This interview was first published in Attitude’s Issue 276, November 2016.
Words by Juno Dawson
At the time of writing, this author is chained to her desk under the watchful eye of an editor waiting on the first draft of a memoir. It’s supposed to be about my lifelong struggles with gender and subsequent transition, and as reluctant as I was to delve into my childhood for source material, one thing soon became clear: the most influential figures of my adolescence were not my parents, friends or teachers.
That honour went to the Spice Girls.
I’m not even kidding. I had such an abundance of Girl Power, I almost turned into one. Even Adele acknowledged, on James Corden’s chat show, that the world would have been denied her talent had it not been for the Spice Girls lighting a fire under her bum. We are starting to see the legacy of that band, that phenomenon, in today’s performers.
And, a hundred years from now, when we open the holographic iBook on the 1990s we will see one picture: Geri Halliwell, in a Union Jack tea-towel dress, storming the 1997 Brit Awards. She is the icon within an iconic band.
So, when Attitude set out to crown an Honorary Gay for 2016, it made perfect sense to bestow the title on The Artist Formerly Known as Ginger.
“I am so honoured,” she gushes when I ask how she feels about it. “I’m incredibly flattered to be included. You’ve always been such support through the ups and downs, which I am touched by. I value the gay fans’ loyalty so much, thank you.”
Geri is a three-time Attitude cover girl: once surrounded by shirtless men, once as a latex-clad sex nurse, and once as a boxer. I ask if she’s always felt at home among the LGBT+ community. “Always,” she replies. “The community is so welcoming, liberal, kind, glamorous yet vulnerable, and has such great humour, the self-deprecation. I felt kinship always.”
With Geri, that kinship never feels like a thirsty grasp for the pink pound. We’re her mates and she gets it. “Gay culture comes with its own pressures. I’ve spoken intimately with many gay men, how they feel so much pressure to look a certain way and long for a monogamous relationship. We are more alike than different.”
For me, adoring the Spice Girls with such fervour in 1996 essentially meant outing myself (incorrectly, I add) as gay. I imagine there are guys reading this who experienced the same. What does Geri think was the appeal of the Spice Girls for young gay people?
“I’m cautious about generalising but perhaps there is a recognition of [an] utter struggle to find one’s voice, claim it, through a mixture of vulnerability and strength,” she says.
I start to get a sense she’s warming up now. It’s clear that Geri, 44, is thoughtful, intelligent and hugely eloquent.
“Actually, it’s through being unified, I believe we find our strength and courage to be exactly who we are. Your bravery gives us the courage to be ourselves,” she adds.
I love her. I must remain cool, however. It’s never a good idea to terrify the talent.
As this is likely to be my one chance to grill Geri, I’m hardly going to skip over the Spiceworld years. I remember, all too vividly, Posh, Scary, Sporty and Baby telling Carol Smillie on the National Lottery that Ginger was “sick”. Two days later, Geri was gone and the Spice Girls were never quite the same. Given that she’s returned to the band twice since, I ask if she regrets leaving when she did. “It’s easy to be wise in hindsight but I think we did the best we could in a unique situation,” she says.
“Looking back, although leaving was painful — especially watching them do something new — I honestly tried to respect them as they moved forward in the way they felt was right for them, without being obstructive because I too wanted to try fresh pastures.”
Geri continues: “I think it was the right thing to give them the dignity and respect they deserved to venture into new creative territory.
“As human beings, I think we all fear change and want everything to remain the same but change is the one thing that is inevitable. We have to evolve and change, it’s life.”
Also, I can’t really imagine Geri doing ‘Holler’, so fair enough. Does it blow her mind that, 20 years on from ‘Wannabe’, we — the public, the press — are still so obsessed?
“I’m incredibly grateful. We all are. The loyalty and passion that has been expressed is just brilliant. It’s a great reminder to celebrate life and our commitment to each other.
“We always said it: our magic was more than an album, it was a movement.”
A movement that even inspired Adele? “When I hear that what we did has inspired others, such as Adele, I’m incredibly touched. It’s affirming and it motivates me to continue.”
After Geri initially left the Spice Girls, she entered a whirlwind of reinvention, the most dramatic perhaps being her role as a UN goodwill ambassador. She re-emerged a demure figure, a million miles away from brassy, sassy Ginger.
“It taught me about the power of your voice, that it can have a positive impact on lives,” she explains.
“Speaking up for others can make a difference, I like that. I did it for 10 years, there is a lot of bureaucracy in the world, sometimes red tape gets in the way. We can share our knowledge but sometimes we have to respect other people’s culture, different points of view and how they choose to live.”
It was around this time that Geri opened herself up to public scrutiny, firstly with Molly Dineen’s 1999 documentary Geri and then in her memoir If Only, in which she detailed her struggles with an eating disorder.
As a teenager, this escalated my Gerimania to new levels. While I’d previously loved Geri, I now felt as if I knew her. Like all the truest divas, there was now an air of melancholy, of tragedy, behind the Buffalo trainers and hot pants.
Does Geri now regret revealing so much, allowing us to see her at her most vulnerable?
“It’s part of the human condition to be vulnerable,” she says. “It’s uncomfortable but the reality is we all cry and feel scared at some points in our lives, and that’s OK. I used to pretend to be strong and try to hide it, but it’s too exhausting.
“Instead, I used it positively as a songwriter. I think that’s what makes you an artist. To express the words that people cannot find themselves. I feel something, share it in a song, and maybe it’s useful to others to know that they are not alone.”
Geri’s work as a singer/songwriter is often overlooked because she is i) a woman and ii) a pop musician. Nonetheless, she was the first British woman to have four solo number ones – ‘Mi Chico Latino’, ‘Lift Me Up’, ‘Bag It Up’ and ‘It’s Raining Men’. A singer with that many bangers to her name cannot be sniffed at.
As a solo artist Geri truly embraced her camp credentials — pink-haired dancers, inflatable vaginas — but did she miss the other girls?
“There are pluses and minuses. I love the company of being in the band, the dynamic creativity is really uplifting. Being a solo artist, creatively, you can be very personally expressive. I like the personal storytelling.
“However, I like singing on stage with company. Yes, one has to consider the others more, which has a different set of demands, but that I think is actually a good thing. A few years ago, I was on stage in Australia. I did a gig and when I got off, I realised I missed them.”
Any solo regrets? “I would have released ‘Love Never Loved Me…’ who knows, hindsight eh?” She is right to regret this. That is a tune.
Part of the appeal with Geri is that, from a fairly modest start, she took fame between her teeth and refused to let go. There’s something of Scrappy Doo in her, that I love. Perhaps to her UK fans, the strangest Geri moment came with that cameo in Sex and the City. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t quote that 33-second scene. Seriously.
“I had been studying acting in LA,” Geri says. “I love comedy and they asked me to audition, which I did, and I got the role. I absolutely loved it, especially being part of a show that we all adore.”
I refrain from saying: ‘Isn’t it the BEST?’
Geri isn’t the hungry wannabe she was in 1996. She’s a mum, happily Horner-ed up (she married Christian Horner, the boss of F1 racing team Red Bull, last year. “I love him dearly…he’s my best friend,” Geri says). And she is working on new music.
“It has taken me so, so long, I’m annoying myself. I thought I had an album ready but then I wasn’t happy with the production and then I got sidetracked with the Spices. With the support of a record company, I’ve been writing with different people. It’s good to get out of my comfort zone as I like to stick in the safe familiar places, so it’s a new phase.”
Every since she left the Spice Girls, there’s been intense speculation about reunions. All five girls reunited for a world tour in 2007 and then slayed atop London cabs at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics.
“I remember saying to the girls, ‘we have four minutes to unite the world’. Six billion people! No pressure! It was a wonderful feeling from start to finish, from the support volunteers to all the artists, then the massive audience. We had a blast, it was an absolute honour to celebrate our country. Emma, Mel and I partied until 8am the next day!” And that brings us ever-so neatly to the latest batch of reunion rumours. It seems likely that Geri, Mel B and Emma at least will be back next year for the Spice Girls’ 21st birthday. “Plans are ongoing, we would love to give you all the details. We look forward to when we can share what’s coming,” she teases.
And what of a supposed reality TV show to replace Victoria and Mel C? “Firstly, Posh and Sporty are irreplaceable and we would never do that. We believe the whole world has its population of Spice Girls. It’s a spirit — bigger than one, two, three, four or five. It’s a movement. A generation that belongs to us all. It’s a very inclusive group. We endeavour in some way to include you all.”
It’s a bit like the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when all girls became slayers. Now we are all Spice Girls. I wonder if they’d consider me for Trans Spice?
When someone has been in the biggest girl group of all time, it seems a little redundant to ask for a highlight, but I do wonder if there’s one moment Geri would pick out.
“I’m so lucky. There are the obvious big ones: the Olympics, Mandela, singing to His Royal Highness. However, it’s the intimate stuff in life that stays with me. I was laughing so hard the other day with Mel B and Emma when we had a kitchen disco and taking a bad selfie. Sounds silly but I loved it.”
See? Friendship never ends. It always seemed as if Geri was a woman on a search for something. Twenty years on, it looks as if she might have found it.
“I still have dreams. I hope they come to fruition. It’s funny, it doesn’t matter how long I’ve lived in this world, there are always challenges. Sometimes it’s brilliant but sometimes I feel as if I’m pushing a boulder up a hill.”
Perhaps we love her because, in and out of the band, there’s something of the underdog about Geri. We’re fighters, survivors. Geri’s had so many incarnations: Ginger, UN ambassador, singer, actress, author, but she’s always embraced her gay fans.
“Thanks once again to all you amazing boys and girls for supporting me all this time. I’m incredibly grateful and so are all the Spice Girls.”