Emma Bunton: ‘We made Victoria clean the bathroom!’

“Oh my God, sorry,” laughs Emma Bunton. We are in her record label’s London headquarters and she’s just given a two-finger salute, and not in a Baby Spice, Girl Power kind of way. Bunton is here to film idents for streaming services she seems unfamiliar with and is feeling self-conscious about having to continually say the words “swipe up” alongside a corresponding upwards arm motion. Hence the hand gesture towards her manager. “You didn’t get that on camera, did you?” she says sweetly to the cameraman, who lies accordingly. After a solo hiatus of more than 12 years to focus on TV work, radio presenting and continually reuniting the Spice Girls (there are stadium shows this summer), Bunton’s back with a new album, My Happy Place. Made up of eight covers and two 60s-inspired originals, it’s an album that, like Bunton herself, swings constantly between gloriously naff and endearingly sweet.

It’s an odd sensation interviewing Emma Bunton, a legitimate 90s icon whose identity is so ingrained in popular culture. A bit like being in the same room as a cartoon character from your childhood. She is exactly as you’d imagine: all beatific smiles, heightened emotion (especially when talking about her two children and long-term fiance Jade Jones from Damage), and allergic to controversy. For example, when I ask if she was aware of the online chat surrounding last year’s Spice Girls reunion photo in which Twitter speculated about the alleged presence of a line of cocaine resting on an upturned smartphone, she almost keels over. “You’re joking,” she says, in a voice close to angry. “That is untrue. I mean, we had our children there.” She looks at her PR aghast. “We’ve got a younger generation who are part of this social media world and we need to be a bit careful.”

The Spice Girls at the Brit Awards in 1997.

Five spice… the girls at at 1997’s Brit awards. Photograph: Photoshot/Getty

The pop world Bunton returns to in 2019 is a million miles from the one she dominated in the mid-90s. While Geri and Mel B sought out and devoured fame, Bunton, who had studied at central London’s Sylvia Young Theatre School, stumbled into it, her Spice Girls audition in 1994 more of an afterthought. She had just missed out on playing Bianca in EastEnders when a singing teacher suggested she go along to an audition for an embryonic girl band who had recently lost a member. The rest is pop history. For a couple of years, Bunton, Melanie Brown, Geri Halliwell, Victoria Adams and Melanie Chisholm all shared a small terrace house in Maidenhead. Who took out the bins? “That definitely would have been Mel C or Geri,” she laughs. “I used to make beans on toast for everyone, while Mel B used to cook corned beef and rice.” And Posh? “We used to make Victoria clean the bathroom,” she says with a cackle. She also remembers the provincial club nights. “Wednesday night was drum’n’bass night and Mel B and I would go to that. I loved drum’n’bass! Geri would come and try and get into it as well. She’d be doing all her voguing and we’d be like: ‘What is going on?’”

The group had no Plan B. In fact, they were so convinced they were going to make it happen they wrote a song called We’re Going to Make It Happen. “We didn’t look right, left or back, we were in a moment,” she says. Their rise is part of pop music folklore, with 1996’s juggernaut debut single Wannabe topping the chart in 37 countries. Weirdly, it only featured four of the five girls, with Victoria, according to a 2016 interview with Geri, busy shopping. “I thought she was at a wedding,” laughs Emma now. “One time she was at a wedding.” For two hectic years, they ruled pop, before Geri dropped a bombshell and left midway through a world tour in May 1998. “We talk about it now, and I’ve had it out with her, because I love Geri,” she says. “We have a great relationship, and we did back then, but I just felt like she’d left me.”

One more album followed, in the shape of 2000’s R&B-tinged Forever, but by that point the magic had gone. Fans, however, were intrigued by Tell Me Why, a song that opens with the lines “We could have had it all / But you turned your back”. Is it about Geri? “I think at that time, yeah, when we were writing songs we were being very honest and open, which I think is great.” She flattens her skirt. “Er … and … yeah, we were writing how we felt at that point.”

With Mel C and Geri both experiencing huge solo success, at least initially, Bunton joined in, scoring a UK No 1 with the excellent What Took You So Long? in 2001. Two years later, rumours swirled of a dalliance with peak-era Justin Timberlake, something he seemed to confirm last year on Ellen during a game of Never Have I Ever. Bunton is less forthcoming. So you met Timberlake, I ask. “Yes.” And? “He’s a lovely person.” A broad smile. Such a lovely voice, right? “Actually, we did sing together,” she says, leaning forwards. “At the time I was writing with Zero 7 and he said he loved them and he sang one of their songs to me.” In a hotel room? “I can’t remember where we were,” she screams in mock horror. “Might have been at a party!”

Emma Bunton, Melanie Blatt, Justin Timberlake and Shaznay Lewis attend the Rex Club Opening Night Party in 2003

Pop, out… Emma Bunton with Melanie Blatt, Justin Timberlake and Shaznay Lewis in 2003. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty

Another controversy from around that time involved R&B singer Kelis, whom Bunton uncharacteristically said she would like to gunge during a fan phone-in on Top of the Pops Reloaded. At first she seems baffled, then suddenly the memory comes screaming back. Turns out Bunton had said some mildly unflattering things about a Kelis single (“The one after her big hit”), and “then we met her at an event and she said hello to all the girls and completely ignored me!” She looks genuinely forlorn. “I didn’t mean to upset her in any way.”

While seven UK Top 10 singles isn’t to be sniffed at, Bunton’s solo career only feels like part of her brand. After finishing third on Strictly in 2006, she went on to star in two Bollywood films, stand in for Judy on This Morning, become a panellist on Loose Women, join Heart FM, become a judge on Dancing on Ice, stand in for Lorraine on GMTV and appear in both the Absolutely Fabulous series and film. Is she the most versatile Spice? “I try!” she says. “I like trying new things. It doesn’t always go to plan, but I like dipping my toes into different things. I get bored pretty quickly.”

One thing that always feels right, however, is being a Spice Girl, apparently in any iteration possible. So there was the 2007 reunion, which gifted the world the oft-forgotten single Headlines (Friendship Never Ends) – “I’ll give you a bit of an exclusive: we’re not singing it on this tour” – then in 2012 they reunited again for the Olympics closing ceremony, speeding around the stadium on top of a fleet of black cabs. “I was shitting myself,” she says. “We were holding on but we were trying not to because we didn’t want to look terrified.” It marked the last time Victoria would join them on stage, with the fifth vocalist deciding, along with Mel C, not to take part in 2016’s ill-fated incarnation GEM (“The press called us GEM and then it became a thing when it wasn’t meant to become a thing,” she says sheepishly). Sporty is back now, but Posh won’t be playing their forthcoming stadium shows. “I think we knew that [the Olympics] was the last time we’d all do that together,” she says. “In every chat we’ve had, Victoria’s always like: ‘I’m here, I’m with you, but I can’t do it.’ We feel strong as a four-piece now.”

It makes sense, then, that one of the songs on My Happy Place is a cover of 2 Become 1, a song synonymous with Bunton thanks to her cooed “put it on, put it on” line. Inexplicably, the song has been turned into a duet with Robbie Williams, whose previous connection to the Spice Girls was a long-running “joke” about which band members he’d slept with. Bunton is all about forgiveness, however. “He did make those comments and I did tell him off and he did apologise,” she says, in her most motherly tone. “He sent me the sweetest email, saying he thought he was being funny.” While it is hard to ever imagine Emma Bunton: the Tortured Artist, she seems particularly happy now. “My priorities have changed since I started. I have the pleasure of going on tour this year and I love doing that. I think it’s taken the pressure off it again. It all feels very natural.”

My Happy Place is out on 12 April


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