Mel B interview: Scary Spice on life in Leeds, Women's Aid and why she's the 'same northern working class girl'

Mel B might have lived in America for more than a decade, but she's proud that she's never lost her Leeds accent.

By Abbey Maclure
Sunday, 26th June 2022, 4:30 pm

The Spice Girl became one of the biggest pop stars in history when she was still a teenager, as 'girl power' swept the world and the group nailed successive number one hits.

But the 47-year-old, now Melanie Brown MBE after being recognised by the Queen for her work with Women's Aid, insists she's still the same "northern, working class girl" as she was growing up in Leeds.

Born in Hyde Park in 1975, Mel said the Leeds she was raised in was a far cry to the city it is today. As a mixed race couple, her parents had to navigate many challenges in an often hostile community.

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Mel B praised the support of people in Leeds and said she's the same "northern, working class girl" as she was growing up in the city (Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI AFP via Getty Images)

"There was a lot of racism in the 1970s," Mel told the Yorkshire Evening Post.

“They never went into town when there was a football match going on and a lot of times, if they were out together, my mum would hand me over to my dad - because she thought there wouldn’t be trouble if he was holding a baby.”

Mel's dad, Martin, is from the Caribbean island of Nevis, of which Mel is now a proud ambassador, and her Yorkshire-born mum Andrea is white-British.

And even as a small child, Mel would have racial slurs thrown at her by other kids and she was often chased home from school.

Born in Hyde Park in 1975, Mel said the Leeds she was raised in was a far cry to the city it is today (Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI AFP via Getty Images)

“I wasn’t black, I wasn’t white - I didn’t fit into any name-calling category," Mel added.

“But I guess being different made me much more aware of injustice and made me speak up for myself and others. That's a big part of who I am.

“That sense of standing up against injustice has carried me through life - whether it’s about being anti-racist, standing up for the LGBTQ+ community or being an advocate for survivors of domestic abuse as patron of Women’s Aid.

“Everything that happens to you in life makes you the person you become.”

Mel B performs with The Spice Girls in 2012 (Photo: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire)

Mel struggled with reading and writing at school and it was only in 2017 that she was finally diagnosed with dyslexia.

She still has to fight the challenges that come with the condition and will often have to ask producers to spell out text auto-cues phonetically when she's appearing on TV.

But Mel has always excelled in sport and dance - her dad would train her before school sports days and she'd come home with a raft of prizes.

Mel said: “Until it is diagnosed, people don’t understand that it’s so much harder for you to do the basic things you are meant to do in school – read and write.

In January, Mel accepted her MBE on behalf of women suffering abuse “in all shapes and forms” (Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire)

“Life, and school, is all about finding out what you are good at and really focusing on that.”

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It was Mel's dance teacher, the late Jean Pearce, who "changed her life" and kicked off her journey to becoming Scary Spice.

By 16, she was dancing in Blackpool, "which seemed like the most glamorous job ever", and she later went on to join the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

Mel added: “As a hyperactive seven-year-old, Jean taught me discipline and gave me a passion for dance.

“That completely changed everything.”

Mel auditioned for the Spice Girls in 1994 - and, of course, became part of the multi-record-breaking girl group that the world fell in love with.

“I cannot lie, I loved every minute of it," Mel said.

"It was crazy, fast, a whirlwind but exciting in every possible way. I was with my four best mates and we got everything we ever dreamed of and more.

"It was a mad adventure and I loved the performing, the travelling, the fans - everything.”

“I love Leeds because it is part of who I am,” Mel added.

“I’m a northern, working class girl who says it like it is, just like so many other people from this city.

“I think Leeds is a really multicultural city, more so now than it was when I was very young.

“And I also love the fact that you are never far away from green spaces and beautiful countryside – I appreciate that more and more.

“It’s a fantastic part of the world.

“People from Leeds have always been amazingly supportive. I think they appreciate that I'm very much the girl I always was.

"I’ve never really changed."

Mel's house was full of music growing up - her dad played everything from Fleetwood Mac to classic soul

And a moment she will never forget is watching Neneh Cherry on Top of the Pops, dancing to Buffalo Stance while seven months pregnant.

"It blew my mind," Mel said.

"For the first time in my life I was seeing someone who looked like me, with hair like mine, on what was to me the biggest show on television.

"I thought she was amazing, so cool, so strong. I wanted to be her."

Mel's story is one of an ordinary Leeds kid reaching extraordinary heights and she shared her advice for other aspiring musicians and performers.

She said: “You need a good work ethic, self-belief, determination and an understanding that you will get rejected many, many times.

"But if you really believe in what you are doing you have to keep going.”

In January, Mel accepted her MBE on behalf of women suffering abuse “in all shapes and forms”

She was given the award for her work with domestic violence charity Women’s Aid - and she has worked closely with the organisation's refuge in Leeds.

“It feels incredible, surprising, humbling and emotional," Mel said of the award.

"This award is for Melanie Brown, the working class girl from Leeds, not the Spice Girl.

"It's for who I am, what I’ve been through and the work I do that means so much to me.

"I also feel that this recognition throws a light on all survivors and highlights an issue which needs to be talked about.

"It has been shrouded in silence, secrecy and shame for way too long."

Mel split from her film producer ex-husband Stephen Belafonte in 2018 after a decade.

She claimed in her 2018 memoir Brutally Honest that she had suffered abuse - allegations Belafonte, who has a conviction for domestic battery against another woman, has denied - and Mel has since thrown herself into supporting survivors of abuse.

“The first refuge I ever visited was in Leeds," Mel said.

"It was a difficult time being asked so many questions in interviews, as I wasn’t used to talking openly then.

“The day I went to the refuge I sat down with a group of survivors, women from all walks of life and we just talked.

“I felt completely at home amongst these women, we all understood each other because our stories were all the same.

"It felt incredibly healing."