How Mel C Made Girl Power Mainstream

How Mel C Made Girl Power Mainstream

By Milly McMahon

Walking into Gail's bakery, makeup-free damp from a London shower, Spice Girl Mel C silences the entire cafe. Statuesque and muscular, casual but still stunning, here, in place of our favorite loud-mouth, sporty girl band icon, stands a beautifully elegant 44-year-old woman. More enrapturing than her piercing blue eyes, Mel's resorting warmth and serenity feels familiar. Holding eye contact while effusively apologizing for running 5 minutes over our scheduled meet, she orders a green tea and takes a seat.

I, like every member of my generation, along with those of past and present, worshipped Mel. One-fifth of the world's most successful girl group, Mel taught me, as a struggling, painfully shy pre-adolescent girl, to seize my power; to respect my gender, to accept my sexuality and to always speak my mind. Sure, I loved Geri, Emma, Mel B and Victoria, however, it was Mel C's non-conformist attitude to tracksuits and trainers, defiant of the misogynistic dictatorship of high power record labels, which inspired me so deeply. Corporate, male-centric boardrooms routinely bound young twenty-something starlets to miniskirts and stilettos, robbing individuality in favor of brainwashed, well-behaved stage puppet-like pop stars. Mel and her gang laughed in the face of authority. Breaking numerous world records, winning a stratospheric number of awards and headlining sell-out world tours countless times over, the Spice Girls were the Millennial equivalent to the Beatles. These fun seeking five defined an age of music.

Chatting away, low spoken Scouse tones dance through Mel's sentences. Her eyes light up at the every mention of her nine-year-old daughter, Scarlett, the love of her life. Despite an incredible career trajectory and her unparalleled fame, Mel is grounded and genuine. Our conversation feels like a heart to heart between friends. She flinches at praise and bats away mention of her achievements. Mel is currently placed in the Guinness book of world records, celebrated as the first British singer to have 11 number 1 singles (solos and group together) on the charts in the UK. Releasing seven solo albums, playing the lead in West End musical theatre productions Blood Brothers and Jesus Chris Superstar and reuniting with her band for a raucous Olympics performance on her own Great British soils, Mel has established herself as a successful force of ambition, prosperity and positivity.

Returning to the studio and the stage after a two-year hiatus from the limelight, Melanie Jayne Chisholm will soon reveal her latest body of work: an LP due for release this year. Teasing the album with DJ sets and festival appearances scheduled across the world over summer, Mel is bursting to break back on to the scene and reunite with her beloved fans. PAPER finds out what has driven this recent flash of creativity and how she maintains her spirituality when life becomes hard to handle.

Bodysuit by David Koma, Mesh Top by Alice McCall, Skirt by SKIIM, Earrings by Charlotte Valkeniers, Swarovski Ring by Ek Thongprasert

What stage has satisfied you the most of your career?

I feel like every stage has satisfied me for different points of my life. There have been tricky times when the industry had a complete upheaval during the dawn of the digital era. Everyone was finding their feet, so sometimes how you released or financed a record changed. When you are being managed and a Spice Girl, you don't need to think about these things. The major label takes care of everything, but when you are solo you are more forced to take decisions and risks. Sometimes then it is quite scary. l do feel a newfound freedom because it almost feels like there is nothing to lose. You can only go where your heart leads you. If it works great, if it doesn't it doesn't. I have felt disappointed when things haven't gone the way l would like them to, but it has never made me not want to continue.

When you reflect on releasing this next album and the very first album you ever released, on the girl you were then and the woman you are now, could you have ever seen yourself growing into this person ultimately?

I like to think so, l really do. My time with the Spice Girls was so incredible. It molded me in so many ways and my passion was always for music; that's carried me though. This will be my eighth solo record and obviously, the start of our career was so uber successful that following is always present. There have been highs and lows throughout my solo career, but l have never thought about stopping or changing direction. It's been lovely because there have been so many opportunities that have taken me down slightly different paths, from musical theater to radio or TV. [They're] all within entertainment, but everything has always remained rooted in the music. It's been 5 years since l released an album, mainly because l did have other opportunities. I had been on the road with Jesus Christ Superstar, [did] a little bit of TV, l had toured with Jools Holland. All that had kept me out of the studio, but this is when l am happiest — when l am on stage being myself, expressing myself the way l want to and connecting with the fans. That's what has inspired me for the next phase. l just want to keep making music.

What l have learned with age is that nothing is forever; this time will pass. [With] the rubbishy bits, we just have to have faith that good will be restored.

How do you regulate your positivity and negativity?

For me it's a working progress. l do suffer from depression, so l do have to keep negativity in check. As l have gotten older and l have found the tools to take care of myself, it really is just about management of whatever the feeling is — to accept it and deal with it, and sometimes l think l can be a bit manic. I am working like crazy and l feel great, but then l know there is going to be a crash. When l get ill, l panic. l just think, l can't be ill, there's too much to do. What l have learned with age is that nothing is forever; this time will pass. [With] the rubbishy bits, we just have to have faith that good will be restored.

You have spoken publicly about your struggles with exercise addiction in the past. How did you heal yourself from that obsession?

When l was in the Spice Girls, my life was extreme. It was not normal by anyone's standards. I think everyone deals differently with that level of fame. Everything was done for us, but we had a lot of control over our destiny. It felt a little bit out of control. I think for a lot of people, with specific personality traits of an eating disorder, obsessive behavior is a way of controlling something. I pushed myself so hard and so far. When l was in the band, my body said to me, We can't do this anymore, and l didn't have any choice but to seek help. That was when l started learning about what was happening to me and seeking professional help, speaking therapies and various different things. It was about that knowledge really that sometimes we get so caught up in what's happening to us internally that you are not engaging with being present and l just had to learn. When you learn something and you have to practice it, it becomes a discipline but then eventually it becomes second nature.

Trench Coat by Huishan Zhang, Gold and Crystal Necklace by Jennifer Fish, Swarovski Ring by Ek Thongprasert

You were at the party but you were uncompromisingly relied upon to bring the energy and happiness to that party, night after night after night.

That has its pros and cons. It is such an odd career, and such an odd thing to do with yourself. Obviously, at that time we were followed everywhere; fans waited for us everywhere, paparazzi was always present, so you always have to be on and that's why the whole thing feels so tiring. Some people in the public eye handle things differently and will tell people to "f**k off," but personally for me, you always have to be nice. We had such a young audience, and that pressure was always present to be a role model. As a young person, you have to make mistakes, but then there's the pressure of always behaving like a role model. We ways took that seriously because we knew we had super young fans. You do get so much from it though; you are living out your dreams, your childhood fantasies. When you are making music and people are loving it and singing it back to you it's amazing. It's more social media-driven now, but l still receive fan mail and tweets. I've met quite a lot fans, meet and greets at shows are great. In the '90s we never really did that, but we did do that on my last tour, and meeting fans and hearing their stores is incredible because literally your music has molded and shaped people's lives and given them strength and that's what l loved.

Girl power was a defining theme throughout my late childhood and l really drew strength from this bright, musical club that was exclusively geared towards women. I remember feeling like men held so much power in the '90s, but this fun and fierce attitude championed by the Spice Girls was revelatory. You shattered and mocked sexism's limiting stuffy, dated and ignorant opinions.

It's amazing because it wasn't intended; it happened so naturally. We were going into labels and magazines and hearing, "Well girl bands don't sell, it's all about the boy bands," and you can imagine us five — five opinionated women. We realized, we have a point to prove here. We started as a band, trying to dress the same, singing other people's music, messing about and then we were meeting producers and becoming frustrated. We thought, Victoria looks ridiculous in casual clothes, and l look stupid in a babydoll dress. We were trying all these different styles because it was the '90s and when we used to show up to rehearsals every day l would be in trackie, Emma would be in a babydoll dress, Geri would be in something kooky, and we just thought, Why don't we just wear what we wear and be ourselves? We never gave it that much thought.

Within the band there are strong characters, some quieter than others. Together we were just a force and we gave each other the strength. There were a few lineup changes before Emma was introduced into the band. Then when she was there, something really special happened. It was like she was the missing piece in the jigsaw. There was just this shift, and we all started to feel like something special was happening, before we had a sea, we used to go out, to a club and there would be a queue and Geri would say, "We are a band. Let us in." and we would get in. There was something about the power of us all together and the solidarity that we had. When we did come up against any adversity we said, "Just do it." It was a magical thing.

As Spice Girls, we shouted about Girl Power but really it's about equality — equal opportunities.

Were the top label positions mainly held by men, then and now?

100 percent. l have worked with incredible women in music, but the percentage of women l have worked with in every role from writing to engineering and producing — l don't think l have ever worked with a female engineer or producer, right up to MDs of labels it is all totally male-dominated. You do see more and more women in these roles. I would love to work on a music project which is entirely female, from writing and producing to being musicians. I would love to work on a project that has entirely with no men involved whatsoever.

I wonder why women can't find a way in.

I think it's like lots of things where it was a certain way for a very long time and we are just playing catch up. I think there are opportunities. l do also think it is like the old boys club, and there's still lots of men in music. It's a very gradual thing and it's probably a little bit frustrating because it can't move quicker. As Spice Girls, we shouted about Girl Power but really it's about equality — equal opportunities.

Leather Dress by House of Holland, Earrings and Necklaces by Vintage

How has the #MeToo campaign affected you on a personal level? As young girls you were vulnerable in this male-dominated, major label environment. Did you ever feel exposed?

We were a strong unit; it really is incredible. So many people have asked me this. We have been in so many environments where there have been men that have been pulled out for inappropriate behavior. I just think, Wow we have been so lucky. As an actress, you are on your own and you are so much more vulnerable, so l feel so fortunate that l had the girls back up and that nobody would mess with us in any way. People were frightened of us. We were like a force of nature. That's something that l have carried with me, and l like to think l have passed on to my little girl because she is Girl Power personified. She says what she thinks, and she knows what she wants. I've done a good job.

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Does she sing?

She does. She loves music, and she's playing the guitar at the moment.

How do want to project yourself at this time of your life and this stage of your career?

It's hard to know how you are perceived. The public is so lovely and so supportive. I have lived a ridiculous life, but l do still feel like one of the people. That's what the Spice Girls were all about: ordinary girls from ordinary backgrounds. We did good and l like to think that people can still identify with us in that way. It is really about honesty. l guess l want to present myself how l want to present myself to my daughter. l want to be honest, hardworking, and have a good work ethic.

l want to present myself how l want to present myself to my daughter. l want to be honest, hardworking, and have a good work ethic.

Have you always enjoyed working hard?

Yes, my mum worked full time and then she would sing on the weekend. She's getting close to 70, but still singing. But it's just something embedded in my north-west working class roots. You talk to a lot of people who work in entertainment and they will tell you it's bloody hard work to maintain, and honesty is so key.

Is there a Spice Girls WhatsApp group?

We are such old biddies, we have a text group. We should set up a WhatsApp group.

What could you pinpoint as the proudest moment of your career?

The 97 Brits. We had traveled so much and achieved so much globally, coming back and being so successful that night at the Brits was a really special moment for all of us. We used to miss home a lot because we used to travel constantly, but that acknowledgement from your own country was really lovely. The other event must be the Olympics. Obviously, l love the Olympics because of Sporty Spice. l'm a frustrated athlete anyway, so to be part of the Olympics, l said, "I'm gonna get that tattoo Olympians get." It was being part of something that was so celebratory for Britain. I always felt that we flew the flag around the world and it's the sportsperson in me. l feel like l am competing for my country, so when we get that national acknowledgement it's great.

Bodysuit by David Koma, Mesh Top by Alice McCall, Skirt by SKIIM, Earrings by Charlotte Valkeniers, Swarovski Ring by Ek Thongprasert, Shoes by Nicholas Kirkwood

Do you remember the first time you stepped on stage as a solo artist after being with the girls for so many years?

I think my first gig was up in Sheffield. l was still so young, around the time of my first album. l was so confident. I was worried about certain things, but l had this confidence that l carried through; the world was at our feet. I have always had very strong self-belief. l love what l do, l think l am really good at it, probably more so than when l was a kid. As you get older your confidence lifts a bit. l went out and was super excited and it was pretty scary. My first festival was V '99. The festival is a lot more pop-friendly now, but at the time l think l was on after Faithless and before the Manic Street Preachers. It was 19 years ago and festivals weren't what they are now; they were a bit grittier, they weren't as commercial or mainstream, they were a bit rock 'n' roll, so going out to an audience who were fresh from Manic Street Preachers was a baptism of fire. I got a big crowd because people were curious. l got a lot of abuse, but l also got a lot of adoration. It was balanced, 50/50. Going out to a Spice Girls audience is unadulterated love and enthusiasm, so going to perform to people who don't know you and adore you is different. As Spice Girls we had never played festivals, we had played radio road shows, but it wasn't a time when pop groups played festivals. We just did our own shows, so to go out to people chucking stuff at you is so different. I'm the kind of person that if someone opposes me, l will be like Come on them — l'm not an aggressive person in any way, but if l am fired up and l am on stage, l will turn into Liam Gallagher like, You're not up here are you! It was good for me because there are certain times in your career when you think, If l can do that, l can do anything.

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Are you an actively spiritual person? Do you practice specific techniques to keep you on a calmer path?

I haven't done yoga in a little while, but l have practiced yoga on and off for about 20 years. I am a terrible meditator. I've done a meditation course and a mindfulness course and all these things. I try not to drink too much alcohol and get plenty of sleep; that's my toolkit if l feel the black dog, those dark clouds descending. But mindfulness was one l was avoiding, thinking l don't have the time, l can't be bothered. If you are really gentle with yourself about it, envision three words which represent how you would like your day to be, so something like positive, energetic, kind. Just repeat those a few times and rather than waking up and thinking, l have to do this and that and starting your day negatively, it helps. Then at times when it springs to mind, concentrate on your breathing. I try to do 10 minutes before l go to bed. l usually fall asleep, but it has helped.

Are you aware of your tech use?

Recently l have had a massive break from social media and now l am really struggling to get back. Obviously having a record coming l need to get posting again, but l have enjoyed that hiatus and l just don't understand how people find the time to use social media constantly. I remember not having a phone; l remember having a pager and the girls saying, "Get a phone, get a phone," and in my temper thinking, No way! l don't want you lot to get a hold of me.

My nan passed away earlier in the year. Bloody good innings, she was 93 and she was fabulous. My dad was having to clear her house and he found some letters l had written to her when l was at college and there's a letter l wrote to her which talks about my audition for a girl band. The letter reads, "I'm down to the last 10 and the band will be for five and will be a pop act and l would really love to do it. l have a 50/50 chance." We don't write to each other anymore, do we? I remember being a kid and going to the call box to ring my Mum once a week and now we are in constant contact. My Mum is really sweet and always buys my little girl notelets and they are pen pals now.

Do you have any plans to meet with the girls or does that just tend to happen sporadically?

Not at the moment.

Photography: Phillip Prokopiou
Styling: Louby Mcloughlin
Set Design: Panos Poimenidis
Hair: John Vial (at Salon Sloane Using Revlon)
Makeup: Terry Barber (at David Artists using MAC)
Styling Assistant: Lillian Rose
Photographer Assistant: Ezekiel Santos
Location: The Curtain