Emma Bunton on Spice Girls bust-ups and reunions, and the return of girl power

Louise Gannon
Emma Bunton: 'I've never been a pushover'. She wears: jacket, £1,175, Blazé Milano (blaze-milano.com). Top, £43.50, Hanro (hanro.co.uk). Skirt, £1,015, Noon by Noor (noonbynoor.com) -

They’re back! In the run-up to the reunion tour to end them all, Emma Bunton talks Spice Girl bust-ups and group hugs, the return of girl power – and why no one puts Baby in the corner

Emma Bunton – aka Baby Spice – is sitting in  a north London café, drinking tea. She is a few miles from the lavish family home she shares with her partner, Jade Jones, and their two children, which is in turn a stone’s throw from the small flat she grew up in with her mum and younger brother.

Her face is flushed from doing circuit training in preparation for the Spice Girls reunion tour. ‘I need to be fit for the shows,’ she grins. ‘I’m usually the last person down the gym, but  I have to keep up with the other girls.’ By whom she means her Spice bandmates, Sporty (Mel C), Scary (Mel B) and Ginger (Geri Horner), who are all renowned exercise junkies. Alongside the reunion tour – the first in 12 years and their first without Posh (Victoria Beckham) – there is her new album, My Happy Place, which features duets with Robbie Williams, Will Young and her partner of 20 years Jade, the former lead singer of R&B band Damage. It seems 2019 is set to be the year of Emma Bunton.

Yet despite all this and regardless of her past glories – 85 million albums sold, an estimated net worth of £21 million, kick-starting the girl power movement, hanging out with Prince Charles, Nelson Mandela and Madonna – this mother of two has maintained a rock-solid family and loyal set of friends. Her mum, Pauline (a karate teacher), her younger brother Paul, and her dad, Trevor (a milkman who separated from her mum when she was 11), remain the bedrock of her life, and they speak every day without fail.

Her mates are the same girls she went to Sylvia Young Theatre School with – actor Keeley Hawes, and Melanie Blatt and Nicole and Natalie Appleton, who went on to become All Saints. ‘Nothing really changes,’ she laughs. This is  a girl who had a night out with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but whose mum ended up going off with them to get a tattoo. (‘She was always way cooler than me.’) She shakes her head. ‘I’ve always had a very strong sense of who I am, where I come from and what I want.’ She leans forward. ‘And I’ve been bloody lucky.’

Mel C, Emma, Mel B, Victoria and Geri in Paris in 1996 Credit: getty

Emma is wearing a dark coat with a pink furry collar and jeans – nothing designer; she prefers the high street alongside online fashion sites Asos and Very. And her hair is the same soft blonde it was when the Spice Girls first gate-crashed their way on to the pop scene in 1996. At 43, with an 11-year-old son, Beau, and his brother, Tate, seven, she looks almost unchanged. 

But if you thought the Baby moniker had become a noose round her neck, you would be wrong. ‘I love it,’ she says (she has it stamped as a tattoo on her hip).

‘Being part of the Spice Girls changed my life. I went to stage school and grew up fully aware that things come, things go. If you get a chance, work hard and make the absolute most of it. There is not a single thing I regret about it – from what I wore to what we did. I’m really proud we never took ourselves too seriously, which is why I still like being called Baby. It always makes me smile.’

The plan to reform has been bubbling under for the past five years (‘or 10 years according to Mel B,’ she laughs). ‘I was all for it because I’ve always wanted my kids to see a show and to be part of the Spice Girls story. The fun of it, the fans, the being with the girls – that was really it for me.’ She was, she  admits, beside herself with nerves when the tickets went on sale. ‘Jade and I sat at the computer wondering whether we’d have to start buying some if no one else did – and then it all just went crazy.’ 

The 13 stadium shows sold out within a matter of hours and will earn them an estimated £2.2 million each. The dynamics within the band remain almost the same, with each Spice Girl allotted her own area to oversee: ‘Mel B with the dancers, Mel C with the merchandise… We do make decisions together, which does end up taking a bit longer, but that’s how we do it.’ 

There are those who  believe Emma was merely the sweet, sugary icing on top of the punchier Spice Girls cake. You will never get her to say anything negative about the fact that Victoria Beckham is not appearing on the Spice Girls reunion tour (‘She’s running an incredibly successful fashion empire and we totally respect her decision to focus on that’) – but Emma, as Mel B put it, ‘has a core of steel’.

Bunton with her mum, Pauline, in 1997 Credit: BBC

A working-class woman who has kicked her way to success against the odds, she says:  ‘No one ever expected all of us to do what we did. We were the ones who believed it and we were the ones who were determined to make it happen, by working every minute we could, writing our songs. We all learnt right from the get-go that we had to stand up for each other and stand up for ourselves.’ 

She laughs. ‘I’ve never been a pushover. I was never afraid to say exactly what I thought. It’s still the same now.’ ‘Nobody puts Baby in the corner,’ I suggest. ‘Exactly,’ she smiles.

The last to join the band, she wasn’t one of the five original girls chosen by Bob and Chris Herbert, who put an ad in The Stage looking for a girl group to take on Take That and East 17. Her opportunity came after her predecessor, Michelle Stephenson, left the group and her music teacher at Sylvia Young suggested she go for an audition.

Emma wears: jacket, £3,150, Tod’s (tods.com). Dress, £300, Self-Portrait (self-portrait-studio.com) Credit: CHRISTINE KREISELMAIER

She remembers her first meeting with the girls, outside the train station in Maidenhead. ‘I turned up with my mum,’ she says. ‘They were all sitting in Geri’s green Fiat. I was nervous, but straight away I knew it was going to be something.’ The Herberts wanted a traditional pop group with all the girls dressing the same, but they rebelled: ‘We were all different, we wanted to dress differently, to show that you can all be mates but have totally different personalities.’ 

In October 1994 they did a moonlight flit, stealing the master tapes of their songs to find a new manager. Famously rejected by Simon Cowell, in 1995 they were signed by Simon Fuller to 19 Management, who secured them a deal with Virgin. The following year Emma stormed into the Smash Hits office to demand that the editor put them on the cover.

And it was Emma along with Geri who barged into a record-company meeting when they discovered Virgin bosses were not going to put Wannabe out as the first single. ‘We knew it had to be that song and we weren’t going to take no for an answer.’ They were proven right when it went on to sell seven million copies worldwide and become the bestselling single ever by a girl group. 

The Spice Girls meeting Prince Charles in 1996 Credit: getty

The ride to the top was not all smooth, however. Fuller, with whom Emma had a brief relationship, was sacked by the girls in 1997 for being overly controlling. ‘We always had our own very clear ideas about how to do things, what we wanted to say and what we wanted to sing,’ she explains. Today Fuller is involved with the current tour.  To keep your Buffalo shoes firmly planted on the ground must have been no small feat at the height of Spicemania. ‘I was pretty lucky because I always had my mum with me, my brother was around and I’d speak to them every day. I remember crying over some story in the tabloids and my dad just telling me, “It’s chip papers tomorrow, Emma, don’t even think about it.”’

She has never, she says, lost her sense of self. ‘We were these girls who no one wanted to know at first and then we’d be on planes and backstage in some city in America and people like Prince and Madonna would be asking to come and meet us. But you are still the same people underneath. 

‘I was the biggest Madonna fan. I knew every word to every song and then she came to meet us backstage with her little girl Lourdes. It was just after Geri left the band in 1998 and all she was asking was why Geri had quit. She just wanted the gossip. There was no way we were going to say anything  about Geri. None of us would ever break ranks on that – even for Madonna.’

Emma with partner Jade at the Brits last month Credit: getty

How did she feel back then? ‘Angry,’ she says bluntly. ‘Geri just left. No words. No  explanation. Nothing.’ It was years later that Geri explained she hadn’t been able to cope with fame and had been battling depression and an eating disorder. There were a few years when they barely spoke and then they  reconnected through a series of phone calls.

‘You realise what it was like for the other person, how they saw it. It puts your friendship on a different deeper level,’ Emma says.When Geri was pregnant with Bluebell in 2006, it was Emma and Victoria who she asked to be godparents. It was Emma who turned  up to the funeral when Mel B’s dad died in 2017.

‘We have our own WhatsApp group,’ she laughs. ‘It’s a cliché, but we are sisters. There are times when we are together and we might be with our partners and one of us – usually Mel B – will shout to everyone else to get out of the room and we will have a group hug. It’s a bizarre energy that feels incredibly private but unbelievably powerful – and it’s still there.’

Emma wears: jacket, £2,290, Escada (escada.co.uk). Vest, £100, Sandro (sandro-paris.com) Credit: CHRISTINE KREISELMAIER

Both Geri and Mel C have spoken openly about how fame affected their body image and pushed them into eating disorders. Emma, the cute curvy one, was never so  affected. ‘I’ve never been skinny,’ she says. ‘And there were times when I’d want to be a dress size smaller, but in my family the  image of a girl has always been a bit curvy. I’ve never in my life wanted to be a size zero.’

Of all the Spice Girls, Emma has had one  of the longest relationships – and arguably the happiest. She was 22 when she met Jade Jones. ‘He came backstage to see one of our shows. He didn’t say much, but I just saw something in his sweet face that I knew I liked. I said, “We’re going to a party now and you’re coming in my car.” He just smiled at me. That was it. We had one break-up a few years later when we were both travelling non-stop. It was awful, but he was the one who called me to ask me to get back together. I always knew the answer would be yes.’

From the outside she seems the most traditional. She spends her money largely on her home and her family. She and Jade host Christmas dinners and family holidays where he – as he retrained as a chef – does most of the cooking. They are engaged but have never married for no other reason than ‘we are actually really happy as we are’. Although that could be about to change: Emma has recently spotted at Enfield Registry Office giving notice of intent to marry, which is valid for 12 months, but as to whether there’s a date in the diary, she’s keeping quiet. 

The Spice Girls announcing their 2019 tour last November Credit: PA

Since the Spice Girls split in 2000, Emma has consistently worked in TV, music and radio – she won an award during her stint co-presenting the Heart FM breakfast show – and is the main breadwinner. She co-founded Kit & Kin, an eco babycare range, and continues to work in America, where she recently hosted The Great American Baking Show with Paul Hollywood. ‘Paul’s coming to the shows. I impressed him as I ate a lot of cake when we were filming. He thought I’d only have a little nibble, but there was no way I was not going to eat cake.’

Ask her what drives her and she answers instantly. ‘Family.’ The worst moment of her life was not when the Spice Girls split but when, aged 25, she was told by a doctor that because of her endometriosis there was a chance she would never have children.

‘That nearly broke me. I knew I had the right  partner; I knew I wanted to be a mum.  I didn’t give up hope, but it wasn’t happening.’ It was five years later in 2006, when she was on Strictly Come Dancing, that she got a call from her doctor asking if she was pregnant. ‘She’d seen me on the television holding my hands over my stomach and she just had a feeling I was pregnant.

I did a test straight away and I was. I have no idea whether it was doing all that exercise but I was so happy. Strictly got me pregnant.’ Four years later she became pregnant with Tate.

We get back to the subject of the tour: will she still dress as Baby? She laughs. ‘There will be pink,’ she says, not wanting to spoil any exclusives on costumes. If she has any fears, they are well hidden. ‘I can’t wait,’ she says. ‘We’ve had to keep it secret for so long. I just want to get out there and do it.’  

In a poll last year Emma was voted as  the Spice Girl everyone wanted to be. It’s  not so much that she is a woman who got what she wanted out of life, but that she held on to it.

‘And that’s the point, isn’t it?’ she says. ‘Loads of things happen in life, good and bad, but it’s the good you want to hang on to.’ Wise words, Baby.

‘My Happy Place’ is released on 12 April

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