“Girl Power is just a Nineties way of saying it”: How feminism went pop during the reign of the Spice Girls

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Twenty years on from Wannabe, even the Spice Girls’ staunchest critics have to admit: we haven’t seen the likes of Girl Power since.

Words: Zoë Beaty and Kate Faithfull-Williams

True. Emmeline Pankhurst never appeared on a chocolate bar wrapper. Or pinched Prince Charles’s bottom. Or schmoozed Nelson Mandela. So, it’s hard to see where we’re going with this. But like it or loathe it, the pioneering suffragette does have something in common with the Spice Girls, who, lest we forget, did all the above – and more. Much, much more.

The feminist movement is a wide and varied thing; it literally comes in waves. And while the suffragette movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries pioneered one, the Spice Girls rode another loudly and lairily through the second half of the Nineties. Coming to prominence exactly two decades ago – next week is the 20th anniversary of their infectious and exuberant earworm Wannabe – the group’s arrival on the pop scene marked the gateway to a modern form of feminism, all dressed up as a riotously good time.

That’s not to say the feminists of the Nineties didn’t balk. The catchy tagline of Girl Power was oft dismissed as a superficial slice of music industry marketing, and the Spices – Victoria, Mel B, Mel C, Emma and Geri – labelled frothy and regressive to the feminist cause. Even the Spice Girls distanced themselves from the movement, declaring in their book Girl Power! (1997), that “feminism has become a dirty word. Girl Power is just a Nineties way of saying it. We can give feminism a kick up the arse.”

Terminology aside, for a generation of women, the Spice Girls flew the flag for sisterhood, female empowerment and feisty independence, showing millions of women and girls that they could do anything they wanted – even if it did involve wearing platform trainers and a crop top. It was a simple, surface take on the movement – accessible rather than academic, and one often accompanied by jokey peace signs, jiggling boobs and plenty of banter. But the message was emphatic – female solidarity and self-belief are powerful beasts and when the two are combined, you can achieve, well, anything you set your mind to.

Fast-forward to 2016, where feminism is an integral part of the conversation, and these messages are everywhere – be it Sandberg’s ‘lean in’ mantra or Clinton’s staunch advocation of women’s rights. The difference is they’re not packaged up in leopard-print trousers. However frivolous the form, female empowerment should be celebrated – and commemorated – at every opportunity. So happy anniversary Spice Girls. And thank you.

To mark 20 years of Girl Power, six former colleagues and fans give their accounts of how the Spice Girls made such a forceful – and feminist – impact…  

"The Spice Girls’ manifesto captured women – not just girls"

As the first female editor of Smash Hits, Kate Thornton, now founder of, opened the door for a revolution against the boy bands and man-rock of the Nineties.

“I’ll never forget the moment the Spice Girls exploded into my consciousness. I was in a meeting with my bosses in the summer of 1996 when an unknown band burst into my office. As editor of Smash Hits, it was normal for upcoming bands to perform for the staff in order to gain publicity, but this was different: I saw feet jumping up on tables, dancing on desks and jumpers being coaxed off male sub-editors. As I later discovered, the girls behaved exactly as they did in their Wannabe video. ‘Can we wrap this meeting up?’ I asked my bosses. ‘I need to see this.’

That was the magnetic appeal of the Spice Girls: they made you want to be part of their tribe. I couldn’t judge them individually, they were like five firecrackers exploding in the office at once. And as I walked out of the meeting room, they screamed, ‘You’re the editor! You’re a girl! We’re all about Girl Power! We want to be on the cover!’ They were a wind machine of ambition, refusing to take  no for an answer. My bosses had doubts: namely, that they were female. At that time, teenage girls bought pop magazines when they had pretty boys on the cover. The last thing my bosses expected was for readers to react to five women. So I told the Spice Girls they had to get to number one first. And the following month, they did just that: Wannabe hit the top spot in 37 countries, and their debut album Spice sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling album by a female group in history.

As the first female editor of Smash Hits, I loved being swept along in a wave of Girl Power. The Spice Girls were a B12 shot in the bottom of the pop industry. Victoria, Geri, Emma, Mel B and Mel C had great music, great energy and a great manifesto that captured women, not just young girls. As soon as they hit number one in the midweek charts, I got them in for a cover shoot. I asked the photographer, Tom Howard, to capture the moment they ambushed me in the office, and he snapped them punching through a giant bright pink wall.

The Spice Girls didn’t have a stylist then, they just wore their own clothes. It’s unthinkable today, when celebrities demand kittens to breathe-dry their nail polish. I remember Emma’s nipples were visible through her white top. I took her aside and said delicately, ‘Erm, Emma, I can see your nipples’. ‘That’s because I don’t have a bra on,’ she replied innocently. So I gave her mine; fortunately, we were the same size. The magazine sold almost as well as Wannabe, and two weeks later, I got the bra back, freshly laundered by her mum Pauline, with a thank you note.

From then on, every Spice Girls cover was a guaranteed big seller. The girls had so much energy and sprinkled magic over everything they touched. Yes, the Spice Girls were manufactured to an extent, but they ran off and did their own thing with it. Ultimately, they all really believed in themselves and watching Spicemania unfold around the world felt really exciting.

‘Girl Power’ was like a call to action. Who doesn’t want to stand on their own two feet? Who doesn’t love their friends? Everything they talked about was what we wanted to be. And the fact they were all so different gave young girls something to hook on to: which one were you? I could be scary like Mel B, saucy and cheeky like Geri, and have a fringe like Emma’s. The non-identikit band had a good message for women as it celebrated individuality.

I’ve worked with all the girls many times since leaving Smash Hits and now I’d describe Mel C and Emma as friends, they’re such fun to hang out with. Earlier this year, 12 of us went to the country for a pyjama party, and by the third bottle of wine Holly Willoughby and I persuaded Emma to let us in the Spice Girls, just in case they reunite and one of them ever falls ill.”  

“I gave the Spice Girls their nicknames”

Writing for Top Of The Pops magazine in 1996, Jennifer Cawthron, now founder of skincare brand Love Boo, coined the nicknames that would make Geri, Victoria, Emma, Mel B and Mel C famous.

“Honestly, I felt a bit sorry for the Spice Girls when I first met them. They bounced into our office and burst into song while five staff shifted awkwardly in our seats and clapped half-heartedly. But the band was so enthusiastic and friendly we thought we should mention them in the magazine. That’s all it was: a mention, not even a page.

Peter Loraine, the editor, suggested presenting them as a spice rack, and the girls were already like cartoon characters of themselves so it only took about 10 seconds to come up with nicknames. Victoria was ‘Posh Spice’, because she was wearing a Gucci-style mini dress and seemed pouty and reserved. Emma wore pigtails and sucked a lollipop, so obviously she was ‘Baby Spice’. Mel C spent the whole time leaping around in her tracksuit, so we called her ‘Sporty Spice’. I named Mel B ‘Scary Spice’ because she was so shouty. And Geri was ‘Ginger Spice’, simply because of her hair. Not much thought went into that one.

Honestly, I thought that’s the last we’d hear of the Spice Girls. But the following week, the Daily Star picked up on the nicknames, then all the tabloids ran with it. The names definitely helped the Spice Girls get recognised, and the band acknowledged how much it helped their ascent. The girls played up to their nicknames, especially Posh. In real life she was really good fun, not at all offhand or stuck-up.” 

“They were the embodiment of sisterhood. They encouraged women to stand together”

Activist Nimko Ali says Wannabe and the rise of Girl Power inspired a generation of fun-loving feminists.

“I was around 14 when the Spice Girls burst onto the radio and into my life. I didn’t have posters on my walls and I never got to see them in concert. But they instantly – and loudly, and boldly – became an unconscious strength that was always there. In many ways, they still are. I remember listening to them sing Wannabe and taking in the words of the chorus – ‘If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends,’ they sung. The message I heard was clear: girls come first – and female solidarity is more important than any man. I was immediately on board. 

My generation was told we had everything we could ever wish for – we were living the Nineties dream. But it was also a time of hyper-sexualisation and objectification of women, with the rise and dominance of lads’ mags. The Spice Girls helped us reject that, in a way. Because, in many ways, they rejected it themselves. There’s always been an idea of what women ‘should’ be in public – sexy, not too loud, not too quiet either, no trouble. The Spice Girls broke the rules. When they were posing for photoshoots, they didn’t have to be sexy, they could be fun, loud and crazy. And they were unapologetic. They didn’t change for anyone they met, even when it was Nelson Mandela.

Instead, they spread the word that women are big and strong and loud and confident; that women are powerful as individuals, and even more powerful together. That sets the precedent of how feminism creates change – an alliance of women. And they led by example: I admired how they took charge when they were unhappy with the man managing them. Rather than put up with it, they sacked him and did it themselves.

The Spice Girls were attainable too. We could all be them, the fun group who kicked ass, because they were powerful but not threatening. Their different personalities meant it was inclusive, but not always what was considered stereotypically feminine. You could be sporty, or you could be loud and brash like Scary – though, I do think it should be said that there’s nothing scary about being confident.

They were, for us as teenagers, the embodiment of sisterhood. They encouraged young women to stand together and look out for each other. And what’s more, they did it in a brilliant way. Now, feminism is often heavy with academia, or too technical. What the Spice Girls did wasn’t life-saving, but it was dynamic. We all need a bit of girl power.”

“They were bright, shiny and fun – there was nothing else like them”

Photographer Harry Borden, who captured the Spice Girls first shoot, reveals the awkward beginnings of the band.

“On 27 June 1996, my job was to ride in a hot air balloon with an unknown band called the Spice Girls for a teen magazine called Big! At the time, I was more excited by the balloon. While we waited for the fog to clear, I sat opposite Victoria in a service station on the A1 in Hertfordshire, drinking coffee, wondering what the hell I was doing there.

Their personalities were distinct, even then. Victoria was shy and demure; Mel C was sweet, a nice girl. I liked Geri the most. I’m not surprised she grew tired of being in a band; she was so independent. Emma and Mel B struck me as showbiz kids from theatre school. The Spice Girls’ appeal was their ordinariness, but they weren’t ordinary, they were all beautiful, naturally photogenic girls. And the best thing was, the rapport between the five of them was more than the sum of their parts.

Anxious to get a shot in the bag, I suggested a couple of frames in the mist. Not yet the well-oiled machine they would become, they looked awkward until their press officer Muff Fitzgerald dropped his trousers to make them laugh. I didn’t realise he was butt naked behind me; I thought the girls were won over by my charm.

The Spice Girls were also brilliant business women. They were one of the first bands to voraciously exploit every revenue stream from the start, and tried to strong-arm me into signing away my right to the images I’d taken.

I had no idea how big a hit they would become. I photographed Radiohead, Blur and Oasis on the cusp of fame and I knew each time that they’d be huge. But with the Spice Girls, I didn’t have a clue. All I knew was that they, like the song Wannabe itself, were bright and shiny and fun, and there was nothing else like them.”

“They weren’t soul divas but they were full of life”

Pepi Lemer was the vocal coach to pop’s biggest girl band – and the woman who discovered Baby Spice.

“I won’t pretend it wasn’t hard training the Spice Girls. The first time I met them was in 1996 after a producer I knew asked me to spend a few weeks training them and they each sang to me individually. I wouldn’t say they were terrible, but they were very nervous. ‘I can’t do this in a few weeks,’ I told the producer. ‘I need months.’

I warmed to the girls quickly. They were all so full of life and seemed so nice – except, quite soon after they formed, one girl [Michelle Stephenson] wasn’t working out. The company asked me to recommend a replacement and I remembered I had trained Emma Bunton just a couple of years previously at her college. I tracked her down, got her to audition – and they loved her.

All the girls were incredibly hard-working, forceful and willing to learn. But they certainly weren’t soul divas, vocally speaking, and they all had their teething problems. They had to learn how to use their voices individually and as a group. At the beginning, I thought, ‘My goodness, what have we got here?’ We trained in two-hour sessions, twice weekly. It wasn’t easy for me or them. The girls were young and they missed home; there were often tears.

I would make notes during each session, and once I placed them on a chair and left the room. Geri found them, and saw something I’d written about her tuning problems. Of course she cried. Sometimes they would take my remarks personally and get upset. But I had to remind them, ‘It’s not about you’. It was about their voices and if their voices weren’t working the way they should, I’d tell them. Of course, egos would come into play. But I had no time for that.

It was all worth it in the end though. After five months of training, it was time for their showcase – an event in Shepherd’s Bush for industry experts to come and see them perform. I did a final warm-up with them and my heart was pounding – it all came down to this.

They went on stage for their first show – and it was brilliant. Their voices had all improved immensely; they weren’t a so-called ‘manufactured’ pop group, they were a band. I was standing there, watching them perform with tears in my eyes. After all that sweat, blood and many, many tears, they were doing it. Good on them, I thought. They’re going to make it.”

“The Spice Girls made me take charge of how I wanted to look”

Fashion journalist Harriet Walker reflects on how the Spice Girls marked her first foray into the world of fashion.

“There was a time when everyone wanted to dress like they’d just walked out of the Wannabe video. And I was no exception. In fact, the Spice Girls were probably my first glimpse into the world of fashion. At 11, after seeing the Spice Girls on TV and instantly becoming a fan, I forced my dad to take me shopping and convinced him to buy me an Adidas tracksuit so I could emulate Mel C. For me, and so many other girls, it marked the point where I moved away from wearing what I was told and took charge of how I wanted to look. Not only did it feel inclusive – like we were part of a club – it was also the first time I became aware of brands. That tracksuit felt like designer fashion to me.

The Spice Girls’ fashion moments were undoubtedly enormous – the leopard print, the crop tops, the Buffalo boots, and, of course, that Union Jack dress. The five of them – or at least the characters they were dressed as – were so definitive, you could tell them apart just from their shoes. Some of the looks (like the Union Jack dress, which I remember coolly thinking looked crass) I wasn’t that impressed with, but no-one can deny their style influenced an entire generation. Friday night’s Top Of The Pops dictated everyone’s Monday morning style for school. I remember being particularly pleased one morning, when – like 80% of the girls at my school – I’d successfully fashioned my hair into Emma Bunton’s signature mini-bunches. It was important not to miss a ‘look’.

Of course, the Spice Girls’ style was very much aimed at the teen market. I don’t think they influenced the wardrobes of grown women. If any of them did, it was Posh in her endless variations on an LBD theme – quite apposite really, given she’s now dictating trends from the catwalks of New York.

But the great thing about emulating the Spice Girls was that everyone could do it. We weren’t wearing the cheap knock-off versions of what they wore, they were wearing cheap stuff too. It was accessible and feeling part of something so pivotal was cheering.

I think because of that, the Spice Girls’ style has lived on. Just as we wanted so badly to look like we were extras in Wannabe, I see girls now in tracksuit bottoms and crop tops, sporting the same look. I thought it was a great look then, and it’s a great look now.

I’ve no doubt their legacy – style or otherwise – for me and my generation, will live on for decades to come.”

Images: Rex