Melanie Janine Brown, better known as Mel B or Scary Spice, admits she’s always had a bit of a crush on herself. A few weeks ago she turned up at Jonathan Ross’s fancy dress Halloween party as Scary Spice. “I put on a massive wig, the boots, and Julien Macdonald made me a really sexy leopardskin catsuit.” Her friend Leigh Francis, who was responsible for a brutally funny impression of her on his TV show Bo’ Selecta!, didn’t realise it was the real Brown behind the hair. “He goes to me, ‘Bloody hell, you look like a good Scary Spice’, and I’m like, ‘Leigh, I’m your mate, it’s me’, and he goes, ‘Who the fuck dresses up as themselves?’ and I went, ‘Me!’ and he went, ‘Exactly!’”
As Scary, Brown was the Spice Girl you didn’t mess with; tough, sexy, funny, filthy, hard work. Although Francis’s parody of Mel B is extreme – leopardskin bra and knickers, huge glasses that slide down her nose, huge mouth that split her face in two, and a Yorkshire accent broad as the Dales – it is unerringly close to the real thing. As I walk up the stairs of the London studio where she is having her photo taken, I hear a roar of laughter. Mel B is in the house – swapping from Prada dress to black tailored jumpsuit to ribbed roll-neck jumper, complaining that her surgically enhanced boobs look too big, telling her teenage daughter Phoenix (who’s here for support) she loves her, showing off the £20,000 renewal wedding ring her husband, film producer Stephen Belafonte, has just bought her.
As Scary Spice, Brown had a raw beauty. Today, the tongue stud has gone, the hair is straightened and the leopardskin catsuit replaced with shirt and trousers. She could pass for the fanciable if forbidding CEO of a public company.
By her standards, Brown has been virtually invisible for the past decade – living in Los Angeles, bringing up her three daughters, establishing herself as an entrepreneur (she part owns a bottled water company). But even at her most withdrawn, she’s done her bit to keep the tabloids in business. So there have been the lesbian affairs, the alleged threesomes, the relationship with Eddie Murphy, the DNA test over the child who proved to be his, the marriage to Belafonte, the “love of her life”, who has a criminal record for domestic violence. And occasionally she has been in the newspapers for her work – starring in the musical Rent and The Vagina Monologues, appearing as part of the re-formed Spice Girls one-off at the London Olympics, producing her own reality show, and judging America’s Got Talent and Australia’s X Factor.
When it was announced earlier this year that she was returning to the UK to judge The X Factor at home, nobody seemed too interested. After all, the big news was that Simon Cowell and Cheryl Fernandez-Versini (formerly Cole) were returning to boost flagging audience figures. Mel B was very much an addendum. But that’s not the way things have turned out. While the TV audience has criticised Fernandez-Versini’s simpering, and complained that Cowell has lost his nasty edge, Brown has proved herself the most watchable judge. She has been direct, mouthy, and at times very funny. The show’s most memorable lines have come from her – whether it’s telling 16-year-old Lauren Platt, after she had sung How Will I Know, “I’m so excited right now I could slap you”, or suggesting she’d be up for mud wrestling with Fernandez-Versini (“That’s quite hot, I’d like to do that”), or telling Ben Haenow he made her want to go home and ravish her husband.
Brown says she was desperate to be on The X Factor. So much so, she flew from Australia to London at her own expense, turned up at Cowell’s offices, and pitched herself to him and 20 executives. “I said, ‘I’m a team player, I’m a hard worker and I’m not afraid of speaking my mind. You’re going to get a bit of Scary Spice, a bit of Confused Spice, a bit of Angry Spice, everything.’ They left it a couple of days and said, ‘OK, you’ve got the job.’”
For all the talk, Brown isn’t quite as fearless as she makes out. Even now, she’s surprised when people tell her she’s a hit on The X Factor. “I know I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. I’m just me.” She was worried about coming over as too hard, so there has been a concerted effort to change her image: she dresses more elegantly, and has tried to cut down on her dirty talk. It hasn’t always worked, and this is part of her appeal – the tension between the remodelled, motherly Brown, and the uncontrollable, potty-mouthed Mel B of old.
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