Her public persona may be loud and proud, but in private Spice Girl Mel B was trapped for years in a toxic marriage that nearly destroyed her – and traumatised her young family, too. Here, she and her eldest daughter Phoenix open up about the years of abuse and how Mel finally escaped.
Melanie Brown, 43
When I decided to write about my marriages, my family and my life [in her autobiography Brutally Honest], it wasn’t an easy decision. I knew I’d have to be completely open – otherwise what was the point? But what floored me was talking about my daughters and how they suffered from my ten-year relationship with a man called Stephen Stansbury [he calls himself Stephen Belafonte]. I thought I was in love but it turned out I was in hell.
I am a Spice Girl – loud, proud Scary Spice who went around shouting ‘girl power!’ from the rooftops. I am a judge on some of the biggest shows on television, such as The X Factor and America’s Got Talent. But who I really am is Melanie Brown, a girl from a council house in Leeds. A mother of three girls: my Phoenix, 19, Angel, 11, and Madison, who is just seven. And for far too long I was an emotional mess.
My daughters are my world. My sweet, sensitive Phoenix – who has the most wicked sense of humour – was born in London in 1999, three months after I married her dad [dancer Jimmy Gulzar]. Emma [Bunton] and Melanie [Chisholm] were in the room when this beautiful little creature came into the world and Victoria [Beckham] arrived with flowers and presents within hours. It was such a happy and special moment, and I loved Phoenix like I’d never loved anyone before.
After I split from Jimmy in 2000, I went to Los Angeles to get away from the madness that came with fame. Jim moved to LA, too, to keep in touch with Phoenix, but for years it was just me and my little girl. We would hang out at the beach or around the swimming pool at home.
I was never the typical mother. My job wasn’t nine to five and my work outfit might be a leather catsuit or a glittery evening dress. But whenever I was working, Phoenix was either with her dad or my wonderful assistant Janet Neale, and I always knew where she was and what she was doing.
Then, in 2006, I met and fell in love with [Hollywood star] Eddie Murphy, and became pregnant very quickly. Sadly that relationship didn’t work out. I was heartbroken, but when this curly-haired baby was born she felt like my angel, which is why I gave her that name. And then, three weeks later, I had a call from a guy I barely remembered meeting called Stephen. He was one of those people you would see at parties. He flirted with me and told me I looked beautiful. There was something fearless about him. He made me feel that I had someone by my side who could protect me from everything. Two months after we met, he proposed. I had two children by two different fathers and no husband – he was going to look after me. We married in Vegas the very next day.
Everything in my life changed, and I thought it was because Stephen wanted to give me as much support as possible. He’d already brought in a nanny to help with Angel and he told me he knew exactly what to do with my career and my public image. I trusted him. He got me to do Dancing With The Stars – the American equivalent of Strictly – and all of a sudden people were cheering me on because they got to see what I was really like.
Stephen booked more and more work for me. I had the frst Spice Girls reunion tour [in 2007] and my diary filled up with jobs all over the world. He hired more nannies, got rid of my assistant Janet, chose my hair and make-up team and took over all my business and finances.
Then the British press ran a story saying that in 2003 Stephen had beaten up Nicole Contreras, his former girlfriend and mother of his other daughter, Giselle. [He pleaded ‘no contest’ – an admission of guilt – to a charge of battery against her. His criminal record includes beating a mallard to death with a brick in 2007 and various charges of burglary and vandalism.] He kept telling me it was all lies and misunderstandings. He was incredibly convincing and I just wanted to believe him.
I was working so much that I barely had time to think, but I’m a grafter and didn’t complain. And then I fell out with my family. They thought Stephen was bad news, that he was not good for Phoenix. There were constant rows. One by one my close friends dropped away. We had new rules in the house – Phoenix was always being grounded. Stephen told me I was too soft; I was spoiling her. Did I want her to be a Hollywood brat? I’d try to get my point across, but he would laugh it away.
I can’t remember when I realised how unhappy I was, how unconfident I felt as a mother. He told me I was fat and ugly but he also told me he loved me. I was lucky that he took me on, a woman with two kids by two different dads. I didn’t want to admit I’d made a massive mistake. Five years into the marriage I became pregnant with Madison. Our baby didn’t bond us. I felt under pressure about my appearance – my husband would say I looked old and overweight. Part of me didn’t care – I loved my new baby girl and I actually liked being curvy, but all the vicious little jibes got me down.
No one guessed what was happening because at work – on tour and on shows such as America’s Got Talent – I was the same old larger-than-life Mel B, always laughing and joking. I’m a better actress than anyone realises; plus there I could be who I wanted to be. I felt safe.
At home my world span out of control because I started drinking and taking drugs to try to block out the conflicting emotions spinning around in my brain. There was constant shouting. More rules. Phoenix was not allowed to take things out of the fridge, my kids had to eat on the floor because food might get on the expensive dining chairs. Stephen said I had to wear certain clothes with certain bags otherwise I looked like a tramp. I would wait until my kids were in bed, then drink.
I told myself that I was managing to keep this mess hidden from my children. They were clean and fed; they travelled in the sort of luxury I never knew existed as a kid. As long as I could lock myself away and cry, as long as I could keep the screaming matches to the bedroom, I was keeping what I was going through a secret from my children.
I felt trapped and ashamed. You lose your sense of time when you are locked into this sort of emotionally abusive relationship. Sometimes things would seem OK, and sometimes it would be bad. But even in the OK times there was constant tension. I would see Phoenix watching me, her face twisted with worry, but I couldn’t talk to her because I didn’t know what to say. I saw Phoenix behaving the same way as me – barely talking, keeping herself to herself. Within a few years I’d become expert at blocking my emotions.
In 2014, I did something that let the cat out of the bag. I was working on The X Factor UK. The public voted me the best judge and the fashion critics raved about me. All of us were living in a flat in Kensington, West London, and Phoenix was at a boarding school in Surrey. She told me she was happy. But I was very unhappy. It felt awful to be in a country where my parents were just a few hundred miles away in Leeds but I wasn’t on speaking terms with them. I was drinking and taking cocaine in the hours before I went into work and after work, when the kids were asleep, because I felt as though I couldn’t breathe.
I knew that taking an overdose of aspirin and paracetamol was a mistake. I knew I could never leave my girls. I wanted to go to hospital but ended up rowing with Stephen and collapsing in the bathroom. It was my hairdresser and security guy who took me to hospital the next day. The press got wind of it and, when I appeared on The X Factor covered in bruises and without my wedding ring, the rumours went into overdrive. I told everyone around me that I would leave Stephen, but a few days later I was told by a child expert that I could lose my children if it came out I’d taken an overdose, so I went back to him.
I knew I had to do something, but it was only last year – after promising my dad on his deathbed that I would end my marriage – that I began to see what had happened to me as a woman and mother. I learned about emotional abuse and listened to other women talking about gaslighting – where you are made to feel that you are going crazy. I avoided thinking about what my kids had been through and focused on the fact that we were starting a new life. I had so much damage to repair with my family, with myself and with what the world was going to find out about me as a court case raged between me and my ex over custody and finances.
I walked away from the home I shared with Stephen and moved into a rented house, and every night I would hug my kids. We had meals at the table. I made pancakes. We would dance to music that I loved, music my kids loved. I was being the mum I wanted to be, the mum I was when Phoenix was a little girl. My mother came back into my life and we had roast chicken dinners together.
When my daughter opened up about what she had been through – to my friend and ghostwriter Louise Gannon – I fell apart. I had stayed in a toxic relationship, and no relationship like that can be contained in a room – it spreads like a cancer through the whole family. I cried for days.
I rang Louise in the middle of the night, sobbing, ‘Am I a bad mother?’ ‘Who is with your girls now?’ she asked me. ‘Who supports your girls? Who writes star charts on the fridge, who cleans their clothes, who knows what they like in their sandwiches? You are not a perfect mother, Melanie. But there is no such thing as a perfect mother.’
During my court case, I had to write an itinerary of just a two-year period of my marriage. I was shocked when I read it. I never stopped working, barely had a few days off, barely had time to be with my children. My mother remembered me crying at an airport begging to go home and see my girls but being told by Stephen that I had to get on a plane for my next job.
I have learnt that, statistically, a very high percentage of women turn to drink and drugs in an abusive marriage because they can’t deal with the reality of their lives. That helped me to forgive myself. We don’t talk enough about these subjects – it’s viewed as shameful. I refuse to be judged as a bad mother and I hold my head up high, not just for myself but for all other women who are in these situations and trying to put their lives back together.
I love my children. I love that I know we have a bond that is unbreakable. I have been accused by my ex-husband – who shares custody of Madison – of drinking and taking drugs since we split up, because I have a public image that can be destroyed. I have been forced to take random drink and drug tests, and each one has been clean. I smile, because what I think of is my girls, my freedom and the years we are going to have together making life better and better. I am not a perfect mother but I am stronger, I am happier and I am the mother I want to be.
Phoenix Gulzar Brown, 19
When I think about my mum, I don’t think of her so much as a mother. I think of her as a woman – a woman in pain, a woman trying to keep everything together, a woman who is sometimes helpless and sometimes strong.
When the world saw my mum as an amazing, happy, successful woman, on stage with the Spice Girls reunion tour, I was the one standing at the bottom of the stairs listening to her sobbing in her bedroom. I was maybe 11 years old, just a kid. I didn’t know what else to do apart from stay close. I knew what was going on between her and Stephen. I was old enough to see the fights, old enough to witness the out-of-control drinking, old enough to know that the way Stephen cursed and swore at her was not right. She was not a ‘fat b****’, she was not an ‘ugly c***’ or ‘stupid’.
There are things I can’t forget. I was maybe 14 or 15, I was in my bedroom. I could hear them fighting. My mum came downstairs to the kitchen followed by Stephen. I looked through the crack halfway up the stairs – where I could just see the kitchen – to check if everything was OK, which it was, then returned to my room. Then I heard more screaming and her shouting, ‘Stop, get off,’ and heard little thumps. I went to the stairs again and saw Stephen with his pants down and my mum pushed over the couch. I froze, but then I just went back. This was my family life.
In 2014 I was called out of class at my boarding school. No one would tell me why, but as soon as I saw my mum’s security guy, I knew something bad had happened. We drove to a hospital where Mum was recovering after taking an overdose. I knew she was going through hell but I never thought she’d think of leaving us. Maybe I should have hugged her, but I just screamed at her, I was so angry.
Our relationship is complicated. There’s a lot we talk about now but there’s still a lot we don’t talk about and all of it is still there between us. It wasn’t always like that. When I was a kid it was so simple. I was the luckiest girl in the world. My early memories begin after my mum and dad split up and we moved to LA. I went everywhere with Mum. If she was working, I’d go with her and her assistant Janet would look after me. I loved Janet and we usually had our dog, Lordy, with us. I did cool things like hanging out with the other Spice Girls, travelling the world first class, going to Disneyland and skipping the queues. I didn’t realise it was cool, though; for me it was just my life.
Mum would get up and say, ‘Let’s spend the day at the beach.’ My friends loved her and would hang out at our house. We had a pool. She painted everything in bright colours because she’d read that was how you stimulated kids’ brains. I’d see my dad on weekends; everything was very chilled. Looking back now, I realise Mum’s whole life revolved around me.
I loved Eddie [Murphy], who is Angel’s dad. My mum was really happy with him, but when they split up she was heartbroken. Then Stephen came into the picture and everything changed. Things happened slowly. There were rows between him and my mum’s family because I told them I hated Stephen. Our dog Lordy got beaten by Stephen. He once threw him in the pool – Lordy hit the water really hard and was so distressed. I think I tried to deal with all of this by blanking out my emotions. If I didn’t cry or make a fuss there would be less trouble.
We moved house all the time. Stephen became Mum’s manager and she was working constantly. Everything was extreme. The screaming and the silence. We didn’t really talk about what was happening. Sometimes she’d say things to me like, ‘Life is hard.’ I knew that she wanted to leave him but I also knew something was stopping her and I didn’t know what.
Our relationship is in no way typical, but it is our relationship. Things are different now. I won’t pretend everything is perfect and back to the Disney movie of my childhood. I’m a teenager trying to figure out my life and my mum is a woman figuring out hers, but because of what we went through together there is a bond that will never break. I know my mum tried to protect us. I tried to look after my sisters, too.
Of course we row about the usual stuff: me being messy, staying out late. When Mum was my age she was in the Spice Girls; she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. It’s not always easy having a mum who is a celebrity. I am supposed to have moved out and started being independent. My mum is big on independence – she left home to be a dancer as soon as she finished her GCSEs – but I still live in an apartment next door to her. I feel I have to be close. When awful things happen – like when my grandad was dying – the person Mum wants next to her is me. And when she needs me, I’ll always be there.
What Mum went through made me a good judge of character. But I still trust people. I think I’m pretty normal for a kid in LA. I like to laugh and be creative; I want to make a business for myself in fashion [Phoenix is a stylist and designer]. I’ve done work experience on magazines. I’ve made coffee. I’ve been brought up to know that you have to earn your place.
Like I say, I see my mum as a woman. I’ve seen her weakness and I know her strength. When we went to Leeds because my grandad was dying, she and I talked for hours and that’s when I knew how smart she is – and that she was leaving Stephen. Of all the people in the world, the only person I want respect from is my mum. I never really say this to her, but as a woman I think she is a hero.
Rebuilding families after abuse
Melanie is a patron for the national domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid. Katie Ghose, its chief executive, says: ‘Melanie has been incredibly brave in speaking out about her experience of domestic abuse and the effect that it has had on her family. At Women’s Aid we know that abusers often isolate their partners by cutting them off from their friends and family. The abuser may attempt to damage the relationship between a mother and her children by lying to them – telling them that their mother doesn’t care about them or that she is the reason he acts the way he does. Part of the abuse can include preventing the mother from spending quality time with her children, and this can make her feel even more alone.
‘We run training courses to help mothers rebuild their lives and gain confidence in their parenting skills after living with domestic abuse, because we know that it affects thousands of women. Children who have witnessed domestic abuse are victims, too, and will respond to the trauma in different ways – they may be startled easily, feel anxious or depressed or feel that it is their job to protect their mother.
‘Our national network of local domestic abuse services supports mothers and children as they rebuild their relationships by helping them to understand how their experience has affected their relationship. Together we work to understand the different strategies they have been using to get through this difficult time so that they can build mutual empathy. We’ll help to give the mother the confidence to find the best way to support her child going forward; they’ll learn about healthy relationships and think about their hopes for the future.
‘Domestic abuse can have an enormous impact on women’s mental health, and women living with abuse can feel suicidal or use alcohol and drugs to try to block out what is happening to them. It is important that we do not judge women who have survived domestic abuse; we should let them know that they are not alone and that we support them to rebuild their lives.’
For more information and support, visit womensaid.org.uk
Brutally Honest by Melanie Brown and Louise Gannon is published by Quadrille, price £17.99
As told to Louise Gannon, co-author of Brutally Honest