The Spice Girls established Melanie Chisholm, aka Sporty Spice, as a stadium-filling star, an international celebrity and a music chart-topping pioneer.
It also nearly killed her, as she reveals in her candid memoir Who I Am.
From their official origin in 1996 through to Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell’s departure in 1998, there was no time for reflection nor rest. It was a period in which Chisholm developed a deadly eating disorder and depression, illnesses that, aged 48, she still has to manage. Writing “Who I Am” was her gift to herself, a recognition of all she’d accomplished and survived, and a gift to readers who have probably not seen their own mental health struggles reflected so candidly or compassionately by a household celebrity name.
“Making the decision to write this book was really hard,” Chisholm admits from her London home. It is an early morning there, and she has found a window of time to talk before she has to take her 13-year-old daughter, Scarlet, to school.
“On a daily basis, I have doubts about whether I’ve done the right thing,” she muses of the no-holds-barred revelations into periods of depression, binge eating and obsessive exercise.
Chisholm’s Scouse accent reveals her roots on Merseyside, a skip and a jump east of Liverpool. While it lacks the posh, toffy polish of the royals, it is endearingly cheerful and earthy with its dropped “gs”, so that “thing” becomes “think”.
She has just recorded the audiobook, an effort which she can only sum up with a loud exhale.
“Can you imagine what it was like having to say it all out loud? There’s been so many stages to this book. You know, obviously there’s been really joyous moments of reliving all the great, iconic Spice Girls moments whether it’s the BRITs, or the Olympics, meeting Nelson Mandela, all these amazing things. But then, of course, it’s a long life and career that I’m reflecting on, and there are some very dark places to revisit.”
There are many moments of delight, elation and hilarity that ensure the book is not an exercise in exorcising her ghosts. Meeting her fellow Spice Girls and high-tailing it from their original management to do things their own, rebellious, rambunctious way is one of the highlights of the book. It’s hard to believe Spice Girls only really existed for two years, between 1996 and 1998.
The Spice Girls – Chisholm, Melanie Brown (Scary Spice), Emma Bunton (Baby Spice), Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice) and Victoria Beckham (Posh Spice) — have never officially disbanded, but they have not consistently recorded, toured or performed as a five-piece since 1998.
“I think it’s incredible what we packed into two years,” Chisholm says. “The impact that we made continues today. Even though the crazy Spice Girls times were less than two years in the public eye, we’re here and we’ve been going strong for the last 25 years.”
Who I Am depicts Chisholm’s childhood spent between council housing estates, singing along to Madonna and George Michael on her red tape-to-tape Toshiba ghettoblaster. She gained a dance scholarship at 16 and left Liverpool for London. Eventually, an audition for a pop group introduced her to the future Spice Girls, though not long after forming, the girls decided to ditch their controlling, body-shaming, all-male management (who enforced the band name Touch), to negotiate their own management, write their own songs, and decide on their own costumes and styling. What really emanates from her recollections is the bravery and persistence of each of the girls and their enormous dedication to one another as bandmates and friends.
“I had to be very sensitive because this is my experience and this is my story, but of course it involves and affects other people. So, I did speak to the girls. I didn’t want to upset or hurt anybody or make any mistakes in saying things that aren’t correct. So, I had an open dialogue with the girls and as soon as I was happy with where the book was, I got it out to them,” she explains.
Whether the depths of Chisholm’s mental ill health were known by the others or not remains unclear to her.
“I’ve never talked in detail about my experiences with anybody,” she reveals. “I think it was probably my parents reading it that I was most concerned about. When I sent the book to them, I did give them a little heads up that there were certain parts in chapter 14. I think it’s really difficult for parents of somebody who has been through that.”
Chisholm’s book reveals that deep into their mid-90s success, she was struggling to find a sense of validation and support:
“If I was told not to do something, I wouldn’t do it. The truth is I hate upsetting people or letting them down, it makes me feel sick, I’m talking actual nausea and feelings of anxiousness. I think it increased with my time in the band, but I do remember having those feelings as a kid. It made me question myself all the time. I’d think I was doing OK, and then someone would say something about me being too ‘vulnerable’ to have a boyfriend or point out I’d said something ‘stupid’ in an interview and I’d think, ‘Oh shit, am I not OK?’ I was made to believe there was something wrong with me.”
Later, after press interviews that confront her eating disordered behaviour, she writes:
“I’d succumbed to something. I had anorexia. I had binge-eating disorder. It felt embarrassing. It’s not embarrassing, I can’t stress that enough, but I felt embarrassed of it, because we have been told that we should be ashamed about these issues. I’ve heard people say similar things, the shame that we attach to addiction and mental illness . . . in retrospect, I wish I’d not spoken to the press, but spoken to my loved ones instead.”
It must have riled her parents that their daughter and her bandmates were often beholden to the whims and easy disparagement of old men within the music industry and the tabloids. Chisholm’s book reveals that from the outset, the Spice Girls were treated with dismissal at best, and often with disdain. Everything from their bodies to their voices was criticised. They were told repeatedly that an all-female pop band was of zero interest to either the public or the media. The myth that the band were manufactured is quickly dispelled, too.
“Everything that happened with the Spice Girls, it’s so funny because it looks so well thought through and marketed, you know, but it was just really natural. We just did what we wanted, what we felt like at the time. When we first started with our original management, they were giving us songs that had been written by older guys. We didn’t identify with the lyrics and we just thought it was really lame, really boring.”
When Wannabe, an homage to female friendship, was released at the end of 1995, radio was awash with established pop stars and glossy boy bands: Madonna, Mariah Carey, Boyzone, Boys II Men, East 17 and Backstreet Boys dominated the charts.
Chisholm recalls, “In the late 80s and early 90s, there was a lot of songs about breakups and love and boyfriends and sex in the club, but we wanted to talk about what we were feeling and what we were doing. That spoke to people, and I think I’ve continued that through all the work I’ve done as a solo artist as well, because I always feel like the most inspiring thing is life and experience. When you express that and you’re really honest, people really react and respond to it.”
The Spice Girls’ 1996 debut single Wannabe was a No.1 hit in 37 countries, propelling their album Spice to more than 23 million worldwide sales. They were record breakers: the best-selling album by a female group in history and it was only the beginning. Sporty, Ginger, Scary, Baby and Posh would go on to break further records, sail into number-one spots, and out-earn their rivals, male and female, for decades to come. They’d also epitomise a very British pop music spirit.
In 2012, the Spice Girls memorably reunited for the London Olympics. Emerging from iconic London taxis that had chauffeured them on to stage, they immediately launched into a medley of their hits, led by Wannabe. Twelve years earlier, following a less than stellar response to their third album Forever, they officially parted ways in 2000. Two official reunion tours, in 2007 and 2019 cemented their place as the highest-grossing all-female tours between 2000 and 2020.
As a solo artist, Chisholm’s career is aglitter with 41 silver, gold and platinum certifications. Her debut album of 1999 Northern Star, featuring a duet with 90s rockstar-turned-photographer Bryan Adams, sold more than 4 million copies globally, easily making hers the best-selling solo album by any of the Spice Girls. Her following albums between 2003 and 2020, Reason, Beautiful Intentions, This Time, The Sea, Stages, Version of Me and Melanie C didn’t rocket up the charts in the same dazzling style of her debut, but Chisholm had nothing to prove and nobody to impress. She has had the most singles at No.1 in the UK for a female artist, ever.
“My last album Melanie C was my highest UK chart position in 15 years. It got such great critical acclaim that it felt very exciting after all the years of struggle and disappointment. I was able to make something that I really felt was getting the praise it deserved,” she reflects.
“I love being a Spice Girl but it’s a collaborative process, whereas making solo music is all about me. I think we all like to be self-indulgent at times and as human beings, I think it’s important to express things selfishly at times.”
There’s nothing selfish about Chisholm’s day-to-day life in the same Hampstead apartment she’s lived in since 1999, now with her 13-year-old daughter Scarlet (to partner of 10 years, Thomas Starr, who she left in 2012). Her daughter is only a few years younger than Chisholm was when she left her Liverpool home for college in Kent. It was merely a few years after renting with friends that she’d move into a shared home with her fellow Spice Girls in Maidenhead, paid for by management.
Scarlet has, relievedly for Chisholm, shown little interest in a career singing and dancing like her mother.
“She is so different to me. She’s very strong-willed and opinionated, and she’s not afraid to voice those opinions. She’s probably more courageous than I was as a 13-year-old. There’s a softness to her, which is probably more similar to how I am. She’s a handful, but I wouldn’t have it any other way because she’s amazing.”
Chisholm was depicted alongside Geri Halliwell and Halliwell’s daughter Bluebell, 16, in August this year on both women’s Instagram profiles. For those of us who were dancing in our platform sneakers to Wannabe, it’s a stark reminder of how time flies.
The women were in the audience to witness the England women’s football team, the Lionesses, win Euro 2022 in front of nearly 90,000 at Wembley Stadium. Upon their victory, the announcer breathlessly announced them as “history makers, record breakers, game changers!”
In the audience, Sporty Spice and Ginger Spice, screamed and hugged like teenagers. They both knew the reality of being history makers, record breakers and game changers a decade earlier in that very same Wembley Arena.
Should we expect to see them having a blast on stage, all together, once again?
“There’s nothing officially organised or announced at the moment, but it’s something that we’re in constant talks about,” she concedes. “We had an incredible tour in 2019 where we played stadiums here in the UK and Ireland, and it was always our intention to go further afield and do more shows but of course, the world went into chaos in 2020.”
She adds, “It’s been difficult to get everybody on the same page. Obviously, we all have children of different ages and stages in their schooling, and everybody has their own careers individually. We’re still trying to convince Victoria to get back on stage!”
In the meantime, Chisholm has been competing on Dancing With The Stars, planning her book promotion and even managed to score her first Glastonbury DJ set.
“It was absolute mayhem,” she admits of the full-capacity tent on the opening Thursday of the major UK music festival that hadn’t operated for the previous three years. “It was my first Glasto performance and I shut it down! It was amazing.”
Chisholm has mum duties to get to, but we finish — as we began — by coming back to the Spice Girls.
“We’ve always had quite different relationships to each other, like any friends. I’m very close to all the girls: Melanie, Geri, Emma, Victoria and I. When we’re talking about the Spice Girls, we’re talking about me. The catalyst for writing the book was wanting to reveal how I feel about being a Spice Girl, a solo artist and a mum; all of those things, all of the time.
“People are still really interested. I meet people every day that are excited to meet me and talk about being a Spice Girls fan. What a joy and a blessing that is. The Spice Girls will live on a lot longer than we will.”
For help with an eating disorder, you can call Butterfly Foundation National Helpline on 1800 33 473 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Who I Am, by Melanie Chisholm, published by Welbeck, is out on September 20.