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Newspaper Article

Source: Daily Telegraph

Date: August 10, 1998

 

JOAN O'NEILL, the 44-year-old mother of Sporty Spice - Mel C - finds nothing spooky in the fact that she and her 24-year-old daughter are wearing matching outfits - black vests, turn-up denims and designer sports shoes. "Nike sends Melanie lots of trainers, so I get her hand-me-downs," says Joan, waggling a foot. "And I borrowed one of her T-shirts this morning."

Not surprisingly, millionaire Sporty has the better accessories; her gold chains are chunkier, her £15,000 diamond Rolex out-glitters even the hotel chandeliers and her famous tattoos display an inky lustre that Joan's identical one somehow does not. While Sporty's dimpled smile is enhanced with a gold filling the size of a sultana, her mother...hang on a minute. Identical tattoos? Surely that's a little weird?

"No, it's dead funny. I thought mum would freak when she first saw mine, but she liked them," says Mel C, who has four tattoos, including the word "Angel" roguishly emblazoned across her stomach. "Mind you, I was really shocked when she said that she wanted one - but flattered when she got exactly the same design as me."

Mother and daughter pause to admire the pair of oriental symbols on their respective right biceps. "They say 'woman' and 'strength'," says Mel, pointing to the characters. "Strong Woman," explains Joan nicely, then pats her midriff. "I decided not to have one on my tummy. Ha ha. I'm not flat like Mel. I'd need a really big, long word to go around there."

Perhaps it's unavoidable that Joan O'Neill's life is now full of such contrasts and comparisons. She is also a singer in a band, although her own popster path did not bring any of the glories and riches that have been showered upon the mega-successful Spice Girls. The highlight of her professional career, she says, was a 1978 gig supporting Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes at the Hammersmith Odeon in London.

Joan has subsequently spent most of her musical career playing social clubs on the tough Merseyside circuit and currently sings in a Tina Turner tribute band called River Deep. Her husband, Den O'Neill - Melanie's stepfather - is the band's bassist.

"I don't wear a Tina wig - it's not an impersonation of her, it's a celebration of her music. I wear short dresses - people expect to see the legs - but that's it," says Joan.

 

"She's an original. She's got a very powerful voice," says loyal Mel. Did Joan, I wonder, ever give her daughter any showbusiness advice? "Yes," she says. "I told her never to dwell on things that go wrong. I told her to put them behind her and look forward to the next thing."

"She told me to have belief in myself and never try to be anything I was not," chips in Melanie. "But the best tip she gave me was to stick my belly out when I'm singing a low note and to clench my bum cheeks on a high one."

"Did I?" says Joan, embarrassed.

"Yes, Mum, you did."

"Does it work for you?"

"Yeah."

"Good."

Shortly after the release of the Spice Girls' first few songs in 1996, it became obvious that Sporty had - shall we say - the strongest vocal capabilities within the group. Posh, Baby and Ginger formed the chorus, Scary proved herself an open-throated shouter in the old soul tradition but Sporty was - and is - the one who actually sings properly.

In the beginning, she smarted privately at being described as the "plain one" in the band - "the only thing written about me that hurt" - but is now generally known as Talented Spice and exhibits the poise and confidence of a young woman who has suddenly grown into herself. She is, in fact, quite dazzlingly pretty but has remained the most sincere of the Spices. "Some of the girls are laid back about it all, but I am very focused," she says. "I want to make sure I always do my best and never compromise. The others don't take it as seriously as I do - they think I'm a bit over the top - but I can't help it."

Watching her mother chase similar pop dreams over the years has certainly helped to concentrate Melanie's mind. The O'Neills have played together in various mildly successful incarnations - as Petticoat & Vine, as Love Potion, as Joan O and the T-Junction - but never managed to break out of the grind of lugging their own equipment around working men's clubs and what Joan calls "public houses" in the North-West. Both had jobs to keep going: Den as a taxi driver, Joan as a clerk. Perhaps more than the others, Mel C realizes how far the Spice Girls have come and - God forbid - what little there is to go back to.

She grew up on tough council estates in Liverpool and was eight years old when her mother divorced her father Alan Chisholm, who worked for a coach travel firm. Even as a little girl, Melanie Chisholm was a fitness fanatic, winning gymnastics trophies - Joan has kept them, along with her tiny leotards - and taking ballet classes. She left school at 16 to attend a dance college in London and it was there, while auditioning for work on a cruise ship, that she saw the posters advertising places in an all-girl band. "I thought, this is it," she says today.

"She was never the Shirley Temple type, never precocious, but she had a lot of drive," says her mum, who was only "slightly" nervous about her daughter leaving home so young. "I just wanted her to be happy. Singers like Melanie aren't made, they are born. It's in the blood. You've got to have it in your blood to enjoy it, because some of the places you have to play are so horrible."

"Ambition is important, but you've got to be very lucky and very hard working if you want success," says Mel.

"It's determination more than ambition, I've always said that," says Joan. "Look at me. I'm still singing two nights a week, although it completely exhausts me. I just go home, crash in a heap and have a whisky."

She laughs about some of the late-night transatlantic phone calls they have had together. "Mel says: 'I've just played Seattle'. And I say: 'So what? I've just played Kirby'."

 It's not very rock and roll to have your mummy come and visit you on the road, but as the Spice Girls ease into the last leg of their 40-date Spiceworld tour, Mel C finds her mother's presence a comfort. "You know when you're really tired and stuff? And you have to take it out on someone?" she says. "It's very good to have your mum there, because you can always take it out on her. And that's much better than taking it out on the other girls."

While these are undoubtedly golden moments for the Spice Girls - Viva Forever is their seventh British number one single, the tour is a raging success and their Girl Power war cry has been included in the new edition of Roget's Thesaurus as a synonym for feminism - the group has had a bruising time.

They have yet to find a replacement for Simon Fuller - the manager they sacked last year - and the sudden exit of Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice) in May hinted at deep tensions beneath the glossy froth of their cartoon-a-go-go image. The remaining Spices have made little comment about Geri's departure but have held the party line on its consequences.

"No-one should be impressed just because we carried on. The four of us who are left are actually the four who have trained in musical theatre, in singing and acting," says Mel C lightly, although the subtext of this statement is painfully clear.

"Geri only left a couple of months ago, but the Spice Girls have done many, many shows since then. I miss her dearly as a friend, but when we're on stage, it's like she was never there. It's weird to imagine her ever being there."

For the moment, the girls are taking care of business matters themselves but Mel C foresees the need for some kind of additional help in the future. "It's very difficult," she says. "We got rid of people in the past for good reasons, we don't know if we could ever get on with a manager again. What we'd like is an adviser, you know? Someone who could give us good advice on our careers." In the meantime, there is always Mum, who frets a little about her daughter when back home in Widnes - in the four-bedroom house Mel C bought for her family - but is always ready to jump on a plane when she is needed.

"Melanie knows how to take care of herself. I don't worry about her not having a boyfriend, she's got plenty of time for relationships," she says. "But she does sometimes get lonely and I do worry about that. And when she does feel that way, she just rings me up."

Of course, it's not exactly a hardship travelling around the world with the Spice Girls. Here in Chicago, the Spices and their entourage are staying in the swankiest hotel in town, complete with heavenly views of the sailboats whipping across Lake Michigan and a fabulous gym where Joan and Mel work out together each morning. Downstairs, a stretch limousine with blacked-out windows is purring by the kerbside, ready to ferry them - plus Den and Melanie`s brother Paul, who are also visiting - to the city`s Midway Airport, where a private jet awaits to whisk them over the border to Canada. The plane was sent by Bruce Willis, who has asked Mel C to sing on stage with him at the opening of a branch of Planet Hollywood in Montreal.

"He's my hero," squeaks Mel. "The other girls laugh at me for liking him, but I don't care. I'm sooo nervous about this. Its almost as bad as knowing Madonna was in the audience at our New York show."

"Tell Jan about meeting Madonna," says Joan.

"She's just lovely. She always approaches us as a friend, as if she had known us for years. No airs and graces. She is probably the biggest star I have met who actually is a star, you know?"

"Oooooh, I keep missing all the stars," says Joan, gathering up her handbag. "I missed Madonna. I missed Stevie Wonder. Twice. I did meet Pavarotti, though. Well, I wasn't actually introduced but I was in the same room when he came to meet the girls. I don't want to miss out on this."

A burst of burly activity by the dining-room door means that we must prepare to go. Melanie checks that the boxed fruit she has ordered from room service will be waiting in the car. Her mother gathers up the Sporty stage clothes encased in a Gianni Versace suit bag and two Spice security guards suddenly materialise in the room. In one fluid, well-rehearsed movement, we're off; through the corridors, down the lift, out on to the baking sidewalk and into the cool, dark interior of the limousine. Den and Paul are already there, tucking into the grapes and strawberries. In his wraparound shades and tight jeans, Den looks the old rocker he undoubtedly is and sounds like Ringo Starr. "It's all about commitment. It's about giving 100 percent. It's the same if you're in the Spice Girls or in River Deep," he says.

Paul, dressed in an Everton strip, gazes silently out of the smoked window as the grand, pale architecture of Chicago slips by. Melanie reveals that the Spiceworld album has now achieved "diamond" sales status.

"How many actual sales is that, Den? Is it 10 times platinum?" she asks.

She does not mean to be cruel.

"Um. I'm not sure," says her step-father, looking at his hands.

"Or is it 10 times 10 times platinum?"

"I honestly couldn't say," says Den, whose own recording career began and ended with a Love Potion single - Face, Name, Number - which trickled into the Top 100 and trickled back out again about 20 years ago.

Although everyone snuggled in the car looks perfectly contented, it is hard to believe that Den and Joan - particularly Joan - do not have the occasional twinge of envy at seeing Melanie achieve, in two years, the kind of success that has eluded them for three decades.

"No, I never had that kind of dream," Joan insists. "I was in the right place at the right time, but I never looked for stardom."

She has her memories of course, of the crowds in the balconies at Hammersmith Odeon and even her favourite red satin trousers, which she wore that night. "I was so thin, that's what I remember. My nickname was Joan the Bone because I was so skinny."

Mel C guffaws at this revelation and pats her mother's knee. She says that they have never argued together in their lives and get along so well because they are so similar.

"We're dead soft, aren't we, Mum?"

"We just like giving people things."

"I sacrifice myself thinking of others."

"We are always thinking of others first. That's the one thing we do. "

This little homily to each other could quite possibly have gone on all afternoon, but the limousine arrives at Midway Airport and drives right on to the Tarmac alongside Bruce Willis's jet. The Sporty Spice family decant onto the plane, where Den and Paul settle into cream leather chairs and Joan rummages through the cellophane-wrapped sandwiches and other goodies.

"Look, Jan, champers!" she cries, finding a brace of chilled bottles in a wicker basket.

"This is the life," sighs Den, as he studies their flight path on a small screen attached to his chair.

"Actually," says Melanie, a bit disappointed, "it's not that flash." She points across the Tarmac to a giant, gleaming plane shimmering in a corner of the airfield. "That's the Spice Girls' jet. That's our jet. It's much nicer."