What's New  :  Pictures  :  Multimedia  :  Information  :  Message Board  :  Interact  :  Links  :  Feedback  ::::::  Home
  It's a celebration, motivation, generation next.... 

Gear - Nov/Dec 1998
Baby Spice - My Life As A Pop Tart

Can a girl be too cute for her own good?

More specifically, don't the benefits of being Baby Spice shrivel to nothing next to the drawbacks of being marooned inside a potentially humiliating straitjacket of a persona? Neither of these questions were on my mind at the beginning of December, 1996. The Spice Girls had just made their maiden voyage to America to meet their soon-to-be enemies in the media and shoot the video for 2 Become 1. 1 did one of their first interviews here, which is to say I switched on the tape recorder while they shouted over each other for a half hour. Where Geri came off like a raucous motivational speaker, Mel B would have barked like a seal to get attention,Victoria was a little snippy and Mel C kept herself to herself, Emma - who, in those days fibbed about her age, telling some magazines she was 20 and others 18, and puffed her way through a pack of cigarettes in public - was reinforced sweetness. "I like you, I really like you:' she said, aiming a full-beam, blinding white smile at me after we'd sat at the same table for 20 minutes. When no reply was forthcoming - her charm stealth weapons could not penetrate my low self-esteem shield - she huffed, 'You're supposed to say you like me back', leaving me thinking she was playing her little girl role like a Method actress.

"Babies are everywhere," observes an awestruck eight year-old. Her friend concurs: "I've seen one Victoria and one Mel C, but everybody's Baby!" The preponderance of blonde pigtails, white vinyl platform boots and short dresses in baby blue and hot pink provides startling proof that, in the new order of the Spice Girls, Emma Bunton is clearly homecoming queen. It's the middle of August, 1998, and I'm in Denver's Fiddler's Green amphitheater. I enter the Spice Girls' dressing room to find Emma clutching a cuddly pink rodent and messily gobbling her way through a plate of cherries. That full-beam blinding smile switches on again. You might think, in an age when female performers are proudly proclaiming themselves bitches and brats, that no one would want to bear the burden of Good Girl.

But Baby Spice is no role to be cast wearily aside after the final encore. "I'm not trying to get away from it at all:' she says of the child-woman persona. "When I do magazines they say, 'We want to take you away from that', but that's the way I am. Sexiness, for me, is not so in your face. When girls wear long, tight-fitted dresses, I find that sexy. Or when they're cute." But there was that poignant moment in the Spice World movie when she was forced to reflect on being known as Baby Spice when she turns 30. "I said that in jest. You can either relate Baby to a little girl or you can relate it to..." (she affects a husky growl) "hey, baby. Baby doesn't just mean young and stupid." It does, however, mean a position as den mother to untold millions of screaming pre-pubescents. "The girls always take the piss out of me and say, 'Oh, if she wasn't Baby Spice, she'd be working in a nursery. I love the way children are, they're not corrupted by anything, they're honest and they say, 'Hey, you look sh#@! today'." The affection is mutual, evidenced by the spot in the show where she hauls out a bashful young lad from the side of the stage, clutches his paw, sings to him and plants a smacker on his cheek. "My security people go out and look for fans and ask them if they'd like to come up. They're always up for it, except sometimes they go stiff." That neanderthal 'hur-hur-hur' you're no doubt suppressing comes gurgling out of my throat. "I didn't mean that:' she blushes. "I mean they just don't move, which is very embarrassing." There's no getting away from it, she's a Good Girl. "This is the way I've always been. I'm just Emma."

Tony Blair knew what he had to do. It was December, 1996, and the affable, opportunistic leader of the refurbished British Labour Party had a national election coming up. The Conservative Party, in power since 1979, was falling apart, rocked by infighting and a series of ever-more entertaining sex scandals. Then the Spice Girls came out in an upmarket political magazine as Conservative supporters. True, only Ginger and Posh actually proclaimed themselves Conservative supporters, but they also labeled Tony Blair as "hollow, shallow, callow and slick". For Blair, who had courted the youth vote to the extent that he encouraged the impression that he sought out and enjoyed the company of Oasis' Noel Gallagher, this was a slap that needed to be speedily spun to his advantage. Through the offices of the UK's weekly pop press Blair let it be known that the Spice Girls song Say You'll Be There was one of his Top Ten of the year and that "...there has been free and frank debate in the Blair household as to our favorite Spice Girl."

Plonk an alien down in the middle of any British city at that time and it would have reported back to the mothership that it was stranded in a screechy, lurid queendom known as Spice World. Endlessly discussed, dissected and debated on TV and in the press, the depth of the groups impact on their homeland could be gauged not only by commercial clout, but also by their effect on the national lexicon: female practitioners of over-exuberant behavior in any walk of life were instantly labeled 'Spice Girls', while British politicians debating in the Houses of Parliament even referenced the line, 'I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want!' "What is the state of the government if we can have an influence?" asked Ginger. "That's terrible." Especially since, in December, 1996, the Spice Girls had been famous for a little under six months.

All previous attempts at establishing an all-girl band had failed in the Britain of the 90s, but that didn't stop Chris and Bob Herbert, a father and son management team, from placing an advert in the British entertainment trade paper, The Stage, for 18-23 year-olds who were, '...streetwise, outgoing, ambitious and dedicated to an all-female pop outfit'. The five who made it through auditions - Geri Halliwell,Victoria Adams, Melanie Brown, Melanie Chisholm and Michelle Stephenson - were told they were going to be the components of a group called Touch. Michelle Stephenson's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and she dropped out of the group to be replaced by Emma Bunton, who had been in a local theater musical with Victoria Adams a couple of years before. The Herberts stuck their charges in a three-bedroom house and put them through voice and choreography lessons. But once the five girls got an inkling of the caliber of material the Herberts had in store they shucked off the puppet strings and seized control of the means of their own exploitation.

By the end of 1994, British record industry functionaries, from the most soulless executive to the cleaning staff, lived in fear of the prospect of a spontaneous visit from the Spice Girls. "Let us sing!" they'd shriek, "listen to our demos". Crash enough parties, buttonhole enough producers, Djs, managers and A&R people and you'll eventually attract: A) a reputation as pariahs, or B) attention. The Spice Girls won the latter and gained a manager in Simon Fuller, best known up to that point for handling Annie Lennox. Though Emma Bunton now describes him as "a facilitator", it's likely he played a significant part in inflating the Spice Girls' personalities to cartoon proportions. In the summer of 1995 they signed to Virgin Records in the UK. After a period of recording they put tunes and words on top of tracks constructed by two teams of producers and their first single Wannabe, written, Emma recalls, "in an hour" was released, first in Japan, a nation known for its indiscriminate adoration of pop records by cute, cartoonlike girls. The single did a brisk 200,000 copies.

Before its UK release, no one was predicting similar success. Then the British version of the cable station The Box began airing the slapstick Girls-Going-Nuts video for Wannabe. The single was released at the end of July, 1996. Two weeks later, it was No 1. Sock puppets, soccer teams, singing firemen; anyone can top the charts in Britain with a giminick; but it was immediately clear the Spice Girls were a breed apart from your workaday pop phenomena. In an environment packed with perfectly-groomed, expertly choreographed boy bands, all of them serenading their target demographic with promises of eternal affection, the Spice Girls, singing and dancing like a gaggle of sozzled girlftiends falling all over each other at a local disco while screeching along with their favorite song, were a revelation.

The Girls spoke directly to the same audience as the boy bands, but emphasized female friendship, self-determination and the offloading of crap boyfriends. They were all about, as they never ceased blaring, 'Girl Power!' Though sketchily defined, that banner is the reason the Spice Girls have attracted more attention, debate, hostility and business than any other female vocal group in the history of pop. Recall all the exquisite records contributed by the great girl groups through Motown, the Latin Hip-Hop era and today's glossy R&B packages, and none of them have come close to achieving the stature of the Spice Girls. The reason: they've got an ideology. It may be a bogus one, it may disappear when you hold it up to the light, but it's something to which they're inextricably linked - and they've got identities. Towards the end of 1996, the UK's Top of the Pops magazine ran a feature assigning monikers to the Spice Girls, Titian-haired Geri became Ginger, demon- strative Mel B was Scary, tracksuit-clad Mel C was Sporty, haughty Victoria was Posh and fluffy Emma was Baby.

Britain, lacking an indigenous film industry, tends to elevate pop stars to exalted status. VAiich is to say that, in a country that prizes its pop stars, the Spice Girls have long transcended flavor-of-the-second status and become institutions. In America, however, they have always been regarded with suspicion by a media that sees them as, at best, fiercely materialistic, live-action Beanie Babies. Critics who worked themselves up into a lather over Fiona Apple's honesty, jewel's sensitivity, Lil' Kim's raw sass and Sarah McLachlan's clear skin suddenly developed backbones and decided that the Spice Girls were the one thing they were not going to stand for, Conveniently ignoring the fact that as much artifice and contrivance went into the assembling of, say, the latest Hole record, US commentators obsessed about the shrill Brit imports' lack of talent and built-in obsolescence. 'They're over!'was the verdict when the second album Spice World sold only 80,000 in its opening week.

'They're over!' was the verdict when the group sacked manager Simon Fuller (rumored to be as a result of an affair with Baby, which she denies, claiming she'd never go out with a man who had dyed black hair and a sunbed tan).'They're over!' was the verdict when, in July of this year, the most voluble and articulate member, Geri Hathwell, quit arnid insinuations of in-group acrimony. But they're not over yet. Spice World went on to outsell the current albums by Madonna, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson and the fitfully amusing, quickly thrown together movie of the same name made $77 million worldwide. The group simply became their own managers: "It's like running a small business," Emma tells me. Their US stadium tour was a sell-out and their first single to be released without Ginger in the ranks (the gorgeous Abba-esque holiday romance ballad, Viva Forever) sold 280,000 in its first week of UK release. "People say, 'Oh their 15 minutes are almost up, but we've had a very very long 15 minutes," comments Emma. (And then Posh and Scary got pregnant causing those verdicts of 'They're oved' to start up again.)

Emma Bunton was born in Barnet, North London in 1976. "1 was a hyperactive child, I was always posing." She started modeling, appearing on the covers of catalogs and commercials for toothpaste (so thats where the full-beam blinding smile comes from), toys, travelcards and strawberries. Then she saw Grease. "I wanted to be Sandy," she recalls. Her mother, Pauline, bought her a pair of tap shoes and, driven to distraction by her daughter's clattering around the house, sent her to dance classes. She enrolled at Sylvia Young's, an establishment whose alumni pepper the casts of almost every UK sitcom, soap opera and, of late, the pop charts.

When Emma was 11, her parents split up. Though she remains close to her father, a milkman, Emma and her mother became "like flat-mates". When she went to concerts, mum would drive her, wait outside, sometimes in the rain, then take her home. This is why, when I ask if she was ever an evil child like Sporty, who confessed to shoplifting sprees she says: "I never went through a rebellious phase. I had too much respect for my mother."

Emma remembers the first boy she ever kissed ("It was after school in Marylebone train station. I didn't enjoy it much") but will not talk about her current boyfriend, reportedly a member of British boy band Damage. "When your other love life's been splashed all over the papers you tend to hold back a little bit more." The 'other love life' involved a dental technician called Mark. She broke up with him last year and he turned on her like a jackal, selling their story to a British tabloid. Clutching the stuffed pink rodent to her, she sighs: "I haven't totally forgiven him, but if he needed that money then let him have it. Obviously, I will never see him again. It's an awful thing. That was my private life and his, which is even more embarrassing. We spent four years together, and I felt he put the whole thing on display. When we broke up I thought I'd always have a little part in my heart for him, but that's g-a-w-n. "

Even though the last time the Spice Girls were on The Tonight Show Emma told what could be taken as a mildly anti-Geri joke ("What's the difference between a curry and the Spice Girls? Only one of them's got Ginger in it!"), she denies any resentment. "A lot of people think it was a bad thing. It wasn't. Geri had to go her separate way." She remembers the recording session for their first album: "Geri hired a male stripper to come and dance for us in between songs. We made him dance to a Cliff Richard video that was on the telly and he got all pissed off." Her rueful laughter suggests she still rnisses her departed colleague. Without Geri, though, the band have closed ranks. As I'm heading for the Denver dressing room, Mel B confronts me and snarls: "Stop being so mean. Be nice to her. Keep an open mind!" as if she's caught me in the act of coating Emma's panties with marzipan. "We're very protective of each other," explains Emma. This is understandable - although, you know, f#@k Mel B - when you're constantly pursued by people eager to chart your decline. I ask Emma if she's aware of their dwindling presence on MTV and US radio. "People get rid of their managers and go through changes all the time but for some reason, when it's us, people focus on it a lot. MTV said,'Hey we don't know what's going on with you'. People lose faith, which is upsetting. I'm proud of our music, but I can't tell you why it's not on MTV.'

In the Denver arena, hundreds of little Baby Spices crank up the 'Eeeeees' when the others bid Baby bye-bye, giving her a solo stage on which to chirp, twirl, mug and grin her way through "ere Did Our Love Go? She's fuller figured than her hardbodied bandmates, her voice is soft but serviceable and her dancing skills are rudimentary, but the lights that go on in the tots' eyes when she's beaing at them is proof positive that her gift of audience empathy is considerable. Posh is an ice sculpture come (barely) to life, Scary's always on, Sporty's your bud, but Baby's not only the one they all want to be, she's the one they believe they could be.

Backstage, I ask what dreams she can have left to fulfill, and she talks of working with Janet Jackson but "...personally, I'm just really looking forward to having a family". I ask if she's become impervious to the constant criticism. "You're only human and you have feelings:' she says. "I've grown a bit stronger over the years. If you let the good press affect you, then you become some big-head-ed pop star wanker. If you let the bad press affect you, then you become a complete nightmare and lose your head." As if something's occurred to her that she just has to impart, she leans forward and, eyes suddenly shining, says: "Another thing I'd like to say is, I don't think you can come into this industry with an emptiness you think it's going to fill. You have to be fulfilled and know who you are in the first place. You have fans, you have people screaming, but that's not everything. You get money, but that's not everything. I've been modeling and acting for a very long time and I've really enjoyed it but I've never felt like I've needed it. When I go home I don't live in a huge mansion, I live in a three-bedroom house with my mum and my brother. I live a normal life just like everyone else." Then she laughs. "Well, I can't say just like everyone else..."

Cute, but not too cute for her own good.

Return to Interviews

girl power

Pics from interview 

Sign Guestbook :  View Guestbook