STEVE DOUGHERTY
April 28, 1997 12:00 PM

Spice Girls just wanna have fun—and respect

EVEN AS THEY STRUT AND PREEN and lark about during a dizzying round of press interviews at London’s Royal Lancaster Hotel last month, the members of Britain’s red-hot pop quintet, the Spice Girls, admit their talents are limited. “We don’t claim to be soul divas,” says Melanie Brown, 21, the pierced-tongued Spice Girl who, like her mates, makes up for artistic shortcomings with plenty of attitude. She gets downright snooty, in fact, when asked to clarify the group’s murky origins: “Listen, we are controlling this interview, not you.”

Well, it has been a hard day’s hype for the Girls, who, thanks to two undeniably catchy dance tunes, “Wannabe” and “Say You’ll Be There,” are the latest of Britain’s pop successes to cross the Atlantic. Yet even with No. 1 hits in 51 countries; 10 million copies of their debut album, Spice, sold; an authorized biography, Girl Power!, in stores; a film on the way (shooting begins in June); and their Girl Power motto emblazoned on backpacks and posters from Pretoria to Piccadilly, the Girls still get no respect. Critics not taken with their hip-hop-lite sound call them female versions of the Monkees, the made-for-TV group of the 1960s. And anti-Spice sentiment crackles on the Internet, where Web sites like the Spice Girls Suck Club abound.

The misses bring some of the dissing on themselves by ducking questions about their beginnings or making believe that they have been pals for years. The truth is that all were modestly successful models, actresses or dancers with limited music experience when they met three years ago at auditions for an all-girl pop group.

Chosen from among 400 aspirants who answered a 1994 trade-magazine ad placed by a pair of pop-music entrepreneurs, Chris Herbert and his father, Bob, seeking “streetwise, outgoing, ambitious” singers, the five rehearsed while living in a house rented for them by the Herberts in London’s Maidenhead suburb. Though now considered the spark plug of the group, Geri Halliwell, 24, especially needed molding and shaping, says the Girls’ early voice coach Pepi Lemer. “They were pretty rough,” she says. “Geri’s voice didn’t really lend itself to melody very easily.” In February 1995 the Girls split with the Herberts and signed with Simon Fuller (Annie Lennox’s manager).

Since then the Girls have not become musical geniuses, but certain things have jelled. The red-haired Halliwell, known as Ginger Spice, was voted the sexiest Spice by fans. She grew up in suburban Watford (her Spanish mother is a cleaning lady, and her English father died three years ago), left school at 16 and worked as a topless model and aerobics instructor before answering the Herberts’ ad. Belying her tomboy image, “Sporty Spice” Melanie Chisholm, 23, studied ballet in Kent. Victoria “Posh Spice” Adams, 23, grew up in affluent Goffs’ Oak outside London, where her parents own a wholesale electrical-supply business and park a Rolls in the drive. Adams overcame teen acne and unpopularity to achieve Spicedom. “She would ram it down everyone’s throat that she was going to be this great star,” says an ex-chum.

For Brown’s in-your-face cheek, fans call her “Scary Spice.” Born in Leeds to a white mum and a black, Caribbean-born father, Brown made an ever-so-slight, pre-Spice splash with a walk-on part in the popular British soap Coronation Street. “Baby Spice” Emma Lee Bunton, 21, describes herself as part “mummy’s girl” and part “hot, sexy bitch.” (Chuck and Di take note: Prince William reportedly named her his fave Spice.) Modeling in print ads since age 3, she lives at home in London with Mum, who runs a martial-arts studio. Which may explain why the sexy men she says she covets ignore her. “I get the little boys asking if I can baby-sit,” she says.

The Girls are planning their first world tour next year—in part to silence critics who doubt they’re able to sing live and in part, they say, to deliver their message to their teen fans. Says Brown: “You can make life what you want it to be.”

STEVE DOUGHERTY

BRYAN ALEXANDER and JOANNA BLONSKA in London

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