Their bust-ups have been legendary. Now, as the Spice Girls musical hits the stage, Geri, Emma and Melanie C reveal the secrets that have helped them survive fame (relatively) unscathed
22:21 GMT, 23 November 2012
When Emma Bunton was a fresh-faced kid (as opposed to a 36-year-old mum-of-two who somehow still looks like a fresh-faced kid), she auditioned for a role in Les Misrables.
She didn’t get the part, and carried the disappointment round for longer than you’d expect, given what came next. ‘Musical theatre was the thing I really wanted to do,’ she explains.
‘Now it feels as though I’ve come full circle. Actually, more than that. I’ve gone all the way round and am onto a completely new circle.’
The Spice Girls have become iconic with British culture and now Geri, Mel C and Emma open up about their infamous history
Her voice is wobbling, but whether she’s on the verge of tears or laughter is tricky to say. ‘Probably both,’ agrees the youngest, and sweetest, of the Spice Girls.
‘There’s a bit of both at the moment. When we’ve been performing together recently, all the old feelings come back and when we look at each other there’s a sense of being engulfed with emotion. It can come out in tears of any kind.’
Now if it was Geri Halliwell – always the most dramatic, shall we say, of the Spices – welling up like this you might take it with a pinch of salt. But this seems genuine. Because Baby Spice finally has her West End production. Moreover, Viva Forever! is actually about not just Emma, but all the Spices. Well, sort of.
Hot on the heels of their much-hyped reunion at the Olympics closing ceremony, the Spice Girls have joined forces again. The musical extravaganza based around their songs starts previews this week and opens next month. The irony isn’t lost on Melanie Chisholm. ‘See! You didn’t need Les Mis, Emma,’ she laughs. ‘You can get over that one now.’
They are joined by Geri as they try to explain the plot of Viva Forever!. It’s a complicated one because it’s not the story of the Spice Girls themselves (‘Because that would be boring, everyone knows our story,’ points out Melanie), but a story about a group of showbiz wannabes fighting for their chance of fame.
Written by Jennifer Saunders, it’s part pointed comment on celebrity culture; part emotional journey where the heroines ‘discover who they are’; part just an excuse to sing Zig-a-zig-ah. There’s a bit of confusion as all three leap in to sum up the essence of the show and my heart sinks when Geri clears her throat. She’s just given me a revelation about Girl Power.
The five girls took the world by storm with their Girl Power slogan and feisty attitudes
‘We didn’t invent Girl Power, you know,’ she says, earnestly. ‘People say we did, but it was around for a long time before us. I’ve been thinking recently that it probably goes back to Cleopatra. She was the head of Egypt but the Roman Empire tried to bring her down. She wasn’t having it.’
As she starts off on Viva Forever! I think, oh, here we go, this is going to end up with her misquoting Chekhov. But she surprises us. ‘Let’s just say, if you liked Mamma Mia!, you’ll like this,’ she says.
‘We’re not reinventing the wheel. But everything’s in there. As well as issues about celebrity, it addresses adoption, the issue of being mixed race. It’s about how life’s not perfect and how no one has the 2.4 children family. Everyone has divorces, break-ups, make-ups. We’re all those things.’
The show is produced by Judy Craymer, the creator of Mamma Mia!, and has been years in the making, not least because of the issues involved in getting five of the most famous friends on the planet to agree.
That she has done so is either a testament to her tenacity, or a sign that they perhaps don’t hate each other as much as has been reported. Whatever, in her office Judy has a set of Spice Girl dolls that she’s said to rearrange according to which of the girls are on speaking terms at any given time.
Today there’s no careful seating required because two Spice Girls are on the other sides of the world: Victoria Beckham in Los Angeles, and Mel B in Australia, judging the Oz version of The X Factor and tweeting pictures of herself working out on the beach.
Back in London, in the rain, these three tell me they’ve already sent a picture from our photoshoot to Victoria in LA, and how they’ve been Skyping Mel B.
‘The big regret about today is that they aren’t here. We do miss them, but what can you do They couldn’t have picked more awkward places to be in the world than LA and Australia. But they’re with us in spirit,’ says Melanie.
Viva Forever is a story about a group of showbiz wannabes fighting for their chance of fame
So it’s not true that they hate each other’s guts ‘Noooo,’ they say, almost in unison. ‘I’m not saying we’ve always been best mates,’ admits Melanie. ‘We have fallen out, we admit that. There are times when we’ve been idiots. But we’re like family, and when brothers and sisters fall out – and it happens in every family – it’s not a big deal. You know you’ll see each other again, and have to get over it. We’re grown-ups.’
The trouble is that when they have been reconciled in public – as they were for the closing ceremony of the Olympics, and for a much-hyped photo session on the staircase where they once launched their careers – it hasn’t looked, from the outside, like a happy-clappy knees-up thanks to Victoria’s infamous pout. Emma rushes to her friend’s defence.
‘Around the Olympics everyone was saying, “She’s not smiling”, but that’s always been the case. Posh points and pouts – that’s what she does! It’s what she did in 1996 and it’s what she does in 2012, I don’t know why everyone is surprised.
‘We went out for dinner recently and all the way in the car she was saying, “I’m gonna get out of the car and I’m gonna smile.” And she got out – and she pouted. And all the way I was thinking, “I’m gonna get out and I’m gonna pout,” and I got out and I smiled like this.’
Posh points and pouts – that's what she does! It's what she did in 1996 and it's what she does in 2012, I don't know why everyone is surprised
Her face breaks into the cheesiest, sunniest grin. ‘So we’ve all got our own thing.’ Melanie nods. ‘I also think when you’re being photographed a lot, it’s your protection. It’s how you feel comfortable. Pouting is Victoria’s armour, and smiling is Emma’s armour.’
Looking like the tough girl was always Melanie’s armour as Sporty Spice. Today she’s the one you can most imagine having a gossipy cup of tea with, although even she is on the weird floral stuff these days.
‘Geri got me into it, actually,’ she says, peering at what looks like part of a garden floating in her cuppa. ‘It’s funny, isn’t it, how things that were once so posh are now commonplace I remember us first having sushi in Japan and thinking we were on another planet. Now you can get it in M&S.’
She seems changed, somehow. She’s in a dress and 6in heels for starters, and her hair looks particularly glossy. She says they’ve glued her eyelashes on. What’s going on Sporty would never have stood for this.
‘But I actually enjoy all this stuff now,’ she protests. ‘I can wear dresses and feel comfortable. Back when we started, I had no modelling experience. I was so uncomfortable in front of the camera. I’ve learned. Also, today there’s no pressure. We’re having a laugh. We’re all a bit older too. We’ve got kids. Life’s too short.’
Talking of short, we have to talk about the skirts. When I arrive at the photoshoot I see them all from behind and think I’m in the wrong place. They all have the Twiglet legs of teenagers. These cannot be thirty- and fortysomething women who have to leave by mid-afternoon to do the school run.
Geri and Melanie each have a daughter, and Emma two sons. If anything Geri’s skirt is even shorter than back in the day. ‘Yes,’ she says proudly, hitching up her bra. ‘When we started women of our age didn’t dress like this, but the world’s changed. We know how to look after ourselves now. We aren’t afraid to be who we want to be. Why not’
They’ve just seen a rehearsal for the show and are giddy with excitement about it. ‘Seeing our music performed out of context, or given a different context, is such a buzz,’ admits Geri.
‘The songs kind of stand on their own, which is so gratifying for us. And the story isn’t us, but Jennifer has captured the essence and the heart of us.’ The fictional story centres around the lead character Viva, who lives on a houseboat and enters a TV talent show with her best friends.
The girls claim that they are just the same as they were all those years ago when they first started out
As they progress through the competition it becomes clear she’s being asked to ditch her friends and aim for success on her own. ‘The three things we always wrote about were identity, friendship and love. And they all come together in a story that isn’t ours, but is, if you know what I mean,’ says Geri.
The oldest Spice, Geri spent her 40th birthday on top of a taxi during the genuinely historic Olympics closing ceremony. Had she had her way, it might have been even more of a spectacle, because she reveals that she’d actually wanted to remove the handrails from the top of the cars, to give the performance more oomph! ‘This lot talked me down from that one,’ she says.
‘And I let them, which kind of proves that I’ve changed. I’m a bit impetuous but I think I’ve calmed down a bit. Now, if one of the others says, “I think you should tone it down,” I listen. Sometimes.’
So, do the others think they’ve changed since the Spice Girls – raw, passionate, infuriating, endearing – burst onto the scene in 1996 with their single Wannabe
‘I really don’t think we have as much as people assume,’ says Emma. ‘No one believes me, but Victoria is exactly the same person. She’s still that fun girl who likes to have a laugh. Mel B is hilarious. Geri is, well, Geri.’
So which one is the most well-balanced No contest, says Melanie, ‘it’s Emma’. She thinks for a while. ‘Then me, probably. The other three are f***ing nuts, but to be honest that was always the case. The ones who are a bit bonkers now were a bit bonkers then.’
Seriously, though, perhaps the real miracle is that they’re all still around, with senses of humour intact. Because for all the Girl Power soundbites and strident posing, their lives haven’t exactly been the most stable. Two out of the three here today have confessed to eating disorders, for starters.
Both Geri and Melanie have admitted to suffering from eating disorders because of the pressures of fame
‘Was that to do with the fame, though’ asks Melanie. ‘I do think in my case it was. I put what happened to me down to the pressure, but honestly, who knows I was a dancer before, and look at the dance industry – it’s rife with eating disorders. Maybe it would have happened anyway.’
Geri agrees. ‘I think eating disorders are rife in everyday life. I honestly don’t think we had to deal with anything that any other woman didn’t have to deal with, except everything is being heightened because you’re doing it in public.’
But Emma agrees it’s a miracle that they’ve emerged ‘relatively unscathed’. ‘I’m not sure how, because it is a difficult industry and you do watch people go off the rails. You do look back and think of some of the things that happened, and it seems like a dream.’
We go skipping off down memory lane, and it is genuinely hilarious. Whatever has happened since, I don’t doubt that they lived a bona fide riot together. They fall about laughing remembering how Geri once ran into a line-up of dancers on an Italian live TV show, and simply joined in.
'And of the day the others forced Emma to go to Richard Branson and blag them a lift home in his private jet. ‘We always sent Emma, because she had the nicest smile,’ says Melanie. ‘And it always worked too.’
‘I think eating disorders are rife in
everyday life. I honestly don’t think we had to deal with anything that
any other woman didn’t have to deal with, except everything is being
heightened because you’re doing it in public'
And they do squabble. Every other sentence throws up a disagreement about the way things were. At one point Melanie argues that ‘money was the last thing on our minds’ and Geri leaps in with, ‘Not for me. I loved the music, but it was also a case of I was sick of living on 7.50 and signing on the dole.
'You know when you have that thing of looking at all these famous people who have money and a maid and thinking, “Wow”’ So now she has the maid ‘Well I don’t make her wear an outfit…’ she says, as the others poke fun mercilessly.
What I find sad is when they talk about how the industry has changed, replacing people like the young Spice Girls with automatons who look and sound the same.
‘Originally we were put together, but we were still very different, and what it came to be about was real,’ says Geri. ‘I remember we went shopping in Camden for our clothes.
'We wrote our own songs. We made up our own dance routines. Now bands don’t do any of that stuff themselves, and that’s a shame. It’s all Gucci this and high heels that. We didn’t have that pressure for it to be a certain way.’
Were the Spice Girls to blame for what’s happened, though In a way, they agree, they were responsible for the explosion of young girls thinking they too could be a celebrity if they just had enough attitude.
‘Maybe we made it seem more reachable because we weren’t perfect,’ says Emma, while Melanie admits, ‘I don’t think we are responsible, but when we became successful the world was changing. The magazines and reality shows were just starting to take off. I think it’s an issue now. Young women have to aspire to be something brilliant, rather than just famous for fame’s sake.’
The girls admit that the new music industry is like the end of an era
Geri adds, ‘I think that when something is successful people want to take that and iron it out and make it better. But if you really try to perfect something it takes the heart of it away. If one becomes too polished it kills life. Sometimes we get too sanitised and airbrushed.
'Everybody is so savvy these days because of the internet, and everyone is careful of what they say. Actually I prefer it when there’s a bit of an edge. Otherwise it’s boring.’
Are they still role models though Melanie admits that if they were still recording, ‘teenagers probably wouldn’t be our target audience, because they grow up so fast and they’re looking for different things. But what is nice is to see the little ones – the toddlers, the little kids – get the Spice Girls music. That’s because they’re too young to be corrupted about what they should like.’
There is no argument that the music industry they shook up is gone forever. ‘It’s a very damaged industry and it’s really sad. It’s almost like the end of an era,’ says Melanie.
‘The digital age has been wonderful for the consumer – so much more music is available – but for the record industry it’s been difficult because of the quality of piracies out there. You still have huge artists that sell millions of records, the Rihannas, Coldplays and Adeles, but they’re few and far between.
Each Spice Girl has gone off and had her own career, with varying successes, but they will be together again for the opening night of Viva Forever!
'We were lucky to come along when record sales were huge and record companies spent a lot because there was so much money to be made selling records. Now there isn’t, and I don’t think it will ever be the same again.’
Yet now there is this talk of coming full circle. Each Spice Girl has gone off and had her own career, with varying successes, but they will be together again for the opening night of Viva Forever!.
Will Posh smile Of course she won’t. But will she linger around long enough to pout After the last photoshoot they did together, she hared back to LA as fast as her little legs could carry her while the others partied.
Emma says, ‘Well, when your friends have kids they need to get home to, you can’t exactly force them out at gunpoint.’ But Melanie plays along. ‘Yeah, this time if she wants to go home we’ll have to kidnap her,’ she says. ‘She has been warned.’
Viva Forever! opens at the Piccadilly Theatre in London on Tuesday 11 December. For tickets, see www.vivaforeverthemusical.com.