Skip to main content

Home Culture Culture Music

A question of Sporty: Melanie C on allyship and the Spice Girls

Attitude's Honorary Gay Award winner on new memoir Who I Am and FIFA’s decision to hold the World Cup in Qatar: “It’s greed”

By Jamie Tabberer

Melanie C for Attitude Awards issue, October 2022
Melanie C wears custom vest by Graham Cruz Studio (Image: Mark Cant/Attitude)

There’s a leaked Spice Girls song from the 1999 Forever sessions (sans Ginger Spice Geri Horner) believed to be called ‘Give You What You Want (If It’s Lovin’ On Your Mind)’ — a track that’s similar in sound, as well as absurd punctuation, to Britney Spears’ ‘(You Drive Me) Crazy’. 

“Which one?” enquires Melanie C. “How does it go?”

With the humbling realisation that I possibly know the Spice Girls oeuvre better than they do, I launch into the intro. 

Thankfully, Melanie’s face lights up with recognition: “That is a good song!”

There’s little more satisfying than a member of your favourite pop group indulging you on a trip down memory lane. What about ‘W.O.M.A.N.’, performed live in 1999 — will it ever get a digital release? I ask.

Melanie C flexes her muscles on the cover of the Attitude Awards issue.
Melanie wears custom vest, by Graham Cruz Studio (Image: Mark Cant/Attitude)

“Biff [frequent Spice Girls co-writer Richard ‘Biff’ Stannard] had some lovely ideas around that,” Melanie smiles. “Maybe there’s another life for ‘W.O.M.A.N.’. But you’ll have to wait and see. It needs a banging remix! I just don’t think it was ever as fully formed as we needed. But, in essence, it was definitely an evolution [of the girl power message].”

Whether waxing lyrical about music or moving the needle on LGBTQ rights, Sporty Spice is everything this 90s baby gay hoped she would be. “It’s greed, isn’t it?” she opines of FIFA’s decision to host this December’s World Cup in Qatar, where gay sex is punishable by death. “They can try and spin it that they’re there to make change, that sport can make change. But it’s bullshit, it’s about money.” (We hope David Beckham, husband of Posh Spice Victoria and ambassador for Qatar to the reported tune of £150m, is paying attention.) “Obviously I’m a huge England supporter, whatever the gender,” she qualifies. “But it’s hard to get fully behind it when you know where the money’s coming from.”

Mel C
Melanie C wears vintage sportswear from her own archive (Image: Mark Cant/Attitude)

For Melanie, long an authority at the intersection where sport meets pop culture, men’s football has taken a backseat anyway. “I was at the Women’s EURO Final, and I was obsessed, just like the whole nation,” she enthuses. (Geri joined her, sparking a small Twitterati storm by hugging then-Tory Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries. Melanie wisely steered well clear.)

“The Lionesses’ performance on and off the pitch was incredible; it was interesting how many of the girls are out and gay,” observes the 48-year-old. “In this country’s backward cultural way, it’s: ‘Oh, she likes football, she must be gay.’ Well, some are, some aren’t. But the ones that are, are out. The men’s game — different, I know; it’s such a masculine, macho environment, steeped in tradition — could learn so much from the female game.”

Mel C
Melanie C wears vintage sportswear from her own archive (Image: Mark Cant/Attitude)

It’s the morning of Melanie’s Attitude photoshoot, and her admirably no-nonsense views on LGBTQ visibility in sport cement why this certified Spice Boy nominated her for recognition at this year’s Attitude Awards, where she’ll take to the stage with queer collective Sink The Pink. She credits “the wonderful Glyn Fussell,” Sink The Pink’s co-founder, as an LGBTQ person who changed her life. (Alongside Mel B, who once told this interviewer: “It wasn’t experimentation — I fell in love with a woman for five years.”)

Sink The Pink’s Margo Marshall, meanwhile, “is the first person to really teach me about non-binary people. I’m so grateful. When I started working with Sink the Pink in 2017, I fell in love with them. I’d had gay friends for many years but was now meeting other LGBTQ people and drag queens. It was such an education and made me feel more validated to be an ally.”

Melanie’s relationship with her LGBTQ fans dates back to 1996, when I was 10, and the Spice Girls were shooting to world-shifting fame with ‘Wannabe’: the best-selling single by a female group in the history of recorded sound. At school playtime, I’d assume the role of the girls’ on-off manager Simon Fuller, while noting anti-gay remarks from tweens and parents alike directed at Melanie’s tomboy image. I privately empathised. Conjecture grew as she embarked on her solo career with her multi-million-selling debut LP Northern Star. (It turns 25 in 2024. “I’ll also be 50 — I’ll have a joint celebration!”)

Mel C
Melanie C wears vintage sportswear from her own archive (Image: Mark Cant/Attitude)

A 1999 Q magazine interview, for example, carried the abrupt cover line ‘GAY?’; later, in 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham, a mother compares her single, sports-loving daughter to Melanie, hypothesising: “There’s a reason Sporty Spice is the only one of them without a fella!” Astonishingly, the nastiness continues today. The day after Melanie launched her new memoir, Who I Am, at The Ivy, the top comment on a MailOnline story about the party reads: “So is she finally coming out?” My blood boils at the misogyny and misplaced homophobia. But for Melanie, it’s water off a duck’s back, as she writes in her book: 

Here’s the thing with the lesbian rumours (which people still love to ask me about today). I had zero problem with people thinking I was gay, it’s that it’s no one’s business who’s gay or not gay, or who’s bisexual, pansexual, asexual, heterosexual, and so on. If I was gay, so what? It’s not a bad thing, it’s a brilliant thing.[…] Sure, I had my hair cut short, I had tattoos, I was muscular, so therefore that means I’m gay? Why is there a stereotype? I think what’s been wonderful, with all the recent conversations around gender, is that people are now questioning, why do we attach the colour pink to a girl, why do boys play with trucks and so on. What does ‘butch’ and ‘feminine’ mean? Our ideas around gender are so based around old-fashioned and inherited ideas from way back when. But those old stereotypes are outdated and wrong.

“I’ve always been sensitive around it,” Melanie tells me today, “because I’ve never wanted people to think I was offended by people assuming I was gay.” (Indeed, the Scottish Daily Record quotes her in 1999 as saying: “I find it very rude and extremely offensive to gay people to call me a lesbian because of the way I look.”) “All the Spice Girls have always been aware of the support from the LGBTQI+ community. We’ve never taken it for granted. Back then, it was very apparent we had many young gay male fans, including some who hadn’t come out or fully understood who they were. We really quickly wanted to change tack, from screaming about Girl Power, to being about inclusivity.”

I can just imagine them knocking heads to fine-tune their ideology: from Spice Boy shout-outs in their official magazine to a lyric in ‘2 Become 1’ changing from a boy/girl straight relationship reference to a more general one about love. “We realised it was a very heterosexual connotation,” says Melanie. “Our fans are more than that.”

Mel C
Melanie C wears vintage sportswear from her own archive, and shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti (Image: Mark Cant/Attitude)

Received wisdom dictates that the girls’ unique identities became ‘a thing’ after Top of the Pops magazine bestowed them with their iconic nicknames post-‘Wannabe’. An anecdote in Melanie’s book, detailing an almighty row at the February 1996 BRIT Awards, which they attended as nobodies, suggests otherwise. After being pulled up for wearing her hair down — i.e. Posh ‘pob’ territory — a drunken Melanie told Victoria to “fuck off”. The next day, she was almost kicked out of the group. What sounds like a trivial squabble actually speaks to savvy self-awareness of their marketability. (And sparked in Melanie a desire to be perfect that contributed to much mental strain — more on which later.)

“Dressing the same didn’t work, or at least, being coordinated,” recalls Melanie. “We’d rock up to rehearsals: me in trackies, Emma in a baby-doll dress, Geri in whatever Geri was in that day… which wasn’t white! We looked in the mirror, and it probably was Geri or Mel who said: ‘Why don’t we just dress the way we do?’” Their original management thought differently, so the girls famously did a runner in Geri’s Fiat Uno, demos stuffed down the Ginger one’s knickers.

These days, there’s a fluidity to the girls’ style. Scary, for one, is something of a sophisticate, wearing VB to collect her OBE for services to charitable causes and vulnerable women. Sporty and Posh, meanwhile, have traded places: back then, the former wouldn’t have been seen dead in a skirt, while the latter lived in them. These days, Melanie’s embraced her inner glamazon (but still loves sportswear, as evident in our shoot), while Vic is often in masculine tailoring, relaxed silhouettes, and athleisure. 

“She’s really crossing a line with the sporty stuff!” jokes Melanie. “But she has a great collaboration with Reebok, so I’ll let her off!” 

There were anomalies: at the 1997 BRITs, Geri’s Union Jack dress got all the attention, but I was as fascinated by Melanie’s super-cool, full-length Gucci gown later in the night. Was the sporty gear an armour she was reluctant to take off, I wonder? “It was a confusing time for me to figure out who I really was,” she says. “I was very self-conscious about my body. I’ve always had issues around my legs. And I’ve got pretty good legs, actually.” 

A change in self-expression came with getting older and “becoming a mum”. (Melanie has a daughter, 12-year-old Scarlett, with ex-partner Thomas Starr). The passing of time also readied Melanie to finally write her memoir, released the day of our meeting. “It feels fucking surreal,” she admits, clearly overwhelmed. “I’ve spent so much time working on it — thinking about doing it, thinking about not doing it, regretting making the decision to do it — and now it’s out, it’s so weird. I was at complete peace with it: my mum, dad, siblings had read it; the girls; everyone had been very supportive. Then it goes out to a few journalists, gets some nice feedback. It went out to the wider press yesterday and… I just felt I lost control of everything again. I feel disassociated.”

As we speak, it’s no exaggeration to say that Melanie is global headline news. Days prior, on Elizabeth Day’s How to Fail podcast, she had bravely elaborated on a memory shared in Who I Am about being sexually assaulted the night before the Spice Girls’ first live concert in Istanbul. Suddenly, what must be an intensely painful memory is everywhere, often written about in sensational, heavy-handed language (“Mel C reveals…”). It follows days of ‘news’ about her experiences of depression and eating disorders at the height of her fame; matters she’s spoken about at length repeatedly for decades. Much of the latest coverage reads like desperate opportunism rather than good-faith attempts to end stigma.

Mel C
Melanie C wears custom vest by Graham Cruz Studio (Image: Mark Cant/Attitude)

“This mental health side of things really irks me,” Melanie admits. “It’s very personal and difficult to talk about. People talk to me about it like [it’s]: ‘What are you having for tea tonight?’ It’s handled very insensitively sometimes. So, with the book, I wrote my thoughts and feelings in black and white. Now the tabloids have got hold of everything again, cherry-picking things for their fucking clickbait. But it’s the nature of the beast. I’m used to it. It’s tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper.”

Spoken like a true showbiz survivor, not to mention, music veteran. Let’s unpack exactly why Melanie Chisholm is overdue her flowers: as a Spice Girl and solo artist she’s sold a combined total of well over 100 million records; has 12 UK number-one singles to her name; is the only British woman to reach the top spot as a solo artist and as part of a duo, a quartet, and a quintet; has worked with icons like Bryan Adams and the late Lisa ‘Left-Eye’ Lopez of TLC. And still she’s killing it, returning to the top 10 in 2020 with her eighth studio album, the Sink The Pink-featuring Melanie C. (‘Blame It On Me’ is her best song in years.) 

And still she has the grace to answer my remaining Spice geek questions: first up, what’s her favourite Spice Girls song? I hazard a guess: ‘Viva Forever’? 

“I love it, but it’s hard to sing!” she giggles. “It annoys me if I can’t get the low bits…” She oscillates between ‘Wannabe’ and ‘Spice Up Your Life’. (Her favourite solo Spice song, other than her own, is Emma Bunton’s ‘What Took You So Long?’ Or maybe ‘Maybe’.)

Mel C
Melanie C wears custom vest by Graham Cruz Studio (Image: Mark Cant/Attitude)

Then there’s Spiceworld 25, the re-release of the girls’ second album at the beginning of November, to talk about: “We’re always across everything because we hate the thought of our fans being shafted, because they collect everything,” says Melanie. 

We also touch on the as-good-as-confirmed third reunion tour — with or without Victoria — after Geri, Emma, Melanie, and Mel B’s sell-out UK stadium success in 2019. Reading between the lines, geography may be a sticking point. “I can only speak for myself; we all have slightly different feelings, hence why there are no tickets on sale yet,” she says. “But I do feel strongly about territories we never got to in the 90s; South America and South East Asia — I’d love to do that.”

The last time they all got together was in 2020, for a socially distanced woodland walk. “There are offshoots — I’ll see Emma, Geri — but all five is pretty rare,” Melanie explains. They do communicate as a group… on iMessage. “We’re so old we don’t even name it!” she laughs, whipping out her phone to show me. I immediately spot the other girls’ names, saved in semi-coded form on Melanie’s device. “Any celebrity on my phone, I feel like I can’t put their full name in, so I just put initials or something,” she explains, as it dawns on her this isn’t quite the stealth move she thought it was. “No one’s ever going to work that out, are they?!” Well, this Spice Boy did! 

Who I Am by Melanie C is out now

Check out Melanie C’s acceptance speech from the 2022 Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards below:

Photography Mark Cant Creative director Joseph Kocharian Styling Graham Cruz Stylist Assistant Sam J Borg Hair and makeup Bekki Mitchell at Creative Agency

The Attitude Awards issue is out now