Geri Halliwell: Spice odyssey

Someone with less steel (or more sense) might have given up years ago. But despite everything, Geri Halliwell can't stop playing the fame game. Interview by Nick Duerden
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The Independent Online

He's a plucky sort, Geri Halliwell. Had she been around 65 years ago, Vera Lynn would never have gone on to become a Dame. Instead, it would have been Halliwell who invigorated the troops with her boundless effervescence and as much front as the white cliffs of Dover. A generation on, and she could have been another Babs Windsor, all Carry On sauce and cheek, an hourglass icon who, when she aged (like fine wine, like blue cheese), would see out her retirement as a national treasure and part-time landlady of the Queen Vic.

He's a plucky sort, Geri Halliwell. Had she been around 65 years ago, Vera Lynn would never have gone on to become a Dame. Instead, it would have been Halliwell who invigorated the troops with her boundless effervescence and as much front as the white cliffs of Dover. A generation on, and she could have been another Babs Windsor, all Carry On sauce and cheek, an hourglass icon who, when she aged (like fine wine, like blue cheese), would see out her retirement as a national treasure and part-time landlady of the Queen Vic.

But fate decreed that Geri Halliwell would not be born until 1972, and so deification, when it came, would be merely fleeting. True, she'd experience unparalleled success - back in 1997, she was surely one of the most recognisable women in the Western world - but once that bubble burst (as it did in 1998), fame for her would turn ugly. There would be much red top ridicule, and endless stories of eating disorders, self-loathing, therapy sessions and indiscreet boyfriends. By 2001, she would feel compelled, like Robbie Williams before her, to flee the UK for the anonymity of Los Angeles where, pointedly unlike Williams, she would obsess over yoga and become a shadow - or, rather, a skeleton - of her former self.

And yet, here she comes now, tip-toeing back into the UK in the spring of 2005, with a third solo album, Passion, to promote. Yes, she is perhaps ever so slightly tentative about it, but nevertheless retains mostly all of her celebrated pluck. When she talks, she summons up a very determined confidence from deep within her. Everything comes out in italics. Exclamation marks abound.

"You know what?" she says. "I'm not even sure the UK feels like home any more, but then nowhere does. I've recently left LA, possibly for good, and so I'm just a travelling pop gypsy these days, forever drifting from one place to another!"

She tells me this in a very chic restaurant just off the King's Road in London on an overcast May morning. Sat primly at a corner table, she looks rather fetching in blue denim and pink cashmere. Her upper lip is shaped, most alluringly, like the McDonald's "M", and her blue eyes blaze. She makes up for her size - she is absolutely tiny - with expansive volume, and her voice booms out loud. It is 11.30am, and f she is half an hour late for our appointment. Her apologies are profuse and breathless.

"Oh my God, I'm so, so sorry, I hate being late, I absolutely despise it, but I was stuck on a business call and I simply couldn't get off the line! It was important, and very frustrating! I wouldn't say I'm stressed - stressed would perhaps be too strong a word for it - but I do feel, well, I feel pulled in all different directions at the moment. These past four years [since the release of her last album] have been a big pain in the backside, if you want to know the truth. Manoeuvring myself within the business side of the industry has been a complete nightmare, but it's got to be done because I want to be involved with every last aspect of my career. I've... I've... well, I won't bore you with details, but let's just say it's been really time-consuming. Thankfully, the actual music itself remains a complete lifeline for me, and I love it as much as ever." She giggles, and leans in close. "When I delivered this album to my record company, let me tell you, I was so happy, so relieved, I burst into tears. Tears!"

A waiter appears, and Halliwell looks up. "Yes, thank you, I'll have some sparkling water, please." She turns back to me, smiling broadly. "Anyway, hello to you. How are you? Thank you for waiting for me, I really do value your time."

Geri Halliwell ceased being a Spice Girl seven long years ago now, but part of her will forever be Ginger Spice. While her former compatriots have fallen reluctantly towards obscurity (Mels B and C, Emma Bunton) or Heat magazine ubiquity (Victoria Beckham), Halliwell remains a national curiosity. Her much documented problems with her weight, to say nothing of her choice in boyfriends (Pop Idol reject Darius Danesh was rumoured to be the latest) has kept her in column inches, while her continuing work with breast cancer awareness and as a United Nations ambassador has made her an icon, of sorts, in the women's magazines. As a solo singer, meanwhile, she remains modestly successful. Her first two albums, 1999's Schizophonic and 2001's Scream If You Want To Go Faster both produced number one singles ("Look At Me", "Lift Me Up", "It's Raining Men"), and while the imminent Passion probably won't win her many new fans - it's an eminently aerobic record of hi-energy pop and hi-camp disco - the Halliwell faithful won't be disappointed. The critics, of course, will hate it.

"They always do," she says evenly. "It goes with the territory, I suppose, or at least with my territory. You know, I look at my career as both a blessing and a curse. I've had the most amazing decade, and I'm truly grateful for it, but while I firmly believe in turning shit into fertiliser, being on the receiving end of so much negativity is just, well, it's exhausting, and I'm still in the process of trying to deal with it. But at the end of the day," she says, extending an index finger towards me, and tapping my knuckle with it, "I feel disappointed for negative people, don't you? It's such an unconscious, unrealised way of living."

I ask her if she sometimes wonders whether it's worth the bother. Surely such relentless critical maulings shatter the confidence?

"I do have black days, yes, days when I just want to disappear completely and retire to the country, but then life is so often like a rollercoaster, isn't it? Sometimes, it feels like I'm pushing a boulder up a hill, and it's difficult, of course it is, it's a strain, but do you want to know why I couldn't ever stop?"

I tell her yes.

"Because," she says, hands clasped to her bosom, "the creative process is so very important to me." She laughs now, somewhat self-consciously. "Yes, yes, I know that all sounds very bleurgh bleurgh - and I've no idea how you'll spell that on paper, but I'm sure you'll do your best - and, yes, it sounds very Californian of me, but I just have this overwhelming desire to express myself - like, you know, creatively. I've got too much - oh, however you want to describe it - too much energy, too much love and too much life inside of me. I need to channel it, to give it wings! And so doing this is an absolute necessity for me.

"In many ways," she continues, slipping inexplicably into the third person, and gleefully mixing metaphors, "Geri Halliwell's music is raw and authentic. It's like really good food that will fill you up both emotionally and spiritually. It's for the heart and the head, feet and soul. It's three-dimensional, you know what I mean?"

Um, well, sort of, I tell her. But right now, I want to focus more on the horrendous criticism she faces, almost daily. I mention a story that appeared recently on Popbitch - the scurrilous but very funny online rumour mill - that suggested Halliwell's career was, due largely to her alleged habit of firing managers and PR consultants, now effectively over. But the moment I do this - not to gloat, but to clarify its somewhat sneering accusations and to hear Geri's side of the story - she grows visibly upset. Her eyes narrow, and then she leans forward to click off my tape recorder so that we may speak off the record. She warns me not to even mention this in the article. I ask her why, and she says something about legal proceedings and about how "I don't even want to dignify it with a response." She looks quite angry. "Let's talk about something else," she says.

And so we do.

When she quit the Spice Girls, back in 1998 for reasons never fully revealed, Halliwell felt lost and bewildered. When the film-maker Molly Dineen suggested making a documentary about life in the wake of her departure, she promptly ignored any reservations she may have harboured and signed up.

"With hindsight, it was a mistake," she admits today, "but I was very out of sorts, I was lonely and I felt starved of friendship and intellectual company, which Molly gave me because she is so totally intellectual."

The documentary was fascinating stuff, but ran in stark contrast to the public's image of Ginger Spice as a bubbly force of nature whose colossal confidence and drive had helped turn the Spice Girls into superstars. Instead, the real-life Halliwell was depressed, friendless, slightly ga-ga, and a long-time sufferer from bulimia. And now that she had left the band, life was suddenly very empty indeed. While she doesn't regret doing the film, she hates the way she came across on camera and finds it far too upsetting a prospect to even consider watching it again. But then, this is a woman with an almost pathological need to share, a 32-year-old with not one, but two autobiographies to her name (the 544-page If Only, and the mercifully slimmer For the Record), and so when Channel 5 recently suggested a follow-up documentary, she readily agreed.

"I know! I know!" she says now, shaking her head, "I shouldn't have done it! Even thinking about it makes me cringe!"

And so why on earth did she do it? Warren Beatty memorably said of Madonna (and I'm paraphrasing here) that her life didn't really exist unless someone was there to record it. Is Halliwell similarly so addicted to fame?

"No, it's not that at all," she counters, and then proceeds to make a quite ridiculous claim: "It's just that I appreciate film-makers and their art, I do, I really do. And I happen to think that exploring humanity, all humanity, is quite fascinating. Don't you?"

Not necessarily, no. There's Something About Geri, screened on Five a couple of weeks ago, was nauseating stuff, and did Halliwell very few favours indeed. While, in person, she can come across as likeable and even sympathetic, the screen version of herself is a nightmare in screaming ginger: a self-obsessed, painfully vain little girl in need of constant mollycoddling, and whose every nonsensical sentiment is garnished with an infuriating "Jewknowwharramean?" The woman's need for a self-edit button is overwhelming.

But despite this endless need for exposure, she is also, somewhat contrarily, uncommonly discreet in other areas of her life. She won't talk about anything private, for example, and that includes making comments on former Spice Girls or discussing her current relationship status. And even when previous boyfriends - among them, Chris Evans, Robbie Williams and the American actor Jerry O'Connell - have been unkind about her in the press (Williams called her "a demonic little girl"), Halliwell has maintained a dignified silence.

Next birthday, Geri Halliwell will turn 33. She says that the ageing process no longer worries her and that, in a phrase doubtless lifted from one of the many self-help books she once obsessed over, she is in a "good place right now". She has, deep breath, inner harmony.

"I'm shedding skin all the time," she says. "I'm evolving dramatically at least every six months, and now I feel I've come to a crossroads. I'm not sure what I'll do next, but whatever it is, it will be with complete focus and passion."

Right now, that passion revolves primarily around music, but also charity. She continues to promote breast cancer awareness and works diligently for the UN Population Fund, telling me that she recently came back from the Philippines where she was campaigning for greater healthcare funding. A week after her visit, she points out, the government pledged more money. Elsewhere, she thinks she might just give acting a proper go. Last year, in LA, she studied the craft and was pronounced so good that her agent put her forward for a sitcom. She sailed through every audition, and got down to the last two, alongside Desperate Housewives' Teri Hatcher.

"You know, in many ways, I'm just the girl next door," she says, "but I'm also proudly unconventional in the way that I choose to climb down from my own personal mountain." She screws up her face in, presumably, mock confusion. "Jewknowwarramean?"

The interview comes to an end, and as I prepare to leave, we chat about books - she's an avid reader - and discuss favourite authors. She mentions Audrey Niffenegger and Alexander McCall Smith; I recommend TC Boyle and Geoff Dyer. And then she asks me how I am getting home. Tube, I tell her, and her eyes light up.

"The tube! Oh, what's it like? I never take the tube," she says, looking positively wistful.

I tell her not to worry herself about it. She's not missing much.

Geri's new album, 'Passion', is released on 6 June