Melanie Janine Brown, better known as Mel B or Scary Spice, admits she’s always had a bit of a crush on herself.
A few weeks ago she turned up at Jonathan Ross’s fancy dress Halloween party as Scary Spice. “I put on a massive wig, the boots, and Julien Macdonald made me a really sexy leopardskin catsuit.” Her friend Leigh Francis, who was responsible for a brutally funny impression of her on his TV show Bo’ Selecta!, didn’t realise it was the real Brown behind the hair. “He goes to me, ‘Bloody hell, you look like a good Scary Spice’, and I’m like, ‘Leigh, I’m your mate, it’s me’, and he goes, ‘Who the fuck dresses up as themselves?’ and I went, ‘Me!’ and he went, ‘Exactly!’”
As Scary, Brown was the Spice Girl you didn’t mess with; tough, sexy, funny, filthy, hard work. Although Francis’s parody of Mel B is extreme – leopardskin bra and knickers, huge glasses that slide down her nose, huge mouth that split her face in two, and a Yorkshire accent broad as the Dales – it is unerringly close to the real thing. As I walk up the stairs of the London studio where she is having her photo taken, I hear a roar of laughter. Mel B is in the house – swapping from Prada dress to black tailored jumpsuit to ribbed roll-neck jumper, complaining that her surgically enhanced boobs look too big, telling her teenage daughter Phoenix (who’s here for support) she loves her, showing off the £20,000 renewal wedding ring her husband, film producer Stephen Belafonte, has just bought her.
As Scary Spice, Brown had a raw beauty. Today, the tongue stud has gone, the hair is straightened and the leopardskin catsuit replaced with shirt and trousers. She could pass for the fanciable if forbidding CEO of a public company.
By her standards, Brown has been virtually invisible for the past decade – living in Los Angeles, bringing up her three daughters, establishing herself as an entrepreneur (she part owns a bottled water company). But even at her most withdrawn, she’s done her bit to keep the tabloids in business. So there have been the lesbian affairs, the alleged threesomes, the relationship with Eddie Murphy, the DNA test over the child who proved to be his, the marriage to Belafonte, the “love of her life”, who has a criminal record for domestic violence. And occasionally she has been in the newspapers for her work – starring in the musical Rent and The Vagina Monologues, appearing as part of the re-formed Spice Girls one-off at the London Olympics, producing her own reality show, and judging America’s Got Talent and Australia’s X Factor.
When it was announced earlier this year that she was returning to the UK to judge The X Factor at home, nobody seemed too interested. After all, the big news was that Simon Cowell and Cheryl Fernandez-Versini (formerly Cole) were returning to boost flagging audience figures. Mel B was very much an addendum. But that’s not the way things have turned out. While the TV audience has criticised Fernandez-Versini’s simpering, and complained that Cowell has lost his nasty edge, Brown has proved herself the most watchable judge. She has been direct, mouthy, and at times very funny. The show’s most memorable lines have come from her – whether it’s telling 16-year-old Lauren Platt, after she had sung How Will I Know, “I’m so excited right now I could slap you”, or suggesting she’d be up for mud wrestling with Fernandez-Versini (“That’s quite hot, I’d like to do that”), or telling Ben Haenow he made her want to go home and ravish her husband.
Brown says she was desperate to be on The X Factor. So much so, she flew from Australia to London at her own expense, turned up at Cowell’s offices, and pitched herself to him and 20 executives. “I said, ‘I’m a team player, I’m a hard worker and I’m not afraid of speaking my mind. You’re going to get a bit of Scary Spice, a bit of Confused Spice, a bit of Angry Spice, everything.’ They left it a couple of days and said, ‘OK, you’ve got the job.’”
For all the talk, Brown isn’t quite as fearless as she makes out. Even now, she’s surprised when people tell her she’s a hit on The X Factor. “I know I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. I’m just me.” She was worried about coming over as too hard, so there has been a concerted effort to change her image: she dresses more elegantly, and has tried to cut down on her dirty talk. It hasn’t always worked, and this is part of her appeal – the tension between the remodelled, motherly Brown, and the uncontrollable, potty-mouthed Mel B of old.
Scary was my favourite Spice Girl. She was less predictable than the others, and seemed to devour life. Maybe she became a caricature of herself – louder, more confrontational, one dimensional – but you were still never sure what would happen when she was around. I’ve always wondered whether she grew into her name, or was she genuinely scary from the off? Some people have suggested there was a racist element to the sobriquet – after all, Brown was the only non-white girl in the group. How did the name come about?
“It was just a journalist who couldn’t be bothered to remember our names, so it was like, I’ll call that one that, and this one this. I did hear that people were thinking it was because I am black, mixed, dark, ethnic, whatever you want to call it. Some people did get offended by it, but I didn’t. I found it funny. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m scary, I’ll fuckin’ scare you then. Come on!’”
She was born in Leeds to a black welder father and white mother who worked at C&A, one of the few mixed-race children locally. She says ultimately it strengthened her, made her feel as if she stood out in a positive way. “I was light-skinned, I wasn’t as black-skinned. My hair wasn’t as straight or as curly or as afro. Being in Leeds helped me get to know who I am as a person really quick, before anybody else tried to suss me out. I became a bit of a Neneh Cherry. I became a bit of a gobby girl.”
She hasn’t always been so positive about this period. The National Front was active in Burley, where she grew up, and in her 2001 autobiography she said she once attempted to overdose on pills after being racially abused. She also said it was her experience of prejudice that drove her – she wanted to earn enough money to buy a nightclub in Leeds that had banned her because she was mixed race. Rather than being confident, she says, she was confrontational: if people looked at her for too long, or in a funny way, she’d challenge them. She was never afraid of a scrap.
She was hyperactive, so her mother sent her to after-school classes. “My mum enrolled me in this free dance class, because I had so much energy in the night-time and she just wanted me to go to sleep. I ended up falling in love with dancing, singing, acting, the whole entertainment world. Then my mum ended up taking on an extra job so she could fund me to take singing lessons or go to drama classes.”
Brown soon became competitive. She’d catch the National Express bus from Leeds to London to audition, but she got used to being told she was unsuitable for whatever part she was up for. “They were brutal, those auditions. You were told, ‘You’re definitely not what we’re looking for, your hair’s too crazy, your skin colour’s not right’.” How did she react? “I used to just laugh… ‘I know, but I’m not changing it. If anything, I want to go and get a tan and become darker. Everybody looks better with a tan.’”
In 1994, at the age of 19, she was one of around 400 girls who responded to an advert to form a pop group that went on to become the Spice Girls. In 1995, they joined forces with music svengali Simon Fuller and, by 1996, they released their first single, Wannabe, which went to number one.
Although there have been plenty more talented girl groups, the Spice Girls have outsold them all: 100m records, which is 40m more than Destiny’s Child. It wasn’t just their songs, it was what they represented. The Spice Girls were a brilliant example of anti-branding branding. Their engineered “uniqueness” – Scary, Posh, Sporty, Ginger and Baby – meant there was a Spice Girl for everybody. They were targeted at girls rather than boys, and unwittingly created a new feminism, encapsulated in two simple words: girl power.
Whose idea was girl power? “I wish it was me,” Brown says, “but I think it was Geri who came up with it.” What did it mean to them? “It was just supporting whatever you want to be as a person. Whatever you want to be, whatever you’re going through, we’re there to sing a song about it.”
She gets quite emotional talking about the band, and their sense of camaraderie. For once, she wasn’t always the loudest in a group of girls. “Mel C was pretty loud. And Geri was loud. I found my group of people that I actually fit in, who don’t judge or go, ‘What are you doing that for?’ We complemented each other. I found my people, finally.” She cackles at the memories: the times she would drive down the motorway with Geri, both of them topless; the drinking, the clubbing, the fights.
She is every bit as nostalgic about the scraps as the successes. Who did she fight with the most? “Me and Mel C had a few punch-ups.” Did they do each other any damage? “Oh, nothing. Maybe a split lip, that’s all. Me and Melanie would irritate each other. It would always start off with a shove, not a punch.”
Who would win?
“Mel C’s pretty hard. And if she let rip… but then two seconds later we’d be rolling around laughing, going, ‘Oh, you silly bugger.’”
As an all-conquering five-piece, the Spice Girls lasted less than three years. Between 1996 and 1998 they released eight chart-topping singles. Then they did the best thing a group can do to ensure their immortality: they split up before we were sick of them.
Brown says it was a wonderful time – they were so young, had such energy, there was so much laughter. I ask her to close her eyes and tell me what image from those days comes to mind. As soon as her eyes are shut, she’s smiling. “We’re all bundled in this van in Japan, having scrambled through the airport with our luggage, we turn on the radio, and it was all ‘Spice Girls are number one’. We were rolling around laughing, like ‘They get us even in Japan’. I’ve got a Polaroid picture of us all having a glass of champagne.”
Brown is convinced that what helped them get on collectively is that they had all struggled. “All of us individually went through such rejection, whether it be from auditions or being bullied or not fitting in at school, so we were all kind of misfits that came together and the puzzle fitted. When we walked into a room, apart from people not knowing what to expect, we were just unbreakable. That bond was so tight for so many years.”
But it wasn’t long, I say. By May 1998 Geri Halliwell had left, and the group soon fell apart. Brown nods, and says it was the intensity of their time together that made it feel longer than it was. “I don’t think we were meant to go on for years and years.” She comes to a stop. “I do think at some point we will get back together. For what, I don’t know.”
She’s always wanted them to get back together?
“Well, I’ve said it enough, and it happened at the Olympics.” The biggest barrier appears to be Victoria Beckham, I say. Brown refuses to be drawn. “I don’t know. I haven’t actually heard that from her mouth and I wouldn’t want to speak on her behalf.”
Is she still in touch with them all? “Yes,” she says, tapping her mobile. “They are all in my phone.” Who is she closest to? “Well, I just saw Emma recently. I went to Mexico with her. Then I was talking to Mel C the other day. I guess I am least close to Victoria, because she has a whole empire to run and that girl is bu-u-usy.”
Victoria Beckham, or Posh Spice, was never seen as much of a dancer and singer – but she’s now a successful fashion designer, and half of Britain’s most lucratively branded couple. Is Brown surprised by what she went on to achieve? “No. She’s very savvy when it comes to business. She was the one who was, ‘Let’s look at this contract’ and ‘We’re going to get this percentage here and that’s going to go there’. Very savvy. She taught us all. I mean, we all taught each other stuff, but she taught us all.” Was that her main role in the Spice Girls? “No. She was also absolutely gorgeous, and we all harmonised really well together. And we never mimed – we always sang live. And we wrote all of our songs together in a room. Properly wrote them.” She corrects herself. “Well, we co-wrote, because we didn’t play instruments. I played drums, but you can’t write a song just to drums.”
Brown was the first Spice Girl to record a solo record, and an impressive one it was, too – I Want You Back, featuring hip-hop star Missy Elliott. But, like the rest of the Spice Girls, after a few hits her solo career floundered. She insists she never felt lost or depressed after the band split; that she always had plans and was ready to move on.
She went to live in Los Angeles in the early 2000s. She had recently divorced from Jimmy Gulzar, a dancer on the 1998 Spice World tour, and the father of her oldest daughter, Phoenix. It had been an acrimonious split – and Brown ended up paying him £1.25m alimony. After that, she says, she wanted to bring up Phoenix, now 15, in peace. “I didn’t want my daughter to grow up in that intense attention – wherever we went we’d get paparazzi. There are bigger, better superstars in America, so I thought, ‘I’ll go there for a quick holiday, and relax.’ And my holiday just turned into me loving it and wanting to stay there longer and longer. I could go to the supermarket without wearing shades or worrying that there was anyone following me.”
While she is relentlessly positive about the post-Spice Girls years, it’s revealing that when she talks about her husband, Belafonte, she says: “He’s been my rock when nobody else believed in me. The one who’s said, ‘Go for it, Melanie: go and do Dancing With The Stars, go and do America’s Got Talent, go and release a single if you like.’ He’s the one who has rebirthed my confidence.”
Why had she lost it?
“Well, because I’d been through so much publicly with my relationship with Angel’s father, and I was just at my wits’ end. I was like, ‘Oh my God, where do I go from there?’”
Angel is Brown’s middle daughter, from her turbulent relationship with Eddie Murphy. Soon after Brown revealed she was pregnant, Murphy suggested on television that the parentage of the child could not be proven without a paternity test. This is the one time she has broken down as an adult, she says.
“It really tore me up, because I didn’t want to blab my side of the story, and I haven’t and I still won’t, out of respect for Angel and out of respect I still have for him. I wouldn’t want to do that to anybody. So I got really down. Stephen, who I’ve known for 15 years, stepped in as a really good friend and said, ‘It’s fine, you’ll get through this.’”
When did she hit her nadir? “I was on my way to the labour ward, being chased by paparazzi, and I was driving myself…” You were driving yourself to the labour ward? “Yes, because my mum was out with Phoenix, shopping, and I didn’t want to shock her. I’ve always been pretty independent, no matter what situation: good, bad, ugly, happy, sad. I dig deep, and I get over it.”
Sure enough, the paternity test proved Murphy was the father. But it was the media reaction that hurt her more than anything. “Just to be publicly told you’re this and you’re that and it just wouldn’t stop.”
What did they say? “I got called a gold-digger. People said I’d planned it.”
Why would you be a gold-digger when you’ve got so much money yourself? She nods. Aren’t you worth about £20m? Now she grins. “Oooh, a bit more than that.” How much? “Shush. I can’t talk money! You know, when negativity just doesn’t stop no matter which way you turn, it will at some point wear you down. You just think, ‘Oh my God, give me a break.’ And being pregnant, you’re emotional anyway. And I was by myself. Thank God my mum was with me. She packed in her job and came to stay with me.”
Over time, Brown’s relationship with Murphy has improved. She says he is now a good father to Angel. “We go over there as a family, we have dinners together, everything is fine… now. He’s a great guy. Look, we fell in love with each other, we had a gorgeous child together. Some of my friends don’t even see their exes and they’ve got kids together.” Who’s funnier, her or Murphy? “Are you kidding? He’s a legend.”
Does she get on with all three of her children’s fathers? “I get on with Eddie. Me and Jimmy, it’s been 15 years and we don’t see much of each other these days.” Does she see their different personalities in her children? “Well, I have full custody of all my three kids. We all live together, and they’ve got completely different qualities.” She says Phoenix is cool and sporty, seven-year-old Angel is a show-off “sassy pants”, and three-year-old Madison is a tough firecracker who has to fight for attention.
It was reported that Brown’s family were unhappy when she married Belafonte, father of her youngest daughter Madison, because he had a conviction for violence towards a previous partner. Brown ums and ahs when I ask if this is true. “I love my parents, I love my sister. Sometimes parent-daughter relationships go up and down. That’s just the way it is.”
Before her relationship with Murphy, she had a relationship with Crista Parker, a woman with children at the same LA school as Phoenix. I tell her she once came out with one of my favourite quotes about sex. What’s that, she asks, warily. “People call me lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual, but I know who’s in my bed and that’s it… I have a huge libido and a great sex life.”
“Which is true,” she says. “Well, I did have a four-year relationship with a woman. But I’ve been very happily married for seven years to a penis. Ha ha! An amazing guy.”
Does he know she refers to him as a penis? “Well, you know what I mean. But I’ve definitely not been shy or been one to hold back. If I wanted to try something, I did. I had a girlfriend. So what?” Last year the former Playboy model Luann Lee claimed Brown followed her into a disabled lavatory for an “intimate moment” while Belafonte waited outside.
Is she in an open relationship? “No, me and my husband are very tight and solid. But I will be the first one to compliment a woman, to say to my husband, ‘Oh my God, look at her legs’; or ‘Doesn’t she look stunning?’ I do think women are gorgeous. Crazy but gorgeous.
In 2010, three years into their marriage, Brown told the American shock jock Howard Stern that Belafonte was her soulmate because “we’re both perverts”. Was she joking? She looks at me, taken aback. “We are,” she says, deadly serious. In what way? “Well, everybody sees the word pervert as something different, and I don’t want to tell you what my pervert-ness is, or what his is.” But how do you know it’s a perversion? “I don’t know actually, that’s an interesting question. It’s nothing too extreme, it just works. Let me put it this way, we’re just very sexually compatible in every way. We think very much alike, and we get turned on by the same things.” But, she stresses, there is more than lust to their relationship. “My husband is very spontaneous, he’s very supportive and solid, he’s very honest, very real, very to the point, and loves to work. So I married myself, basically.” She pauses. “And he annoys me sometimes.”
She claimed on the Stern show that she and Belafonte had sex five times a day. How do they manage that with all the girls around? (Belafonte also has a daughter from a previous relationship.)
“Well, there’s a rule in our house: you don’t just walk into the bedroom, you knock on the door first, out of respect. My mum and dad taught me that.”
But five times a day! Are you just trying to make the rest of us feel inadequate? “OK, not five times every day. Not today, cos I’ve been at work all day.” She looks round the room, ready to change the subject. “Is there any peppermint tea?”
Despite her lairiness on The X Factor, we have seen a gentler, more emotional Brown than many expected. It was anticipated that she and Fernandez-Versini would be at each other’s throats, but in fact they have been close friends, united by old-fashioned girl power. A couple of weeks ago, Brown was photographed from behind pinching Fernandez-Versini’s bottom as the four judges walked on to the stage. The day we meet, newspapers have been critical of Cheryl’s return to the show, but Brown won’t say a word against her. “She’s the nation’s sweetheart, and she really is a sweetheart. I’m protective of her because I’ve got to know her, and I love her. She’s a girl just like me, with her insecurities and doubts.”
At 39, Brown tells me she’s never been more content – kids, career, marriage, sex, of course. To make things complete, she’d love to return to the recording studio. Last year she released her first single in eight years, For Once In My Life but it failed to chart. “For once in my life,” she sang, “I’m doing it all for me.” In the accompanying video, she starts out as a business executive, in skirt suit and specs, and within 50 seconds she’s stripped to bra and knickers. The video culminates in her snogging herself at a party, with the help of trick photography, and then winking at the camera. “Yes, I do have a big ego,” she says, when I mention it. “And I am in love with myself.” Genuinely? Brown looks shocked at the idea that she might not be. “Yes! Because if you don’t love yourself how can anybody love you back?” •
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