From homeless teen to millionaire with a mansion, bestselling author MELANIE BLAKE’s extraordinary rise to the top has been packed with more drama than her bonkbuster novels, as she tells Julia Llewellyn Smith
When Melanie Blake was a child, in Stockport, Greater Manchester, ‘chubby with glasses and dirt poor’, she used to accompany her cleaner mother to work with a library book to keep her company – ideally one by her favourite author, Jackie Collins. ‘Those books were filled with these amazing women who weren’t just wives or girlfriends, they were managers and publicists. I’d watch my mum with her knees bleeding from scrubbing the floor and vowed that was the kind of woman I was going to be,’ says Melanie, 44, who’s acted as manager, agent and publicist to dozens of household names, as well as emulating Jackie by writing two rollicking bonkbuster novels. ‘I felt like a stork had dropped me in the wrong place and I wasn’t meant to be there.’
Until she was seven, Melanie had a normal home life. ‘We were from a working-class background. My dad had his own successful printing business, my mum looked after us at home. We all loved watching TV together and we were happy,’ she says.
Yet overnight, everything changed when Melanie’s father joined a doomsday cult. ‘He got into this extreme born-again Christianity, which believed that everything that wasn’t in the Bible was a false idol. We couldn’t watch television, read books or magazines. He came into my bedroom and broke the legs of my Sindy and Barbie dolls and ripped all my posters of the bands and soap opera stars off the wall.’
Melanie put them up again inside her wardrobe, where she also had hidden a black-and-white TV set she’d found in a skip. ‘I used a coathanger as an aerial and used to hide in there to watch my favourite programme, Top of the Pops, but then Dad found out and trashed it all. Life was awful.’
Her dad also gave all the family’s money to the church. ‘Suddenly we had nothing,’ says Melanie. To survive, her mother started working as a cleaner, feeding her children from the equivalent of food banks and clothing them in charity-shop finds.
‘If she came home with something new Dad would always take great pleasure in smashing it. Once she came home in a new outfit and he ripped it off her back in front of us. I remember her crying and saying, “Why can’t I have nice things?”’
One Christmas, when Melanie was nine, he smashed her elder brother’s new guitar over his knee and burnt her brand-new Care Bear. He made his children study the Bible for hours and stood outside their school with placards that read ‘The End is Nigh’.
‘I was bullied for that and for having free school meals,’ Melanie says. At school, teachers wrote her off as a no-hoper. ‘My English teacher said the only thing I’d be writing was labels on factory boxes,’ she says.
But, inspired by her beloved Jackie Collins novels, which she hid from her father, Melanie was determined to prove everyone wrong. As soon as she turned 16, she left home and lived in a squat with strangers. ‘There was no heating or electricity. At night I was so cold I thought I was going to die,’ she recalls. ‘There were two other girls and four boys and we all slept together in a huddle on the floor – no funny business, just to keep warm. It was a really rough area, we were living on something like £1 a day, buying tangerines and chocolate from Aldi, but I was so happy it didn’t matter. It all felt so bohemian.’
She was devastated when one night she returned to the flat to find it boarded up. ‘I had to sleep in a shed in the garden.’ After that, the council gave her a flat. ‘They saved my life.’ Having lost weight after a bout of tonsillitis, gained contact lenses and dyed her hair blonde, a now super-glamorous Melanie worked as a receptionist and shop assistant to save up enough money to move to London. She arrived in the capital on her 17th birthday, knowing no one and with just enough money to last her three months.
Intent on landing a job in the music business, she found a flatshare and for the next two years sent hundreds of begging letters to production companies, applying for every job going, while she supported herself by handing out flyers. After one particularly bad day, when she’d been giving out free drinks at Euston station and a woman knocked one out of her hand, soaking Melanie and sneering, ‘Get a real job!’, Melanie decided to throw in the towel and head back to Stockport. But that same day the agency who’d got her the flyer work called.
‘They said, “Have you ever been a camera assistant?” I said yes. I had no idea what it was. They said, “Can you get to Elstree [studios] at 10am tomorrow?” I said yes. I had no idea where they were. I got there at 10am, and I looked up at the studio and it said Top of the Pops. I said, “Thank you, God. It’s not you he’s looking after, Dad – it’s me.”’
At first, Melanie admits laughingly, she was ‘terrible’ at her job. ‘But I learned quickly!’ Tasks included buying Mariah Carey kittens to play with from a local pet shop and hollowing out a speaker so David Beckham could hide in it to watch his girlfriend Victoria perform with the Spice Girls without being bothered by fans.
Although initially daunted, Melanie soon learned that most of the pop stars were friendly and began defying their managers’ orders not to talk to them. ‘J-Lo sacked hers after I told her we’d been banned from making eye contact with her,’ she says.
The singers started valuing her no-nonsense opinions. ‘I told Westlife they might want to switch off the wind machine as the silk shirts they were wearing kept blowing up, which was very unflattering, and said, “Kylie, do you know the lighting you’re using is turning your hair blue?”’ Claire Richards from Steps asked Melanie to manage her solo career and
by the time she was 30, Melanie was turning over £4 million a year as a hugely successful manager, specialising in relaunching the careers of ‘retired’ stars, such as the Nolan Sisters and Patsy Kensit. Melanie has gone on to work with dozens of actresses, including Beverley Callard, Stephanie Beacham, Gillian Taylforth and Nadia Sawalha to name just a few.
Today, Melanie lives in a £3 million villa in North London with her elderly poodle, a world away from her ‘terrible, terrible childhood. There’s been no family money and no rich husband for me, and I see that as making me stronger than so many others who haven’t had the journey I’ve had,’ she says.
Her work has allowed her to hobnob with Hollywood grandees and British royals, and date the late INXS singer Michael Hutchence – ‘He was adorable, a great, great guy, so kind and loving and sexy.’ She’s been a guest at numerous wild parties, such as ones thrown at Oasis singer Noel Gallagher’s Supernova Heights and another at Claridge’s held by a famous acting couple where all the guests were on drugs and some were even indulging in threesomes. ‘I didn’t partake, but it was really exciting to be witnessing such debauchery and not be a mess.’
All this insider know-how is put to perfect use in Melanie’s latest novel Ruthless Women (her previous bestseller The Thunder Girls, about a girl band’s reunion, was based on her music industry experience).
In her new book she lifts the lid on the very steamy and ultra-competitive world of soap operas, with plenty of scenes lifted from her real-life adventures, such as the time she was invited to an awards ceremony with a household name she represented. When Melanie left her house, she found the well-loved soap actress, who was in her 50s, already in the car in flagrante with her 20-something driver. ‘She had one leg out of the window and the car was parked across the road so other people were having to swerve round it – anyone could see them! Less than an hour later, she was all smiles, being photographed on the red carpet. I thought, “If only the fans knew what was happening 45 minutes ago!”’
Melanie continues to work hard, determined as always to have the last laugh.
‘I’ve spent all my life fighting back. I wanted revenge on my Dad for saying I couldn’t have certain things or watch TV, so I proved him wrong.’ She no longer has any contact with her father. Her mother eventually walked out on him after 30 years of marriage only to die shortly afterwards of ovarian cancer, just two weeks after she received the diagnosis. ‘That taught me that you never know how much time you have left, so don’t let things happen to you – make things happen.’
That was Melanie’s philosophy when in 2017 she fulfilled a lifelong dream by buying five pieces of her late idol Jackie Collins’s jewellery at auction, including a 50-piece morganite and diamond necklace. ‘Now I feel that Jackie [who died in 2015] is somehow looking down on me, because I epitomise everything she wrote about,’ Melanie says. ‘Some people think of Jackie as tacky, all leopard print and big jewellery, but to the little girl who had watched her mum scrubbing floors, wearing your idol’s jewellery and writing her kind of books… It doesn’t get any better than that.’
Melanie’s latest novel Ruthless Women is published by Head of Zeus, price £12.99. To order a copy for £11.04 until 14 March go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20