Emma Bunton was never posh, her hair wasn't ginger and she certainly wasn't scary. She could be sporty, but that vacancy was taken. So Bunton played her appointed role as Baby Spice, the young innocent who smiled a lot, looked virginal but potentially naughty, and wore Topshop even though we knew she could afford Prada.
The ensuing story of five wannabes who turned girl power into 45 million record sales, was the defining showbusiness fantasy of the 1990s. Now, however, Bunton is about to find out whether she is to be allowed back into the playground of pop on her own. And it's a playground that, seven and a half years since that worldwide explosion, looks very different.
Two years ago, Bunton realised that her record label, Virgin, the company that launched both the Spice Girls and her own first stab at a solo career, had gone lukewarm on her future prospects. Despite the number-one success of her 2001 single "What Took You So Long", Bunton and Virgin decided it was time to part company; just as Mel B, Victoria Beckham and Mel C all had, despite also notching up numerous hits, including several number ones.
"They [Virgin] came to me and said, 'Let's do a demo thing for the second album.' And I thought, 'Hold on a minute.' Not a lot of people know this, but I actually walked away from it. We put so much into it, and when they don't give you that support anymore, it's quite heartbreaking," says Bunton. "I said, 'Thank you very much for the demo idea, but I want to take this where I know people are going to be right behind me and work as hard as I do.'"
No longer wanted by the label, Bunton was determined to fight for her place at the pop table. But in the short time that she had been gone, someone had rearranged the place settings in favour of a younger brigade of stars created entirely by television. That someone was the very man who made the Spice Girls their first million, Simon Fuller, emperor of 19 Entertainment and latterly the creator of the global Pop Idol franchise. And also, ironically, the very man who would come to her rescue with a new record deal within weeks of her divorce from Virgin.
The media has not always been kind to the Spice Girls; but even if their media profile went downhill from "Spice Girls Made My Boy Walk" (Daily Star, 1996) to "She has crow's feet and a bum like an old couch" (Arena, 1998), Emma Lee Bunton has only just turned 28, and she's not about to give in because of her critics. After two hits in 2003 and a new single, "I'll Be There", due to land in the charts today, next week she will release Free Me, her second solo album, and her first under Fuller's guidance.
With the close attention of A-list co-writers - most famous of which is Cathy Dennis (Kylie), but also Mike Peden (Liberty X), Ray Hedges (Cher, Boyzone) and Henry Binns of the ice-cool group Zero 7 - Free Me is an album shot through with real instruments, real tunes and a sensibility that gleefully staples the sound and spirit of the 1960s to the 21st century. Judging by early reviews, Free Me will surprise people. It's certainly one of the strongest British pop albums of recent years. Something has gone seriously right here.
"If you read interviews I did years back, when people asked me what music I liked, I would always say 1960s, Motown, that's what I was brought up with," she says. "When we did 'Stop', with the Spice Girls, I had a big influence in that. For this album, I kept saying, 'I love Motown and the 1960s feel and the liveness; I'm going to bloody do it.' It was a bit of a risk. The producers were like, 'Oh, OK, now we've got to get musicians in here and do it all live.'"
We meet in Hampstead - close to her current home and not far from her birthplace in Finchley - at Bunton's favourite, subtly lit, upmarket restaurant-bar. She is seated in the corner on a leather sofa; she's casually dressed and wearing little make-up. It's two days before her birthday. "Doesn't mean anything, 28, does it? Not an important one," she says.
What's tonight's plan, then?
"Just go and get drunk, I expect."
On her nights out on extended play, there are still plenty of photo-opportunities for Emma and her pre-fame girlfriends (though how drunk she would get is questionable: she told one magazine last year, "As soon as I feel myself losing control, I switch to water. My friends say I'm a bit of a control freak.")
Unattached now - she had a long on/off relationship with Jade Jones of pop group Damaged - she seems confident in her sexiness, full of life, a young veteran catching up for the years spent making her fortune. She is quoted in one of the endless flimsy books that accompanied Spice mania as saying she lost her virginity at 16, but her mother still came along to her first-ever meeting with Victoria, Geri and the Mels. Indeed, she was still living with her mum and driving a beaten-up Metro when the unknown five-piece started going for auditions with record labels.
Soon our conversation is straying away from the past and into unusual territory for a Bunton interview: her music. It's a topic she admits she rarely gets to discuss with journalists. Most of the time, there'll be the starters about the sexy new look, the boyfriends and the boozy nights. A main course of Mrs Beckham, here own appearance in Ab Fab, and a quick nudge-nudge about her mate Justin Timberlake. And to finish with, that old favourite - a Spice Girls reunion. *
But Bunton's surprise at hearing someone asking her questions specifically about her album is probably the same as mine at wanting to ask them. "It's been so nice talking about this," she says, sounding as if she means that if she carried on giving interviews long enough, eventually the subject of music might crop up.
She tells me: "People basically talk in interviews about me being pictured out one night. But music's why I'm here. I would say I'm quite different from a lot of artists out there, because I'm on the creative side."
It's a featherweight jab, and about as controversial as she gets. "The going out and getting pictured, if it happens, fine, because I know that's part of it. But I don't quite understand why people want to know so much about that when there's so much to talk about on the other side."
Unlike many media-savvy celebrities, with Bunton you get the distinct feeling that what you see has an uncommonly close resemblance to what you get. She's pugnacious to a degree; as she has been since her days of bouncing back from failed auditions for EastEnders and inglorious early work in commercials - one for toothpaste and another for a building society where she was a bridesmaid on a giant wedding cake. But ultimately, there's an instinctive breeziness about her that's more than just an interview tactic.
Even when she tells a dark story about a stalker who found out where she lived, she does it with the ever-attendant smile. "He always seemed very polite, then one day I got this call from security. He said, 'She's expecting me, you've got to let me in.' It all kicked off, we got the police, and he had a knife on him. It was so scary. My friend was with me, she said, 'Don't worry, it's fine.' Then I caught her locking all the bloody doors."
There is a woman-child blend of steel and innocence here. When Bunton met the other four future Spice Girls for the first time that day, she wore a white dress, white knee-socks and trainers. "She was the youngest, said Victoria Beckham in her book Learning To Fly, "but she had more working experience than the rest of us put together."
"All of them were so hard-working," says Paul Conroy, boss at Virgin Records during the girls' triumphant years. "But Emma's not so fixed in musical areas, she's more flexible. I couldn't say anything to put any of them down, but you can see first hand how we suffered from people who just didn't want them to succeed. And it's very hard when you've been in such a big outfit to then be taken seriously.
"Emma is radio-friendly, but it's transferring that to album sales," adds Conroy, who left Virgin shortly before Bunton. "We're pretty brutal in our industry, these acts are expensive to market and you've got to feed the machine. If you don't get the album sales, all the goodwill and all the radio-friendliness and all the singles success is pretty much a waste of time."
It may have been seeing her parents separate when she was 11, or watching over a younger brother, but during her adolescence Bunton's innate determination was supplemented by a deceptively tough hide.
"When I think about us and what we did," says Bunton, "we got up on stage not knowing what the hell we were doing, we wore Topshop stuff and we were loving it. We never said that we were soul divas, but we all had fun.
"The difference with today's pop music is everything is very controlled. If they haven't got the new Gucci dress on or they're not a number one, they're failures. Sometimes I watch the telly and think, 'Where's your spark? You're not enjoying it.' I still get so nervous and really excited, that whole adrenalin rush still kicks in as soon as I get on stage. It's frustrating when I can't see that passion in some people."
Many would lay some of the blame for this state of affairs at the feet of Simon Fuller. But Bunton sees things differently. "He really looks after every artist he works with. He's always on the end of the phone, we're always talking about the next step. I know he does that with all the others. I'm good friends with Will Young [another Fuller signing] now and he's writing, he's come a long way as well.
"The good thing with Will is people saw on the show [Pop Idol] that he was an intelligent young man, he wanted to get on. When he sings, I just see passion flowing out of him, he's still so excited about it, which I love."
And yet, always there in the shadowy background is the feeling that all of this - the 6am photoshoots, endless interviews and elaborate video storyboards to further the solo career - won't ward off the inevitable: the reunion.
"All of the girls have been very definite about their solo careers," says Conroy, "but everyone sees this as an in-between before the Spice Girls reform again. I must admit I always thought there was an inevitability of them getting back together at some stage. It's one of those things, money and circumstances usually make those things happen."
Should Free Me be the success it deserves to be, however, Bunton may not be as willing to rejoin the Spice Girls circus as Conroy thinks. "Even the other day," she leans over and whispers, "someone said, 'I can't believe it, it wasn't until I looked on the back of the new CD and saw your name on every song...' But you can't sit there and shout at everyone, 'I bloody write the songs!, And also," she adds, "I love being in the studio... no make-up, in your trackies, eating like a pig. Bottles of wine come in about six o'clock. Love it."
Emma Bunton's single 'I'll Be There' is out now on 19/Universal. Her album, 'Free Me', is released on 9 FebruaryReuse content