Publicly, she was the embodiment of Girl Power. Privately, she was battling depression, anorexia and imposter syndrome. Mel C tells Louise Gannon why it took 20 years to finally stop running from her troubled alter ego.
The first thing you notice about Melanie Chisholm – aka Mel C – is her absolute confidence. Staring down the barrel of YOU magazine’s camera lens with total assurance, this is a world away from any memory of the shy, awkward Sporty Spice once cuttingly described as ‘the plain one at the back’.
Groomed, toned and self-possessed, she looks better and, as we’ll discover, feels better in her 40s than she ever did in her 20s, but she had to turn her back on the celebrity circus to become the woman she is today. ‘It’s not a fast process,’ she says. ‘It’s taken me a long time to get to where I am. Most people think you’re at your most confident when you are young and famous, but that is not the case.
‘When I left the girls, I did everything I could to get away from Sporty Spice: I cut my hair.
I went out on tour at rock festivals. I had this push to not be Sporty Spice, proving I was something more.’
Of all the Spice Girls, Melanie, now 46, was always the most introspective, the outsider. When she, along with Geri Halliwell, Melanie Brown, Victoria Adams (now Beckham) and Emma Bunton were put together after an audition in 1994 to find a girl band, they each had their own styles and personalities, which became amplified.
While the others – busty Ginger (Geri), sassy Scary (Mel B), cute Baby (Emma) and stylish Posh (Victoria) – were tantalisingly sexy, as Sporty, former dancer Melanie was the tomboy, dressed in tracksuits and football shirts. In marketing terms, it was a genius move as Sporty connected with all those fans struggling to find their own body confidence. But the reality for Melanie was she completely lost confidence in herself.
Regardless of the iconic status bestowed on her as a member of the world’s most successful girl band, whose reunion tour in 2019 sold out within minutes, she’s made a concerted effort to remain as low-key as possible. She travels by tube, slips into the stands with her family
to watch Liverpool and – until she switched to secondary school this year – walked her 11-year-old daughter to school most days.
And yet, despite being the most grounded Spice Girl, Melanie is the only one who, in the two decades since the band’s first split, continues to have success in the music business. It hasn’t always been easy: she’s used her personal funds to put out eight critically acclaimed solo albums on her own independent label (including her latest top-ten album Melanie C) and has swapped arenas for more intimate venues.
All of which has quietly won her a new respect in the music industry and a whole new generation of followers including self-declared ‘number-one fan’, 18-year-old US singer Billie Eilish. Five-times Grammy winner Eilish remarked recently, ‘I cannot quite believe this incredible woman is in my life,’ and credited Melanie with being the reason she makes music. Melanie laughs: ‘We have this real connection. I first heard her music a few years back and was totally blown away. Then I heard she was playing in London and went to the show. All these girls in the audience were screaming out her songs, they knew every single lyric, every throwaway line. I was totally transported back to being on stage with the Spice Girls, this huge wave of emotion.’
Eilish invited Melanie backstage. ‘I felt this real maternal instinct towards her, this young girl in the eye of the storm. Because I’ve been there.’ Melanie offered Eilish some words of wisdom. ‘I told her that it all goes so fast and when you try to think back later, you can’t remember it. So take it in. There is no feeling like it.’ She continues: ‘I know it all looks great on the outside, because you have fame and money, but on the inside you can feel so vulnerable. So I take it upon myself to give the sort of advice that might have helped me.’
Melanie grew up in Merseyside surrounded by music. Her mum Joan was a secretary who worked as a singer at night and her dad Alan was a fitter for a lift-manufacturing company. When Melanie was four, her parents split and Joan married Dennis O’Neill, the bassist in a folk band. A competition-winning dancer by the age of eight, Melanie had her heart set on being a performer, too. ‘I knew it was tough. Both my mum and stepdad had had record deals but had to do a normal job in the day and gig at night. They both still loved it, though. I’m sure my mum must have thought, “Oh no”, when she knew what I wanted to do.’ She adds: ‘My mum is still performing. She works for an NHS walk-in clinic in the day and sings at night. When I go and see her in a little venue, I just know, when she’s performing, she feels exactly the same way I do.’
After leaving school, Melanie attended the Doreen Bird College of Performing Arts in Kent with the aim of getting into musical theatre. In 1994 she turned up at an open audition for a new girl band along with hundreds of other hopefuls and, well, the rest is history. The band released their debut single ‘Wannabe’ in 1996, and just two years later had sold 80 million records and amassed a gross income of £750 million. In 1998, Geri quit the band but the remaining four continued to sell out stadiums across the globe until they broke up in 2000.
‘It all went so fast,’ Melanie says. ‘Suddenly I was with this incredible, brave bunch of girls and we made each other believe we could make things happen. Big things.’ ‘Big’ is probably an understatement when you consider that Nelson Mandela sought a private audience with them and when Geri quit the band, Madonna gatecrashed the girls’ dressing room to find out why. However, away from the headlines Melanie also felt the blunt force of the emotional onslaught that came with fame.
She was 21 when she read that ‘plain one at the back’ jibe in the press and it cut deep. Her response was to ‘become as perfect as I could be’. She exercised nonstop, limited her food intake and catapulted herself into a journey of binge eating and anorexia, which she overcame after finally seeking help from her GP, who diagnosed her with depression in 2000. She went to weekly therapy sessions, which she now wholeheartedly recommends.
‘It was the only way for me,’ she says. ‘To talk about it, to open up about the things I’d been trying to hide from everyone for so long. And then I felt this overwhelming relief. You finally have a name for what you’ve been going through, and find out there are other people out there with the same thoughts and the same issues. That really helps.’
So many of her problems were caused by the spotlight of being in the world’s most famous band. ‘I definitely had imposter syndrome,’ she says. ‘I didn’t feel good enough. Part of that I understood, and my style – the tomboyish, sporty look – was very much the anti-pop star. But I struggled with all of it.’
In the midst of all of this she was – with her four iconic bandmates – espousing Girl Power messages of self-love, body positivity and not giving a damn to the entire world. She nods her head. ‘I was saying something but not doing it myself,’ she says. ‘And I felt a lot of guilt about that.’
We sit for a few moments reflecting on the past and present. The Mel C sitting with me still has an air of the vulnerability she had in her Spice Girl days, but there is a real strength, too. It has come from years of therapy, finding who she is as a woman outside music, becoming a mother and coming back to be with her bandmates (minus Victoria) in the Spice Girls’ triumphant tour last year.
There are songs on her new album that tell her story. The beautiful ‘Who I Am’ is about self-acceptance, while ‘Nowhere To Run’ is about the panic attacks that still haunt her.
‘You don’t really get to cure depression; you just learn how to deal with it and to be easier on yourself,’ she says. ‘I still have times where it’s tough. I’ve found everything about lockdown hard. I was meant to be touring the album and, bang, the lights go out on the world. It caused a lot of anxiety for me. Worrying about things, worrying about other people.’ She need not worry. As a musician she has proved herself in spades, winning massive respect from the industry as a solo performer and from the impresario Bill Kenwright, who, in 2009, cast her in the lead role as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers to massive critical acclaim.
We talk about the Spice World tour last year, which she admits she was initially reluctant to be part of and had to mentally prepare herself for. ‘Going back isn’t just about going back to be with the girls – which is great; it’s also going back to those emotions of who you were in the band.
‘I did talk to my therapist a lot about those feelings. I was concerned about having to become “Sporty Spice” again. Then it just hit me that I am her, but I’m older and happier and I have so much more confidence. Once I realised that, it was a gamechanger. And the reunion tour was magical. The fans were there to have the best time and they were looking fantastic. We all had our kids there. We sang in the sun and the rain. Of all the tours it was, for me, the most special.’
Inevitably, the world is waiting for news of a Spice Girls 25th anniversary, particularly after news leaked that all of them – including Victoria – met up just months ago. Melanie laughs. ‘We have our WhatsApp group and we are all talking but I can’t say more than that.’
With stars from Adele to Oscar-winning actress Emma Stone seeing the tour and paying tribute, I ask whether it has elevated her in the eyes of her daughter and propelled a third generation of the family into wanting to perform. ‘God, no,’ she laughs. ‘My daughter loved the tour but on a day-to-day basis I’m her mum and embarrassing just because of my existence. And that’s how it should be.
‘But I look at her and think even at 11 she’s way more an embodiment of Girl Power than I ever was. She says what she thinks and is clear in her opinions. That makes me really proud that maybe the legacy of Girl Power did have an effect. She absolutely knows she doesn’t want to be on a stage. She will do her own thing, which I’m very happy about.’
What spices up Melanie’s life
Guilty pleasure? I did a Zoom quiz and Richard E Grant was the quizmaster. He said on his 60th birthday he decided to give up guilt. I’ve decided that, too. I have pleasures but no guilt.
Where is home? North London and Liverpool.
Career plan B? To work in the West End.
Who would play you in a movie of your life? Daisy Ridley would be a dream.
Biggest bugbear? People throwing litter.
As a child you wanted to be..? Madonna… of course.
Secret to a happy relationship? Keeping your independence.
Your best quality? Patience and determination. Two for one.
And your worst? Perfectionism.
Last meal on earth? Steak, truffle chips, sticky toffee pudding and a glass of good Rioja.
Advice to teenage self? Don’t call him back!
Cat or dog? Cat.
What do you see when you look in the mirror? Me, my mum and my dad.
Philosophy? Put yourself first when you need to.