America, January 29, 1997. The Spice Girls, the pop sensation of our time, sit in a New York hotel room. (Emma, the youngest and blondest, isn't here. She has spent the morning puking up, and is down the corridor in bed). They want to go shopping, but instead they are being interviewed by THE FACE. Except that, when the Spice Girls are all together, you don't really interview them. You mostly just linger nearby, very occasionally suggesting a topic of conversation, while they shout over each other and fall about laughing. Let's listen for a moment...
"Has anyone ever eaten cat food?" asks Geri. (The is the oldest and the most ginger. If anyone takes the lead in day-to-day Spice dealings, it is her. She is also the one most explicitly concerned with the Spice Girls' shouty post-feminist manifesto, and is the one who actually goes round hollering, "Girl power!" all the time.)
"Oh yeah," confesses Mel C. "I've ate cat food." (Melanie C is the quietest - a very relative concert when it comes to the Spice Girls - and the Liverpudlian. For this reason, whenever she buys a toothbrush, she buys a red one.)
"Have you?" says Mel B. She has been concentrating on her chicken and mash, but suddenly perks up her ears. (Melanie B is the blackest and the one most ready to give the impression that everything is a laugh and that she couldn't care less. But if you fall for this, you're a fool.)
"I think I've eaten the biscuits," says Geri.
"Oh yeah," nods Mel C, as though she is dealing with mere beginners, "I've eaten dog biscuits."
"Melanie C eats dog biscuits!" shouts Mel B.
"Didn't you used to do dares with your cousin to get each other to eat dog biscuits?" asks Mel C.
"I used to pick chewing gum off the floor," Mel B concedes.
"Melanie told me," Victoria interjects, "she used to actually collect other people's bogeys and chew on them."
"Piss off!" shouts Mel B. "No, I used to have a bogey collection behind my bunk bed. My mum used to make me scrape them off."
"We've gone all filthy," sighs Geri.
"I was only little," says Mel B. "You've got nowhere else to put them. Everyone does that."
"I did a pooh in the bath with my brother and sister," boasts Geri.
These are the Spice Girls. They just can't help it. Geri puts her head in her hands. "Oh God, now I'll get the incestuous.."
"You must be proud of it, or you wouldn't say it, Geri," says Victoria. "So you must want it to be said." (Victoria is the one who grew up wealthiest, and seems the least drawn into girlie gang behavior.)
Mel C looks at me.
"Do you want us to talk about something semi-serious?" she wonders aloud.
Maybe. Some of the other questions I have made them answer earlier, alone.
What is your talent?
Victoria: I wear the heels and carry a handbag. Looking miserable. Everybody says to me, why don't I ever smile? I don't like it when I do smile because I get dimples. Sometimes I get a bit annoyed because the others are a bit irrational - they just think something an do it - whereas I will think about the consequences. I have a lot of input on the writing as well.
Emma: I've got quite a high voice. I do all the high sort of licks. I also really like to know that the girls are feeling OK. I'm quite caring. If one of us is not right, or one of them is not feeling right then I have to sort it because I don't like it.
Mel C: I'm very determined. I think it can be a bit annoying, but I'm glad I'm like that. I don't think I'm a great singer, but I love it and I think maybe people enjoy my singing because I enjoy it so much. Sometimes I feel like a bit of a spare part. I'm the one in the corner. But I'm the one the paparazzi don't follow. Touch wood. I've lived in my flat since September and I haven't got curtains, and I get out of the bath and forget. We all have our own countries. In Spain they think I'm the bee's knees. In Germany it's "Victoria! Victoria!"
Geri: Creatively I love lyrics. I really do love words. My main thing in the group is I come up with ideas. I think I can talk to anybody and I always try to understand people. We've all got balls, but I've got quite big balls, basically.
We first meet ten days earlier, at the FACE photo session. Victoria introduces herself first. The is the one known as Posh Spice. "I'm not really posh, she says. Her sort of twisted London-y slightly-hoity-toity-but-not drawl reminds me a little of Justine from Elastica. "She's got hairier armpits," Victoria observes. On her Christmas Caribbean holiday she sat behind Damon and Justine on the plane. None of them said anything, but Damon smiled at her.
These character nicknames have been one of the Spice Girls' genius moves. Posh Spice, Ginger Spice (Geri), Sporty Spice (Mel C), Scary Spice (Mel B), Baby Spice (Emma). The perfect way to deliver the concept - five girls with different attributes who join together to make a greater whole. It was the smart, memorable way of setting in concrete everything they were trying to be: Spice is the variety of life. Like most of the best pop music masterstrokes, it was not planned. The names were actually created at a Top of the Pops magazine editorial meeting. They thought of the name "Scary Spice" and the rest readily followed.
"My mum went, 'You're not scary'," says Mel B. "I said, 'Yes I am'."
"My mum was over the moon with my one," says Victoria. "She said, 'Oh, jolly good...'"
Before she could even talk Victoria used to leap around her Hertfordshire lounge like a nutcase, wearing headphones which weren't plugged in, dancing away on the orange carpet with her father to Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke". Her parents met when her father sang in a British Sixties cover band called The Sonics. The Sonics never quite made it - "their manager committed suicide," Victoria endearingly relates, "so it all kind of went a bit Pete Tong from there, you see." but her father moved into the world of electrical wholesaling. Made a lot of money. "He could sell snow to the eskimos as far as I'm concerned," his daughter says.
These are the children of the Eighties. Victoria liked Leroy from Fame and Rudolf Nureyev, but most of all she was in love with Matt Goff. She decided she was going to marry him, have his children. She even had the stars'n'stripes jeans. (She stuck her Bros pictures in a scrapbook, but she wasn't allowed them on the walls. "Blue-Tac stains," she explains.)
"I just thought he was really sexy," she says. "He reminded me of a baby duck just broken out of an egg." "I Owe You Nothing", that was her favorite. The way he did that half-asthmatic, half-sexual, "oooh-arrgghhh" grunt. At one Bros concert she sat in front of Luke's girlfriend, Shirley Lewis, and she liked Luke enough as well to keep thinking "you cow" and wanting to smash her head in. She saw Shirley Lewis the other day singing back-up on the same show as the Spice Girls. She wanted to explain, but she didn't.
Victoria didn't have an easy time at school. She never had many friends. A lot of it seemed to stem from her father's car. It can be difficult when your father delivers you to school in the Rolls-Royce. The three children always used to plead for him to take them in the clapped-out old van, but sometimes he was on the way to a meeting and it had to be the Rolls, and even though they would ask to be dropped off at the end of the street... word gets around. She used to hate it. "If I was going to school now I wouldn't give a monkeys," she says. (But that's easy to say, now she's a Spice Girl.)
Her classmates also used to take the piss out of her nose. So she kept her head down, worked, and went to dancing classes in the evening. You wouldn't find her out behind the bike sheds. "I used to kind of turn a blind eye to it," she says, "because I was never invited. I was probably one of the most unpopular kids you'd ever have at school." She'd cry in the toilets; she'd cry to her parents. "You look back now and think: I'd love to be stuck in that room with all those kids that said all those things about me." She's met some of them since she's been a Spice Girls. They've come up to her in Tescos, pushing their prams - the ones who teased Victoria and made her cry - and they've reminisced about those happy shared school days. Asked for an autograph.
It isn't normally like this. Pop stars appear. Sometimes they sell shedfuls of records. Sometimes they find their picture in the papers. But not like this. The Spice Girls' success is of a different order to anything we have had for a very long time. They represent rather more than themselves. With uncomfortable speed, they have become part of the fabric of our world, of our language, and of the way we talk and think about themselves. They have a huge - and in some ways, for which they themselves are not necessarily responsible, appalling - resonance. (Compare, as we must, with current boy-band heroes Boyzone. They're really successful too, but when we think of Boyzone we think of - at very best - Boyzone. When we think of the Spice Girls, right now, however ludicrous this is, we seem to think of just about everything else that matters.)
They are talked about in Parliament. They are fought over by our leaders and our would-be leaders. They are the currently favoured metaphor for any kind of high-spiritedness, or feisty femininity (turn on that radio right now: it's the celebrating female Wrexham supporters returning home on their coach from West Ham, talking on Radio Five Live to David Mellor, being referred to, quite naturally and without explanation, as "spice girls"), or any kind of trashiness, or any kind of independence, or any kind of wink-wink-guys sexuality, or any kind of gang-flavoured jubilation, or even simply as a metaphor for unfettered popularity itself.
Reasons? You can search on several levels. Maybe they do fill a vacuum for free-hearted, independent, joyful female role-models. Maybe their attitudes have set off an earthquake in the fault-lines of a guilty, paranoid, patriarchal society. maybe. I think two of the most interesting reasons lie within the media itself.
The first is a consequence of its demographic make-up. The British mainstream media is dominated by the values of middle-aged British men, who both want to be young again themselves and want to show themselves as professionally young at heart. The Spice Girls fit perfectly. Part of the over-fascination with the Spice Girls is as one more example of the familiar, pathetic tradition of middle-aged men embarrassing themselves over flirty faux-teenage girls. (Calm down, you want to shout, but they never listen.)
The second is the way the Spice Girls have flourished in that fuzzy area between serious and stupid which Nineties British culture has taken as its playground. Fooling around in these shadowlands - between kitsch and high art, between sincerity and irony, between acclaim and disdain, between sarcasm and desperation - used to seem rather daring and postmodern, but more and more those who operate in this area use it as a way to both be lazy and to abdicate all the touch moral and aesthetic decisions. The "quality" press is particularly guilty here. For it, the Spice Girls are simultaneously a pathetic joke (obviously they're fake and manufactured, obviously it's just stupid teen nonsense anyway, obviously their naive political opinions don't matter a fig, obviously we don't care about them, and anyway no pop music these days is worth anything, not like when we used to listen to Leonard Cohen while we tried to seduce pretty young brunette students... oh, sorry, I wandered off there) and quite genuinely their latest saviour (every editor and section editor seems to be under constant pressure to make their newspapers sexier, more relevant to women and younger, so the Spice Girls offer a magical triple whammy). Which is why, whatever they are saying, they make sure to print their Spice pictures large and often.
Continue to part 2...