Spice Girls: Too Hot to Handle

How five British pop tarts built their own world empire

The Spice Girls
Mark Seliger
The Spice Girls on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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As the Spice Girls take their seats, Mel B picks up her cloth napkin and uses it to rummage around inside a nostril. They have gathered in this private function room at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York so that I may discover a little more about them. You quickly learn that in the flesh, as on record and video, the most important value in Spiceland is not decorum.

"Everyone picks their nose," shrugs Geri. "President Clinton picks his nose."

The Spice Girl is a restless creature. Only occasionally will there be five Spice Girls at the table simultaneously. They get up, walk around, do exercises on the floor and go to the bathroom in a constant stream of ones and twos. Mel B wanders over to the potted plant in the corner and begins talking to it. "Like Prince Charles," she says. Then she walks back and hands me a matted clump from the top of her head. "I want to give the young man a lock of my hair," she explains to the others. I politely slip it into my notebook. Not to be outdone, Victoria carefully extracts a single strand of her hair and hands it over.

The Spice Girls Through the Ages

"In Trainspotting, the book," announces Geri, "[one character] takes her tampon out and puts it in the soup. And she had a bit of thrush." The others coo.

Would any of the Spice Girls do that?

"Might," says Geri. "We might put a boogie under the table in someone's office." They laugh. "What about what we did the other day?" she says. There is much giggling, and several Spice Girls press Geri to keep silent. Naturally, she doesn't. They were in Taiwan, she explains. They couldn't get anyone to understand their English, and they couldn't find the toilet, and they were bursting. So Geri and Mel C went into this room . . .

"I don't think it was a temple," argues Mel B.

"I think it was a ballroom," says Mel C.

. . . where the two of them squatted down in a corner and, in fits of giggles, peed onto some towels they found there. Stepped away from the sodden towels. Walked out.

Here, before things get too silly and agitated, is a cut out 'n' keep guide to the five Spice Girls. This is what you will need to know:

Geri Halliwell is 24. She is known as Ginger Spice. Her father, an unsuccessful English car salesman, died three years ago. Her mother is Spanish and works as a cleaning lady. (Mrs. Mop, the British tabloids call her.) When Geri was young, she once poohed in the bath with her brother and sister. She is the most talkative Spice Girl and the one who is generally first to shout "girl power," the key concept in Spice Girls philosophy.

Melanie Brown (Mel B) is 22. She is known as Scary Spice. Her father, who does hot-metal shift work, is from Nevis, in the Caribbean. Her mother, who works in a department store, is from Leeds, in the north of England. When she was young, Mel B used to have a boogie collection behind her bunk bed. Now she has a pierced tongue.

Emma Bunton is 21. She is known as Baby Spice. She has blond hair, which she often wears in bunches. Her father is a milkman; her mother teaches martial arts. They split when Emma was 11. When she was young, she was a child model. She recently announced, as a joke, "I don't want to be a cutie – I want to be a hot, sexy bitch," but she's now rather perturbed that the statement has been taken seriously.

Victoria Aadams is 22. She is known as Posh Spice. Her parents are rich; her father is an electrical retailer. When she was young, Victoria used to beg her father not to take her to school in the Rolls-Royce. She was teased at school for that and for her nose. She likes to dress in Prada and Gucci, and hates the way she looks when she smiles.

Melanie Chisholm is 23. She is known as Sporty Spice. Her mother is a singer; her father is in the travel business. They split when she was 3. When she was young, Melanie used to eat cat food. She wears lots of Adidas sportswear. A tattoo on her upper right arm is of two Japanese symbols: woman and strength. Girl power, in other words.

These names – Ginger, Scary, Baby, Posh, Sporty – have been a successful part of the Spice Girls package: a perfect simultaneous pop expression of heterogeneity (they're each their own person) and homogeneity (they're all disciples in the Church of Spice). A strange fact: Neither the Spice Girls nor any of the people around them thought up the names. They were invented during an editorial meeting at a British teen magazine called Top of the Pops. "We decided they were the kind of band we could have a lot of fun with," Peter Loraine, the editor, says. "We thought we could make up some stupid names." They were going to call one of them Old Spice ("I'm not saying . . . ") but thought better of it. Top of the Pops published the names, with an illustration of a spice rack, and they just caught on. As in the best pop stories – the Sex Pistols', say – it is not the plans you think up that make the difference, it is how well you use the accidents.

In America, Spice Girls are successful; both their debut album, Spice, and the first single, "Wannabe," have reached No. 1, and the follow-up single, "Say You'll Be There," is heading in the same direction. Nonetheless, it is perhaps hard for America to understand quite how famous Spice Girls have become in the rest of the world. In their homeland, for instance, the Spice Girls are in the papers every single day. I borrow the file of their British press clips for a single week (between March 7 and March 13). The pile is about an inch thick. There are 141 newspaper stories about them and many more from various magazines. This is a typical week.

The Spice Girls wake up each day under a deluge of feedback. There is stupid gossip. Sordid secrets. Old photos. (The tabloids' evergreen favorites are finding a new set of topless or nude photos of Geri – who did a little "glamour" modeling when she was younger – or a new set of Emma's childhood advertising photos, looking blond and smiley and product-friendly.) Trivia. Weighty pieces analyzing the Spice Girls' significance, furthering an endless, Sisyphean national debate over whether they are A Good Thing or A Bad Thing. Rumors. The occasional Scandal. (In December, Mel C was faced with the headline: SPICE GIRLS' COCAINE SHAME: ALL NIGHT BINGES SHOCK FOR YOUNG FANS, which claimed for her a past of various debaucheries. "I don't think anybody took any notice of it, did they?" she says, apparently unconcerned.) Hot news about what the Spice Girls did yesterday or about what they will do today or tomorrow. My favorite recent story was when Geri got a false fingernail stuck in her ear on a video shoot. It made the front page of The Sun, Britain's best-selling tabloid, and on the inside was a competition to give away what the paper said was the actual recovered false fingernail. (I hate to disappoint the "lucky" winner and to alert the rock-collectibles industry, but it was a fraud.)

Then there are the kiss 'n' tells. In Britain, Spice Girls have released four singles (the two American singles; the next American single, "2 Become 1"; and a double A side, "Mama" and "Who Do You Think You Are"). All went to No. 1. And, by the Spice Girls' own estimate, in the time it has taken them to release four singles, 13 different ex-boyfriends have kissed and told to the British tabloids. None of the Girls has been spared. In Emma's case, she has had only three boyfriends, and each of them has spilt the beans.

"Everybody has a price," says Victoria.

"I'm going to get them to sign a secrecy form from now on," says Mel B.

I met Mel B a few months ago on the morning when the first big love of her life, a soccer player, sold his story. "It's like selling your soul to the devil, isn't it?" she sighed. "He's driving around Leeds in a flash car, so let him get on with it. What can I do about it? I could quite easily get someone to go and beat him up. Or I could be really gutted and dwell on how sad it is and the good times we had. I'm quite cool, actually. . . . I aren't going to make a fuss about some little story that's earned him 20 grand. I've got a million. So what?"

When I mention that story today, Mel B says, "He got the shit beat out of him, so that's that. Well deserved, too."

But you told me before that you could make that happen, but you wouldn't.

She laughs: "No comment."

A personal glimpse #1. When a Spice Girl goes back to her hotel room at the end of the day, tired but satisfied, she may bathe and put on a dressing gown, and she will want to put her hair up. Sometimes she will use a scrunchy, but as often as not – inspired by the pioneering example of Mel B – she will sit on her bed, watching TV or reading or talking on the telephone or thinking, with a pair of underpants twisted into her hair. A G-string is naturally the best, because there isn't so much butt-covering material to get in the way. She may insist on clean underwear for this purpose, though if she is Mel B, she will be happy enough if the underwear has just been taken off. "My knickers don't smell, anyway," says Mel B. "They smell of roses. And I think it's nicer to wear something that's been lived in rather than fresh, crisp and clean."

The only Spice Girl not to partake in this ritual is Geri. "I'm always short of underwear," she explains. "In fact, today I'm wearing a pair of Melanie B's knickers."

What would you say to someone who thinks that spice girls are pointless and talentless?

EMMA: You can't ram it down somebody's throat – "I can sing, and I can dance, and I enjoy it as well." You can't keep doing that. We learned that a year ago. Obviously, sometimes you think, "Fucking hell!" for about two minutes. I just think, "Maybe in time they'll grow to enjoy it."

MEL C: Nothing. Some people love us, and some people loathe us. You can't dwell on it, can you? They're entitled to their own opinion. I think Madonna is so talented and so intelligent, but some people just think she's a talentless slag.

GERI: I think that anybody who has a negative or positive view on us, that's fine. That's freedom of speech. That's what creates democracy.

MEL B: I'd probably laugh [laughs] and think, "Oh, well, I don't blame you for thinking that." But maybe if they were abusive and started trying to shout at me, then I'd probably chin 'em. Or try to get my point across.

VICTORIA: Everyone's entitled to an opinion. I don't think everybody's great. But, I mean, who's having the last laugh, eh? Come on.

I watch the Spice Girls host an America Online press conference, each in her own chat room. Geri is the only one familiar with the Internet. She tells me about going into a sex chat room once and playing along. When she told them who she was, they didn't believe her anyway. "Then it got a bit filthy," she explains, "so I went, 'Fuck off, you pervert.' "

I run around from screen to screen. Someone asks Victoria when Spice Girls' second album will be released, and she shouts to Simon Fuller, their manager, to find out (early November).

Mel B's chat room isn't working. Eventually she gets in, and the questions start.

"Do you guys like AOL?" she is asked.

"I don't know who AOL are," she says. Then she is told, and she gives her answer: "I love America Online. It's a chance to speak to the world." (Mel B is clearly not an expert on these matters. Afterward, she will point at the computer monitors and ask, over and over, "I want an Internet. Can I have one of these?")

Geri answers a question about the media putting down the Spice Girls.

"I couldn't give a F**K basically," she types.

A note swiftly appears on her computer from the AOL chat-room guide. "Geri, you can't say F**K. Even that is a violation of our terms of service."

"Oh, balls," Geri types to the world. "I've just been told off for swearing."

A personal glimpse #2. all of the spice Girls' periods are in sync. Here is more information than you ever wanted:

"I get bad beforehand," says Mel B. "And Emma gets bad. Really, really bad."

"You have to get it onto me," Emma complains to Mel B.

"I've always been irregular," says Mel C.

"Geri's irregular," says Mel B. "Only me and Emma are solid ones."

"Niagara Falls, I am," says Victoria.

The Spice Girls have this flirtatious, charming, manipulative banter they indulge in with just about anyone who comes into their orbit. I got it when I first met them, at a photo session in London some months ago.

"Chris!" Geri shouted. "The Spice Girls have this policy: If we're going to have our clothes off, you're going to take them off, too!"

"Get your clothes off!" Victoria echoed.

"It's just flesh, man," Geri persisted.

I demurred.

"Are you a Spice Boy?" Geri asked. They always ask this. Everyone always says yes.

I don't think I am, you know.

"You could be," Geri persisted. She doesn't give up. "I think you are one. Secretly you are."

"He is a Spice Boy," Victoria said. "I've been talking to him, and I can tell he is."

"Secretly," Geri noded. "You just don't want to admit it. You are. I can tell, just by that sparkle in your eye."

You get plenty of this talk when you're around the Spice Girls. Later, Geri and Victoria tried to drum my sexuality out of me. When I resisted, Geri attempted to use the Truman Capote self-revelation method: "I'll say. I'm mixed. Can't decide." Over the next few days, I get a smattering of compliments. It's sort of nice. But I also get a cautionary insight into the possible meanings of the Spice Girls' flattery. One day I overhear them discuss someone they work with whom they don't like. "She's shit, she is," Victoria says. "When I first saw her, I thought, 'It might be trouble here.' That's why I said how pretty she was."

This is the Spice Girls' story as told over and over by the Spice Girls and printed in their own Spice magazine ("Written by the Spice Girls just for you!"): Four of them (all except Emma) saw an advertisement for a girl group in The Stage, the must-read periodical for star-struck British would-be entertainers, in March 1993 (It began: "R.U. 18-23 with the ability to sing/dance. R.U. streetwise, outgoing, ambitious and dedicated?"). They knew each other already, because they were always turning up at the same auditions, for musicals or shows or whatever, where they were inevitably rejected. They were girls who dreamed in vain of getting a part in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express.

By the summer, the group Touch was formed, with the four of them and a girl named Michelle. She subsequently left because of an illness in her family and because she wanted to go to college. After more auditions, Emma – whom Victoria knew – was brought in. They all lived together in a house in Maidenhead, a town west of London. Their managers at the time provided them with songs, which the girls hated, and tried to make them all dress the same. They knew from the beginning that the managers were no good. When the managers tried to tie them down to what they felt was an unacceptable contract, in October 1993, the girls walked out, paying off the managers' expenses with a loan. Just before then they had changed their name to Spice Girls.

They spent the next year "writing, recording, dancing and eating toast" and eventually hooked up with a management company run by Annie Lennox's manager, Simon Fuller, in March 1995. That August they signed with Virgin Records. Hey, presto.

In essence, much of this appears to be true, but when you nose around, a few pieces don't fit. For instance – though I'm not entirely sure why they would lie about this – they were actually brought together a year later than they claim: in March 1994. When I point this out, they don't disagree; they just try to make a joke out of it.

"Was it a leap year or something?" deflects Victoria.

"What's in a year, anyway?" says Geri.

"We sort of worked it out how many birthdays we'd gone out on and how many Christmas presents we'd bought each other," claims Mel C. And that's as far as I can get.

We talk about those first managers.

"You know, I feel quite sorry for them, really," says Geri.

"They had an idea," says Mel C. "They just didn't know what to do with it."

"If they'd listened to our ideas, then maybe it would have been a different story," says Mel B. "Our ideas were flowing so fast."

"They couldn't keep up with us, could they?" says Mel C.

The first managers were a father-and-son team, Bob and Chris Herbert. Usually in interviews the Spice Girls don't mention them, or they pretend to have forgotten their names. Today they are a little more relaxed.

"We used to call the manager What's Your Job Bob," Geri says. "We knew it wasn't right."

Victoria laughs. "Stop hip-thrusting in your Miami Vice suit," she says of Bob. "He walked in one day, and he had a bright-blue suit on and a white shirt and a medallion and some bright-blue loafers."

"He had all the clothes," says Geri.

The Herberts have avoided talking to the press. Some have suggested that the payoff they received swore them to silence. But when a friend of mine mentions that he has an old number for them, I decide to try my luck. Thirty seconds later, I have Bob Herbert on the phone. He is wary at first, but I explain that I just need to check some facts and get his side of the story, and soon he is chatting away, wistful but friendly.

"They're trying to make out that they are 'girl power' and made it all themselves," Herbert says. "But it's like cooking. That's the analogy I like to use. We put all the basic ingredients in: provided them with the studios, a house to live in, dance tuition, writers, paid their expenses. But to make the ingredients work, you have to get five spices together."

Emma was recommended by a singing teacher, and Herbert doesn't believe that she and Victoria really knew each other. He insists that they were never told to dress the same: The whole point of the auditions had been to find five strikingly different girls.

The Herberts set up a showcase to present the Spice Girls to songwriters and publishers, and the girls subsequently began writing with Stannard and Rowe (who co-wrote "Wannabe") and Eliot Kennedy (who co-wrote "Say You'll Be There"). Herbert confirms that the Spice Girls really did contribute to the songwriting. "I think it's fairly equal," he says. "They'd all got ideas for lyrics and melodies and subject matter. Geri got the idea for the rapping side. Keeps her away from singing." In his mind, the biggest talent is "without a doubt, Melanie Chisholm. She'd be the one to take a solo career."

It fell apart, Herbert says, because "it was just one of those business relationships that wasn't working between us." There was something else, too, that has not previously been mentioned. "We weren't quite happy with the lineup." He was planning to throw out one of the five current Spice Girls, and the intended victim knew it. "They may have been a strong enough character to persuade the other girls," he says. "You always find the least talented is the biggest danger in the group." He swears he's not bitter. "We created the Frankenstein that turned on us, I suppose," he laughs. "We're not dissatisfied." They settled financially before the Spice Girls' success, but, he says, "a deal's a deal." I tell him I'd heard the figure of 40,000 pounds mentioned. "As low as that?" he says. "I can't tell you the figure. I just wonder which part of the settlement that figure covered."

Have you yet been in the position where you're with someone and you wonder if they're thinking, "Wow! I'm having sex with a Spice Girl!"?
VICTORIA: [Smiles] I asked that question to someone yesterday. Just out of interest. He said, "No, because you knew you was you." You think, "Supposing I was a man and going out with me." Imagine the pressure of going to bed with someone, and you've just got this vision of them. The truth is, with me, I wouldn't say I'm frigid but . . . my mum always said to me, "When you're older, men will take advantage of you," and they just don't.

EMMA: I don't know, because I haven't had sex for ages. Actually, I probably have thought that with my last boyfriend, at one point. Quite weird. I do remember [a guy] saying a few times . . . he'd look at me and go, "Shit, I'm standing with a Spice Girl! I'm going out with a Spice Girl!" And sometimes it'd upset me. I'd think, "Yeah, but we've known each other for years."

MEL C: I should be so lucky as to be in that position. I do feel like I can't meet anybody at the moment – or, maybe, ever again – that's not going to think, "It's a Spice Girl." It's a horrible feeling. It's just human nature – when people see me, they don't see me, they see a Spice Girl. I haven't had sex since we've been successful. It's over a year. It doesn't bother me, though. I'm not really interested in sex and stuff. Not at the moment, anyway. I went through a phase where I had boyfriends, so I've kind of been-there-done-that kind of thing. Men bore me. I'm not saying women excite me, but men bore me.

GERI: No. You have to be aware of that sort of thing. At the moment, I'm just concentrating on what we're doing.

MEL B: Yeah. It's made me feel really good, actually. But that's one side of me. Once you get over that bit, then you should enjoy sex because it's me, and I'm shit hot in bed. [Considers a moment] If you just want a good going over, you should masturbate. [And then do you think, "Wow! I'm having sex with a Spice Girl!"?] No, I just think what a good vibrator I've got. And I cuddle myself and say, "You were great, man."

By the time you read this, the Spice Girls should have begun filming their movie. It is written by their manager's brother and directed by Bob Spiers (who directed the British TV sitcom Absolutely Fabulous), and it co-stars Richard E. Grant as their manager. They have just been at the Cannes Film Festival to drum up interest in it. During a press conference there, they made the journalists do a Mexican wave. A British morning TV show, The Big Breakfast, got hold of the doodles the Spice Girls drew while answering the questions and had them analyzed. Part of Emma's sheet is considered too risque for that time of the morning and is blanked out. "She wrote something a little bit naughty," they explained. It read: YOU FAT BASTARD.

"The film is five days in the life of the Spice Girls," says Victoria.

"We're going to be playing ourselves," says Emma.

"It's basically a parody of us lot," says Geri. "A pisstake of ourselves. It's an adventure; it's a thriller; it's a comedy. It's like us under a microscope and then through a telescope."

There have been, I point out, far more terrible pop-star films than good ones. Why do they think it's going to work?

"Because," says Mel B, who has shoved a bread roll down the front of her shirt, "I've got a third tit."

A personal glimpse #3. Emma is scared of big things. Like, she can't look at an airplane close-up. She thinks it might stem from when she visited the center of London as a little girl, and she saw a gigantic model of King Kong on the side of a building. Anyway, one thing she very much wants to do while in New York is avoid seeing the Statue of Liberty.

"I think she'd scare me," Emma explains. "She might fall on me."

Well, what a poetic death.

She perks up: "That'd be a fucking good one, wouldn't it? The Statue of Liberty fell on my head!"

And it'd be great promotion for the second album.

"There you go! That's it. I've planned my death."

Maybe it should land on all of you.

"Could do, couldn't it? That'd be a brilliant ending. [Grins] And we'd probably sell more than we do now."

What's the most offensive thing that's been said about you?
MEL B: Probably being called half-caste. I got called that in one interview, and that's degrading – like a mongrel. I'm not half of anything; I'm mixed race.

GERI: In the newspaper, it said Podge Spice. That's really fucking negative and dangerous for little girls. Can you imagine a big girl who looks at herself and looks at me and thinks, "Shit, if she's getting called Podge Spice, what does that make me?" And when I saw the fourth bloke had sold a story on me, it started getting on my nerves. Three of them weren't even true. I was thinking, "What must that farmer in Wales reading the paper think?" He'd probably think I'm some kind of man-eater who can shag for 10 hours. But then you think, "Fuck it. I know who I am."

MEL C: I think I've got off quite lightly. Sometimes, for a second, something makes you go, "Oh." Ages ago, one of the first things in the paper about us, I was described as the plain one. I thought, "That's not very nice." Then I thought, "Fuck it."

VICTORIA: That I wear cheap makeup. Chanel does not come cheap, darling. And what upsets me is when things upset your family. My dad opened the paper one day to find that one of my ex-boyfriends had sold a story about me having sex with him on a train, and as rock & roll as it sounded, and as much as I'd have loved for it to be true, it was actually very untrue.

EMMA: The time I was on holiday in Barbados, and they got pictures of me and my bottom. My mum, as well – me and my mum's bottoms on the front of the paper, saying, "Emma's 21, but she's got the bum of a 40-year-old." Don't laugh! Shut up! I have not got the arse of a 40-year-old! Do you want to see it?

People don't get to be famous in the way that the Spice Girls are famous without attracting the kind of hate that only sudden, unashamed celebrity can buy.

"There's a lot of hate," Emma acknowledges.

"That's the yin and the yang," Mel B rationalizes.

"I like that," says Victoria.

"Everything can't always be nice and dandy," says Mel B. "As long as we're nice and dandy . . ."

So why do they hate you?

"It starts within themselves," says Victoria. "If you're feeling really crap about yourself, you have a really horrible, jealous evil streak, and it comes out in you, and you hate somebody because they're having fun."

"People might just want to hate us," Mel B suggests, "to have an opinion."

What do they hate about you?

"We're too loud," says Mel B.

"Maybe because we're not the greatest singers," reasons Geri. "We're not five Mariah Careys."

"And we don't look great all the time," says Mel B.

"I think there are people who hate us because I've got a smile on my face," says Emma.

"People just hate you because you're blond," points out Mel B.

The true nexus of Spice-hating is, naturally, on the Internet. On one site you may indulge in interactive anti-Spice fun by playing the game Slap a Spice Girl. "The rules are Spice Girl simple," the site explains. "Every time you hear one of those awful voices and spot a spicy airhead popping up, give it a resounding virtual slap."

They have heard about the Slap a Spice Girl game and claim not to mind. They are, after all, five people for whom the possibility the game offers is redundant. "We've got our own opportunity to slap a Spice Girl," Geri points out.

I tell them about the site where Emma is pictured as the devil – holding a fork, a pentagram on her tank top, with the words: BEWARE. EMMA IS SATAN. SHE HAS NO EYEBALLS; SHE IS THE SOURCE OF EVIL ON OUR PLANET. SHE MUST BE DESTROYED. Emma looks a little taken aback. Geri leans over and checks Emma's scalp for a telltale 666. Nothing.

"Emma," Geri announces, "is not the devil child."

"It is disturbing," reflects Mel C, "but you have to think that some people are just doing it for a laugh.

"Some people get off on stuff like that," continues Mel C, who has read about a Spice Girls death site on the Internet. Apparently one comment was, "The Adidas bitch goes first." That got to her. But today, they express nonchalance.

"It bothers us so much," says Victoria, "we haven't even looked up from our food."

"Yeah," says Mel C, "but nothing would make us look up from our food."

To so many people, the Spice Girls are nothing but bad. They are the new pop devil, threatening musical seriousness and polluting the pure well water of rock's higher meaning. It's easy enough to imagine ways in which the Spice Girls can seem annoying or irrelevant or lightweight. But the complainers usually ruin their argument by imagining that a group like Spice Girls is also some kind of calculated, dastardly creation to hoodwink the gullible. (Whereas, of course, one is supposed to imagine the Smashing Pumpkins, say, as an effortless riverboat of unsculpted, unpremeditated self-expression.) I understand why many people are horrified by the Spice Girls, but whenever I hear those arguments, I want to say: Listen to yourself. On which side is the innocence and enthusiasm, and on which side the self-protective cynicism?

I ask the Spice Girls if they think they'll ever get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

"I don't know," says Mel B. "I hope we do."

"We'll make a little bit of an impression," says Geri.

"They need to start ordering up the waxworks," says Victoria.

A thought strikes me: Do they know what the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is?

"No."

"No."

"No."

"No."

"No."

I ask them: Who are the most important figures in pop history?

"Us lot," says Victoria, without hesitation, and they giggle.

The Spice Girls' marvelous, ludicrously heightened role in the national life of Britain reached a surreal pinnacle last December with The Political Interview. The Spectator, a small-circulation but influential, highbrow, habitually right-wing political magazine in Britain, decided that it would interview whoever happened to be the latest big young things in the pop world about politics. It'd be funny.

The Spice Girls were asked to participate, and they agreed. "We just thought it would be another angle," says Geri. "It'd be something fun to do."

They were interviewed for an hour backstage at an awards ceremony. It all went far better than the interviewer could have dreamed. The Spice Girls are not short of opinions, and they are not shy about sharing them. The interviewer had assumed that the Spice Girls, like most young people in pop music, would have left-wing, Labour Party sympathies, but the two most vociferous talkers, Geri and Victoria, were aggressively conservative. Geri suggested that the previous Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher – still a hate figure for much of younger Britain – was the original Spice Girl: "The pioneer of our ideology – girl power."

The interviewer, Simon Sebag Montefiore, wrote up the encounter, cleverly, as both pisstake and clear reportage. Nicely deadpan. He took his fun from purposely over-interpreting their opinions: "The Spice Girls take a Burkean view of the growth of our landed aristocracy. . . . The Spice philosophy combines Thatcherite economics, Buddhist tolerance and feudalistic neo-Plantagenet paternalism. . . ." and so on.

When the article came out, the newspapers went crazy. The Spice Girls were on the front pages of all three tabloids, and there were articles for weeks in every newspaper, debating the significance of the Girls' positions. Though three of the Spice Girls had divergent views – Mel C supports Labour, Mel B describes herself as an anarchist and Emma declares herself uninterested in politics – the message that was picked up was that the Spice Girls were supporting the Conservative Party wholesale. The suggestion was that they represented a previously undetected youth Zeitgeist that saw through Labour leader Tony Blair's shallow populism and hankered nostalgically for firm-handed '80s Thatcherism. This – the national demographic that became known as the Spice Vote and that became as much an issue in the British election as the "soccer mom's" vote had been in America's – was seen as the wild card that might yet save Conservative prime minister John Major's skin.

"They were talking about us in the House of Commons," reflected Mel C in January. "It was ridiculous."

"What is the state of the government if . . . ?" Geri asked.

". . . they're talking about us?" said Mel B.

"Exactly," Geri nodded. "If we can have an influence, that's terrible."

The Spice Girls sensibly stepped back, refusing to make any other public comments on politics, but as polling day approached, their names were invoked over and over. On the campaign trail, the nation's putative leaders faced Spice Girls quizzes. Tony Blair, who had listed "Say You'll Be There" as one of his 10 favorite records of 1996, managed to name three Spice Girls (not Mel B or Emma). John Major subsequently managed to identify two.

On May 1, Britain elected Tony Blair the new prime minister by a landslide. After all that, none of the Spice Girls even voted.

In their dressing room backstage at The Rosie O'Donnell Show, the Spice Girls are briefed by one of the show's staff: "[Rosie]'s very spontaneous, but this is an outline. She might ask how you got the names, and I think you should give her an honorary name. . . ." At the same taping: Courtney Thorne-Smith and a 7-year-old chef who is cooking fried cookie dough.

When the staffer leaves, the Spice Girls are alone, except for their manager and me. They break into song, as they often do. "Warren G! Rap for me!" they croon. They met Warren G recently. "I thought he was totally sexy until I met him," sighs Mel B. "He was all flabby. He gave me his number, and I thought, 'I don't want that!' But I thought, 'I'd better take it. He might shoot me.' "

They all show me their new jewelry. After Spice went to No. 1, Virgin gave each of them a $500 Tiffany voucher. Mel C bought diamond-stud earrings: one for her right ear, one for her nose. Emma has a diamond eternity ring. Victoria has a bracelet. Then they argue about whether the little kid in Jerry Maguire is cute.

It is time for their vocal warm-up. Kenny, their vocal coach, plays the chords to "Say You'll Be There" on a keyboard, and they practice. For what it's worth, I hear each of the Spice Girls singing alone, and I hear them harmonizing together. They don't all have the strongest voices – the two Mels can let rip; the others are a little more fragile – but they can do it.

When they appear with Rosie O'Donnell, they offer her a choice of being either Tough or Sassy Spice. "Can I be Tough-Sassy Spice?" she asks. Backstage, people crane their necks forward, fascinated by these hyperkinetic British girls they've heard so much about.

"Which one is the porno star?" someone asks.

A personal glimpse #4. Mel B, the Spice Girl known as Scary, shows me her tongue stud. She has 11 of them, and she rotates them, except for the black rubber one, which collects lots of white mouth junk. When she takes a stud out, she says her tongue feels so light that she speaks with a lisp.

Mel B unscrews the stud by clamping it in her teeth, but she can't get it back in again without a mirror. I'll have to do. She hands me the metal bolt and folds her tongue back on itself between her half-open teeth, so that the bottom of the tongue-piercing hole gapes between her teeth. I have to push the bolt gently through the hole. A little disgusting but kind of fun. It is alarming to think what millions of people around the world would give to get Mel B's saliva on their fingertips.

A week before this American visit, Spice Girls performed three songs live in Manchester for the Prince's Trust, Prince Charles' charity to provide opportunities for young people. Beforehand, they were introduced, and the British front pages had photos of them squeezing up to the heir to the British throne, a large lipstick kiss from Geri on his right cheek.

"I didn't flirt," says Mel B.

"I didn't either," says Emma.

"Geri did," says Victoria.

Geri pinched Prince Charles' royal bottom. "I pinch everyone's bottom," she says. "Why am I going to stop at the Prince?"

So, I inquire, would you pinch the pope's behind?

"Yeah," she says. "No. It depends."

They say that everyone else was being careful around Prince Charles.

"People were trying to censor jokes," says Geri. "He's just a man, just like anybody else, who wants a laugh. . . ."

"And wants his bum pinched," says Mel B.

When Emma asked after the 14-year-old Prince William, his older son (who, as revealed in a tabloid article titled what wills royally royally wants!, is supposed to have ripped down his Pamela Anderson Lee poster at boarding school and replaced it with one of Emma), his father apparently replied, "Don't be a cradle snatcher."

"He said, 'Are you going back to London after the show?' " says Victoria, "and I said, 'Yes. Why? Do you require a lift?' "

"He was really polite," says Mel C.

"Grabbing his bottom, I was being a cheeky little girl," says Geri. "I was thinking, 'God, that's the prince.' "

How was it?

"It wasn't bad," she says. "How old is he? Fifty-odd? It was like a waterbed. Something to grab hold of. He tensed it quickly."

"Prince Charles was holding in a fart when he saw us," asserts Mel C.

"I'll tell you what was funny," says Geri. "Melanie was sticking her tongue out and talking about getting her tongue pierced, and I said to him, 'Why don't you get a Prince Albert?' " A Prince Albert – named, perhaps apocryphally, after Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Charles' great-great-great-grandfather – is a ring through the head of the penis. This is not the kind of thing you discuss with royalty. "He said, 'What's a Prince Albert?' " says Geri. "I told him. And [British comedian] Stephen Fry said . . . " [Geri acts out his pointed finger and his downward gaze] " '. . . it's down there.' "

The Spice Girls talk about the reasons it has worked.

"We always go on the concept of: We're just normal people, and that's what normal people enjoy," says Emma.

"We are rough 'round the edges, and we are real people," says Victoria. "We're not all 6-foot-tall skinny models. We eat and do normal things."

"We don't have any airs and graces," says Mel B.

"We've made music to please us five," Geri says, "so we won't have to retaliate, five albums down the line, and do that self-indulgent album. . . . "

"It's already self-indulgent," Mel B butts in.

That's how their album sounds, and that is why it works. This year, there already have been two No. 1 singles – Spice Girls' "Wannabe" and Hanson's "MMMBop" – that get all their vim, drive and sparkle from the artists' evident joy in their creation. Both of the songs are almost meaningless and at times barely more than onomatopoeic celebrations of self – the very quality that makes them so annoying (if you hate them) and so invigorating and inspiring (if you love them).

All of the songs on Spice are credited as collaborations between the Spice Girls and other songwriters. None of the Spice Girls plays any instruments on the album. (In fact, Mel B plays drums, Geri plays a little guitar, and Mel C and Victoria play some keyboard, but these are not skills they have yet used in the group.) They sit together in the studio and suggest the kinds of sounds they want or work from a loop that their producers set up.

"It's just really natural," says Mel C. "We've just got every element we need. I'm better at melodies, but I'm terrible with lyrics. Geri's brilliant with lyrics. Emma's great with harmonies. Mel [B] always comes up with hooks. And Victoria's great with melody as well. We never get stuck."

"You do have days when you're not in the mood," says Emma.

"When we can't rhyme anything," says Mel B. "You know: rat, cat, mat."

The Spice Girls say they wrote more than 30 songs for the first album, and six are prepared for the second. They even wrote one, "Likely Stories" – a song they sing to me that includes the line "See You Next Tuesday" ("You know, C U Next Tuesday: C.U.N.T.," explains Mel B helpfully) – that they hoped to give to Jarvis Cocker, the singer from Pulp. Sadly, the likelihood of this musical cross-pollination bearing fruit may have been reduced by a speech Cocker gave at a British awards ceremony in January. "I don't know why everyone is clapping the Spice Girls," he announced. "They said Margaret Thatcher was the sixth Spice Girl . . . so, fuck Margaret Thatcher, and fuck the Spice Girls."

Anyone for Coke?" Emma asks.

"Pepsi!" they all shout.

"Pepsi," says Emma, chastened.

This is the one part of my interview that they try to censor. "Please don't write that," Victoria beseeches. She grabs my tape recorder and tries to rewind it. They have a big Pepsi sponsorship deal, and they have messed up before.

"Pepsi, Pepsi, Pepsi, Pepsi, Pepsi, Pepsi," says Emma, as though she can redress the balance through product-loyal repetition. The first full Spice Girls concert will be a Pepsi event: There is a competition to fly people around the world to Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 12. American Pepsi has still not confirmed whether they will join the deal.

"I'd like to meet President Clinton," Geri announces.

I ask them whether Hillary has girl power.

"Who's Hillary?" asks Mel B.

"Oh, who gives a fuck?" says Mel C. "I mean, about the Clintons. Who gives a fuck?"

"Who gives a fuck?" echoes Victoria. "But has he got any sons?"

Mel B shoots bubbles from a gun. "He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not, HE LOVES ME!" she screams.

"You know what's the greatest pleasure?" asks Geri. "When you're dying to go for a pee, when you get there and have that pee."

"What's even better . . ." begins Mel C.

"Is when you have a pooh?" suggests Mel B.

"No, when it's freezing cold and your wee's dead warm," says Mel C.

"I don't talk about things like that," says Victoria, with deliberate prissiness.

They begin to throw bread rolls around the room and into the walls.

Mel B has an idea. "Who can do this?" she asks, grabbing the tablecloth.

"I don't think you should do that," warns Victoria.

Geri grabs a piece of tablecloth, too.

"Yeah, go on," says Emma.

There's no way they'll actually pull. It's a large, round table overloaded with food and smart hotel porcelain and glasses and bottles and jugs. . . .

"A-one! A-two!"

They do it. Glass and china smash everywhere. The door crashes open. It's their security guard, who clearly imagines that the Spice Girls are under terrorist attack. The Spice Girls, meanwhile, can't stop laughing. It's too dangerous near the table – all shards of glasses and jagged-edged crockery fragments. So we go and sit in the corner on the floor, like six punished children.

"Haven't you always wanted to do that?" Mel B asks.

I didn't think you'd actually do it, I tell her.

Mel B looks at me, disappointment in her eyes. Maybe, her gaze suggests, she has got me wrong. Maybe I haven't understood that much about theSpice Girls after all. "How," she says, "could you have not thought we were going to do it?"

This story is from the July 10th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone. 

From The Archives Issue 764: July 10, 1997
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