Melanie Chisholm Is Still Proud to Be Sporty Spice

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Karwai Tang/WireImage

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 30 years since the Spice Girls zig-a-zig-ah’d their way onto the charts. After “Wannabe,” the band’s debut earworm single, was released in 1996, the fivesome was catapulted to global fame. Over the course of the following two years, Scary, Ginger, Baby, Posh, and Sporty Spice were seemingly everywhere, and in that pre-social-media time, it was difficult to turn on the television or flip through a magazine without being confronted by Spicemania.

But that meteoric rise to success — and the relentless touring, recording, merchandising, and press that came with it — took its toll. In her new memoir, The Sporty One, Melanie “Sporty Spice” Chisholm pulls back the curtain, sharing that the pressures of fame, combined with negative publicity and a controlling manager, led to a struggle with an eating disorder and depression. As she writes in the book, “I was seized by a gripping, overwhelming need to rule everything in my power: my weight, what I said, what I drank, how I behaved. I quickly learned to stay quiet and not rock the boat. I became very hard on myself.”

On the first stop of her book tour in Edinburgh, the musician told the Cut that, while The Sporty One isn’t meant to be a self-help book, she’s hopeful it will serve as “a shoulder to cry on” of sorts for others who have dealt with similar challenges. “There’s been a hell of a lot written about me, and not all of it true, not all of it fair,” Chisholm says. “This is my opportunity to say it in my words. I wanted to be very open and honest because I truly feel that’s the most helpful to people.”

How does it feel now that you’re about to share your book with the world?

I feel relaxed. I was very conscious of how it would affect my family and the other Spice Girls, but once they’d read it, I felt, Okay, that’s cool. I’ve got it past the important people who it affects. Now that I’ve had support from my friends and family, I feel a lot braver putting it out there.

In doing research for the book, you went through your old press coverage. How was it for you to delve into that?

It was pretty dark, looking back over the narratives that were created about myself and the language that was used around women at that time. I mean, it’s not improved a hell of a lot, but back then it was quite shocking. That was tough. But it’s been such a mixture because there are so many incredible moments. I really wanted to make the book visual.

I think about the iconic moments of the Spice Girls, the pictures people will recall, like the Union Jack dress — I wanted to be able to give a behind-the-scenes feel. Reminiscing about those times was wonderful. And going through it chronologically and going, Fuck! We did so much! It’s bonkers! But then, of course, there were hard things too. I was really conscious of it not being too much of one thing. I wanted it to be a balanced read of this incredible, crazy life I’ve had so far.

You write in the book that you had “a very complex relationship” with the name Sporty Spice. Are you more comfortable with it now?

I love being Sporty. I embrace that, and her, more than ever. In the beginning, it was really fun. These nicknames were given to us. It was a bit of throwaway fun in a magazine, and it was based on the way we looked or the way we behaved, and they just stuck. When it was time to step away, it was hard to have that moniker because you’re like, I want people to see me as more than this. That is not all I am. I’m not just a Spice Girl. I’m not just Sporty Spice. I spent many years rebelling against the name and the band even. It’s taken me a long time to go, Do you know what? That’s amazing and that’s a huge part of me. But all the other stuff is too. It’s hard as a young person; if you’re really successful, you’re frustrated by the constraints of just being a part of this entity. Whereas, really, it’s the entity that’s enabled you to grow and be all the other things that you can be.

There were a number of ironies you pointed out in the book. You were Sporty Spice, yet you were living an unhealthy lifestyle. You promoted girl power, yet your manager had rules on what you could say, when you could speak, and whether you should date. It almost seems as if you were living two separate lives. Did it feel that way to you at the time?

The thing that bothered me the most was being out there, talking about girl power, encouraging people to be who they are when I was really struggling and I wasn’t eating properly. I was obsessively exercising, and I was underweight for the majority of that Spicemania period. I was not presenting a healthy image to people, and that is really hard. I’m a very honest person, and it took me a long time to forgive myself and get over the guilt of this dishonesty. I felt like I was living a bit of a lie.

I felt the saddest part of the book is that you were in a band with four other women — the only other women on the planet who could understand what you were going through — and yet you couldn’t or didn’t come together to help one another. Do you think you would have had a better experience had you been able to talk to them?

Oh, we talked! But maybe we didn’t talk about the right things. We were so young. We were in our early 20s. Emma was still a teenager. What happened to us, although it was beyond our wildest dreams, was kind of unprecedented. There was no support; there was no one that could really guide us through how to deal with and cope with it. I don’t feel artists have been supported in a way they need to be whether it be through management or labels. I know it’s changing, like everything, at a snail’s pace. There is more mental-health support at labels now, and we’re talking about it more openly, which is so important. But at the time, we were just trying to do the best that we could with the tools that we had. And the manager that we had—I have this complicated relationship with Simon Fuller. He also was doing what he felt was the right thing to do. With hindsight, maybe it wasn’t the best thing to do, but we were all in it for the first time.

Growing up, you wanted to be a famous pop star. If you could go back to that time, knowing what you know now, would you have chosen the same path?

Yeah, definitely! I’m doing so much promotion around the book, and the British media will dwell on negativity, and I think, Oh my God, I don’t want people to think this is a really depressing book. Or go, Oh, boohoo, you with your terrible life. It’s not about that. My life is extraordinary. Of course, I have regrets. We all have regrets. But those experiences brought me to today. Performing is all I ever wanted. It’s what truly makes me happy — being onstage, connecting with people, entertaining people. I’ve played the best venues in the world. The Spice Girls were successful in every corner of the globe. I wouldn’t change anything in that respect.

You share quite a bit in the book about your struggles with eating disorders and depression. How are you doing now? 

It took me such a long time to recover. I would never want to be arrogant enough to say I’m all better because I’m always aware that they could come back. I’ve really learned how to look after myself. Sometimes, a healthy work-life balance is impossible to maintain. There are times, if I’m very tired or work’s very stressful, I can feel things slipping. We all talk about self-care, but it is so vital for me to keep me on track with everything.

You write that “2002, 2003, and 2004 weren’t my most successful years commercially, but I was emotionally in such a better place.” Do you find that there’s a correlation between your mental and physical health and your career? 

That’s interesting. That’s not something I’ve noticed. To be honest with you, what happened with the Spice Girls was so intense and such a huge life change. I was so young, dealing with all of that press intrusion and people’s opinions and the pressure and the workload and everything. I think that was the peak of me becoming unwell. I was always so in control of everything, but when my body couldn’t cope anymore, that was when I started bingeing. My body was just starving for nutrition, and that coincided with my depression. I think it’s really natural for people to have ups and downs. I wouldn’t say that when I’m successful, my mental health is bad. I think it’s just that sometimes if I don’t have the ability to take care of myself fully, then I need to make sure that I find the time.

You share in the book that, when you were just starting out, Annie Lennox told you to watch out for the bastards in the entertainment industry. What advice would you give to a young person who wants to pursue a career in music?

I mean, I do love to impart my wisdom. [Laughs.] My advice would be, Just take it easy. Don’t push to the point of burnout. It’s still a problem in the industry. You’re a commodity when you start being successful and you start earning lots of people lots of money. People start pushing you, but you’re ambitious and you want to do well, so it works into their hands. So just take care of yourself. You have to think about the long game.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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