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Vogue - January 1998
All Spice

"People are going to be amazed when they see these pictures!" says Melanie They're exhausted, these Spice Girls. Even the woman doing their nails says so: "What do I think of them? I think they're tired. I think they need some sleep." I have come to interview the Spice Girls on what was supposed to be a rare day off, but they have given it up to play dress up once more, all for the chance to be on the cover of a magazine. "is there a wind machine?" asks the dewy, blonde Baby Spice, who must know by now that her lank hair looks much better when it is swaying in a gentle breeze. Yes, comes the answer, the photographer will be employing a wind machine to heighten the seduction. They coo and giggle in anticipation. It's as if they know they're living out the fantasy of so many ordinary young girls-to be thought of as pretty and special. You can say one thing for the Spice Girls: They work hard for the money.

Time with the Spice Girls requires an act of God these days, seeing how they're so very busy meeting with world leaders and generally conquering the planet, to say nothing of the blitz of Spice product: In November, they released their second album, Spice World, and this month, a movie and a book. Soon, as if you hadn't guessed it, there will be Spice Girl dolls. In February, they begin a nine-month world tour, landing in America in May, their legend firmly entrenched.

Who would have guessed? In early 1994, a father-and-son music- management team, Bob and Chris Herbert, pondered the cu~~s fact that there had never really been a massively successfitBritish girl group. Since the mid-eighties, the UK had churned out one gimmicky, overproduced, and very successful boy group after another. So the Herberts placed an ad in a trade magazine ("R.U. 18-23 with the ability to sing/dance. R.U. streetwise, outgoing, ambitious and dedicated?...") and 400 women responded. Five were eventually chosen, but one was quickly dumped and replaced. They were then put up in a house in Berkshire and given dance and voice lessons. Before long, they had formed a bond and a pact: world domination. In order to accomplish this they agreed that they had to leave the Herberts behind in search of better management.

They found it in one Simon Fuller, the man credited with helping Annie Lennox become the star she is today. By the summer of '95, Fuller had landed the girls a deal with Virgin Records, and by the fall of '96, their debut album, Spice, was released and instantly became an international hit, with their first single, "Wannabe," going to number one in 21 countries. They staked a claim to "Girl Power," a phrase that caught on with teenage girls; a teen magazine assigned them their nicknames-Posh, Baby, Scary, Ginger, and Sporty Spice; the packaging was complete. Before long they were patting Prince Charles's bum, and calling Margaret Thatcher the original Spice Girl.

A few things I notice right away: (1) They really like one another, as evidenced by the fact that they will, at random, burst into song all at once, sit in one another's laps, rub one another's backs, and put lotion on one another's legs; (2) They're alithe same height-around five feet five; (3) Despite their obvious flaws (funny nose here, big ears there), they all have beautiful eyes; (4) Baby and Scary are the most naturally pretty; (5) Posh is a bit of a sourpuss; (6) Ginger is the leader; (7) They look very different in person; (8) They all smoke fiendishly. Before long they will seek me out one at a time and offer themselves up for a bit of chitchat. Sporty comes first and proffers a firm handshake. When I get her real name wrong, she snatches the notebook out of my hand and writes MELANIE CHISHOLM SPORTY GERI HALLIWELL GINGER EMMA BUNTON BABY MEL BROWN SCARY VICTORIA ADAMS POSH. Several months ago, while engaged in the popular dinner-party game of admitting (ironically, of course) who of the five is your favorite, I had settled on Sporty. Something about the jock girl always worked for me in the past, and she was usually wearing a track suit and cool sneakers. Plus, I had been told, she was the only one who could really sing. Then I saw her on the MTV Video Awards and realized that she was more of a screamer than a singer, and didn't appear to be the brightest bulb.

Meeting her in the flesh only makes me feel a bit sorry for hershe is the Spice Girl who doesn't seem to enjoy playing dress up. She looks as if she just rolled out of bed. In fact, nothing about her would indicate that she is a world-famous pop star worth a reported S 10 million. She answers my questions in as few words as possible. When I ask her what she wanted to be when she was growing up in Liverpool, she says, simply, "Pop star." You mean, like, a singer? "No, just a pop star, really. I just didn't know how to go about it." Whom did you most admire as a teenager?

Big smile: "Madonna. She's my idol."

Ah, Madonna. All roads absurdly, eventually lead to Madonna. The Spice Girls (all in their early twenties) will admit that they grew up on and worshiped Madonna. That their very first single was called "Wannabe" would seem to be an overt reference to the phenomenon of young girls around the globe wanting nothing more than to be/look like Madonna.

Madonna, however, is a singular and awesome force of one. When she burst forth fifteen years ago she had a point of view, however strangely articulated at times. Sex = Power, Safe Sex = Smart, Express Yourself, yadda yadda yadda. In Madonna's nimble hands, these ideas came off as fresh and edgy. The Spice Girls offer up the same messages in an attempt at seriousness, but they feel a bit stale and cartoonish. Madonna concocted her strange, messy brew of postfeminism without ever giving it a cute name. But more than that, Madonna's most potent early message, her manifesto if you will, was this: Everybody can be a star, especially on the dance floor. Problem with this idea, however, is that it turned out to be true. Too true. The Spice Girls prove not that everybody but anybody can be a star. Even Madonna is cringing. She was recently reported to have said that she hated her recent cover photo on Rolling Stone's Women of Rock issue. "I look like a Spice Girl," she said. Camille Paglia- unrepentant Madonna fan and the intellectual high priestess of post-feminism-naturally welcomes the Spice Girls as "living embodiments of... a new kind of vampy feminism. Tbey also exude this kind of wholesome girl-gang quality, sort of female cooperation and coactivity. They're much more like 1960s sorority girls-'Let's have a fund-raising car wash!'-without all of Madonna's Sturm and Drang. There's no subtext with the Spice Girls."

Though they can't really sing that well and could never make music without songwriters and producers guiding them through the process, at least the ideas and most of the lyrics are all theirs, and they seem remarkably in control. They're also pretty upfront. "We're not pretending to be cool," says Posh, lounging in a white terry-cloth bathrobe, eating a huge plateful of peas. "We're not claiming to be fantastic soul divas. We're just saying, 'We're happy with it. If you like it, then jump on our vibe.' We know it could all end tomorrow." This particular reality, however, may be setting in sooner than they had hoped. Sales of their new CD were well beneath expectations in its first week in stores, with the British tabloid The Daily Mirror asking, "Are you sick of the Spice Girls? Is it now all over?" A week later, they were booed off the stage at an awards show in Barcelona after refusing to pose for photographers. This amidst speculation that they would soon be breaking up.

Stephen Holden, a critic for 7he New York Times who has been writing about popular music for 25 years, says, "They appeal to the millennial teenager, which is now taking over the pop market, and they belong with Hanson as a kind of good-timey thing. They are the girl group in pretty much the same guise as before: from the Ronettes to the Go-Gos to the Bangles to the Spice Girls. It's very well made pop, but it's for kids."

"The best kind of honesty you get is from a child," says Ginger, who has been stalking around the studio most of the morning in her trademark red platforms and a tiny flowered swing dress, looking like a woman with things on her mind. "Kids know what they like and what they dislike. It's not corrupted by the status quo, outside influence, or what's cool and what's not cool. So therefore, when they like you, that's the purest kind of adulation you're going to get."

Ginger is the one with the flaming red hair who is often dressed like a weird combination of Wonder Woman and a trapeze artist. She has a very appealing sexy, raspy, va-va-voomishness about her, but it is tempered with a Bette Midler-like sense of irony. She's also the smart one-and at 25, the oldest. Both Baby and Scary tell me that when they were all living together with no money, no record deal, no manager, and very little encouragement, it was Ginger who woke them all up in the morning and made them rehearse. The British men's magazine Arena recently put Ginger on the cover, with the headline THE SMART MONEY IS ON THE RED. In mid- November, after I had already interviewed the girls, they had fired their mentor/manager, Simon Fuller, the man who had masterminded their stunning ascent. From all reports, it was Ginger who persuaded her Spicey sisters to can him, and perhaps she was going to take over the group.

Aside from the anachronistic girl-group standard, if there is a precedent for the Spice Girls it is most certainly the Village People, six men who were brought together through auditions by, again, a man with an idea. Each Village Person had a "character"-cop, construction worker, Indian, biker, and sailor-based on urban gay stereotypes of the time, a time when suddenly gay men and their "lifestyle" were being surreptitiously marketed to a naive yet hungry public. Talent was not important to the formula. Gimmick ruled-and worked. Similarly, the Spice Girls were brought together. Each has a "character"- tomboy, snobby rich girl, vampy glamour puss, virginal blonde, mouthy black girl-based on female stereotypes at a time when Girl Power (or sexy feminism lite) is being marketed to a naive yet hungry public.

The Village People, however, never hung out with heads of state and future kings. As I am talking to Sporty, one of her managers comes in and tosses a bunch of the day's papers from England on the table in front of us. The Spice Girls are on the cover of every one. The day before, they had made an appearance in London at the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal, for a kind of English Veterans Day. "The Spice Girls yesterday begged their young fans to honor British War heroes," reported The Sun. The piece then went on to describe how the five women were asked to participate in the hopes that they might reinvigorate the crusty old holiday. All dressed in black-in an attempt, one can only imagine, to look like Sad, Heartbroken, Widow, Mourning, and Death Spice for the occasion-they each took turns reading stanzas from Laurence Binyon's war poem "For the Fallen." As I read this I think, Perhaps there's more to them than I thought.

Because this is all still so new to them, really, I can see that they are reflexively fascinated by seeing themselves on the cover of every paper. At the same time, because they are now in the British tabloids every single day, they're also beginning to get bored with it. At one point, the manager says of one of the cover photos, "You all look so great. You look somber." Posh, who is sitting on a sofa slathering lotion on her legs, says, "Somber? What's that mean?" (Earlier, the words enterprise and sibling elicited similar befuddlement from a couple of the other Spices. Oh, well. So much for hoping that they would all surprise me with their laser-like intelligence.)

A couple of days from now, the Spice Girls will ship off to South Africa, where they will perform for thousands, including Prince Charles and an adoring Prince Harry. They will also meet Nelson Mandela, who will say, earnestly, that "these are my heroes." Perhaps Prince Charles took Harry to see his idols as a way to cheer him up after his mother's death. The irony in this is that in the void left by Princess Diana's death, it is the Spice Girls who sell the tabs.

When the question "Are you surprised by the huge success?" was put to each of them separately, Scary was the only one who gave me a straight answer: "Yes. It was a shock." She, by the way, is not so scary; she's just loud and opinionated, with a gutter mouth and a pierced tongue. I have always found it a bit disturbing that the black Spice is the one called Scary, especially since there are scarier Spices on the rack. But she shrugs it off. When I ask her about the group's reputation as a manufactured gimmick, she screams, "You can't manufacture this mouth!"

A few things they have in common: (1) Off duty, they all wear glasses; (2) They all come from working-class backgrounds, except for Posh, whose father owned his own business; (3) They have all had ex- boyfriends sell stories and pictures to the tabloids; (4) They all went to per forming-arts schools of one sort or another, except for Ginger; (5; They have all bought extravagant things for their families, Eke houses and cars-all except Ginger, who bought herself a $ 1,000 cigarette holder and now feels guilty about it; (6) They are all chased by photographers daily and are still not used to it. Says Ginger, "You don't wake up every day and remember that you're famous."

They were so busy traveling over the last several months that they didn't even realize how famous they had become until they came home for eight weeks this summer to London to film Spice World The film, which is scheduled for release on January 23, was directed by Bob Spiers, the director of Absolutely Fabulous, the cultish British sitcom, and has been described as a cross between A HardDays Night and This Is Spinal Tap. "I don't think we could have made this filin with five boys," says Spiers. "You wouldn't have gotten that dedication. They got their act together, they learned their lines, they worked hard, they came and they wanted to be good. I mean, they're not fantastic, but we're talking good performances. " No matter. It is certain to be huge, given the fact that they have sold over 20 million records worldwide.

I ask each of the Spice Girls what is the best part of their success. Each gives me a boring, canned answer (getting out the message, being able to perform before thousands). But when I ask them what the worst part is, they all give the same answer. Scary: "It's exhausting." Sporty: "I'm very tired." Posh: "I miss my family and I'm exhausted." Ginger: "I'm tired." Baby: "Jet lag." And it's no wonder. As soon as they finished filming Spice World they immediately had to go into the studio to finish their new album. From there, they were sent, in the words of Scary, to "Spice Camp for five weeks in France to rehearse for their first five performance ever, in Istanbul. And then off on a long promotional tour of Asia; then back to France.

As I sit watching these five women-so young, so lucky, so tired - I realize something: Never have I met anyone so excited to be famous. It is part of what makes me want to root for them. They have wanted nothing more than to have the whole world know their names, to travel in private jets, to make piles of money, to have photographers chase them, and to appear on the covers of big glossy fashion magazines. Good for them. Let them enjoy it. While it lasts.

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