Date: July 1998
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Would the real Mel C step forward? Once upon a time, she was the least fancied spice, but now she's the only one any sane person over the age of nine would bet money on.
"I love the taste of gin, but it makes me so depressed." Melanie Chisholm flashes a gold toothed grin and continues nattering in her chirrupy scouse accent. "With vodka I get in a mess, lager makes me lairy, I get sleepy-drunk on wine and with gin I spend the next day crying. And I cannot drink cider - remember being a kid and drinking whatever cheap stuff you could get your hands on from the offy? Three Diamond Whites and you were off your head!"
This is the kind of idle chat you have with your mates - only the friendly Northern lass who's sitting next to me in a fluffy white dressing gown applying her mascara is currently one of the most famous women in the world.
In front of a camera or on stage, Melanie Chisholm is Mel C, Sporty Spice TM - the perfect pop star dishing out kung fu kicks and dreamy, wide-eyed gazes willy-nilly. In the flesh she looks, well, like your average pretty girl in the street. When she arrived at the horrendously fashionable London flat that's been hired for the day there was no grand entrance, no big fuss. She wandered into a room full of total strangers so quietly that most of us didn't even look up. Dressed in a pair of jeans that looked as though they lost their shape back in the '50s with her hair piled up in a messy ponytail, she smiled shyly and announced in a much broader accent than I expected, "Eh, it's alright in 'ere innit?"Not really what you expect from the world-dominating phenomenon that is Spice Inc.
It takes Mel a matter of minutes to sift through a pile of clothes, sussing out the ones she likes. Hair and make-up take half an hour and before you know it she's transformed from Jo Public to chart-hogging international superstar. As she emerges from the bedroom in slinky bra and mesh top the blokes wince at the sight of her midriff. Just beneath her belly button the word 'Angel' is tattooed in swirly writing. Looking faint, our photographer asks whether it hurt. "Nah," she says dismissively, "I was in and out in 20 minutes." She's as tough as she looks, is Mel.
The Real Deal
In the early Spice days, it seemed Mel C had drawn the short straw image-wise. Compared to the others she was the plain one - mousey brown hair scraped off her apparently make-up free face and clad head-to-toe in Adidas. Who wouldn't be pissed off? Well, er, Mel. She's perfectly content with her tomboy label.
"I like boyish clothes and I hate fluffy girlie pink things, so it is real."
Obviously, she's not as two-dimensional as her pop star persona has the average nine-year-old girl believing. OK, so she's just spent two hours perfecting those rock hard abs in the gym with the lads, but ask her about friends or family and she goes all soft and affectionate.
Before long she landed the job of belting out the high pitched harmonies, discovered dark brown hair dye, and swiftly went from being the plain one who did back-flips to the talented, pretty one it was OK to like. When I knew I was going to meet a Spice Girl I did a quick straw poll of my female friends. It went a bit like this - Emma: irritatingly twee; Geri: tarty; Mel B: artificially gobby; Victoria: well, the lights are on but...; Mel C: cool. It's because she's a girls' girl. The kind of girl you can imagine being mates with. The kind of girl who wouldn't stuff you up for some bloke. The kind of girl who says things like, "Even when we're round at Prince Charles' for tea I find myself thinking 'Wait till I tell my grandkids this!'." Then in the same breath tells you she's going to buy a cat for her nana this week. She's just, well, normal. Like us. You could rely on her not to let womankind down by getting trussed up in a red PVC bustier for some blokes' magazine.
It's not just me and my mates who recognise Mel C's credibility. When the Sunday Telegraph magazine went to see the Spice live experience they dubbed her "Talented Spice". The Independent On Sunday's definitive guide to what's cool described her as "enigmatic... the one who will endure". In other words, when the inevitable happens and solo careers beckon, Mel C will be the one still making records.
"I'd love to go solo, but if I went off and did a song on my own or with someone else it wouldn't necessarily mean the end of the Spice Girls." Very diplomatic, but let's face it, hers would be the only solo success story wouldn't it? "Well, I think we'd all like to do that one day - we all want to do different things. We can't expect to keep doing the same thing forever and still be popular."
She must be secretly flattered that she's widely regarded as "the one with the voice", but she's far too loyal to her band mates to admit it.
Dole to gold
Before Melanie Chisholm became Mel C she used to dream that one day she'd be a famous pop star. Being a strong believer in fate she clung to her ambitions - even during her two years of signing on. For a girl who, the papers claim, has got £13 million in the bank, living on the dole must seem like a distant memory.
"Well, I have recently become a millionairess," she says, trying to sound matter of fact, but if her eyes open any wider they'll pop out. "It's really nice. Actually it's amazing." She got a bank statement the other day. She won't tell me exactly what it said, only that it's not even remotely near the aforementioned £13 million. Still, it's not bad for a girl who used to nick food from supermarkets ("then my mate got caught and it put me off") when all her giro was going on train fares to auditions.
"Sometimes I just sit there and think 'Fuck!'," she laughs. "But I'm still only making a statement to myself, the reality doesn't sink in. It's a very hard feeling to explain." It suddenly hits me why I'm drawn to Mel - she's refreshingly honest. You know you'd get on with her if you met her in a pub. She openly admits that she loves being rich and she's not showing off, she's just really enjoying herself. And any right-thinking 24-year-old would be the same.
"When I was on the dole I'd look in the windows of Miss Selfridge and Topshop and think to myself, 'One day I'm going to be able to walk in here and buy whatever I want in every single colour!'. Now I don't even go in those shops - I can walk in Harvey Nics and buy what I want. It's a very nice feeling."
Then she remembers that she arrived wearing a Topshop T-shirt today. She's loaded and she loves it. She also shops in Topshop and she doesn't give a shit.
But although the money's nice, Mel freely admits she's in it for the fame. No celeb-whingeing about the hard work and lack of privacy for her. "It freaks me out to think about the day when I walk down the road and nobody gives a shit who I am. I love being famous and I don't ever want not to be. Honestly - it's all I've ever wanted since I was a kid." Despite the kind of fame that involves multi-million album sales worldwide (39 million at the last count) and going for tea with the Royal Family, she still goes down the supermarket, "I don't get recognised as long as I don't wear Adidas". And she doesn't even care about being snapped looking ropey - now that is hard.
I try to imagine Victoria going without brushing her hair or Geri not bothering to plaster on the war paint before braving the outside world. No chance. But Melanie Chisholm does it all the time. "This is me, this is how I look and if I'm in the paper looking rough, so what?"
Love, life and lies
In spite of, or perhaps because of, this, she's never had reporters on her doorstep or been on the receiving end of any kiss-and-tells, despite the fact that "I went out with quite a lot of unsavoury characters before I was famous". Even a brief scandal involving her past as a raver doesn't bother her. "I was waiting for it," she shrugs, "I don't care about me, but I was really worried about how it would affect my family. Luckily they didn't believe a word of it." Yeah, but how can you say "don't do it kids" when they know damn well that you have? "I wouldn't be a hypocrite and tell them not to do it, but I wouldn't advise it either. I'm actually very anti-drugs now because I've seen too many people get fucked up on them."
While we're on the subject of tabloid rumours: What's this about you and Ryan Giggs? "D'you know that is, just, just... urrrggh! That's the most annoying one! There is no way, especially not him, he's just eeuuggh. I met him when Victoria met David, I said hello and that was it. Believe me, I wouldn't touch him with a bargepole!"
She goes on to explain:
"The reason I don't like him is because I found out after that rumour had done the rounds that he said 'She wishes'."
She looks at me, tactfully keeping her mouth shut, but her face is screaming out 'Who the fuck does he think he is?'
Moving swiftly on, then: what about Jason McAteer?
"I've been friends with Jason for about two years. I talk to him on the phone every now and again. I went out for dinner with him - not romantically, just because we're buds. You couldn't fancy Jason - he's just a dickhead! He's really funny and makes me die laughing but I couldn't fancy him, bless him!"
Um, no sauce with Robbie either?
"Oh, this is just embarrassing. I used to fancy him in Take That, but didn't half the world? I'm a fan so I went to see his show in Milan and then all these stories appeared about us having this big romance - it was very embarrassing for both of us."
So, the time you said that you hadn't had sex since you'd been famous you were telling the truth? Really?
Yeah. No-one's had the pleasure of sleeping with me and thinking 'Ooh, I'm fucking a Spice Girl'. There really isn't anyone out there who interests me. It's quite worrying, I often think to myself, 'Fucking hell, I've been around the world and back and I still can't find anyone who excites me'." There's been plenty of speculation as to why this is, but Mel's got her own idea: she's too much of a perfectionist. She says she tries not to be because a perfectionist is never happy, but she still won't get shit-faced when she's got a show the next day. She gets wound up beyond belief if people are late. Or lazy. But does she meet her own standards?
"I went through a stage where I hated myself," she admits. "I wished I could be more outgoing and loud because I'm very shy. Everyone would say, 'Oh Melanie, she's so nice'. I thought that meant boring. I realise now that I've got a lot of qualities that other people admire and I've started to think, 'Bloody hell, I am strong-minded, I have got will-power - I don't want to be anyone else. I'm fucking great, me!'."
So now she's officially great and has the record sales to prove it, is she still as driven? "I'm more ambitious than ever," she says, a determined look crossing her face. "It's fucking hard to get here, but maintaining it is much harder." The word workaholic barely scrapes the surface - at the moment Melanie Chisholm's career is her life. Today was supposed to be her first day off in months, but she fancied doing a photo shoot instead. She's enjoying being the centre of attention for a change, but now she just wants to go back to her North London flat and catch up with a few old mates.
Her taxi is waiting outside so the girl from Liverpool, who always wanted to be like Madonna and sometimes shops in Topshop, wipes off her make-up, shoves her jeans back on and says "trraa". Glancing out of the window, I catch sight of her "taxi" - a fuck-off, great stretch limo with darkened window.