Melanie Chisholm has a past that she can’t escape—but at 46, she's finally ready to embrace it. As one of the five founding members of the Spice Girls, one of the biggest girl groups in history, Chisholm (known to many as Sporty Spice or Mel C) burst onto the music scene in the ’90s and shot to global superstardom faster than you can say, Wannabe! Since then, Chisholm has built up a solid solo career for herself, releasing seven studio albums and maintaining a consistent body of work. She's even partaken in several Spice reunions.
Yet, more than two decades after the release of her debut solo album, Northern Star, Chisholm continues to be recognized as Sporty Spice. Her own original works have continued to fly under the radar, and the star has also largely kept her private life private; it’s as though we know both everything and nothing about her. But that's all changing. With her latest studio album, Melanie C, the singer says she’s finally ready to open up. And more important, she’s ready to be herself.
Chisholm began writing her new album, which releases this Friday, October 2, early last year, just before she embarked on a successful U.K. reunion tour with her fellow Spice Girls Melanie Brown, Geri Halliwell, and Emma Bunton. (Victoria Beckham did not partake.) “When I found myself back on stage being a Spice Girl, I just felt really reflective,” says Chisholm. “I was really nervous leading up to it thinking, can I be Sporty Spice? Can I become this thing again? But in rehearsals with the girls, I quickly realized that I don’t become her—I am her.”
Throughout her career, Chisholm says she recurrently felt at odds with the very thing that thrust her into the spotlight. And one can understand why. Chisholm’s Sporty Spice has become almost a caricature—translated into Halloween costumes and dolls wearing her signature tracksuits, gold tooth, and tattoos. “When I moved on from working with the girls and embarked on my solo career, I was quite keen to be something else,” Chisholm says. “I wanted people to see that there was more to me than Sporty Spice. I felt like even if I wore a tracksuit in my daily life, I would look like a tribute actor.”Photo: Conor Clinch
But after the reunion tour last year, something changed in Chisholm: She not only began accepting her identity as one of the world’s most beloved pop stars, she began owning it. Right after the Spice Girls tour, she even participated in a World Pride Tour with Sink The Pink, leaning into her status as a gay icon (part and parcel of being a Spice Girl). The momentum spurred her to begin channeling her newfound energy into her solo career.
“I spent all these years trying to find myself, when really, I was there all along,” says Chisholm. “[For this album,] I wanted to look back at my career—both the good and bad stuff—and I just thought, it really is time to accept all these aspects of myself. Being on stage with the girls last year, we were blown away with the realization of this impact that we've had on a generation of people. It filled us with pride, and it helped me go, ‘I’ve had an amazing life. I want to start celebrating this.’”
Indeed, Melanie C is Chisholm’s most upbeat and celebratory album yet. Songs like “Blame It On Me” and “Good Enough” are club anthems in waiting for whenever the clubs open up again. But while the record has an uptempo sound, Chisholm’s new album isn’t afraid to get raw and personal. Chisholm is now a mother to an 11-year-old daughter, not to mention a veteran in the industry, and the new record doesn’t shy away from the experience of getting older. Songs like “In And Out Of Love” talk about a “bygone era” of casual flings; other tracks, like “Here I Am,” talk about finally finding her footing in life. “I not only want to make people dance,” says Chisholm. “I want to make people sit down and, hopefully, be empowered.”
Below, Chisholm talks the writing process, finding freedom through music, and the meaning behind that iconic Celtic band tattoo.
So, when did you start writing this album exactly?
Once we went into rehearsals for the Spice Girls tour [last year], I knew that my life would no longer be my own. I was keen to get into the studio and have some sessions before that. In some of the earlier sessions, I was feeling my way and trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And then, of course, the Spice Girl shows was so huge, and it had so much impact on what I wanted to create. Really, the bulk of the songs came after those shows, at the end of last year.
This record feels like you’re really opening up, and being super confident with your sound. Did you feel that way?
I think some of it comes with age. Being at this point in my life, and being a mum, all of these are little steps that help build your confidence. The Spice Girls tour last year was hugely influential for this record, and beyond that, I also did a world Pride tour; we started in San Paolo and we ended in Australia. These for me just furthered this feeling of you're enough. Working so closely with people from the LGBTQ+ community, it made me realize that I have so much acceptance and I am so open for everybody to truly be who they are—why don't have that for myself? I spent a lot of my youth feeling like I wasn't enough, or I wasn't worthy, or having guilt attached to my success with the girls. But all these experiences made me really appreciate it for the first time.The Spice Girls, with Mel C at far right. Photo: Getty Images
It seems like the team you’re working with is really meshing and working well together, too.
It’s about bloody time, isn’t it? Got there in the end, a true Capricorn! This feels like a new chapter in many ways, and a big part of that is working with a whole new team—from the management label and PR to the songwriters, producers, and re-mixers. I think it really invigorates everything that you do, when you have that new energy coming into it.
Since this is your eighth studio album, how was the experience making it different than past records?
Having made eight albums, there’s been so many experiences—ups and downs, successes and frustrations. There's been moments in my career where things have felt a bit too easy. With my first album, Northern Star, it felt magical. It was such a creative time, and so much of the work that was being produced ended up on the record. And this album felt the same. I feel like a bit of a cheat sometimes, because even though I've worked hard, [this album] was really easy. It just kept coming. There's been so many changes because of technology—from the different ways we make music to how we consume it—but I think fundamentally, when you're writing songs, you go back to basics. You talk about your feelings, you talk about what you love, how you want things to sound, and then the magic happens.
Speaking of sound, this record has a very different feel compared to your past works. What did you want to play with this time?
I’ve been DJ-ing for a couple of years, and in the ’90s before the Spice Girls—in my late teens, early 20s—I was a bit of a raver. I was mostly going out to clubs. I’ve always loved house music and dance music, and I kind of left it behind a little bit. It's been so lovely to see it come back into the mainstream and be so influential in pop music, and being out there DJ-ing, it really reignited that passion for me. I wanted to bring that into this album. I also love how just the ’90s is having such a moment—not just in music, but even in fashion and TV.
I could see tracks like “Blame It On Me” being blasted in the clubs, especially the gay clubs, when they open up again.
That will be the hardest thing, because making a record you want people to dance to—no one can bloody go out and dance! I hope people have a good dance at home.Photo: Conor Clinch
How you feel about being a gay icon these days?
This is something that I've only in the last year really kind of believed. Being part of the Spice Girls—all of the success and the things that happened—you never feel responsible for it. You feel like, “Oh, that’s Geri. Geri’s the gay icon—it’s not me.” But working with Think the Pink last year and doing our Pride shows, they were like, “are you crazy? Every single Spice Girl is a gay icon in their own right!” I’ll take that. I love to be in that environment, it’s so inclusive. Being a white, heterosexual female—it feels like such an honor. I’m a very proud ally.
The music industry has changed so much since the Spice Girls days, obviously. But do you think it’s changed for the better? Is it easier or harder to be an artist today?
There's definitely more opportunities for females. The last 20 years have seen women dominate, when you think about Beyoncé, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Adele. The places where we still we still need to see changes is in the labels, and in a studio or live environment. The producers, engineers, musicians, backline crew—these are the places where, of course, there are fabulous women, but it's still very male-dominated. I’d like to see those changes. I recently shot three videos with a female director, Sylvie Weber, and we were in a very unusual environment where we had a predominately female crew. It’s a very different energy when it’s all women, and I want to champion that. But I find myself in this place where I am also really excited about this genderless idea, too; I have an opportunity to work with non-binary people and see people just for their soul and their essence.
Let’s talk about your song, “In And Out of Love.” You talk about chasing desire; what does Mel C desire?
I love this song. It's really fun and it's probably one of the more frivolous songs, lyrically, on the album. It’s inspired by a bygone era for me now, as a responsible mum: It’s about going out for a night on the town, no responsibilities, and finding a bit of cheeky love on the dance floor. We've all been there, we've all had these opportunities in our lives, and I thought it was really fun to relive that moment.
Do you think being a mother has changed your outlook on music at all?
Become a mum shocked me in how much it changed me as a person. I knew my life was going to change forever, but she just made me be a better person to myself. I was like, wow, I really need to treat myself better. I’m her teacher, and a lot of us in our youth allow people to treat us badly. We put up with shit, right? And then when you have a kid, you’re like, I never want her to be treated like that. But she’s also taught me so much. Kids are so wise and so open; I see my daughter’s generation, and they’re growing up in this whole new world, which is really hard to navigate. They’re so connected and switched on. Politically, she’s so much more aware than I ever was. And socially and environmentally aware. I’m inspired by her. My generation and the generation above me, we’ve left such a shit legacy for our kids, but they’re like, “we’re here to sort this shit out for you guys.” It really feels like we’re in quite good hands.
Can you imagine had the Spice Girls come out in today’s climate? The theme of “girl power” would take on such a new meaning.
I love how young people discover the Spice Girls, and it still has an impact on them in a positive way. I did a festival a few years ago—it was like a family, music, and food festival in the U.K. I was performing, and there was a mom who was obviously around Spice Girls times—she was big fan. And her daughter enjoyed my work and the Spice Girls, too. And when she saw me, she was like, “Mum, she’s old like you!”Photo: Getty Images
You’ve done quite a good job during the pandemic of connecting with your fans via Instagram live performances or Q&As. Has this been an exercise in creativity?
I felt compelled to reach out to my fans, because I feel like we're in this situation that we've never experienced. A lot of the world are experiencing the same thing at the same time. We're all more aware of each other's lives and how each other is feeling, and we just all need each other so much more than we ever allow ourselves to. I have this love-hate relationship with social media; I think being in the public eye, it's hard. For me, this line between your work life and your private life, I've always found it really hard to get the balance right. But during the pandemic, I wanted to reach out to people and I found in doing that, it helped me. It was this really beautiful exchange. Being in the isolation, it felt like it made us closer together, in some weird way.
Because it’s Vogue, I have to end with a few fashion questions. Starting with the backstory behind your iconic gold tooth.
[Laughs] Why did I have a gold tooth? I think I just wanted one! I loved my gold tooth, I think I got it in L.A. I can’t even remember—that’s how crazy my life was at the time.
Sportswear in fashion is having a huge moment right now, too. What are your thoughts on this as the pioneer of the look?
I obviously love the moment that sportswear is having, and just being used so interestingly—even in couture. Being able to wear a tracksuit all day, every day, and get away with it? I’m all over that. I grew up in the north of England, very close to Liverpool, and as a teenager everyone wore tracksuits—that was the uniform on the streets. It was affordable, it was cool. It’s weird to see what I wore as a youth become high fashion. When I was with the girls last year, I really embraced it. As I've gotten older, I have enjoyed being more adventurous and a bit more feminine. I've learned that clean lines and beautiful tailoring really suits me—anything too frilly and fancy just doesn't work on me.
And your tattoos are, of course, another signature aspect of your style. Which was your first?
The Celtic band [around my arm]. We were in L.A. and a few of us wanted tats. Emma was definitely there. I think it was me, Emma, Mel, and Geri. We just walked into some tattoo parlor on Sunset, no recommendations, and a few of us got tatted. It hurt so bad. I was holding my breathe and I thought I was going to pass out. I just thought, “I cannot go around the rest of my life with this tiny little blob of a tattoo on my arm,” so I went through with it. As you can see, then I obviously planned the next and the next. Whenever we were in L.A., we'd always stay the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, and we'd always go down and get tattoos. It’s so ’90s pop star, isn’t it?