wearing a hoodie and trackies just as she would have done when Melanie Chisholm became Sporty Spice 25 years ago its still only the little things that nod to the fact she wasin one of the biggest girl groups of all time. She speaks quietly, often in an awed whisper, and is not beholden to the propaganda-like version of the Spice Girls story that some of her bandmates uphold.
Yet her instantly identifiable scouse accent is unchanged, and she repeatedly recalls memories with an its funny , as you might if you had had to figure out how to make sense of becoming farcically famous at the age of 22. The hardest part of that, Chisholm says, was the dissonance between the shy girl she was and the gobby media caricature: Am I this person Ive always felt like I am? she wondered. Who should I be? Should I be more like theyre saying I am; is that who they want me to be? Is that who I want to be?
At 45, it has taken her a long time to reconcile her anxieties about her identity. She has always sung about her issues with self-acceptance, from her 1999 solo debut, Northern Star, to the new music she is releasing next year. On the demos I hear, she sings about having nothing left to hide and refusing to change for anyone elses expectations, celebrating differences and working towards self-love. She wrote them with left-field pop artists such as Shura, Rae Morris and Little Boots, producing disco-tinged synth-pop that recalls classic Robyn and the carefree joy of Carly Rae Jepsen. It is her best work since she went it alone 20 years ago.
So far, she has released one single, High Heels, written for the queer drag collective Sink the Pink. They have been working closely together this year, touring international Pride celebrations (including one in Jair Bolsonaros Brazil), where Chisholm has been singing backed by a troupe of queens dressed as the Spice Girls. They have helped her nix her self-doubt, she says.
The drag queens are larger than life and Im actually quite quiet, she says. Sometimes I feel Im not enough, Im not outspoken enough, Im not funny enough, Im not good enough. She becomes gently indignant. And I thought: You know what? Thats bullshit. I am enough. Im doing this incredible thing and Ive had this incredible career: its time to really accept every little bit of me, even the shit bits.
Bland self-acceptance is the lingua franca of the modern pop star. But it is poignant to hear Chisholm who really is outspoken and funny, with a weapons-grade laugh talk about getting there after having watched her struggle for two decades. She was always the shy Spice Girl, in a group dominated by massive personalities. On her 2016 album Version of Me, she sang about being bullied by one of the others and spoke of letting someone shit on her. I tell her I assumed it was Mel B, and she nods. Chisholm grew up in a really quiet household, never fighting with her mum, so she hated confrontation (although she did start weightlifting after a girl tried to beat her up).
She almost got booted out of the band once: in February 1996, five months before they launched, they were invited to the Brit awards. I got a bit lairy and I told Victoria to fuck off, she recalls with a guilty laugh. I upset her, and I was told that if that behaviour ever happened again, then she makes a guillotine gesture. Generally, though, she learned that to have an easy life was to stay quiet. Staying out of the line of fire came naturally, even though it came at a cost to her mental health: Chisholm calls herself a people-pleaser who can always see the other side of an argument. Im always the diplomat.
Once the band took off the debut single, Wannabe, spent seven weeks as UK No 1 their schedule was so intense that Chisholm says she sometimes sees photos of the band and cant remember where they were taken. We had our crazy few years and we didnt think about the future, she says. It wasnt on the radar which is a shame, really, because if you did, youd maybe appreciate the moment a bit more.
She says they were well cared for. The problem was, she didnt want to be looked after. I was a grownup, thank you very much, she says. Instead, she entered survival mode, spending three hours a day in the gym, subsisting on fruit and steamed vegetables. My life was out of control and the only thing I could control was how much I ate and how much I exercised, she says. One of my biggest regrets is that there were years when I wouldnt socialise because I didnt want to eat in front of people. I just think: Cor, what a waste of life.
The Spice Girls ubiquity obscures the fact that they only existed as the original five-piece for 22 months, with Geri quitting in May 1998. The other four slogged on through two more tours. Chisholm says it couldnt have lasted much longer. We destroyed ourselves, she says. We were exhausted, we were homesick. They never formally split which, I tell her, was torture for a 10-year-old with a blind faith that they would return. She laughs, apologetically. They never announced the end, because they couldnt be bothered with the press interest. We were burying our heads in the sand. And, to be a bit of a wanker, youre always a Spice Girl; it never stops.
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