We’ve Got A File On You: Melanie C
It’s impossible to overstate just how important the Spice Girls were to pop music in the 1990s. The UK quintet’s 1996 debut album, Spice — which recently turned 25 years old, commemorated with a deluxe reissue called SPICE25 — went multi-platinum in 27 countries and sold 19 million copies in one year, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. The Spice Girls were so monumental, their collective charisma so magnetic, it’s easy to forget that Melanie Brown (“Scary Spice”), Melanie Chisholm (“Sporty Spice”), Emma Bunton (“Baby Spice”), Geri Halliwell (“Ginger Spice”), and a pre-Beckham Victoria Adams (“Posh Spice”) didn’t meet organically — they were actually placed together by a management firm eager to compete with boy bands like the Robbie Williams-fronted Take That. It’s also easy to forget that the Spice Girls only released two albums after Spice: 1997’s Spiceworld and 2000’s Forever, which did not include Halliwell, who left the band in 1998.
Since their initial hiatus, each of the Spice Girls has gone on to enjoy robust careers in music, entertainment, and fashion, with Beckham in particular becoming a household name in lifestyle spaces. Chisholm, who frequently stole the show with her impressive vocal range, has released eight solo albums as Melanie C, beginning with 1999’s Northern Star and leading up to last year’s self-titled project. Chisholm even celebrated Spice‘s anniversary this year with a stint on Dancing With The Stars, where she finished in 11th place.
Actually, that’s why she’s still in Los Angeles. Chisholm has a ton of post-Dancing press to get out of the way, so I’m pleased she’s amenable to having a lengthy look back at her decades-long career on Zoom. She’d be well within her right to keep the camera off, but there she is, in a very on-brand red track suit, instantly personable and grinning into the phone. “I think it’s just nice to see faces, isn’t it?,” she says in her cheery Northern accent, adding, “Everyone got sick of having to put a bit of makeup on, didn’t they?”
To celebrate Spice turning 25, Chisholm revisited the Spice Girls’ many, many career highlights, from Spice World: The Movie (now a cult classic) to closing out the 2012 Olympics with a “Wannabe” and “Spice Up Your Life” medley. She also opened up about the low points, such as when journalists peppered her with “dehumanizing” questions about her sexual orientation and relationship status. And then there are the unexpected moments, like collaborating with Bryan Adams and fielding phone calls from Madonna (“I was like “Hello?” And she went, ‘Hey, sweetie…'”).
Spice World: The Movie (1997)
I thought we could start with one of my favorite films: Spice World. I feel like the movie has earned a real cult following over the years. There are a crazy number of very British cameos, everyone from Elton John to Stephen Fry and Jools Holland. Have you sat down to watch it at all in the years since it came out?
MELANIE C: Spice World is so funny because it took me years to be able to sit down and watch it. Obviously at the time we went to all the premieres, and even those I think we snuck out of to go and get some dinner. But yeah, it was such a crazy time for us because not only were we shooting the movie, we were also writing and recording the second album, Spiceworld. The movie came out, it did great, and for years and years and years — I don’t know why — I just couldn’t bring myself to watch it. And then my daughter for her fifth birthday had a little sleepover and they wanted to watch Spice World. We put it on and I was like, “I’m going to be hanging out in the kitchen,” and I actually went in and started to watch it. I was really pleasantly surprised. I did think it was really fun, of course it brought back so many great memories. And you’re right, the cameo appearances in it are insane.
We had this wishlist, and it was so brilliant because we kind of caught so many people who had young daughters who were big Spice Girls fans, like Richard E Grant. Richard E Grant, he had to do the movie because his daughter would never have forgiven him if he didn’t, and we had so much fun with him.
What strikes me from that film is all of our voices sound so high-pitched and I don’t know whether it’s youth or the tape sped up a little bit. It’s just really funny to see and hear us when we were so young.
Starring In A Pepsi Commercial (1997)
I feel like through the ’80s, all the way up through the ’00s, starring in a Pepsi commercial meant you’ve officially made it. Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, the Spice Girls… Did you take that moment as a sign that you’d made it in America?
MELANIE C: I feel exactly the same as you. It’s so funny isn’t it, how advertising and marketing works? Because if you think about it, we’re advertising this soda, which actually isn’t very good for you. But you’re right, it had all of these connotations with you being super successful. So we were really excited to do it, and we had a lot of fun. We shot in New York City actually, and for the Spice Girls one of the big things for us as a band is we always wanted to break America. As a British band, it’s the thing, and the Beatles did it and not many other bands go onto do it. All the time we ever spent here was so exciting to us because we grew up on American TV, American movies, American music. So to actually get out here and be doing it on our own terms was so exciting.
Appearing In An All That Sketch (1997)
Kids made up such a large part of your fanbase at the time. And Nickelodeon, I think, had you all stop by for a few things, like hosting a night of SNICK and appearing in an All That sketch with Amanda Bynes, Kel Mitchell, and Kenan Thompson. How was it for the band to actually spend time on set with kids, as opposed to a more traditional setting?
MELANIE C: There were mixed emotions around it because we were so fortunate in that we had a really young audience, and I think for a lot of music artists, no one had really seen it before. We had kids at our concerts as young as three and four, so we felt really privileged to have that. And also the thing is with kids, they like what they like, they’re not afraid to tell you you’re rubbish, so to have them on [our] side is incredible. And of course the label are very happy about it, it opens up a whole new market, but it also put a lot of pressure on us, because we were in our early 20s, so we were growing up and experimenting and figuring out who we were and making mistakes and a lot of those things. And we had a lot of pressure on ourselves and each other because we couldn’t mess up. Thank goodness it was a time when you didn’t have social media and everybody carrying a high-quality camera on their phone in their pocket. But we knew that we were role models and it was a responsibility and we didn’t want to disrespect that.
Performing At The Brit Awards (1998)
So the 1998 Brits were in February that year, and Geri made the decision to leave the band the following spring. Did the rest of the band have an inkling that she was considering leaving around that time? I think I recall reading in her memoir that she left days before the band’s much-hyped 1998 world tour?
MELANIE C: Geri did actually do a portion of the tour. She did the European leg but ended up leaving two shows short of completing that tour, and then we came over to the US for three months. But we were unaware; the cracks were beginning to show. We were exhausted, there were tensions in the band, there were tensions around the band, so when it happened we were really, really shocked. Because the history of the Spice Girls is — I’m sure you can imagine with our personalities and how fiery people can be — there was times when we fell out. I think a few of us had left a few times and come back, so when she initially did it we thought she’d come back, but she’d made her decision.
And so much water’s gone under the bridge now, we respect her decision and she did what she had to do at that time and she was struggling but it was very, very lovely to have her back on stage in 2007 and in 2019 when we did our stadium shows in the UK and Ireland.
Yeah, I’m crossing my fingers that you guys come to the US at some point!
MELANIE C: Me too. We always intended to go out and do more shows. It’s so nostalgic and it was magical. And it’s so funny because I often think how was it so magical because, unbeknownst to us, we were about to enter into this crazy new phase of life where we don’t have the same freedoms that we have before.
[In 2019] we were playing stadiums, and you’re talking about 80,000 people. But it felt very intimate because it was such a wonderful shared experience. So we have to do it again, and we want to do it again. It’s just figuring out when that is realistic to be able to do. And of course the US for me is so high on that list.
Collaborating With Bryan Adams (1998)
One of the first things you did after the Spice Girls went on hiatus was sing a duet with Bryan Adams. Zero offense to Bryan Adams, but I imagine that collaboration might have been far from what fans expected you’d do.
MELANIE C: Hey, do you know what’s so funny about that song? I was with Virgin Records at the time and they didn’t want me to do it. They didn’t think it was the right thing to do, but my reasons for doing it were — and I love Bryan — [that] my mum is his biggest fan. [When] I met him, I was in LA, I was on tour with the girls. I was in the hotel. I got on a lift and a guy got in with a guitar on his back. I kind of thought, “I know him” — I turn around and it’s Bryan. We’d met him at Top Of The Pops a few months earlier, and we just started chatting and I said, “My mum is in the bar downstairs, could you do me the biggest favor and just come and say hi?” And he was so sweet, he went, “Sure. I’m going to put my guitar in my room, and then I’ll come down.”
He sat with us all night and we had a few drinks and him and my mum chatted away. [When] I got home to the UK, he called me up and said, “Hey I’ve got this song [‘When You’re Gone’], I’d really love you to sing on it,” and I was like, “Yeah, I’m in,” without even hearing the song. Because I thought, “If I say no to Bryan Adams, my mum would disown me.”
Luckily, “When You’re Gone” is a great song, it’s been so successful. It’s the song probably that gets played the most — of all of the songs I’m involved with, the Spice Girls and solo records — on British radio and in Europe. Tell you what’s really funny is, whenever I get in a black cab in London, it’s like the drivers’ favorite, so they recognize me, go, “Oh, I love that song you did with Bryan Adams.” I’m glad I did it. Because working with Bryan was my first solo outing without the girls. He put his faith in me and it gave me that confidence to go on and pursue a solo career.
Covering Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” (1999)
In all of the Spice Girls’ interviews, separately and together, you all constantly cite Madonna as a major influence. I’m assuming you’ve since had the chance to meet her in person? What has that relationship meant to adult Melanie, given how meaningful Madonna’s music and artistry was to your childhood?
MELANIE C: I have been lucky enough to meet Madonna, quite a few times actually. She’s been very, very good to me. The first time I met Madonna was at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York in 1997. We actually won Best Dance Video for “Wannabe,” which is so funny because it was artists like the Prodigy in the same category who actually are a dance act. So that was quite fun. Madonna was there, and we were invited to go into her dressing room and say hello. The girls made fun of me, they were like, “Oh Melanie better sit down before she falls down,” because I think for me, Madonna just really represented what I wanted to do.
I grew up loving dancing, singing — her shows were so theatrical. The first time I saw her on stage it was on TV. It was the Live Aid concert in 1986. I’d listened to her music, I’d seen her videos, I really loved her, but then seeing her with a band behind her, it really spoke to me. It made me go, “That’s what I want to do.”
I think the tour that really struck me was Blonde Ambition in 1990, which I think is her best show ever. All of her shows are insane, but I think that one, for me, it just really touched me at that time. I grew up through the ’80s and the ’90s and so it was just such a big part of my development and realization of who I wanted to be…
Meeting her was jaw-dropping. And then I was staying in New York, I’d gone to visit some friends after the Spice tour ended in 1998, and I got a call to my room saying, “Oh hey I’ve got Madonna on the line for you,” and I was like, it’s just one of the girls messing about, winding me up. And I was like, “Hello?” And she went, “Hey sweetie.” Then she invited me out for dinner. You’re right, for that teenage girl in her bedroom singing all the words to “Express Yourself,” it’s pretty mind-blowing.
Appearing On An Episode Of Norm (2000)
When Norm MacDonald passed away earlier this year, there was such a wave of grief from the comedy and entertainment communities. Do you remember anything in particular about starring in an episode of his short-lived sitcom? Was it at all your intention to do things like TV cameos at the time?
MELANIE C: Not at all, actually. I think I was probably [in the US] promoting Northern Star and the request came in. I was just really flattered. It’s funny isn’t it, because obviously as the Spice Girls we did so many things together and then you’re branching out on your own, you’re so lucky to be asked. And I just remember everybody just being really sweet, really helpful because of course I was quite nervous. But yeah, it was very brief, but I feel really honored that I was asked to be part of his show.
Soundtracking Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
When your solo debut Northern Star came out in 1999, a few years later I remember being excited to hear “I Turn To You” soundtracking the clubbing scene in Bend It Like Beckham.
MELANIE C: It felt natural and really lovely to be a part of [Bend It Like Beckham]. Because obviously it was family. It was a movie based on a female football team and it has lots of … it was a comedy but it covered lots of issues, whether it be through sexism and racism and cultural expectations and so it was an important film. It launched Keira Knightley, didn’t it?
And of course it being titled Bend It Like Beckham and there was a little cameo with some lookalikes of David and Victoria in there at the end, so it felt like a natural fit. It was lovely to be a part of that movie and so wonderful that it went onto be so successful because Gurinder [Chadha] who wrote and directed the movie, she’s incredible and it was really lovely to work with her.
There’s a line of dialogue in the film that hits differently now and makes me think of a line of questioning journalists would not let up about in the ‘90s and 2000s. Keira’s mom in the movie is like, “Honey, all I’m saying is there is a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one of them without a fella.” There are also a painful number of interviews with you where journalists are insisting they know your sexual orientation and relationship status. In hindsight, what was going on in your head in those moments?
MELANIE C: Yeah, you know it’s a really interesting question because when I think back, my experience of being a Spice Girl and being in the public eye in that way, I was … I think we all felt like we were public property and you almost become dehumanized. My daughter gets really cross when people say, “It was a different time,” but it was a different time. And thank goodness we do evolve, but looking back it is shocking. It’s shocking the way that females have been questioned in interviews over the years, it’s shocking how journalists have written about women, the language that has been used. I don’t know if you’re aware, I’m sure you are, but in the UK there’s been lots of cases in the last few years about phone hacking, so the tabloids, certain tabloids, were listening in to conversations, messages, so really a lot of your privacy was under attack.
And that’s how it feels often when you’re being interviewed, you feel like you’re under attack, so you build this barrier and of course it affects you. Because something like that, I was single for a long time during the Spice Girls and I was lonely, and of course I wanted to be in a relationship. I was a young woman. I had to put on this brave face. But every time you’re asked [if you’re in a relationship], it hurts because you think, “Why haven’t I got a boyfriend?”
Obviously all of the questioning around my sexuality always has infuriated me because I am very proudly an ally of the LGBTQ+ community, and first of all whoever you want to sleep with is nobody’s business apart from your own and the person you want to sleep with, right? And thank goodness now we’re living — most of us in the Western world — in a society where we’re free to be who we really are and who we want to be, who we choose to be. But yeah, it’s crazy, that obsession with sexuality, I find really bizarre, because it’s like what does it matter to anybody else?
MELANIE C: I’m sure it’s the same in America, but in the UK young artists have media training. That didn’t exist when we were young and I think maybe because of the Spice Girls they invented media training because we were so chaotic. We didn’t have any protection mechanisms; we had each other. If [I was] put on the spot as a young person, I thought I just had to do what I was asked to do. I’m a people pleaser naturally, so it’s very difficult for me to say to a journalist, “I don’t want to answer that question.” I’ve learned how to do it by swerving off and talking about something else, but as a young person I felt like it was my duty to [answer]. I’m really honest as well. I find it hard to not be truthful. so it was really, really difficult to navigate that whole thing.
Shutting Down Simon Amstell On Never Mind The Buzzcocks (2007)
As you matured, did you find it easier to shut interviewers down when they veered into inappropriate territory? There’s a great clip of you clapping back at Never Mind The Buzzcocks host Simon Amstell when he’s asking you for gossip about Mel B and Eddie Murphy.
MELANIE C: I remember exactly the time you’re talking about. I think yeah, obviously the Spice Girls were thrown into the deep end because we had no experience. We became very successful very quickly so we were doing really high-profile interviews all the time and we just had to learn on our feet. And I do think over the years obviously becoming more confident, becoming more comfortable in my own skin as well as in that environment has really helped me.
I think it’s like everything in life, you kind of have to gauge your environment, and also figure out where your boundaries are. There were other members of the band who are much more vocal and outspoken, so somebody like Mel B would be much more comfortable in the early days going, “No, that’s not cool, I don’t want to do that, we’re not doing that,” whereas if I had just been on my own I might have gone “Oh, okay then,” but been really uncomfortable. It’s been a little bit of a learning process.
Making A Cameo In Little Mix’s “Word Up” Video (2014)
When Little Mix first showed up in pop music, I recall that they were kind of marketed to be like the next Spice Girls. When you think about the next generation(s) of pop groups compared to what the Spice Girls experienced, what have you noticed?
MELANIE C: I am such a big fan of Little Mix, and obviously Jesy’s gone out on her own now. They are lovely girls and they’re so talented. And to be touted as the next Spice Girls, they’re so different, they’re unique, they are their own thing. They are insanely talented vocalists, great dancers, and the Spice Girls, we’re different. They have very different qualities in Little Mix. They have great songs, they’ve been making records for 10 years, we only managed it the first time around for about two, it was so hectic.
I think the big difference for them and us is shows like The X Factor, which is where they were found. They were put together in the view of the public. They literally started their journey on TV and they’re living with social media, so I think it’s a much different world that they inhabit. We were able to do things behind closed doors. [They have] loads of pressure on them, and I think they’ve handled it very gracefully. I know there’s been some problems recently which is hard, with Jesy leaving [Editor’s note: Jesy Nelson left Little Mix in December 2020], and we live in a society where people want to find the cracks. But I think they’ve always done so well and what struck me is they were tight. I’m sure they have their issues and I’m sure they have their fallout like us Spice Girls, but I was really impressed with them. And I do I worry. I worry for them because I know how hard it can be in that environment.
Performing On Dancing With The Stars (2021)
It was so cool to watch you compete on Dancing With The Stars this year. Had this been something you’d been wanting to do for a while? What was behind the decision to compete?
MELANIE C: It’s been a huge show in the UK for years. It’s called Strictly Come Dancing at home. It literally is the biggest show on TV, everybody loves it. It’s something you sit down with the family and watch. My daughter, she’s a little bit too old now, she’s a bit too cool to watch it, but it’s like real primetime family viewing, and I enjoyed it. I’ve been asked to do it in the UK many times. But the problem I find in the UK is, it’s so high profile that it would change my daily life. I’m able to go about my business and walk my daughter to school and go shopping and do things without being pursued by paparazzi too much, so I never really fancied it.
I released an album in November 2020 and I would have been touring this year and playing festivals. Then of course the situation with the pandemic has not allowed me to do that. So when Dancing With The Stars came around, I was like, you know what, I’ve been stuck in lockdown in London for a year and a half, I love dancing, I love the show. The opportunity to come out here and just to do something different really appealed to me. And of course yeah, it was the Spice Girls’ 25th anniversary and I opened the show with “Wannabe,” so it did feel really fun. And I was very flattered by everybody being so excited that I was there.
Performing With The Spice Girls At The London Olympics Closing Ceremony (2012)
It’s so hard to believe that it’s been almost a decade since the Spice Girls reunited at the London Olympics. What did a monumental moment like that mean to the band?
MELANIE C: That was literally one of the best moments of being a Spice Girl. It’s something we’d talked about, we really wanted to perform at an Olympics, and then of course it was on home soil and we had the opportunity. It was a really interesting time because we hadn’t really had social media when we’d been around in the ’90s. Even in 2007 I feel like it was quite fledgling. But by 2012, Twitter was huge. And we were backstage at the stadium watching these tweets roll in and trending and all of this stuff and it was like the whole world was waiting for the Spice Girls. We were so nervous and we were so excited. Our performance, it was literally a four-minute medley, so we knew it would be over in a flash and we just had this little moment together. We’re like right, whatever happens it’s going to be over so quickly, we have to take it in, we have to look at each other. We have to take in the sights, the sounds, the smells, everything.
And we went out there and we did that, we just stayed really, really present. I just have such wonderful, vivid snapshots in my mind, and I’ve carried that through because I think in your youth you’re getting through another day, you’re on a different continent, you’re on a different stage. It’s like, where are we today? You’re just trying to get through it because you’re so exhausted. But coming back and having these opportunities with the girls, these opportunities — we really, fully appreciate [it]. I remember all the athletes who were around the bottom of the stage, I remember all the little lights from the camera phones. I remember waddling around on the top of that taxi.
There were so many incredible artists at the stadium, one of them being George Michael actually. He came into our dressing room — he was very good friends with Geri, and we’d all met him over the years. He was very nervous. He was going out, he was doing a few songs, so we were giving George a pep talk, being like, “George, you’ve got this.” Then he was so generous, he was such a wonderful man. In fact, it was the last time I saw him. He had a big party back at his house and he had a big screen in the garden and loads of wonderful food and loads of artists were there and it was just such a magical experience, from beginning to end, really.