Mel C on life as Sporty Spice: ‘I was actively discouraged from having a relationship’

Forever Sporty Spice: Melanie Chisolm
Forever Sporty Spice: Melanie Chisolm

There are many answers to the question: “What kind of monarch will King Charles III be?” And one of them is: the kind who hangs out with the Spice Girls. As the Prince of Wales, he famously had his bottom patted by Geri Halliwell at a Prince’s Trust concert. Far from being affronted, the Prince was so charmed that he invited the band to afternoon tea at Highgrove.

It is an occasion which Melanie Chisholm, otherwise known as Sporty Spice, recounts in her new memoir, Who I Am. “We sat on deeply plush sofas with Charles, Harry and William in a very grand drawing room, where we were served cucumber sandwiches and tea in the finest china,” Chisholm writes. “Harry was 13 and William 15 at the time, so there was typical teenage banter. They were both very cheeky and made fun of each other as Charles grinned along.”

While Chisholm and most of her bandmates remembered their manners, Mel B (Melanie Brown) was, well, typically Mel B. “This is nice, but have you got anything more substantial?’” she asked, voicing her disappointment at the amount of food on offer. At that, William led the party downstairs to the kitchen, where he made them all peanut butter on toast.

Just another crazy day in the life of the Spice Girls, whose members remain just as well-known by their nicknames today as they did when they released debut single Wannabe 26 years ago. And their friendship with the King endures. “I saw him earlier this year at the Prince’s Trust Awards, and we do always have a little chuckle at some of the funny situations,” says Chisholm. Like the bottom-patting? “I say, ‘Look, it wasn’t me! I’m not to blame!’ He’s always had a sense of humour, which is obviously important. So I’m hoping for good things. He’s quite in touch with the people.”

Chisholm is sitting backstage in a BBC dressing room, on the promotional tour for Who I Am. She has always been open and approachable, remaining talkative and cheerily down-to-earth while other celebrities – perhaps even other members of the band – have dealt with fame by disappearing up their own fundament.

Geri Halliwell, Melanie Chisolm, Melanie Brown, Victoria Beckham and Emma Bunton - EPA
Geri Halliwell, Melanie Chisolm, Melanie Brown, Victoria Beckham and Emma Bunton - EPA

So her autobiography is as honest as you might expect. Chisholm recounts the fun times – “bonkers and brilliant” – but also tells us what really went on with the band behind the scenes, which includes a strong sense of her being bullied. Always a people-pleaser, which she traces back to her insecure childhood, she felt “like a spare part” beside the dominant personalities of Halliwell and Brown (Chisholm is too modest to point out that she was far and away the band’s best singer). On tour, Brown would phone Chisholm in the early hours and demand she come to her room for a meeting. “I would reluctantly drag myself out of bed and up the corridor of whatever hotel we were in, dreading what was in store. Normally these summits would serve to tell someone what they’d done ‘wrong’,” Chisholm writes. She began to retreat into herself, to speak less in interviews, fearful that she would be thrown out of the band.

Brown was going through her own private battles – she is now a campaigner for victims of domestic abuse – and Chisholm says the pair have made their peace. “Melanie and I, our relationship now is probably better than it ever has been,” she says. She sent an early draft of the book to all of the band – Brown, Halliwell, Emma Bunton and Victoria Beckham (the latter two emerge from the book unscathed). “As soon as they were happy and comfortable it was like, phew, that’s a big hurdle.”

Chisholm writes with candour about her mental health during that time. She suffered from anxiety and depression, and her need for control manifested in an eating disorder and obsession with exercise. What the public saw as her “sporty” figure was, as time went on, desperately unhealthy. She has got better with the help of therapy. It was years before she could watch Spice World, the larky movie released at the height of the band’s powers in December 1997, because she finds her appearance so upsetting. “To look back and see myself so thin was hard to see. It took me back to those times, and how tough it was.” Two months before the film’s release, she was sexually assaulted by a male masseur at a hotel in Turkey, where the band was performing, but “buried” the incident because she did not want to make a fuss.

Her management, including Simon Fuller, saw that Chisholm was unwell but their answer was to isolate her further by telling her she was too “vulnerable” to have a boyfriend, while the other band members were coupled up. “It was a management call,” she says. “I was actively discouraged from having a relationship. I do believe it was with good intentions, but it wasn’t helpful at all.”

Growing up in Widnes as a dance-mad, football-loving child, Chisholm had no body hang-ups. But in the early days of the band, she was practising some gymnastic moves when a man on the management team told her: “I’m surprised you can do backflips with thighs like that.” It was a comment that set her on the path to severely restricted eating, existing on little more than fruit and vegetables. These were the days when Chris Evans could go for cheap laughs by making Victoria Beckham weigh herself on TFI Friday.

Times have moved on, haven’t they? “It’s changing, but I don’t think it has completely changed. Certain parts of the media just use different language. They’re still saying the same thing, they’re just saying it in a different way. It’s a little bit more ‘read between the lines’, a little bit underhand in the way they report things. ‘Flaunting her ample assets’. It’s 2022!”

The news cycle has moved on to the Spice Girls’ children, or at least the ones in the public eye – Chisholm keeps her 13-year-old daughter, Scarlet, out of the glare. Does she feel protective when Brooklyn Beckham is mocked in the press? “Absolutely. Especially because the Spice Girls’ children, they’re so young. Brooklyn recently got married but he’s still a very young person. And it’s brutal.”

The Spice Girls reunion tour in 2019 - PA
The Spice Girls reunion tour in 2019 - PA

Chisholm is 48 now and lives in north London with her daughter. She split from Scarlet’s father, Thomas Starr, several years ago. The performer who was once an idol to millions of young fans worldwide struggles like any other parent to get her head around today’s youth culture. “We can never understand the world that teenagers grow up in now.” I wonder what she thinks of bands like Little Mix, forever performing in the skimpiest costumes.

“I love Little Mix – they’re such a talented group of girls – and I look at their costumes, and that’s what young girls want to do. It’s taking female sexuality and owning it. That’s what they want to do, not what they’re being told to do.” But she adds: “It’s girls going, ‘We’re doing it for ourselves,’ but on the other hand it plays very well into the hands of men. It’s very convenient.”

Chisholm enjoyed a successful solo career but fully accepts that she will always be seen as Sporty Spice. A “definitive” Netflix documentary is being discussed, and the band would love to play Glastonbury next year: “There is always talk of that Legend slot on the Sunday and, you know what, I think we would jump at the chance. But the truth is we have actually never been asked.” She might even bust out her trademark move. “Since I had my daughter, my lower back isn’t what it was, so it makes me a bit nervous. But I think I need to make a little pact with the world: if the Spice Girls make it to that Glastonbury stage, I need to get my backflip back in order.”

Who I Am by Melanie C is published by Welbeck. She will be in conversation with Bryony Gordon on October 6 at 6.30PM as part of the Henley Literary Festival, which runs from October 1-9 with speakers including Tim Peake, David Dimbleby and Floella Benjamin. Events are available to watch in-person and online. Tickets: 01491 575 948; henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk