‘You don’t see a way out’

Four years ago, Mel B told Si­mon Hat­ten­stone all about her ‘happy’ mar­riage. Now she tells the truth

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - In­ter­view by Si­mon Hat­ten­stone. Por­traits by Harry Bor­den

← In her new mem­oir, Bru­tally Hon­est, Brown re­veals that her mar­riage could not have been more un­happy. She claims Be­la­fonte was abu­sive, and that she could only get through the day by snort­ing co­caine for break­fast. Had she not fi­nally gath­ered the courage to leave, she be­lieves she may well have ended up dead. Brown says she didn’t know the word back then, but she thinks she was a clas­sic vic­tim of gaslight­ing – made to feel so small, stupid and in­ad­e­quate that she doubted her own san­ity.

Two weeks after that 2014 in­ter­view was pub­lished in Week­end, Brown at­tempted sui­cide. Some­how she man­aged to drag her­self out of hospi­tal to ap­pear as a judge on the fi­nal of The X Fac­tor. View­ers were shocked by her ap­pear­ance: her cheek was bruised, and there were scratches on her arms. She was not wear­ing her wed­ding ring. Be­la­fonte took to Twit­ter to de­fend him­self: “I don’t usu­ally re­spond to Twit­ter msgs but I will re­spond to com­ments of hit­ting my wife which I think are quite dis­gust­ing un true!” Mean­while, Brown said she had a stom­ach ul­cer.

It’s an as­ton­ish­ing story – not least be­cause this is Scary Spice we’re talk­ing about, the girl in the leop­ard­skin with a tongue stud, the very per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of girl power. What hap­pened?

To­day, we meet in a photo stu­dio in Lon­don. I can hear her laugh­ter – throaty, rau­cous – be­fore I see her. Brown, now 43, tends to dom­i­nate a room. She is in a white dress­ing robe, get­ting made up and giv­ing her team the lowdown on Peter An­dre, a for­mer boyfriend. “He was my booty call – a fan­tas­tic lover. And he was so po­lite. He’d ask be­fore he kissed me!” She has lived in Los An­ge­les for years now, but her ac­cent is un­changed – vow­els hard and flat as slabs of con­crete. And she still likes to talk about sex – her vo­ra­cious ap­petite, her many lovers, her at­trac­tion to men and women. Noth­ing’s changed on that front; but as she will tell me, there is a dis­tinc­tion be­tween all this and be­ing pres­sured into ac­tiv­i­ties she was un­happy with, or hav­ing them filmed with­out her knowl­edge by her for­mer hus­band.

I ask if she re­mem­bers show­ing me that ring four years ago. “Yes. I should have said, ‘Look what I bought my­self.’ Yeah. Crazy.” Why did she lie about the ring be­ing a gift? “You con­di­tion your­self. It was just lie after lie after lie, and I got used to ly­ing. I didn’t want any­one to find out what was go­ing on.” Of course she told peo­ple she loved her hus­band, she says – what else would she say? “It was just a spiel. And in­side I’d be think­ing, ‘You’ve no idea how evil this per­son is I’m go­ing to have to go home to in a few hours. Can I please stay at work a lit­tle bit longer – or is there a park I can go to with my kids?’”

Brown’s friends and fam­ily had warned her against

Be­la­fonte, an Amer­i­can film pro­ducer who al­ready had pre­vi­ous. In 2003, he pleaded no con­test to a charge of bat­tery against his for­mer part­ner, es­tate agent Ni­cole Con­tr­eras. He also has con­vic­tions for theft and van­dal­ism, and ad­mit­ted to beat­ing a duck to death with a brick.

When they met, she says, she was in a vul­ner­a­ble place, hav­ing re­cently sep­a­rated from the ac­tor Ed­die Mur­phy. After Brown be­came preg­nant a few months into their re­la­tion­ship, Mur­phy had told a jour­nal­ist: “I don’t know whose child that is un­til it comes out and has a blood test.” Brown was por­trayed in the press as a ruth­less gold-dig­ger – ironic con­sid­er­ing she was worth a for­tune at the time. A DNA test proved that Mur­phy was the fa­ther, and he now sees 11-year-old An­gel reg­u­larly; but the re­la­tion­ship was over.

Brown was dis­traught (she still calls Mur­phy the love of her life). Soon af­ter­wards, in 2007, she met Be­la­fonte. “What do they say? The devil shows up with ev­ery­thing you want. He was Prince Charm­ing back then. He was sexy. He was very flat­ter­ing.” She clicks her fin­ger to il­lus­trate each point. “He was lov­ing and car­ing.” An­other fin­ger click. “He loved [her old­est daugh­ter] Phoenix. There wasn’t one thing that made me go, ‘Oh, he’s a bit strange.’ I was madly in love.” After a two-month courtship, they mar­ried.

For how long was he like this? “A few weeks… months?” She smiles, re­al­is­ing how pitiable that sounds. “But it’s done in a very pas­sive-ag­gres­sive way, so you don’t re­ally know what’s go­ing on and you start to blame your­self. ‘Maybe I can do bet­ter as a wife. I need to be more at­ten­tive, I need to make him hap­pier.’ I didn’t want an­other failed mar­riage. So I stay in it, and it just snow­balls.” Does she think he loved her? “No. No. No.” She weighs up each no, be­com­ing more em­phatic. “What he did, you can’t do that to some­one if you love them. No, he didn’t love me.”

It’s hard to rec­on­cile this with the fear­less

Mel B we thought we knew – the kid who was reg­u­larly grounded by her fa­ther for fail­ing to do her school­work or wear­ing short skirts; the 16-yearold who left home to dance in Black­pool clubs; the 18-year-old who an­swered an ad­vert in the Stage for a “street­wise, out­go­ing, am­bi­tious, ded­i­cated” girl to au­di­tion for an all-fe­male pop act; the 21-yearold who be­came a house­hold name as in-your-face Scary. The Spice Girls were an in­stant phe­nom­e­non, still the best­selling fe­male group of all time.

While the swag­ger and in­sou­ciance have al­ways been part of her char­ac­ter, Brown says that in other ways she is an old-fash­ioned girl who just wants to please. Her par­ents might have stood out, as a mixe­drace cou­ple in 1970s Leeds (her fa­ther was from St Kitts and Ne­vis, her mother is white and →

‘ There was a point when I thought, “I am a re­ally bad per­son. I am ugly, I am worth noth­ing. I am a has-been Spice Girl.” All these neg­a­tive things that were drilled into me ev­ery day by him. You start to be­lieve it’

York­shire-born), but they were con­ser­va­tive. They wanted their daugh­ter to get a de­cent ed­u­ca­tion, hold down a good job, to marry and stay mar­ried.

Brown felt she had let her par­ents down when she di­vorced Jimmy Gulzar (her back­ing dancer in the Spice Girls and Phoenix’s fa­ther) in 2000, after only 16 months of mar­riage. After An­gel’s birth, she felt she had let her­self down again, a sin­gle mother of two chil­dren by two dif­fer­ent men. In 2011, she had a third daugh­ter, Madi­son, with Be­la­fonte. The last thing she wanted, she says, was to em­bar­rass her fam­ily by be­ing the sin­gle mother of three daugh­ters. So she hung on. And, of course, there was an­other fac­tor: she felt ter­ri­fied.

Last year, she stated in her di­vorce pa­pers that she had been “sub­jected to mul­ti­ple phys­i­cal beat­ings”. One ex­am­ple cited oc­curred in 2012, when she was re­hears­ing for an ap­pear­ance on Aus­tralia’s X Fac­tor with R&B star Usher. She al­leged that Be­la­fonte “flew into a rage, claim­ing I had been flirt­ing with Usher all day” and “punched me in the face with a closed fist”. Ev­ery de­tail was fod­der for the tabloids. Mean­while, lawyers for Be­la­fonte branded the al­le­ga­tions “out­ra­geous and un­founded” and “noth­ing more than a smear cam­paign”. (She later with­drew al­le­ga­tions of phys­i­cal abuse.)

One of the things that at­tracted her to Be­la­fonte, she says, was that he had a li­bido to ri­val hers. Early on in their mar­riage, they de­cided to ex­per­i­ment with three­somes. “I didn’t say, ‘Ooh, don’t be so dis­gust­ing.’ I thought, ‘No this is the man who loves me, we could try that once in a while, it’s fine.’” The only thing Brown in­sisted on was that the per­son was fe­male, which suited Be­la­fonte.

But, she says, she quickly tired of the three­somes. “After the first few times I didn’t en­joy it, but he would want to do it more of­ten. I’d be think­ing, ‘We’ve only been mar­ried a few months – why do we need to do that?’ But then some­thing abu­sive would hap­pen which made me shut up about it.”

Be­la­fonte told her that he had filmed their sex­ual ac­tiv­i­ties with­out her knowl­edge, as well as her tak­ing drugs; and he threat­ened to use the footage to de­stroy her. “I was be­ing black­mailed with videos. He’d say, ‘I’m go­ing to ex­pose you, you’re never go­ing to be able to work again. I’m go­ing to send these videos out to the press, and ev­ery­one is go­ing to see what a mess you are.’ ”

She claims that the re­la­tion­ship quickly be­came co­er­cive. For ex­am­ple, he would in­sist they went to the an­nual Play­boy Man­sion party in Bev­erly Hills, against her will; de­spite ap­pear­ances, she says, she is quite shy. At the man­sion, he would ex­pect her to find a woman they could take home.

It sounds as if you were procur­ing women, I say. “What does procur­ing mean?” she asks. (Brown re­cently dis­cov­ered she is dyslexic, and has started car­ry­ing a dic­tio­nary around with her.) Pimp­ing, I say. “Of course I was. Some years, I would just stand my ground and say I’m not go­ing, but there were mas­sive fights. He would al­most send me out and I’d bring back the girl.”

Be­la­fonte took con­trol of the fam­ily fi­nances, ar­gu­ing that Brown was too busy to look after her money, and it was best if he did.

“It comes across as, ‘Oh God he re­ally loves me, he’s look­ing after me, I don’t have to worry about this.’ Then he’s plant­ing the seeds to be able to have the credit card to my bank ac­count. But it doesn’t hap­pen overnight. It’s bit by bit, very strate­gi­cally done.”

By now, she had stopped see­ing friends and fam­ily. Be­fore long, she says, she had be­come cut off from nearly ev­ery­body she loved – even her daugh­ters. The fam­ily moved home fre­quently, but al­ways to mul­ti­storey houses; she and Be­la­fonte would live at the top, while the chil­dren were four floors be­low.

Be­fore long, she felt in­ca­pable of fight­ing back. But you al­ways seemed so strong, I say. “No,” she says. “I’m only strong in cer­tain ways. I’ve been painfully weak.” How? “There was a point when I was like, ‘Yeah, I am a re­ally bad per­son. I am ugly, I am worth noth­ing. I am a has-been Spice Girl.’ All these neg­a­tive things that would be drilled into me on a daily ba­sis by him. You start to be­lieve it.”

I men­tion one hor­rific part of the book when she de­scribes wak­ing up ly­ing in urine, fae­ces and blood. “And vomit,” she adds. What had hap­pened? “Some­times I would have been in such panic or shock that I’d have been phys­i­cally sick. Part of that cy­cle is you get blamed: ‘Look what you’ve done to the sheets.’ And you go, ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry.’ And you clean it up, or throw it away and that’s that.” She says it with a kind of no-non­sense fi­nal­ity.

What hap­pened the day she tried to kill her­self? “I just wanted that pain to go,” Brown says. “I didn’t want to ex­ist.” What had brought it on? “The whole 10 years. I don’t re­mem­ber what hap­pened that day. I’ve got PTSD – I’m very raw about what I felt.” But as soon as she swal­lowed the last pill in the bot­tle, she thought of her girls, screamed, and de­cided she had to live. She called a se­cu­rity guard, who got her help.

Brown was al­ways the main bread­win­ner, and thank­fully she says Be­la­fonte wanted to keep it that way. “That was when I felt in con­trol – when I was on TV, or in pho­to­shoots, or be­ing in­ter­viewed. That’s what kept me some­what sane.” She talks about the re­lief of be­ing able to es­cape to Aus­tralia to film The X Fac­tor for a few weeks. “But then you go, ‘Well, I’m mar­ried and I have to go back to that.’ And you don’t see a way out.”

There was an­other fac­tor in her de­ci­sion to stay. In 2009, Brown’s fa­ther was di­ag­nosed with can­cer. Even though she was es­tranged from her fam­ily, she was des­per­ate not to up­set them fur­ther. She was con­vinced that, if she left Be­la­fonte, he would pub­li­cise ev­ery de­tail of their re­la­tion­ship and that the shame would kill her fa­ther. She de­cided she had to wait for her fa­ther to die first.

In 2017, she got a call telling her that her fa­ther did not have long left, and rushed from LA to Leeds. “When I walked into the hospi­tal room, he hadn’t →

She was al­ways the main bread­win­ner, and thank­fully Be­la­fonte wanted to keep it that way. ‘That was when I felt in con­trol, on TV, be­ing in­ter­viewed. That’s what kept me some­what sane’

spo­ken in months. And he looked at me and whis­pered, ‘I love you.’ His whole body was shak­ing, then he went back into a coma.” On his death bed, she told him she was leav­ing Be­la­fonte.

Her fa­ther’s pass­ing re­united the fam­ily. She told her mother she should have lis­tened to her ad­vice. “I said, ‘I know you were right now.’ But that re­la­tion­ship [with her mother] is still a work in progress. My mum didn’t speak to me for many years, not prop­erly any­way.” Brown doesn’t blame her for that; she cut her­self off be­cause she was ashamed of her life and the lies she was telling.

At her low­est, whom could she talk to about her mar­riage? “No­body. Be­cause say­ing it out loud to any­body else I’d have to ad­mit it. My two youngest didn’t see what was hap­pen­ing. But Phoenix would hear me cry­ing, so she knew all wasn’t great in par­adise.”

In her book, Brown ac­cuses Jimmy Gulzar of leech­ing off her and hav­ing anger is­sues, and says Ed­die Mur­phy didn’t like her to leave his sight. Has she had any good re­la­tion­ships? She reels off the names of some of the men who have not abused her – Mur­phy in­cluded. “Max Beesley. Peter An­dre. Ed­die. They’re all lovely guys. I’ve had some re­ally kind, lov­ing re­la­tion­ships.” Wasn’t her re­la­tion­ship with Mur­phy still a cage, al­beit a gilded one? “Well, yes and no. He’s very ‘fam­ily’, which I love. Ed­die’s just a home­body.”

Brown writes that her re­la­tion­ship with Mur­phy was ro­man­tic and lov­ing, far from a ca­sual fling. Has he ever ac­knowl­edged that? “Well, we’ll see when the book comes out!” It’s the first time in a while I’ve heard that laugh. Brown also re­veals that she was the one who walked out, after a row over her in­de­pen­dence (she wanted them to buy a house to­gether, he wanted to buy it for her). She flew back to Leeds, re­fus­ing to an­swer his calls. That’s when he told a TV re­porter he didn’t know if he was the fa­ther of their baby.

Brown in­sists she had al­ways planned to go back to him. But if it was just a bit of an ar­gu­ment, why on earth didn’t you an­swer his calls, I say? No won­der he as­sumed it was all over. She sounds shocked, as if she’s just con­sid­ered it for the first time. “I guess that does make sense,” she says qui­etly. “I thought he knew I was com­ing back. I was al­ways com­ing back. That was a given.”

When Brown fi­nally left Be­la­fonte last year, she walked out of the house with just $936 (he con­trolled most of their ac­counts). How much did she have at her peak? “Gazil­lions. Mil­lions and mil­lions and mil­lions.” She says it was lib­er­at­ing walk­ing away with so lit­tle. “I took back my free­dom. And I knew, from that day for­ward, that I’d know where my money is go­ing.”

In the di­vorce pa­pers, Be­la­fonte’s lawyer claimed

she had “wiped out all of her Spice Girls’ money, ap­prox­i­mately $50m, if not more”. Brown’s le­gal team claimed that the video­tapes, which the cou­ple shared with lawyers, showed she was drugged by Be­la­fonte, and then forced to per­form “non-con­sen­sual” sex acts. Be­la­fonte’s lawyers in­sisted they had footage prov­ing she gave her con­sent. When they fi­nally set­tled, she agreed to pay him an es­ti­mated £1.5m over three years and £3.5m from the sale of their house. She with­drew the al­le­ga­tions of phys­i­cal abuse, while he agreed not to show the tapes. Brown was or­dered to pay Be­la­fonte $40,000 a month in spousal sup­port.

Two weeks ago, Brown was awarded joint cus­tody of their seven-year-old daugh­ter, Madi­son, after pass­ing sev­eral weeks of drug and al­co­hol test­ing. Both Brown and Be­la­fonte were or­dered to stay 200 yards away from each other, and Brown was or­dered to pay his $350,000 le­gal fees.

Is she now Poor Spice? She laughs, and says no chance: she’s al­ready on her way back. “For­tu­nately, in the last year and a half, I’ve ac­tu­ally earned a shit­load of money. All the con­tracts he took charge of, I’m now man­ag­ing my­self.” As well as the lu­cra­tive Spice Girls re­union, there will re­port­edly be a re­turn to Amer­ica’s Got Tal­ent.

Brown is des­per­ate for a cig­a­rette break. We go out­side, and she sparks up. She says how ex­cited she is about the forth­com­ing Spice Girls tour. There will only be four of the band, though – Vic­to­ria Beck­ham de­clined. Is it true that she told Beck­ham to, “Fuck off, you bitch”, as has been re­ported, when she snubbed them? “Well, any­body who knows me knows that’s my lingo, whether it be in a jokey way or whether I’m frus­trated or an­noyed. I’m sure it was some­thing along those lines, be­cause I want all five of us to get back to­gether. Four is bet­ter than noth­ing, so I’m su­per happy it’s hap­pen­ing. But if she wants to join us – fingers crossed, at some point she will.”

What was Beck­ham’s re­sponse? “I don’t think there was one. Ha­ha­ha­haha! We’re all on a group email, us five. There’s lots of love and lots of his­tory be­tween all five of us, and be­tween me and Vic­to­ria. Yeah, I’m feisty, and she can be feisty, too.”

She lights up an­other fag be­fore the other is out. Which Spice Girl is she clos­est to? She men­tions Geri, and then says they also ar­gue a lot. In the book, she re­counts nos­tal­gi­cally the days they used to drive down the mo­tor­way flash­ing their breasts at on­com­ing cars. There were ru­mours that you and Geri slept to­gether, I say. “Do you mean have sex, or did we just sleep in a bed to­gether?” Sex? “Let’s just say I slept in a bed with them all. Ha­ha­hah­ha­ha­haha! I don’t think I should an­swer that!” For once, dis­cre­tion gets the bet­ter of her.

“I’m go­ing to chain-smoke,” she says, be­fore →

‘Four Spice Girls is bet­ter than noth­ing, so I’m su­per happy the tour is hap­pen­ing. Fingers crossed, at some point Vic­to­ria will join us. There’s lots of love and his­tory be­tween us’

spark­ing up again. “You know, the great thing about us five is that we’re the only five peo­ple in the world who can say, ‘I’m a Spice Girl.’ I love that. I’m part of my elite club.” It’s touch­ing to hear her say that – not least be­cause she spent so many years think­ing that be­ing a “has-been” Spice Girl was a mark of fail­ure.

On the way back in, we pass her leop­ard­skin jacket, hooked round a ban­nis­ter. “My old cos­tumes still fit me. I said to the girls, ‘I’ve al­ready got my wardrobe for the tour!’”

What is she en­joy­ing most about life now? “My free­dom. And I mean that on ev­ery level.” It’s im­pos­si­ble to know ex­actly what goes on in a re­la­tion­ship, es­pe­cially when the per­son pro­vid­ing the ac­count ad­mits she has been an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor in the past – but it’s clear that Brown re­mains trau­ma­tised by her mar­riage. When she tells me what she has done to her body since leav­ing Be­la­fonte, I re­alise how de­ter­mined she is to oblit­er­ate him. When they were to­gether, she got a tat­too down her side. “It said, ‘Stephen, till death do us part, you own my heart’.” Has she had it lasered? “No. I got it cut out. I was put un­der for it, and I said to the doc­tor, ‘Give me the ugli­est scar ever be­cause I want it to be a re­minder that that ugly per­son is cut out of my life.’” I also read that she had vag­i­nal re­ju­ve­na­tion surgery after leav­ing Be­la­fonte. No, she says, that’s not quite right. “They scraped the in­side of my vagina and put new tis­sue in. It’s al­most like a rape vic­tim would do – es­sen­tially, you want to scrub your­self clean.”

I tell her I’m think­ing about that 2014 in­ter­view, when she talked about how much she loved her­self and said, well, if she didn’t, then who would? “I do be­lieve that. Did I love my­self then? I prob­a­bly loathed my­self. But I can gen­uinely say now: yes, I do love my­self. And I did when I en­tered into my mar­riage and that got chipped away. I al­lowed that to be chipped away.”

Hav­ing come through it all, she says she feels bet­ter than she has in decades. Ev­ery day she re­joices in her new free­doms – to play her mu­sic full blast, to dive-bomb in her LA pool with the girls, to prac­tise reiki, to keep a pet goat. “As soon as I walked into our new house, just lit­tle things make me cry on the in­side – the girls can sit at a ta­ble and play. I’m so happy liv­ing a life where they can just be kids and be with their mum. I think I’m more con­fi­dent than I’ve ever been. Ever ever ever. Be­cause I had no con­fi­dence for so many years and I had to nur­ture my­self, al­most bring my­self back to life.”

What does she hope peo­ple get out of the book? She men­tions the fi­nal page, head­lined Fif­teen Signs Of Abuse. “I want it to be help­ful to other women who have gone through it, or who are go­ing through it. There are so many women that this has hap­pened to. It’s an epi­demic. I’m not just talk­ing about the #MeToo move­ment, I’m talk­ing about ev­ery­where – from a coun­cil es­tate in Leeds to what’s go­ing on in par­lia­ment. You hear of other peo­ple and think, ‘Well, that’s just a doomed re­la­tion­ship – that’s never go­ing to hap­pen to me.’ You never think you’re go­ing to be eat­ing, breath­ing, liv­ing that life. And then you are and you’re in de­nial: there’s no way out.”

But you did get out, I say. “Yeah, I know. Many women don’t make it out alive, and if they do they’re badly dam­aged. I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Bru­tally Hon­est by Melanie Brown with Louise Gan­non is pub­lished by Quadrille at £17.99. To or­der a copy for £14.99, go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

‘I’m more con­fi­dent than I’ve ever been. Ever ever ever. Be­cause I had no con­fi­dence for so many years and I had to nur­ture my­self, al­most bring my­self back to life’

From left: with her mother, An­drea, in 2017; with her chil­dren, from top, Phoenix, An­gel and Madi­son, in 2015; with ex-hus­band Stephen Be­la­fonte; in 2007 with her fa­ther, Martin, who died in 2017; with first hus­band, dancer Jimmy Gulzar, in 1999; and ac­tor Ed­die Mur­phy, An­gel’s fa­ther

On X Fac­tor in 2014 (left); the Spice Girls’ first mag­a­zine shoot, 1996. ‘We’re the only five peo­ple in the world who can say, ‘I’m a Spice Girl.’ I love that’

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