Inside story of Spice Girls’ first audition that changed pop music forever
It was 25 years ago that an ad urging wannabe pop stars to audition for a pop group appeared in The Stage, leading to the creation of the Spice Girls.
To celebrate their silver anniversary, biographer Sean Smith remembers the origins of the Girl Power sensations…
In March 1994 more than 400 wannabes shuffled into a dance studio in Central London – a life-changer for some and the birth of Girl Power.
Melanie Brown aced it. The 19-year-old who would become Mel B, sang everyone off the stage, performing The Greatest Love of All by Whitney Houston.
More importantly, she looked the part, in a black top and a brown mini skirt.
The man who masterminded the auditions, Chris Herbert, recalled: “She had a young, funky look, was an OK singer and a great dancer. She always gave it 100%. I thought, ‘Well you’re definitely in’.”
Chris was one half of Heart Management, which he ran with his father, Bob Herbert, a music business accountant who had been part of the original team behind 1970s band The Three Degrees.
They joined forces with money man Chic Murphy to find a boy band.
But Chris had a better idea: “At the time, the market was saturated with boy bands – East 17, Take That, Bad Boys Inc and Worlds Apart. There were loads of them.
“That only catered for 50% of the audience. I thought it would be better to put together a girl band, something sexy and sassy. Girls would aspire to be them and guys would ‘admire’ them.”
Chris and his designer girlfriend Shelley Silva, covered a wall in the Heart offices in Lightwater, Surrey, with ideas for the looks and characters of the five girls they sought.
The best method of finding singers then was by placing an ad in trade newspaper The Stage.
So on February 24, 1994, this appeared: R.U. 18-23 WITH THE ABILITY TO SING/DANCE R.U. STREETWISE, OUTGOING, AMBITIOUS & DEDICATED HEART MANAGEMENT LTD Are a widely successful Music Industry Management Consortium Currently forming a choreographed Singing/Dancing all Female Pop Act for a Record Recording Deal OPEN AUDITION PLEASE BRING SHEET MUSIC OR BACKING CASSETTE
Melanie Brown was already an old hand at auditions, although she didn’t have a showbiz background.
Her West Indian father was metal worker in Leeds and her mum had done a number of factory and office jobs.
Melanie found a love of performing as a teenager and, at 15, was cast in two summer shows in Blackpool and then won a beauty contest to become Miss Leeds Weekly News.
She subsequently was a podium dancer, a Coronation Street extra and a dancer on Keith and Orville’s Quack Chat Show in Manchester.
Her last job before her life-changing audition was in Jack in the Beanstalk in Lewisham.
Melanie was exactly what Chris Herbert was looking for – vibrant, power-packed and black.
Victoria Adams-Wood ticked an entirely different box. Chris wanted one of the girls to appeal to the more mature man.
At the audition, Victoria, stood out, dressed all in black with a crop-top showing off a tanned midriff.
She was a product of stage school and sang Mein Herr, the showstopper Lisa Minnelli performed in Cabaret.
Another who caught the eye was an athletic 20-year-old from Liverpool, Melanie Chisholm, who had also been trained as a dancer at stage school.
The Liverpool fan was brought up on a council estate in Widnes.
Muff Fitzgerald, who would later become the Spice Girls’ PR, observed: “Despite her initial boyish image, in many ways she is probably the softest and warmest of all five girls.”
Melanie belted out I’m So Excited, a 1980s classic from the Pointer Sisters.
The three girls were among 12 asked to a second audition at Nomis Studios in Shepherd’s Bush.
On the day, Melanie’s mum rang to say her daughter had tonsillitis and could not go.
So that left Victoria and the soon-to-be Mel B in a group of four with Michelle Stephenson, a student from Abingdon in Oxfordshire, and Lianne Morgan from Cowbridge, near Cardiff.
The girls were given 45 minutes to devise a routine to the Eternal hit Just a Step from Heaven.
The energetic Mel B took the lead but just when they thought they were ready, Bob Herbert told them to bring another girl up to speed – Geri Halliwell.
She was not much of a singer and even less of a dancer, but she stood out as a force of nature in a tight pink jumper, purple hot-pants and platform shoes, topped by her vibrant ginger hair styled in pigtails.
Mel B said: “She looked like a mad eccentric nutter from another planet.”
Geri was drinking in the last chance saloon when she phoned up the Herberts and convinced them she should be at the recall, even though they had never seen her.
There was no one more “streetwise, ambitious, outgoing and dedicated” than the girl from Watford whose Spanish mum worked as a cleaner to keep the family afloat.
At 21, Geri had seen it all. She had been a podium dancer in London and Magaluf, had a failed attempt at being a Page Three girl and had hosted of a game show in Istanbul.
The group was asked to a final callback the following week, for which they had to prepare Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours by Stevie Wonder.
Lianne got a note saying she was being replaced as they considered her too old at 23. Instead, Melanie Chisholm was at the final audition.
The girls thought they sounded terrible, but the Herberts liked what they saw.
The girls were put together in a house in Maidenhead to see if they got on.
It was soon obvious Michelle was a bit of an outsider, perhaps more middle class than the others, who called her the “sun worshipper” and told the Herberts they had misgivings.
Her departure left a vacancy. Chris asked newly appointed singing coach, Pepe Lemer, if she could think of someone. Pepe remembered her old stage school pupil, Emma Bunton, the daughter of a Barnet milkman.
She was invited to audition and sang Right Here by American girl trio SWV. Chris said: “She was very cute, very nice with a sweet voice.”
Just 18, it was the first time she had stayed away from home when she emerged with her mum on to the platform in Maidenhead.
While she seemed very young, the other four soon realised she was good fun and would be one of the gang.
She bonded with Mel B that first night when they shared a midnight feast of scrambled eggs – both delighted to find another in the house who liked to eat. Everyone gave her a thumbs-up when Chris asked if Emma should join the band.
The budding superstars were now called Touch, living in a three-bedroom semi, spending their days being coached and working on routines.
It was going to be a long haul because they weren’t actually much good – yet.
Spice Girls by Sean Smith (HarperCollins) £16.99, is published on November 14, 2019.
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