Mel C reveals how the pressures of global fame led to depression
The Spice Girl clock goes tick-tick-tock and at 3pm Sporty says it is way too late for caffeine. None of the fruit teas on offer quite hit the spot, so she reaches into a tote for her emergency stash of peppermint teabags, folded neatly into a Ziploc bag. How very organised!
‘I can’t help it,’ she says. ‘I am a mum.’
It seems like yesterday when Sporty Spice aka Mel C aka Melanie Chisholm from Merseyside was doing backflips in a crop top and singing about girl power with her fellow Spices. Yet 25 years have passed since the most successful girl group of all time pushed their chicas to the front and took on the world. Today, Sporty is not just a devoted single mother to her 13-year-old daughter Scarlett, she is a pop survivor who loves her early nights and her decaf life.
It seems like yesterday when Sporty Spice aka Mel C (pictured) aka Melanie Chisholm from Merseyside was doing backflips in a crop top and singing about girl power with her fellow Spices
‘My rock and roll days are over,’ she cries, revealing that her last proper night out was on her birthday (in January!) and even then, moderation prevailed. ‘I don’t drink a lot, you know. I have the odd drink here and there, but I have to be careful because it is not great for women to drink too much. And I have started drinking cleaner these days.’
Clean drinking? What is this fresh hell from Spice world, some nunnish brew of plain water and cucumber slices?
Not quite. ‘I used to be a big red wine girl but these days I go cleaner; I go for a margarita cocktail instead. I go for tequila or vodka.’
Well that’s a relief.
At 48, Melanie is a woman with a positive attitude to ageing: ‘Middle-aged women have so much to offer,’ she says. ‘It is great that we are no longer invisible.’
Still, Spices do not grow old as we grow old. Today the former chart-topper is lithe and attractive in her pinstripe Nike Jordan dress, cut to reveal a red sports bra underneath.
It’s an outfit that couldn’t be more perfect for a middle-aged Sporty Spice if she’d been sent to a costume department with a vibe note that read Sporty but Ageing Like A Clean Wine. ‘I am 90 per cent forever and inevitably a Spice Girl,’ she says, a rallying cry we should all adopt, even if there are drawbacks.
She smooths a hand over the rock chick inkings on her bare arms and admits to tattoo regret. ‘I go through phases. I have periods when I just wish my tattoos weren’t there.’
Among the 11 or so dotted around her body is a circlet snaking around a still-taut bicep, a feather, a phoenix, a dragon, a lotus flower and, on her left upper arm, a large Celtic cross.
The artwork and designs are so old-fashioned now, she says, that they instantly carbon date her to the 1990s.
Back then, Sporty once had dinner with Madonna and asked why she didn’t have any tattoos. ‘Too permanent,’ replied the queen of reinvention crisply. Viva forever, live for the moment, the Spice Girls once sang.
However, it is only now, decades too late, that Melanie appreciates Madonna’s wisdom. And what if Scarlett wanted to get a tattoo, too? Mum looks horrified.
Mel C’s rather bleak tale of female pop stardom is dominated by clinical depression and an eating disorder that almost took her to the point of suicide. Pictured: Spice Girls backstage at the Brit Awards in February 1997
‘She’s at that stage where there are so many things I advise her about but she pretends not to listen. But on this? Well, I haven’t got a leg to stand on, have I? No, I haven’t gotten a tattooed leg to stand on.’
We meet to talk about Melanie’s new autobiography, Who I Am, in which she chronicles regrets which are rather deeper and darker than the odd misbegotten tattoo.
It tells her rather bleak tale of female pop stardom, one which is dominated by clinical depression and an eating disorder that almost took her to the point of suicide.
It also takes in her working-class guilt at becoming rich, her loathing of media scrutiny and her exhaustion with the Spice schedule when the band hit the big time.
It makes me feel sad, I say, that being a Spice Girl sounds like five minutes of fun on a merry-go-round of utter misery.
‘Well, it is such a mixed bag of emotions when I look back, because us girls achieved so much, we accomplished our wildest dreams.
‘I never want to look back on that time negatively, but it is important for me to tell the difficult parts of my past. Our culture has changed so much and so many young people are hungry for fame. And I just want them to be prepared. It’s not plain sailing.’
In her book, she pinpoints the beginning of her health troubles to the summer of 1994; a time when the Spice Girls were still called Touch and were managed by ‘an Arthur Daley type’ called Chic Murphy.
One afternoon, while they were relaxing by a Home Counties swimming pool, she was demonstrating how to do a round-off backflip.
‘I’m surprised you can do backflips with thighs like that,’ he told her.
She was ‘mortified’. Later bandmate Victoria told her that Murphy had pulled her aside and said something similar about her weight. ‘Look at you in that bikini. You need to lose a few pounds, love.’
We five know that individually we would not have achieved what we did together and we are so grateful to each other for that
In her autobiography Learning To Fly, Victoria Beckham (Posh) chronicled the bulimia and anorexia that affected her in the Spice Girls, while Geri Horner (Ginger) spoke on Oprah of her Spice-related bulimia.
Melanie (Scary) Brown’s body issues came later, after the birth of her third child, while Emma Bunton (Baby) had her own health problems, dealing with endometriosis while she was in the group.
Yet from what Mel C tells me now, I get the feeling none of the Spices suffered quite as badly or as deeply as the uncomplaining Sporty.
‘I was quite unwell for a few years,’ she says, with some understatement. ‘When I look back, I don’t know physically how I did it; when you consider how little I lived on and how much exercise I was doing alongside a brutal schedule.’
In print and in person, she is careful not to divulge too much detail, because she doesn’t want any ‘thinspirationally’ inclined young women to copy her in an attempt to emulate her lowest weight or most brutal diet regimes.
Yet even without the specifics, her six years of illness, from the hit singles Wannabe to the last hurrah of Goodbye, make for a distressing tale.
‘I started with the elimination of food groups. Back then, fat was the enemy. And then of course, the fear of carbs came in.
‘I got to the point where, for a couple of years, I was predominantly eating fruit and vegetables and that was it.
‘It is not a sustainable way to live. I was never anorexic to the point of being admitted to a hospital, thank goodness. But my periods stopped, so obviously my body fat was too low.’
Around 2000, she added binge eating to the toxic mix, getting up at 3am to gorge on carbs.
‘I would eat cereal and bread to the point of sedation,’ she writes.
‘I would binge until I was unconscious. I never, ever made myself sick, but I tried. I felt so disgusting.’
In the December of that year, the Spice Girls finally broke up and it was just before this point that she hit rock bottom. ‘The wheels were falling off,’ is how she puts it, although she does not blame being a Spice Girl per se for her problems.
‘It was more the level of fame. And so many of my issues were driven by control or lack of control. I was binge drinking. I was binge eating. I was embarrassed and ashamed of it. I had to keep it a secret because even though you’re in denial about it, there’s still that tiny little voice going: “This isn’t right, you can’t continue like this.”
‘But I didn’t want to face it. I didn’t want to face it until the time when I personally felt like I didn’t have an option. I was afraid of what the alternative was.’
You mean, you were afraid of killing yourself?
‘Potentially, yes. Potentially going so far down that road. My own behaviour discouraged me so much. I didn’t know how far that could progress. So it was definitely time to get outside help.’
Eventually she saw a doctor who diagnosed her with clinical depression, anorexia, a binge-eating disorder, severe anxiety and agoraphobia. He put her on antidepressants, which was a first step on the road to recovery. But shouldn’t more support have been offered by those around the Spice Girls? Who were, after all, barely out of their teens.
‘Absolutely. When I look back I am shocked about how much work we were supposed to do, how little time we had off, how little support we had for our mental health. It wasn’t even considered back then.’
After the group sacked their first managers, their career was masterminded by pop mogul Simon Fuller.
In her book Sporty notes that Fuller did actually send her to a mental health clinic specialising in eating disorders quite early in the Spice Girls’ trajectory. ‘I am grateful for that,’ she says although her relationship with him today is ‘complicated’.
Are they friends? ‘We’re not not friends. Simon really looked after us in some ways.’
Yet being a Spice Girl wasn’t a total nightmare and it is rather cheering to hear that despite everything, the band have remained close.
Melanie was a guest at Brooklyn Beckham’s recent wedding (‘The first Spice baby to get married! I was at a table with some of Victoria’s family. It was an incredible day. It was a lot of fun.’) while maturity and womanhood have brought the Spices a new appreciation of each other.
‘We five know that individually we would not have achieved what we did together and we are so grateful to each other for that.
‘Yes, we can get childish when we are together and, of course, we still drive each other nuts.
‘There are still times when there’s a big blow up, but it soon blows over,’ she says. What do they fight about?
Prince Harry (left) poses with Spice Girls Victoria (second left) as his father, HRH Prince Charles (second right), gets the attention of Spice Girls Mel C (right) before British pop group’s concert in Johannesburg in 1997
‘We don’t really fight. We don’t fight any more,’ she says, diplomatically. ‘We give each other the space that we need.
‘We understand each other’s idiosyncrasies, you know. And if there’s anything that frustrates us about each other’s behaviour, we are just so much more respectful of that.
‘And it’s the only way to be. It might sound cheesy, but we are not just colleagues, we are not just friends, we are family.’
Unlike many of their unfortunate contemporaries in the acting or modelling worlds, the Spices found safety in numbers and never had a MeToo moment, collectively or individually.
‘There was no sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour because nobody would f*** with the Spice Girls. Nobody would f*** with us.
‘In fact, the boot was on the other foot, because we were intimidating and we enjoyed that. Maybe we did go a little bit too far, you know, just in the way we expressed ourselves. It is crazy how you can intimidate a lot of men in a room,’ she says, and chuckles at the memory.
A favoured Spice tactic, when meeting celebrities such as Prince Charles or Nelson Mandela, was to cover them in lipstick kisses and pinch their bottoms.
In the offices of music moguls they would switch on their boombox, dance and sing, sit on any stray laps. ‘We weren’t sexually harassing these men. We weren’t even harassing them. We just took their power away.’
In the post-Spice world, Sporty has had the most successful solo career — and does not regret investing £250,000 in Viva Forever! the 2012 Spice Girls musical written by Jennifer Saunders. ‘It flopped and I lost every penny, but that’s the chance you take,’ she shrugs. More profitable was the Spice Girls reunion stadium tour of 2019, which was a huge success, even though Victoria did not participate.
‘They were the most incredible shows we ever did,’ says Melanie, revealing that more dates are planned for next year. Will Posh be climbing aboard her platforms and onto the stage, too?
‘It would be nice if Victoria joined us, but we don’t know. We’re in various discussions about various things. She’s still very much part of the band and we want her to be happy. Of course, we missed her on that tour.
‘We missed her dearly. And Victoria joining us in future shows is the dream. I don’t want to put any pressure or expectations on her, but that would be our wish.’
Today Melanie lives a singleton life in North London. She has never married and split from Scarlett’s father Thomas Starr in 2012, after a ten-year relationship.
Recently she also split from boyfriend Joe Marshall after seven years, a separation complicated by the fact that he was also her manager.
When I look back I am shocked about how much work we were supposed to do, how little time we had off, how little support we had for our mental health. It wasn’t even considered back then
‘It can be difficult because there’s so much emotion involved, but we still love each other dearly. We are navigating it at the moment and I’m very proud of us. We’ve been very grown up about it,’ she says.
So what now?
First, there is something she wants to get off her chest.
‘Well I’ve been single for a few months. Some magazine article said recently that I am “not afraid to be single” and it really annoyed me. We have been conditioned in society to believe that we have to be part of a partnership and I don’t want anyone thinking you should be scared to be single.
‘That is bulls***, you know? I don’t feel like some dried up old spinster on the shelf. I feel excited about the future.’
Would a Spice Girl ever do online dating? ‘I really don’t know. I haven’t been single since online dating was a thing. I just think it’s weird if you’re in the public eye.
‘But I am not even in that place yet. I’m not really looking for relationships. My focus is different.’
Like most former teen idols, Sporty aka Mel C aka Melanie is bruised in the ways of the world, but while she is very guarded, she is also remarkably grounded for someone who roared through the pop furnace and somehow survived, albeit with her feathers slightly singed.
Yet despite all the difficulties and the long years of food deprivation and illness, this richly tattooed, peppermint tea-drinking trouper is right to see her life as a triumph.
‘All around me I see women overcoming and achieving incredible things. And I just feel like we don’t give ourselves enough credit.
‘We are f***ing warriors, you know?’ she says. ‘Sometimes when I think of what I have done and what I now deal with every day; with work, with being a mum, with family stuff. And I’m like, f***, I’m still standing.’
Now read this powerful extract from Mel c’s explosive new book
In this exclusive extract from her memoir, Mel recalls the pressures of Spicemania…
We met Simon Cowell in the office of his label, RCA. We did our usual bit for him, ending on a triumphant backflip and a ‘ta-dah!’.
This was years before Pop Idol, let alone X Factor, so to us, he was just another industry guy who we needed to impress.
I’m not sure he was a huge fan of pop stars trying to write their own songs or artists with opinions of their own. Pretty much as soon as we started talking, it was game over.
‘It’s a no from me girls,’ he said in that droll, deadpan voice of his, adding: ‘I don’t think you’ve got what it takes.’ We didn’t feel too bad — Simon also turned down Take That. He had said: ‘I’d sign them without the fat one.’ So that tells you about the culture of the industry then. He did say later that not signing the Spice Girls was the biggest mistake he’d made. Well, he said he’d tried to sign us, but we turned him down, but that’s not how we remember it.
Simon wasn’t the only prominent person, well, man, to turn down the Spice Girls. Very early on, we set our sights on TFI Friday, hosted by Chris Evans, arguably the most influential pop culture show on British television at that time.
This was a couple of months before we released Wannabe, but people in the industry were getting to know us. We ended up in a meeting with Suzi Aplin, one of the show’s producers and Chris’s girlfriend at the time.
We, as ever, bounded in, guns blazing. We did our usual bit of singing and dancing in a chaos of buffalo boots and Nike trainers and as we did, Chris, in one of the offices on the side, spotted us. ‘Why don’t you go back to Live & Kicking?’ he shouted through the glass, i.e. you’re a crap pop band. It was the 1990s, the peak of Britpop, and I guess Chris didn’t quite understand what we were doing.
n Adapted from Who I Am: My Story by Melanie C, to be published by Welbeck on September 15 at £20. © Melanie C 2022. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid to 22/09/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visitmailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
Get tickets for Melanie’s book tour at melaniec.net/live/