This sporting life

Melanie Chisholm, alias Sporty Spice, has it all. Fame, the best voice in the Spice Girls, £15m in the bank and now, a romantic liaison with a member of a boy band. And what does she like doing best? Sitting at home and watching fish

I am going to meet Sporty Spice. I am fantastically excited. I love the Spice Girls. I adore the Spice Girls. I want to be a Spice Girl. I could, I think, easily replace Geri. I could be Waste Of Spice, which isn't a tremendous joke, unless you say it in a Dick Van Dyke from Mary Poppins kind of way, and then it is fairly reasonable. I want to look the part, obviously. I wear combat pants and, just below my collar bone, a tattoo of a leaping, blue dolphin. This comes from a £1.99 pack of "top fashion temporary transfers suitable for ages 5+". Still, I had to rub it on with a wet sponge and - ouch! - it was jolly cold. I didn't cry, though. I was marvellously brave.

I go, first, to the office of the girls' PR company on London's Tottenham Court Road. From here, I am whisked to a discreet building in NW8 which turns out to house their headquarters. Spice Control, if you like. Their fan-club is based here. They are managed from here. They have their meetings here. Sporty - Mel C - is here, but she's on the phone, so I'm asked to wait in some kind of boardroom. There are large, gorgeous, framed photographed portraits of the girls on the walls - Sporty, Posh, Baby, Scary and, yes, Ginger, except they've turned her upside-down. This wouldn't be so bad but, in the original pose, she is sitting on a step with legs wide apart. Turned on her head, she looks, at best, like someone who has been abandoned mid-gynaecological appointment and, at worst, like a sad novelty act from a sad Bangkok night-club. I'm not sure they like Geri very much anymore. "Poor Geri," I say, when Mel comes in. "It's a bit of an office joke, that," says Mel. "We had a meeting here at Christmas and I upset the other girls. I thought afterwards: 'Oh my God, they're going to turn me upside down next.'"

Gosh, Mel C. Make-over of the decade, or what? I suppose, here, I should confess I used to think of her as Pram Spice, because she looked like one of those harassed single mothers you see pushing buggies on council estates. Certainly, she used to be known as "the plain one". Hurtful? "I used to think: that's your opinion, mate." But now? The hair is spiked and golden. The skin is golden. A tooth is golden. Her tattooed, daily gym-ed body is amazing. Sporty has always been sporty, yes. I'd even read she can do a backward somersault from a standing start. True?

"Yes."

"Let's see."

"No. I'll bang me 'ead."

"Go on. I'll show you my hop."

"No."

I show her my hop anyway. Hop-hop-hop, I go, round the room. She is impressed, I think. She is already considering me as a replacement for Geri, I think. She says she likes my dolphin. I say I was going to wear my trainers, but they're from M&S so, in the end, I thought better of it. She says she has 200 pairs of trainers. Two hundred! "I've not actually counted them, but reckon it must be in that region." How do you decide which to wear? "I tend to wear the same ones every day... just live in a pair, like these Adidas ones. I'm not that impressed with clothes and make-up and things like that... even though I'm forever changing me 'air!"

Truly, I am a big Spice fan. Now, I know what you're thinking. You are thinking how can an otherwise intelligent person - how can someone who has read War And Peace (well, the peace bits, at least, which were boring enough) - admire the Spice Girls, that manufactured, mass-marketed celebration of mediocrity, that collection of five young women who could just as easily have ended up on the tills at Tesco, should they have ever progressed from shelf-stacking. Do you have a favourite film, Mel? "I love Toy Story. I think it is such a great movie." Do you ever read, Mel? "You know, I would like to like reading. I've been trying to get myself to read for such a long time. I've got piles of books that I wanna read, but I just get distracted. I wanna learn about politics, actually, because I often get asked, but I haven't got the knowledge." I decide not to ask where she stands on the euro. I offer, instead, to send her some books she might like. This is spectacularly patronising, I know, but no less enjoyable for that. I wonder, though, what she does, when she's on her own, if she doesn't read or anything? "Well, I've just got some fish, actually. I watch my aquarium."

Crucially, though, it is as a band that they work, that they genuinely have something. Together, they dish up top-rate pop. In 20 or 30 years, the Spice Girls might be seen as the Abba of their time. (Did anyone ever say Abba were good in 1975?) But they are all spreading their solo wings now. Indeed, following the enormous success of "When You're Gone", her pop rock duet with Canadian superstar Bryan Adams, Mel C decamped to LA for six months to record a solo album - Northern Star. The others didn't mind, because they were having their babies. Do you fancy a baby, Mel? "No. Not yet, anyway." I say an album is possibly better than a baby, because it won't grow up to run up massive phone bills. Another pitiful joke, I know, but she laughs hysterically. "I like that! I like that!" she exclaims. I'm not sure she gets out that much. She might be spending too much time with her fish.

Anyway, she's just released another single from the album - "Never Be The Same Again". (This, interestingly, features a rapper called Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes which, if nothing else, does make you wonder what the right eye does. Walk briskly?) Although it's commonly thought that Sporty has - how best to put this? - the strongest vocal capabilities within the group, I'm not sure she can truly cut it on her own. I'm not even sure the four surviving Spices can cut it without the fifth. Can they? "Musically, we are working on our third album. We are finishing that in April. But who knows? Are people still going to want the Spice Girls? I dunno."

"What did you think when Geri bolted? Bitch? Bitch From Hell, even?" I ask.

"I think we went through the lot. Some days I was really angry and then some days I was really sad. You know, I miss her. I still think of her as me friend."

"Did you speak to her at the Brits?"

"Yeah. I wished her luck and all that."

"Did you like her performance?"

"I thought it was quite vulgar myself. I think it's a great song and it sounded really good, nice and loud - but she's sort of hiding behind all that really."

"Hiding?"

"The fact that she's not talented."

"Well, she can't sing admittedly..."

"And she can't dance either."

Still friends, obviously. Girl Power!

Now 26, Melanie Jayne Chisholm was raised in council estates in the Liverpool suburbs of Rainhill, Runcorn and Widnes. So, she's gone from that, and working in a chip shop, to being world famous and worth an estimated £15m. How does it feel? Real? "You mean, can I believe it?" Yes. I mean, can you believe it? "Sometimes I do wake up and think, well that was a mad dream. I can't accept it sometimes, even though I'm living with it. It's very bizarre." And the money. Where do you start spending a sum like £15m? "You mean, what do I spend it on?" Yes, I mean, what do you spend it on? "I've got a nice home [a flat in Hampstead, north London, plus another in Liverpool], a nice car, I make sure my family have what they need. I've never been extravagant, although now I am a little bit. I've worked so hard."

"Extravagant?"

"I like champagne. And, actually, I've just got a chef. You know when you get to the point where you just can't be bothered looking after yourself any more. I just thought for God's sake, I've got all this money, I'll get someone in to do it for me."

"A chef!" I exclaim, enviously. "Do you know what I had last night? Weetabix!"

"You see? That's what I'm like when I'm on my own!"

"But I wasn't on my own. It was our family supper!"

She laughs hysterically again. It would be embarrassing, if it wasn't so rewarding. It might also be almost funny, if it weren't so tragically true.

Her mum, Joan, is a singer, too, although one who has spent most of her career playing social clubs on the tough Merseyside circuit. Now she performs in River Deep, a Tina Turner tribute band. Joan separated from Mel's father, Alan, who worked for a coach travel firm, when Mel was three. Mel always wanted to be famous, and she thinks this might have had something to do with it. "My parents' split made me feel very vulnerable and, also, it did make me feel like a bit of a spare part, because they both remarried and had more children. I'm very close to my family but, even so, I felt a bit alone. I just wanted the attention, really."

And does being famous make you feel less alone? Not especially, she says. "I'm always with people but, still, sometimes I do feel lonely. You know, a bit empty, like something is missing, which is funny, because I have everything." She has, yes, begun her search for the happiness within, which started with a stay at Deepak Chopra's clinic in San Diego a couple of months ago. She says that Chopra - spiritual guru to Hollywood's A-list - taught her the power of meditation. And it's been wonderful. "You know, you start noticing things that you've never noticed before, like how beautiful the sky is, and the wind blowing in your face, and how nice that is."

And sex? Being so famous, you can't just get that when you want. "You can!" she protests.

"Even though it might end up in the News of the World?"

"I don't care. You can't be a prisoner of your own fame, can ya? I just wanna enjoy me life."

She then adds that, as it happens - and contrary to rumours that she might be Dyke Spice, and in this instance I'm not talking Dick Van - she's just started dating J from 5ive (as opposed to K from 6ix, one presumes). They met at the Brits after-show party. Are you in love? "It's early days yet. He's lovely. I'm pretty smitten."

She left school at 16 to attend a dance college and it was there, while auditioning for work on a cruise ship, that she saw the posters advertising places in an all-girl band. She remembers Geri particularly from the audition. "She had this big, pink fluffy jumper on and her hair in bunches. And she was yapping like a dog - yap, yap, yap - and I thought, oh my God, she's mad. I already knew Victoria from the dance circuit. The last time I'd seen her we were in an audition, and her mobile phone went off in the middle, and she went and answered it!" Now, that is posh! Can she sing? "She is the most underrated Spice. She's got so much potential. And Emma is such a cow! She's got a fantastic voice, and she never loses it. I've really gotta look after my voice, but she can be out till three, four in the morning, drinking, smoking..."

She has to go now. She's due at MTV. We leave Spice Control, and go outside. She says she'll let me know if I can be Waste Of Spice or not. As she gets into her car, I shout after her: "I can't sing or dance and might not be quite the right age but when has that ever stopped anyone?" She gives me the thumbs-up sign. I think I might be well in here. Zig-a-Zig-ah!

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