the little girl from Watford who became a huge star all over
the world, and
then turned her back on the Spice Girls to work for the UN.
But somewhere in
between the cleavage and clamour of Ginger Spice, and the
philanthropist she became, lives the real Geri Halliwell. By
For a girl who was once so huge, Geri Halliwell now seems
tiny. Ginger Spice and her big
hair, big boots, big breasts - they've all gone, to be
replaced by something else entirely.
"She's so sweet, so SMALL," say the Vogue fashion
editors when Geri pays a visit to the
office. "And so much prettier than when she was in the
Spice Girls." Geri stands in the
middle of the Vogue fashion room - five foot two, scrubbed
face, sensible black polo-neck,
knee length black skirt - looking as nervous as the youngest,
shortest new girl on her first
day at school, tongue-tied and blushing beneath her freckles.
It's hard to believe that this is the woman who invented the
phrase "Girl Power", shrieking it around the globe
and into space via the MTV satellites; the 26-year-old
superstar who had six consecutive Number One hit singles and
made herself a millionaire
10 times over; who sacked the Spice Girls' manager and then
ran the whole show herself;
who pinched Prince Charles on the bottom and glad-handed
Where did she go to, that wild Ginger Spice Girl? Well, she
left the group last May and said
she was devoting herself to good works. Then she sold all her
clothes for a children's
cancer charity (even her Union Jack minidress, the one she
wore on front pages the world
over) and re-emerged, like a penitent, in a new wardrobe of
sober grey and convent black as a Goodwill Ambassador for the
UN Population Fund.
It was the very opposite of a caterpillar turning into a
butterfly; something seemed to have made her shrink, both
inside and out.
It was then that I first met her, at George Michael's house in
the south of France, where she had retreated, alone, last
summer. Geri Halliwell had rather unexpectedly summoned me
there, after reading my sister's book, "Before I Say
Goodbye". She told me that Ruth's account of her struggle
with breast cancer had precipitated her sudden departure from
the Spice Girls at the end of May. She'd had a lump removed
from her breast some years ago and now, she said, she knew it
was time to "give something back"; to raise money
for breast cancer charities. But she seemed so tearful, so
vulnerable, so suddenly fragile, that I couldn't quite imagine
her doing anything for herself, let alone anyone else.
As the months when by, snippets of a new Geri Halliwell were
released to a public
ravenous for news of her: Geri snapped by the paparazzi
reading a self-help book (The
Road Less Travelled); Geri venturing out with her new best
friend, George Michael; Geri
looking more confident as a UN ambassador; and Geri on
television at the beginning of this
year, telling Michael Parkinson that she was back, and
recording a new solo album.
She rang me the day after the Parkinson interview and said she
was still nervous; and
sounding so brittle that I thought she might crack up into
even smaller pieces. But by
February she was more certain, more confidant. The executives
at her new record
company, EMI-Chrysalis, loved her stuff. And she loved being
loved by them. She seemed
to grow again, to flourish in the warm glow of their approval.
The week that her first solo album was accepted by the record
company, I visited
her at her new house in Buckinghamshire - her first big house
in the country, the
symbol of her status, wealth and success. It is called,
appropriately enough, The
White House. "It's her very own Highgrove," the
architect tells me. The architect is still
there, alongside several builders installing a complicated
computerised lighting system.
Geri only moved in the day before, and you can smell the fresh
drive up the newly gravelled drive and park outside, in front
of the topiary and the white
marble statuary. The house is enormous; a Georgian monastery
standing in 18 acres of
prime Home Counties countryside, surrounded by very high walls
and security cameras
and black remote-controlled front gates as tall as the
entrance to Brixton prison.
Geri is nowhere to be seen, but her mother gives me a guided
tour. Anna Halliwell is even
shorter than her daughter is, and though she has lived in this
country for over 30 years,
she still speaks with a thick Spanish accent. "Oh dear,
oh dear," she says, like a
Catalonian Mrs Tiggywinkle, "I'm cleaning and cleaning
and washing and washing, but
there is so much dust from the builders and Geraldine has a
dog what isn't potty-trained."
Geri's mum has always cleaned for a living, and she isn't
stopping now, even though her
daughter is a multi-millionaire pop star.
"The builders have ripped everything out," says
Anna, "because the monks, they always
live in little cells. Now, it's this big." She gestures
to the grand central staircase in the
entrance hall. "Geraldine always wanted one of these.
When she was a little girl, she
wanted to be in Gone With The Wind, you know, to sweep down a
big staircase in a
ballgown." Anna laughs and shakes her head.
"Come, come," she says, and herds me along a marble
corridor to the left of the main hall.
"See, the Madonna," she says, pointing to a plaster
statue of the Virgin Mary and crossing
"Did the monks leave that behind?" I ask.
"No, no!" she laughs. "Geraldine put it there -
look, opposite the toilet." She propels me
into a downstairs cloakroom. "See here, the pictures of
French sexy women?" And there
they are, framed prints from the Fifties, balconette breasts
and bare bottoms, cavorting
before the Madonna's downcasting eyes.
"Now, look at this room!" cries Anna, shaking her
head again. "The dining room! Look, look
at it!" The walls are painted a dark, vivid red, and a
Victorian painting of "The Last Supper"
hangs above the long, mahogany table. "She choose it all
"MUM!" says Geri, appearing at the door.
"Oh, Geraldine," says her mother, laughing
"I like your new house," I say.
"Yeah, it's wild!" says Geri. "It's
schizophrenic, like me. This is the red room - now come
and see the white room." I follow her back down the
corridor, as she scuttles across the
entrance hall with its huge mirror hanging on the wall, and
into an enormous drawing room;
white walls, white sofas, grand piano, and another, even
bigger mirror. Geri throws herself
onto one of the sofas and lights a Silk Cut. "It's my New
Year Resolution! I started smoking
She takes a few puffs, then stubs it out, and unwraps a Tesco
bacon sandwich. "Is this
fattening?" she asks, before dipping it into her mug of
tea. "My weight always goes up and
down," she says, between bites. "I've always
struggled with it."
"But you look so small now," I say.
"Well, I'm smaller than everyone imagines - and in the
Spice Girls, I always wore things that
accentuated my size. In the Spice Girls, we got bigger and
bigger, larger than life. Now I
look at pictures of myself from the American MTV awards and I
don't even recognise
myself. I looked so ugly then. Part of me loved it at the
time, but also I was hiding behind
layers of make-up, hiding the real me. It takes a lot of
courage to say, right, THIS is me."
She points to herself: no make-up, grey jumper, grey trousers,
un-gingered hair. "The way
I'm dressing now is non-committal," she says. "You
know, if we strip each other down, we're all like onions - the
soul in the middle, the spirit, the personality, then the
clothes. There's nothing fake about how I look now. I had
already thought about toning down my look in the Spice Girls.
But people wanted to see Ginger in a bustier and big
She finishes her sandwich, and starts singing, surprisingly
powerfully. "WHAT YOU SEE
AIN'T WHAT YOU'RE GETTING! LOOK AT ME - NEXT TIME USE YOUR
EYES!" She looks
at me expectantly, bright blue eyes shining. "I wrote
that myself! That's from my new
"What's the album going to be called?" I ask.
"Schizophrenic!" she cries. "At least, that's
Heaven knows what a psychiatrist would make of Geri: born
plain Geraldine Halliwell in Watford on August 6, 1972.
"My mum still lives in the same house," she says.
"It looks like Coronation Street." Her father, a car
dealer, had already been married but his first wife left him
and their two children. "He met my mum when she'd just
arrived in this country - she was a Spanish au-pair - and he
wooed her. He was always a bit of a chancer. So they had my
brother Max, he's five years older than me, and super-brainy.
He's got a PhD, he's a
scientist. Then there was Natalie, who's 29. She was always
the beautiful one, with lots of
boyfriends - and then me. I was the goofy kid; short for my
"We were horribly poor. My mum always made sure we were
clean, that we had food on the
table, but my dad didn't work from the day I was born. He'd
been in a car accident and he
was on sick benefit."
Right from the start, she says, she felt like the odd girl out
at school. "All the girls there
were better off than me - very middle-classed. I had
jumble-sale knickers, literally. One day
at infant school I wet myself, in my stripy knickers with no
elastic in, so the teacher gave me a dry pair to wear. I was
really pleased, because I'd never had such nice ones."
Life got even harder at junior school when her Catholic mother
became a Jehovah's
Witness. "That meant no Christmas presents, no birthday
presents. I was embarrassed all
the time. She used to drag me from door to door..." She
catches me looking sympathetic,
and shrugs her shoulders. "It's OK, it made me who I am
today. I was always living in
fantasy land, sitting on the step of the outside toilet,
Even now, she can make her Watford childhood sound romantic.
"My father was
half-Swedish. My grandmother had an affair with a Swedish
sailor, but he disappeared and
she married Mr Halliwell instead. So I'm a true mongrel dog: a
bit mad, but with a good
left Watford Girls Grammar at 16, and went to college for a
year. "Then I got a proper
job, doing quality control for a local video company. I lasted
about six months and then I left
because I wanted to be rich and famous." She survived on
very little: hungry for any stray
scraps that came her way. "I danced in a few pop videos -
you might see my elbow - and I
fell into glamour modelling, but it wasn't glamorous, just
seedy, though I did go topless in a
Katharine Hamnett campaign. She did a girly calendar: I was
Miss July, covered in
sea-shells, and Miss October, who was a witch...
"I've got one of those faces that changes every day, You
can dress me up, make me
look vampy, and then make me look 12 years old. But don't all
women do this thing? We all take on these roles."
It was, perhaps, this instinctive understanding of
role-playing that made the Spice Girls so
famous. Scary, Sporty, Baby, Posh and Ginger. Something for
characters, like the Simpsons or the Teletubbies, yet as real
in the minds of our
television-raised children as their very own best friends (and
with the added attraction, for
their pocket-money-paying fathers, of legs and breasts; and
for their mothers, a feel-good
notion of bubblegum sisterhood).
For those of you without children - because it is children (or
"tweenies" as they are known in record company
marketing departments) who really branded the Spice Girls on
our minds - these are the facts. The group was born in 1995 as
the brainchild of a (male) management company, yet quickly
took on a life of its own through Geri's made-to-measure catch
phrase. GIRL POWER! It echoed around the nation's playgrounds
and ricocheted into the newspapers. (I remember sitting in the
editor's office of the
broadsheet newspaper where I was working at the time, while
the morning conference
addressed the socio-economic importance of the Spice Girls,
before degenerating into a
rowdy argument between several fortysomething journalists as
to which Spice Girl was the
"We were unstoppable, we were on a mission
together," says Geri. "I look back at it with a
smile, but it feels so long ago. I feel like I've lived 20
years in the last four."
So what went wrong?
"Fame and fortune brings out the worst and the best in
everyone," she says, gnomically. "It
Like the rest of the group, she will say no more on the
subject; but it is clear, from talking to those who worked for
the Spice Girls at the time, that Girl Power went very sour
"They were on this roller coaster," says one
employee from their former management
company. "They were all going up together and then the
media picked up on the fact that
Geri was the articulate one. Emma would get the teen
magazines, Mel B would do the black
stuff - but Geri was getting everything else: the Wall Street
Journal, and the Daily Mail -
you name it, they wanted to interview her. She was getting
ahead, and the others were
being left behind. That was when the problems started. The
others started excluding her,
constantly, picking on her. It was like Lord Of The
Flies." But in this case, Piggy was
Ginger; and despite a brief respite when the group's
aggression was diverted towards their
ex-manager, Simon Fuller, she simply wasn't up to the fight.
The more famous they became, the more pronounced were their
personae. Scary got
aggressive; Baby retreated to her mother; Posh spent her time
buying Gucci frocks; Sporty
got fitter... And Ginger? Well, she got bigger. "She was
comfort-eating a lot by the end,"
says a friend. "And she started hiding behind Ginger
Spice, who got more and more
outrageous as Geri got more and more depressed."
All of, which made matters worse, for as Ginger Spice grew, so
did her fame, and so did
the distance between her and the rest of the girls. It was
bound to end in tears...
"I still cry a lot," says Geri, feet curled up on
her sofa, and her dog Harry by her side. "I cry
about the Spice Girls, and I cry about my dad. He died just
before I joined the band. I was
always daddy's little girl..."
Geri says she doesn't need a psychiatrist to deal with her
problems (though her former
manager suggested she see one). "I've been my own shrink
for the past few months; I've
gone through the blackest of depressions and come out the
other side. But I'd still love to
be able to stand outside myself and see what other people
She already sees reflections of herself everywhere, of course:
in the mirrors around her
new house, and in all those snatched tabloid shots strewn
across her kitchen table. Yet
none of this has helped her decide who she really is, I think.
Big brassy Ginger couldn't last
forever; and nor will the nun-like Geri. But at least she's
done some good, in the midst of
her confusion. "She's perfect," says Corrie
Shanahan, the spokeswoman for the UN
Population Fund. "We were looking for someone with a high
profile, a role model for the
teens and pre-teens - and we've had such a positive response
to Geri. She's so strong, so
empowered, and she's seen that way right across the world. We
knew she'd reach across
Europe and the United States - but we've also had a huge
amount of letters and press
coverage from China, India, and Africa. Her impact had far
exceeded our expectations."
"I AM happy," she says, retreating to the corner of
her couch, "but a piece of me is still
really sad. It runs like a sash from my shoulder, across my
breast, across my heart." She
strokes her left breast, almost absentmindedly (and suddenly
her empathy with my dead
sister begins to make sense), then she rubs her head,
mournfully. "I've had growing pains
in my brain," she says, almost visibly shrinking before
me, a dejected Alice in her self-made
But then, when she starts talking about her new album, her
face lights up again like a
manic Tinkerbell. "Sorry, I know I keep digressing, but
the fundamental thing is that people
want to feel individual but also connected. Hopefully, this
new album will do that. People will
feel, 'I'm down there with Geri or up there with her too.' Can
you make that sound
intelligent, please? Add some verbs and nouns? There's a fine
line between bullshit and
genius - and I'm not sure which side I'm on."
When I leave her that day, alone in her monastery with her
little dog, I'm not sure which
side she's on, either. Happy or sad? Mad or misunderstood?
Strong-minded or a woman
on the verge of a nervous breakdown? I'm no clearer a few days
later, driving back to the
big house with my two children in tow, plus my son's friend
Rosie (a passionate Ginger
fan). It is a slightly strange gathering: Dawn French and her
two children; Molly Dineen and
her daughter; Emma Freud plus small son and daughter. Why are
the adults here? As
friends, or yet more mirrors for Geri to observe herself in?
(Emma's brother Matthew does
Geri's PR; Molly is making a film about Geri; Dawn did Comic
Relief with her and thinks
Geri is fabulous...)
But somehow the day works, mainly because the children adore
her. She dances with my
nine-year-old son, who promptly falls in love with her. She
tickles my five-year-old, who
says he wants to live with her forever. She shows all the
children her pink bedroom, with its
crystal chandelier, full-sized Barbie doll furniture and en
suite Jacuzzi. They climb into bed
with her and she shows them how to do a headstand. And then
she plays them, the
tweenies, her very new single. So what do they think of it?
"BRILLIANT!" they chorus.
They liked the way she was that day: neither nun nor pop diva.
Unfortunately, being herself
at home in jeans probably isn't enough to sell another 30
million records. I don't know who
Geri Halliwell will have to turn into in order to stay famous,
but I'm sure she'll do it, whatever
Her new single, by the way, is called "Look At Me".