‘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
← 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’