Thursday 23 May 2019

Girls, interrupted: The unabridged story of The Spice Girls

From girl power to break-ups and public feuds - Geri with Mel B for that lesbian fling revelation on TV - Barry Egan tells the greatest pop story never told: The Spice Girls

Spicing it up for 2019, are from left: Geri Horner, Melanie Chisholm, Emma Bunton and Melanie Brown
Spicing it up for 2019, are from left: Geri Horner, Melanie Chisholm, Emma Bunton and Melanie Brown
Victoria Beckham is sitting this one out

Stop right there. You might have thought Posh 'n Sporty 'n Scary 'n Baby 'n Ginger Spice were a mere pop group. Evidently, you were wrong. 'The Spice Girls sang about empowerment - better than the #MeToo whingeing', Cosmo Landesman wrote in The Spectator, adding that the group's 'girl power' ideology said, 'Go ahead, demand what you want' ('what you really, really want', as the Spice Girls put it) and don't let any man get in your way.

American contrarian Camille Paglia thought the Spice Girls were "living embodiments of a new kind of vampy feminism who exude this kind of wholesome, girl-gang quality".

There was more. "The Spice Girls were my gateway drug to feminism," wrote Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in The Guardian.

Not everyone agreed. Author Caitlin Moran recalled being a teenage girl during Britpop in the mid 1990s. She would watch footage of early Blur concerts, "and they're all in Doc Martens and jeans and no make-up, and there's this brilliant, puppyish, just-being-a-human-being kind of vibe.

"Then the Spice Girls come along [in 1994] - and it's like Adam and Eve eating the apple of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. And obviously, the appropriating of the phrase 'girl power', which at that point overrode any notion of feminism, and which was a phrase that meant absolutely nothing apart from being friends with your girlfriends.

"Is that it? You're literally going to tell me as a woman that the two things that are good for me are 1) to make me feel I should go back to wearing a very short skirt, and 2) be friends with my girlfriends. And in exchange for that you're basically going to wipe out feminism for a decade? Thanks!"

For a group whose guiding faith was female friendship above all else - so strong that any wannabe lover has to 'get with my friends' - the fact that the Spice Girls are about to do a reunion tour without Victoria Beckham might appear against all they supposedly hold dear, even hypocritical for the biggest-selling female group of all time (their debut single Wannabe was number 1 in 40 countries in 1996.) So: when five become four...

In any event, the Spice Girls, who last performed together in 2012, for the Olympics' closing ceremony (and have not toured as a band since 2008) kick it all off at Croke Park in Dublin on May 24.

No one should be too shocked that David Beckham's wife won't be there. In 2016, Mel B chirruped on a podcast allegedly of Victoria: "She's just a little bit of a b***h to people." When Mel B later tried to explain away the incendiary remark by saying it was meant as a joke, it was clear that Victoria didn't find the 'joke' funny at all.

Worse, last month on Piers Morgan's Life Stories on ITV, any pretence that Mel B liked Victoria was destroyed with four little words. Asked about Victoria, Mel B simply answered: "Bit of a b***h."

A source close to the pop star, turned-fashion-magnate, told a tabloid that: "Victoria has made it very clear she doesn't want to be part of the tour, and just wants Mel to respect her wishes and stop banging on about it."

According to The Sun, Mel B told Victoria 'F**k you, b***h', when tensions reached fever pitch during a band meeting in London after Victoria refused the tour.

Mel C, aka Sporty Spice, doubtless only made it worse when she claimed of Victoria: "She doesn't have that love of performing any more. It completely petrifies her."

In 2012, ahead of the official opening of Viva Forever, the Spice Girls's musical at London's Piccadilly Theatre, Mel B tried to calm the already raging sea by claiming: "You know what? Me and Victoria are fine now. It's like any relationship with her and me. We fight, we argue, we make up... it's always been like that. It's been like that with all five of us over the years.

"I've had punch-ups with Mel C in the past. But we have unconditional love for each other under­neath it all. Obviously, there's been stories saying some of us hate each other and there are fallouts. But we're like sisters."

In 2015, Mel B allegedly committed the sacrilege of unfollowing Queen Victoria on Twitter in a huff, according to a source who claimed "Mel said that she thought Victoria was a snob for snubbing her bandmates and wanting to distance herself from her pop star past", scotching any reunion plans whatsoever.

In 2017, Mel B was, again, reportedly livid at Victoria for what she saw as her latest lack of respect for the group that made her famous. This time it involved Victoria's involvement in James Corden's Carpool Karaoke for The Late Late Show in America. Unsurprisingly, Mel B saw it as Victoria, who has allegedly turned her back on her past (according - naturally! - to Mel B) using it now to push her fashion label.

What would further get Mel B's goat was Victoria in 2016 telling TV presenter Claudia Winkleman in The Sunday Times's magazine of a mooted Spice Girls reunion: "I think they should sing their own material though, because what we did was so special. If they sang Spice Girls, I think I might be a bit sad."

In February, 2018, Victoria later told Anders Christian Madsen of Vogue at New York Fashion Week during a preview of her autumn/winter 2018 collection: "I'm not going on tour. The girls are not going on tour." Six months later, Mel B appeared on the Today show's Kathie Lee & Hoda segment to put the record straight: "We are touring!" When Victoria's comments to the contrary were put to Mel C, she was aghast: "She's always bloody saying that. Stop it! We are touring!"

In 2018, Mel B went to Heidi Klum's annual Halloween party dressed as... Victoria.

Prior to that, Mel appeared on The Late Late Show with James Corden and declared tongue-in-cheekily that she wanted Katy Perry to replace Victoria on the Spice Girls's tour. This was after a fellow guest on the CBS chat show, actress Olivia Munn, joked that the Spice Girls should have different celebrities replacing Victoria.

What is most intriguing of all is how Victoria has kept her temper in check throughout this relentless (and very, don't you think, un-girl power) Mel B b***hing about her being a so-called b***h.

Rebecca Cripps, who edited the Spice Girls's magazine in the late 1990s, remembered in a 2007 article how "the local teenagers outside the Spice Girls's London HQ were determinedly unimpressed, and one afternoon they hurled abuse at David and Victoria as they arrived at the office. So far, so boring - until three of them started to lick the window and a fourth shouted out that David was a c**t. At this, Victoria's face turned to thunder. Everyone has their breaking point, it seems, and she sprang into high-heeled action. Rushing out of the front door in a little mini-dress, she chased the teens down the street, shouting, "Come back when you've grown some hair under your arms, you pathetic little f**kers!" She frightened the life out of them.

Possibly reductive cliches about Victoria Beckham apart, let us not forget that in 1998 when Geri Halliwell left the band - "due to differences" (and depression) she cited at the time - Baby Spice (Emma Bunton), Posh Spice (Victoria Adams), Sporty Spice (Melanie Chisholm) and Scary Spice (Melanie Brown) continued the Spice Girls as a foursome. Another episode of when five became four, but I digress.

This time around, as a foursome minus Posh, we're told that post-#MeToo the Spice Girls will be rebooting their songs to be more woke before their reunion world tour. Expect Spice Up Your Life minus the line 'Yellow man in Timbuktu/Colour for both me and you.'

Things were very different back then when the girls in ridiculously high heels urged the world to "zig-a-zig-ah" on their debut single Wannabe. (A feminist revision of the song details the modern rules for prospective sexual partners - "If you want my future/forget my past" - illustrates how young women in 2019 could have sexual histories, like men, and not be ashamed of it, like men.)

Geri made Prince Charles blush by kissing him on the cheek at a gala show. While on tour in South Africa, they stole a souvenir toilet roll and some pebbles from the plant pot in Nelson Mandela's bathroom. "I told Nelson what I'd done and he just laughed," Mel B wrote in her diary. "Bless him, he's not got all his hearing." The Spice Girls sold so many records (85 million of them) that the world could scarcely believe what it was hearing. Or seeing. There is a possibly apocryphal story, that at the height of Spice mania, a friend took Ginger Spice and an associate to an artist's warehouse party in south London. Whereupon all the clubbers present ­- apart from Ginger Spice and her associate - had taken hallucinatory drugs.

"Christ, what is going on in my subconscious?" one of them said, gazing at Ginger Spice. "This is really worrying. I keep imagining you're Ginger Spice."

The warehouse full of clubbers - who were high as a kite on acid - was soon pointing at the pop superstar. "This is so weird," they said, gazing at her. "You keep morphing into Geri Halliwell!"

"I am Geri Halliwell," Geri shot back, returning their gaze.

The shocked reaction from the drugged-out clubbers was perhaps similar to shock on Geri's face last month when she watched Mel B announce on Piers Morgan's Life Stories programme on ITV that she'd once had a sexual experience with Geri - "she's going to hate me for this because she's all posh in her country house with her husband. But it's a fact. It just happened and we just giggled at it and that was it."

That was plainly not it, however, and Geri far from saw it as a fact. In a terse and formal statement from her representative, the star, who is very happily married to Formula 1 magnate Christian Horner, made it known that: "It has been very disappointing to read about all these rumours again, especially on Mother's Day of all days. She would like you to know that what has been reported recently is simply not true and has been very hurtful to her family."

As Sophie Wilkinson in Grazia magazine pointed out, "How does Mel's claim hurt Geri's family, unless Christian is the sort of restrictive homophobe who isn't happy to accept his wife once had a dalliance with another woman? I'm not angry at Geri, I'm disappointed."

This is also the same Geri who told shock jock Howard Stern in a 2003 interview: "I had lesbian sex once. I realised quickly I was not a lesbian. I don't mind boobs, but the other bit is not my cup of tea. I could never ever say who it was. I don't think she was a lesbian either. I'm going to leave the rest to your imagination."

Little was left to the imagination in the heyday of the Spice Girls, of course. And I'm not just talking about the outfits; no, the politics. In 1996, they called then British prime minister John Major a "boring pillock". They also said that girl power was but Thatcherism in sexy underwear. Geri, in fact, told The Big Issue magazine in 1996: "Maggie Thatcher was a greengrocer's daughter and that says it all."

Sporty said afterwards that she was a Labour voter. "I'm from working-class Liverpool. I think Margaret Thatcher is a complete prick after what she has done to my hometown."

We also discovered after that interview that, in fact, Victoria and Geri were the only Tories in the band. English writer Chris Heath asked the Spice Girls in 1997 what was the most offensive thing that's been said about them.

Mel B answered first: "Probably being called half-caste. I got called that in one interview, and that's degrading - like a mongrel. I'm not half of anything; I'm mixed race."

Geri: "In the newspaper, it said Podge Spice. That's really f**king negative and dangerous for little girls. Can you imagine a big girl who looks at herself and looks at me and thinks, 'S**t, if she's getting called Podge Spice, what does that make me?'"

Mel C: "Ages ago, one of the first things in the paper about us, I was described as the plain one. I thought, 'That's not very nice'."

Victoria: "What upsets me is when things upset your family. My dad opened the paper one day to find that one of my ex-boyfriends had sold a story about me having sex with him on a train - and as rock & roll as it sounded, and as much as I'd have loved for it to be true, it was actually very untrue."

Emma: "The time I was on holiday in Barbados, and they got pictures of me and my bottom. My mum, as well - me and my mum's bottoms on the front of the paper, saying, 'Emma's 21, but she's got the bum of a 40-year-old'. Don't laugh! Shut up! I have not got the arse of a 40-year-old! Do you want to see it?"

The last time the Spice Girls toured in 2008 Jon Pareles wrote in a New York Times review titled Together Again, With More Sugar Than Tabasco that the "raciest stage moment was for Holler, in which they dressed in dominatrix leather and had their dancers on leashes, on their knees. Earlier, as she sang Lenny Kravitz's Are You Gonna Go My Way, Melanie Brown had her wireless microphone attached to a whip. But the Spice Girls's selling point is that they're not too scary and not too spicy - just mild fun, no more or less."

Later, this month there will be great expectations at Croke Park to see what the grown-up Spice Girls - without Posh - have to deliver.

Say you'll be there.

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