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For Melanie Chisholm global fame came at a high price, but she lived to tell the tale. At 46, she has just released her eighth solo album, which she says is her most vulnerable yet. “All of that time I spent searching, trying to find myself, trying to move away from Sporty, I felt like that’s what I had to do: to become an individual I had to leave her behind.” By Brodie Lancaster.

Former Spice Girl Mel C

Melanie Chisholm.
Credit: Conor Clinch

After 25 years in the public eye, Melanie Chisholm is finally ready to show us who she is.

Mel C released her first solo record in 1999. Before that she was Sporty Spice, the Spice Girl dressed in trackpants and sneakers while her bandmates wore mini-dresses and platforms. Her career is so inextricably tied to the band that she still uses her last initial for her stage name – a name that was essential when she was known as the other Melanie alongside Scary Spice Melanie Brown.

Back then she was the shy one with the tattoos, Scouse accent and crystalline singing voice. Diehard followers of the Spice Girls’ respective solo careers could tell you more about Chisholm’s career over the eight studio records since the Spice Girls, but for most of us, Chisholm’s identity has always been as part of a set.

On her new self-titled album she’s making strides to change that. Rather than the karaoke-ready pop of her past or the trap-infused sounds that dominate the charts now, Chisholm follows artists such as Robyn and Carly Rae Jepsen in making finely crafted electronic dance music. Melanie C is a revealing look at the mess and insecurities of a 46-year-old woman who’s been looked at since she was only 20.

“Every album I’ve made has been an honest reflection of that moment in my life, and I think what probably makes this [one] a little bit more exposing is that I’m being more honest with myself,” Chisholm tells me over Zoom from her home in London. She’s nestled into a couch, with her hair cut into a dark bob that is a touch too short to pull back into one of Sporty’s signature high ponytails. She’s wearing a stylish sleeveless top that frames her tattoos. I realise I remember them from reading kids’ magazines in the late ’90s: the braided strap around one bicep and the heavy crucifix on the other. Somewhere out of view are the Chinese characters for “woman” and “strength” – or “girl power”.

“I’ve discovered things about myself that I wasn’t ready to before,” she continues. “But it’s a relief to feel comfortable exposing those things. I think sometimes I’ve done things in my career or talked about things that I haven’t emotionally been ready to do.”

What were those things?

“I finally, truly feel like I’m okay. You know? Like I’m enough.” Her voice catches on that last word and she laughs at herself. “God. I’m a little bit emotional talking about it.”

Becoming a mother, she says, has been a significant factor; through her 11-year-old daughter and the fans, collaborators and other artists she encounters, Chisholm is forgiving her younger self, and taking off some of the pressure that typified her earlier life.

“I’m witnessing this moment in a young person’s life where insecurity starts to creep in or self-esteem is compromised. It makes me feel reflective about my own life, my own teen years, and being 20. If I can impart some of my wisdom, and [help people to] avoid some of the pain that I’ve experienced – I would have won on so many levels with this album.”

The pain she mentions arrived in the form of anxiety and an eating disorder that hit during the band’s peak. The release date of her second record, Reason, was postponed in 2003 to allow her to seek help for clinical depression. During her early 20s, when her identity was irrevocably linked to four other tiny, beautiful women, she responded to tabloid shaming about her body by obsessing over gym workouts.

“I have had some issues in my life that were well documented. I have suffered with depression in the past. I’ve overcome eating disorders, compulsive behaviour, anxiety – and I’ve felt ashamed of those things. I felt sad and regretful of those things. And I just thought, Fuck that! No! I don’t feel those negative feelings about those things anymore. I’ve healed from them. I’ve learnt from them and I’ve survived them, you know? Instead of feeling embarrassed about it, I should feel proud of myself, and so should anybody else who has experienced those things. I’m here to tell the tale.”

Chisholm bottled her recurrent panic attacks in the song “Nowhere to Run”, part of which was written directly after experiencing her first one in public. “Familiar burden,” she sings, “in a crowd, in a room, here alone, no matter where you are: I see exit signs but there’s no way out.”

An ominous click-track underscores the song, and deep gasps for air pepper the verses. It’s a full-body feeling that takes sonic inspiration from the alchemic production Finneas O’Connell performs on his sister Billie Eilish’s songs.

Eilish made headlines last year when she told an interviewer she had no clue the Spice Girls were a real band; born in 2001, she’d watched the film Spice World and assumed they were the larger-than-life creation of screenwriters. Later that year, she told Billboard’s Women in Music that the best advice she ever received from a woman came from Chisholm. “Mel C, when I met her, she told me everything happens so fast and so intensely … this is the time in my life that I’m gonna look back on … So I’m trying to be as present as possible, thanks to her.”

“I mean, I’d actually forgotten what I’d said to her,” Chisholm says, when I bring this up. “Sometimes I think people think, Oh, shut up grandma. The last thing they wanna hear is, ‘don’t take anything for granted, be in the moment’,” she says, adopting a creaky old woman’s voice. “But it stuck with her – I suppose all of my experiences or all of my pain is not in vain. It can help other people.”

The two met backstage after Eilish played a show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. “Which, for artists of her stature, is quite a small venue,” Chisholm tells me. “It’s like 2000 capacity. It’s completely sold out. It was bouncing. It was full of mostly young girls, teenage girls, screaming, shouting, singing every lyric to Billie. You could hardly hear her. And I just felt this mad connection to her, to her fans, to the environment. To have young girls screaming at another girl, it just really took me back to being a Spice Girl.”

It’s a comparison only five people in the world could make. Chisholm and her bandmates – Geri Halliwell, Victoria Adams, Melanie Brown and Emma Bunton – were so omnipresent that it’s disorienting to be reminded that they weren’t a unit for long.

In the two years following the release of their breakout single, “Wannabe”, there was an album, a book, the film and a 97-stop world tour. Nelson Mandela called them his heroes. Halliwell planted that infamous kiss on Prince Charles’s cheek. Their film premiered at Cannes. And then, just as quickly, it was over. Halliwell left the band in May 1998 and the remaining four hobbled on for a few years, during which time Victoria became Mrs David Beckham and both she and Brown became mothers. Chisholm decamped to Los Angeles to make her solo debut, Northern Star. It took the Spice Girls just 22 months to define a generation of pop and create a legacy they’d never outgrow, even if sometimes they wanted to.

“I think with my first album, I was so determined to be seen as something other than Sporty,” she reflects. “I kind of felt like I’d been given this identity. I was so hungry, you know; I was so angry and frustrated and it took me a really, really long time to accept that you can’t change the way people feel or think.”

Despite the made-in-a-lab stereotype of the late ’90s pop group, Chisholm is emphatic that they were not planned and groomed in the way their male counterparts were.

“When we started life as a band, we were totally going to be part of that system where you are completely manufactured. But the five of us are so strong-willed and determined that we took control. We were so lucky that we became successful very quickly that actually we always had power and we always had control. At a major label you’re part of a huge machine – but no one could ever tell us what to do. In fact, trying to tell the Spice Girls what to do, they’re going to do the opposite.”

The early ’90s – when five unknowns auditioned to be in a singing group – typified “a girl-poisoning culture”, writes American clinical psychologist Dr Mary Pipher in the landmark pop-psychology book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Over generations, she says, girls became less and less interested in themselves and their own potential, and began to see themselves only as vessels for other people’s needs and desires. “Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence,” she writes. “Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn.”

Reviving Ophelia had ended its years-long run on the New York Times bestseller list by the time “Wannabe” was released and “girl power” became the catchcry for young women, a digestible version of feminism that was pretty and popular and wouldn’t scare anyone away. Where the riot grrrls screamed “Girls to the front!”, the Spice Girls threw smiles and peace signs.

It centred girls but never felt particularly political. Famously, Halliwell tweeted that Margaret Thatcher was “our 1st Lady of girl power” following the Iron Lady’s death.

Young female artists such as those Chisholm has inspired or collaborated with are often expected to voice their political views, a signal to fans that a shared belief system means they can support not just the music but the person making it. Eilish recently performed at the Democratic National Convention. With this in mind, I ask Chisholm what she thinks “girl power” would have looked like if it had arrived in the 2020 pop landscape, and if she saw it as a political statement.

“You know what? I think it is. What was so wonderful about being a Spice Girl was that we took something that might seem a little bit intimidating or boring to younger people, something like feminism – we had this opportunity to present it in a format that was just understandable and kind of made it fun as well. If it was seen as a political movement, then a 10-year-old girl isn’t interested in that.”

When she goes off on a tangent about the FX series Mrs America and stresses that “as young people, we need to learn about the things that are important”, I’m reminded that Chisholm is an alumna of the school of pop that required artists to keep their politics hidden for fear of a scandal or losing potential audiences, an era when encouraging young people to vote was a significant statement.

The secret to being famous, Chisholm told a camera crew who were capturing the process of recording Northern Star, was to keep your head down. Shopping, she said, required running into a shop, not lingering, and getting out quickly.

She tackles the burden of being observed and spoken about on “Who I Am”, a track on the new record. “I was lost in the ruins of who I thought I should be … They don’t recognise when I’m being honest / ’Cause I wasn’t before … You think you’ve known me all this time / But the real me is mine.”

The video for the track is surprisingly affecting. Present-day Chisholm, the one sitting before me over the computer screen, walks through an art gallery decorated with relics of her past. Pushy visitors elbow her out of the way to take selfies with early 2000s images of her and inspect Mel C sculptures: an armless Venus de Milo in a gold gown, a Sporty punching the air.

“The making of that video was fucking traumatic, to be honest with you. But it was important as well. And I think actually making that video enabled me to find peace with those times in my life. It felt like it was actually an incredibly important video for me to make. There was a closure that came from it.”

Chisholm’s relationship to the character and band that made her famous has often felt strained. In 2001 she announced that being a Spice Girl no longer felt natural and she wouldn’t work with the group again. She was the last to sign on for the band’s 2007 reunion, and commented that she was still coming to terms with what the success and attention did to her.

By 2019, when the Spice Girls (minus Beckham) reunited for a tour, things were more resolved.

“All of that time I spent searching, trying to find myself, trying to move away from Sporty, I felt like that’s what I had to do: to become an individual I had to leave her behind. Being on stage with the girls last year and reclaiming that and realising that it is me. It’s completely within me. It’s not going anywhere. And I think once you realise that, you can relax a little bit.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2020 as "The real Mel C".

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Brodie Lancaster is a critic and the author of No Way! Okay, Fine.