Mel C On Sporty, Athleisure, and Style In A Post-Spice World

Picture it: You’ve just graduated, you’ve followed your wildest dreams using a newspaper ad as your compass; you’ve got glitter on your eyelids, a sports bra as a top, and you’re about to embark on a world tour. The date is February 24, 1998. You’re at the Pointe Theatre in Dublin, hearing 8,000 fans roaring against your dressing room door:

Spice Girls! Spice Girls! Spice Girls!

Your political pop platform is Girl Power, the idea that feminism could be this fantastic, sexually liberated, and, yes, commercialized orchestra of women singing about freedom and equality. Dedication, celebration, a nomination, good vibration, motivation, domination, baby nation, recreation, imagination, crazy nation, you’ll chant. You’re part of this Generation Next; the future, as you see it, is female. What do you do? Well, if you’re Sporty Spice, you get your arse on that stage and sing your note.

Photo: Getty Images.

Melanie C attends the Spiceworld movie premiere in London, 1997.

Née Melanie Chisholm, Spice World’s most nimble of the pack has seen it all. Melanie C is the Spice Girl who’s never given up on the good times, long beyond her stint as one-fifth of one of the most famous girl groups, ever. She’s celebrating her seventh solo album, Version of Me, and she’s Skype-ing with me from London to discuss music, the ‘90s, her personal style, and more.

Early on in our chat, I make the mistake of asking her for her star sign. That’s a Spice Girl historian party foul, because I should know it, since I’ve watched Spiceworld enough times to remember every line. “Oy, don’t you be startin’ on Capricorns,” she shouted to Ginger, as Posh endured that infamous wardrobe crisis, and Mel B looked for her stolen boots. “You know, it must be really hard for you, Victoria. You know, trying to decide whether to wear the little Gucci dress, the little Gucci dress, or the little Gucci dress,” Mel C shouted.

It’s 18 years later, and Sporty Spice has ditched her rotation of track pants, now gravitating toward Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Alexander Wang, and Balmain. As for other designers she’s into these days, she couldn’t leave off a very important someone. “Mrs. Beckham, of course,” she said with a nod. “She’s been so good to me. I’ve worn her dresses for awards, and I really love how her line has evolved; it’s really casual yet chic, with beautiful, luxe robes and jumpers. Gorgeous.” Mel C and her fellow Spice Girls are very supportive of each other, despite anything you’ve read in the papers (like, say, Chisholm’s thoughts on not joining the partial Spice Girls tour, a.k.a. the debut of GEM).

Photo: Getty Images.

Sporty and Baby tour The White House grounds following their sold out concert in Washington, D.C., 1998.

Yet it’s Sporty Spice’s tracksuit-packed aesthetic that best survived the zenith of Spice Girls fandom, and feels most relevant to this ongoing athleisure moment. Mel C’s just happy everyone finally came around to her way of thinking. “Hey, babe, it’s all the rage. People have realized that being comfortable is really good; I love it,” she said. “These things always kind of come ‘round; the ‘90s is really cool right now, which is so retro.”

But where, exactly, did that Sporty Spice attitude originate? “I dressed that way because I come from the Northwest of England, and when I was a kid, that’s what we all wore. When we went to the park and hung out with our friends, we were all in tracksuits,” she explained. “When I moved to London, I was at performing arts college training to be a dancer, so, of course, I was still in my tracksuit. When the Spice Girls happened, I was going along to rehearsals, still in my tracksuit.”

As for each Spice Girl’s distinct look? That’s who they were. “And in those early days, it was the fashion in girl bands for everybody to dress the same, or kind of coordinate. But it just didn’t work for us girls,” Chisholm explained. “Picture Beckham in a tracksuit; she’d look ridiculous. And then me, in a little Gucci dress? It just wasn’t working. So, that’s when we decided to just be ourselves: We just started to wear what we’d been wearing to rehearsals every day, and then it evolved and became a bit of a caricature. But it was quite an organic beginning.”

Although they developed their own style hallmarks, the group did indeed have a stylist: Kenny Ho, who introduced them to high-end fashion. (He went on to style Victoria and David Beckham’s wedding.) “I haven’t seen him for many, many years; he’s still on the circuit here in London, and I think he actually has a men’s magazine now. But can you imagine how hard that job was?” she mulled on Ho’s time styling the Spice brigade. “He’s such a sweet, sweet man. I suppose that was his saving grace. No conflicts. He just did the job.”

Photo: Getty Images.

The Spice Girls at the MTV Europe Music Awards in Rotterdam, 1997.

And styling assists aside, people have been emulating the Spice Girls’ styles, like, say, every Halloween. Mel C says she loves being costume inspiration, by the way — because underneath the glitter bodysuits and corsets was a case for authentic personal style, and proof that there wasn’t merely one way for a strong woman to dress. “One of the fun things about us having had those characters was that we’d get young girls dressing like us — we’d get guys dressing as us, too — at our shows,” she said.

Did Chisholm ever want to trade in her platform Skechers for strappy heels donned by her Spice peers? “Never.” She shakes her head. “I was good being Sporty, and I got to be the most comfortable. But we did have fun at award shows; sometimes I’d get myself a nice little dress. When I look back at the pictures, I think I should have just stayed with the tracksuits, maybe.”

The Girl Power-proffering group espoused, as Ginger once put it, “equalization of the sexes,” and they were (and still are) poster women for the anti-grunge side of ‘90s style. But even a “Viva Forever“-belting Spice Girl can (and perhaps has to) evolve. “As I’ve got older, I’ve become a bit more aware of fashion and just become more confident about trying different things. I’ve learned that season-to-season, trends are not always going to work for you. I treated myself to a Balenciaga dress the other day, which was a huge splurge. But you know when you just want to feel amazing? I had so many compliments, so it was worth every penny.”

Photo: Getty Images.

Sporty Spice through the ages. 1998, 1999, 2007, and now.

Much like her music, Chisholm’s relationship with fashion has transformed throughout the decades. Like the bass of her voice, her style has depth and, often, a bit of edge; it spans the gamut from track pants, camouflage cargo pants, and tees, to sleek Giles Deacon two-pieces. Unsurprisingly, her fashion choices are comfort-centric. (Same, Mel.) “I’ll tell you what, if you can be comfortable and look incredible, that is just winning, right?” (Yes?) But it wasn’t always that easy getting dressed sans a stylist after years of working with one (and having such a look). “I think because I was so concerned with being seen as something other than Sporty Spice, I made some really bad choices,” she said of shedding her Sporty aesthetic.

“I think because I was so concerned with being seen as something other than Sporty Spice, I made some really bad choices.”

Since then, the tracksuits have been hung up and put away (and occasionally auctioned off for charity), and now the singer has a new, more polished uniform of sorts. “My go-to is a jumpsuit. I’ve got quite a few in my wardrobe, and there’s something about a jumpsuit that’s just so chic. If you get the right one, they can be really flattering,” she effused. “It’s all good with a jumpsuit — apart from when you need to use the bathroom,” she said with a cackle.

While the singer smiled widely as she dug up old memories about her iconic former wardrobe, there was a slight sense of nervousness in her voice; you know, like a singer who hasn’t released an album in five years. It was humbling to see the artist I’ve idolized since I was 4, who’s been in the industry for longer than I’ve been alive, smile through any trepidation about her big return to the stage. “I wanted to sound like the stuff I want to buy and I want to listen to,” she explained of her new music. “My fear was, I didn’t want to look like I was trying to be something.” People are quick to harshly criticize artists’ latest sound or look, expecting consistency between albums. But her latest, as Mel will describe to you in great detail, is just another chapter of her life, and it’s got a completely different look and sound. To wit: Its haunting title track actually addresses years of bullying.

Photo: Getty Images.

Ronnie Wood and Melanie Chisholm in London, 2002.

But who would salt a Spice Girl? “When I was in my early 20s, I was in an environment where somebody just really wasn’t nice to me. And I thought, Well, she just doesn’t like me. But then as I got older, I began to realize that that was actually quite mean, and not a very nice way to treat somebody,” she said. (Does this shed some light onto the backstory of “Wannabe,” perhaps?) “I think I was quite vulnerable at that time, as well,” she said. “Unfortunately, I think that’s something that lots of people experience.”

Version of Me is rooted in situations we couldn’t imagine Sporty, easily dubbed the “Nice Spice,” going through. Like most pop records, it makes you think about universal themes, including things you don’t always want to confront: exes, the past, the future, evolving friendships, et al. Unlike some of her her ex-bandmates, Mel C never put the mic down. She’s lived half her life onstage. If you haven’t kept up with her post-Spice Girls career, her debut solo album, Northern Star, sold nearly 4 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling solo Spice Girl album ever, even though it lacked a distinctly uniform sound (the songs ranged from rock to doo-wop to R&B to ambient). Several albums later, she released The Sea, a series of ballad-heavy, remix-ready pop tracks. Stages followed, introducing an era of piano pop befitting someone with a musical theater education, like Melanie, who went to London’s Doreen Bird College of Dance, Music and Theatre Performance.

Version Of Me arrives amid the ‘90s nostalgia trip that shows no signs of waning; the Spice Girls are once again a hot topic. But while Sporty was one of five voices in Spice world, Mel C has a new groove. Inspirations for this album included M.Ø. (who she recently joined onstage to co-sing their cover of “Say You’ll Be There“), Sia, Major Lazer, DJ Snake, and more. You can take the girl out of the ‘90s, but…you know how the old adage goes. “If I’m thinking, Oh, I don’t know what to listen to, I listen to bands like Massive Attack and Portishead, and early Zero 7.” In other words: Her ’90s influences are legit.

Photo: Marlene Marino/Beak Communications.

Other ballads on the album include the saxophone-laden “Loving You Better“; the first single, “Anymore,” a shake-it-off banger similar to The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside,” with sad lyrics set to an upbeat melody, where it feels like all that’s left to do is dance. “It’s about breaking up with somebody,” she said of “Anymore.” Your friends are saying, ‘You’ve got to go out, you’ve got to meet new people, you’ve got to stay busy,’” she explained. “You’re doing all that stuff, but you really shouldn’t. You’re looking at the club door, you’re waiting for that person to walk in; you think you’ve spotted them over at the bar. Everyone’s been in that position.”

“When all my dreams came true with the Spice Girls, I had to really figure out what I wanted.”

As for having her evolving sound (and look) considered a comeback act? It doesn’t bother her, actually. “When I was younger, I was really driven to be famous. When you have that ambition, you don’t really think about the downsides of it all,” she said. “When all my dreams came true with the Spice Girls, I had to really figure out what I wanted. I’ve always had a passion for performing; that was my drive. Now, I’m older, and it’s so nice that I’m in the public eye, but I don’t see myself as a celebrity.” Chisholm is frank about acknowledging fame’s drawbacks. “Sometimes, you have to compromise; because I have to promote my music, I have to promote my work, but I don’t want to just sell myself to the devil. I want to have some privacy, so it’s kind of just this little balancing act the whole time.” She says she’s thankful the social media phenomenon happened when she was older, or else she’d have found herself in some embarrassing situations.

Before wrapping up, I told Chisholm that I’ve been a massive fan my entire life; I shared how the Spice Girls, for me, was a language I could use to somehow let my parents in on the idea that their son could be…different. That, at the end of a long day of bullying (because I carried around a white and pink Spice Girls lunchbox as if it was my handbag), the lyrics of “Mama” were my saving grace. “Back then / I didn’t know why / why you were misunderstood.”

Photo: Getty Images.

The Spice Girls (minus Gerri Halliwell) attend their Viva Forever album launch in London, 2000.

Come to think of it, the Spice Girls were my excuse, in a way, to do “girly” things: play with dolls, restyle their outfits, think about boys. I thought relating to Sporty the most out of the quintet meant I liked pop music, adored athletic clothing, and could somehow still retain my masculinity — or, at least, any masculinity I thought I had. Because, you know, she liked sports, and I liked sports, too. (I secretly didn’t.) But the Spice Girls were my armor: five strong women I could hide behind until I was ready to claim my own femininity. And Sporty felt like a protective best friend that I could look to and think, She’s just like me.

“God bless you for that,” Chisholm replied.

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