‘Drink, drugs, the glamour and the gutter. My year with Mel B’
INSIDE MY YEAR WITH MEL B
for the last 18 months, Mel B’s divorce from Stephen Belafonte has played out in public, with shocking allegations of domestic violence, substance abuse and explicit sex tapes used to blackmail her. As the headlines rolled on, the former Spice Girl teamed up with Grazia contributing editor Louise Gannon to write one of showbiz’s most explosive tell-all books. The result is the aptly named Brutally Honest, a difficult and sometimes shocking account of abuse. In it she reveals that her troubles resulted in her snorting six lines of cocaine a day during her time as a judge on The X Factor, as well as attempting suicide – and that when she finally split from Belafonte, following a promise to her dying father, she was left with just £800 in the bank.
Here, Mel, now patron of the domestic violence charity Women’s Aid, and Louise give their own brutally honest accounts of just how difficult Mel’s story was to tell.
Melanie Brown, Spice Girl and television presenter
A month ago, my co-author Louise rang me at home in LA to tell me she’d been given the very first two copies of the book. ‘It looks so perfect and neat,’ she said. ‘ That book should have blood running out of it, ripped pages, a torn cover, an IV drip and it should be beaten up and covered in dirt.’ I laughed. She was dead right.
I went through hell living that book and we both went through hell writing it. Louise ended up in hospital at one point after having a panic attack so severe she was throwing up and her arms were paralysed. The A&E doctor asked her was anything causing her stress. Writing a book with me was the answer. She told me she felt like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost – that she’d absorbed everything I’d been through. ‘ Wouldn’t wish that on anyone,’ I said.
But then how do I explain that we also had a lot of hysterical, laugh-till-you-cry moments? I can’t.
It makes me laugh now when she tells me what I was like to write a book with. I knew, at the beginning, I was being really difficult – but I didn’t know why. I knew I wanted to talk, but I couldn’t. That I should trust Louise, but I couldn’t. That I was boiling with anger and drowning in tidal waves of guilt and shame, even though I kept saying I was fine.
‘In AA, when people say they’re fine it means Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional,’ she shot back at me one day. ‘Patronising clever clogs,’ I was thinking, even as I begrudgingly laughed. She was spot on. Not that I was going to admit it. Looking back, I was just putting her through one test after another. I’m Scary Spice. I terrify people. It makes me laugh sometimes that I have that effect on people. Our car trips were hysterical. She’d never driven in LA and I lived up in the canyons on knife-edge roads with sheer drops. She never once looked even remotely fazed. That made me feel safe. She was going to be able to hang on to the roller coaster that is my life. And even enjoy the ride.
It’s funny what makes you trust people. I can’t help pushing people to their limits. It’s what I’ve done ever since I was a kid, which is why my mum would beg her sisters to look after me to give her a break.
But I’d been pushed way beyond my limits in a 10-year marriage that had left me trapped, degraded, ashamed, turning to drink and drugs just to block out emotions I couldn’t begin to deal with. When I left my ex, I thought that everything would be sunshine and light and my book would reflect that. But I was actually letting Louise see everything – the darkest corners, the flashes of light, the good, the bad, the ugly and the Spice Girls. She lived with me, became part of my family and me hers. She even gives me bollockings. ‘Sometimes, you don’t know what is best for you.’ (Her, grumpy.) ‘ Yes, I do. I always know what is best for me.’ (Me, annoyed.) ‘Hmm… have you read your book then Melanie?’ (Both laughing.)
I can’t believe this book. I’ve read it about 10 times already. I love the way it’s structured like a novel but reads as if I’m speaking every word. It says exactly what I went through, how I feel, how other women feel and who I am. It’s made sense out of something that made no sense.
I’m so proud of it, of Louise, of me. Women’s Aid – who’ve made me a patron – says it’s a book that ‘may change lives’. I bloody well hope so, because it’s changed mine. It’s made me feel unbreakable.
Louise Gannon, Grazia contributing editor
‘ Why should I write this book? Why should I let the whole bloody world know every awful, shameful thing that’s happened to me? I want to stop this whole thing right now.’ It was 2am. I was on holiday with my family, sitting on the floor of a hotel shower room as Mel B sobbed and cried down a crackling phone line.
‘It’s OK, Melanie,’ I said. ‘ We’ll stop the book. We won’t do this.’
‘It’s just so hard, Louise. It’s just so hard. I don’t know if I can’t do this… any of this. I don’t know if I can even carry on living.’
And on she talked into the early hours as I listened, interjecting when I could into her stream of consciousness from a hell that was now as familiar to me as my own life. As dawn broke, things were calmer. ‘ We can’t stop the book, can we?’ she said. ‘No,’ I answered. ‘It’s already being printed. But you needed me to tell you we could stop it and then you’d say we had to do it.’
And then she laughed. ‘ You know me too bloody well.’
I thought I knew Melanie pretty well when I embarked on this book in April 2017. I’d known her as a wannabe Spice Girl, looking for a TV break with the rest of the group. I’d interviewed her over the years and the last time I’d seen her was in 2014, just weeks before she appeared on The X Factor covered in bruises. I’d met her ex, Stephen Belafonte, and, like a lot of people, I’d loathed him on first sight (and, being a celebrity journalist, I’d heard a lot of pretty gruesome stories about him).
When she shocked the world by going back to him, I’d written a piece for Grazia saying how sad I was that she hadn’t had the strength to leave him. I didn’t hear from her again until the day she filed a restraining order against him and the story of their split went viral with tales of sex, drugs, threesomes and abuse. I was at home when my phone rang. ‘Louise, it’s Melanie, I want to see you.’ Incredibly, I happened to be flying to LA the very next day.
So that’s how Brutally Honest began. We sat in her kitchen and she told me a couple of little things that made my jaw drop and my heart break. I’d never written a book before but, in the few conversations we had, I could see it all – Sleeping With The Enemy meets girl power( less) meets #Metoo meets shame and fame; drink, drugs, the glamour and the gutter. ‘ You come and live with me for weeks at a time until we get it done,’ she said. This was going to be amazing.
But it wasn’t and I didn’t really have a clue who Melanie Brown was. Armed with notebooks, tape recorders and a million questions, I sat down in her Beverly Hills home, but something was wrong. Melanie had gone from friendly to hostile. ‘I’m not talking about that. Don’t ask me that,’ she said. As soon as I stopped asking questions and turned the tape off she would be fine again. ‘Don’t forget, you’re not a therapist,’ she said. ‘Don’t ask me about my feelings.’
I came back with nothing apart from a string of anecdotes about her kids, her fainting goats, her Reiki – and in absolute confusion about her behaviour. I started to read about abusive relationships and PTSD, went to talks on domestic violence, spoke to police who deal with emotionally abused women. I realised I’d been doing it all wrong. When I went back, I left my notepads and tape recorder in my room. I kept going back.
We went on trips, watched comedies, occasionally got hammered, talked about her dad, took the kids to school, she made me drive her around LA, shouting at me to go faster in the gridlocked traffic with Name That 90s Tune blasting out over the satnav, so I had no clue where I was going: ‘Come on, come on, Louise. Name it!’
She laughed, she cried. I met her family, her friends, her lawyers, accountants, hairdressers, mums from school, sat next to her in a hospital bed, had big rows with her. ‘I am never going to speak to you again,’ she said once. I saw her catatonic for days after being forced to watch tapes Belafonte made of her having sex; I watched her fold her daughter, Madison, in her arms, rocking her to sleep, tears falling on her baby girl’s head.
I’d be woken in the night with her crying inconsolably about her father’s death. I tucked her up in my spare room’s single bed, my husband would make her roast dinners and my eldest son would make her laugh with stories of travels with his indie-punk band. I spoke to Geri Horner, Janet ( her former assistant), her old best friends – all strong, amazing women who were so glad to have her back in their life after 10 years of silence.
Her court case kept her name – and sordid details about her marriage – in the press constantly. Sometimes I would tell her the worst things people were saying about her, things people were too afraid to say to her face. ‘Drunk’, ‘drug addict’, ‘ bad mother’. I’d watch her eyes as she answered me. She looked haunted but almost relieved to talk. I made her watch Ted Talks, told her the statistics around emotionally abused women who self-medicate and then we’d talk about dancing in Leeds, the Spice Girls. Nicking clothes from Victoria. What is was like in the crazy, crazy days. How much she loved Eddie Murphy, father to her middle daughter Angel.
Ten months later she said, ‘Are you actually ever going to do interviews with me for this book?’ ‘ You have no idea,’ I said. I had never stopped writing.
A year later, she got the first draft. Her first response was somewhere between exhilaration, terror and shock. ‘Fuck. This is me. Fuck, fuck, fuck. How did this happen? This is my story. What have you done?’ ‘Brutally Honest’ by Melanie Brown and Louise Gannon is out now (£17.99, Quadrille)