My name is Melanie Brown, and most people know me as a Spice Girl. They’ve seen me on television on the X Factor, or maybe they’ve seen me on the stage in Chicago or popping up on shows like Celebrity Juice. Everyone has the idea that I am this loud, brash northern woman. Scary Spice. And yes, that is me, but it’s just a part of who I am.
I am 44 years old, and in the past few years I’ve been working out who I really am. I have spent more than half my life in the spotlight of fame. I rose up from a council estate in Leeds, a mixed-race kid who could sing and dance but who wanted more. girl power: that’s what I really, really wanted, along with my four wannabe mates Geri, Emma, Victoria, and Mel C. And, incredibly, we got it. We got the lot: fame, money, success. By the bucketload. But that defined me – all people saw was loud, wild Scary.
And then someone much scarier than me came along. He didn’t see me as a loud, proud symbol of girl power. He saw me as I really was back in 2006 when I had been dumped by the love of my life, Eddie Murphy, whose baby – my beautiful Angel – I had just given birth to.
He saw me as weak, vulnerable, and desperately in need of someone strong to lean on. He was amazing. He saw straight through me. He saw my family and how much I needed them. He saw my eldest daughter, Phoenix, and how close we were. He saw my money and fame and how little it meant to me right then. So what if he didn’t have a job or any money himself. He was charming, funny, attentive, smart and – it turned out – the most dangerous person I ever met in my life.
I married him. And during that marriage I lost my family. I lost my friends. I lost my ability to be the best mother. I lost myself. I could not think for myself because I was – as I was told on a daily basis – worthless, useless, stupid, and ugly. My life was taken over and all I had to do was get through it. I drank. I took drugs. I was so deeply unhappy that I took an overdose.
All that time, however, I still managed to plaster on a smile and pull off my Scary Spice persona. I could still be Mel B – I had to be able to do that. The shame of people finding out what my life was really like for so long outweighed the horror of what I was living through. All of it was my fault, after all. I chose him.
This is now my past. I left him in 2017. I did not know, even when I left, that I had been in an emotionally abusive relationship. I had never heard of the words “coercive control”.
I did not know that I had not chosen him, that he had chosen me. I did not know my story is not unique, that millions have stories almost identical to mine. I didn’t know the statistics on the number of women who commit suicide, the number of women who are killed, the percentage of women who turn to drink and drugs and the awful side effects that continue even years later. PTSD, anxiety, stress, sleeplessness. I didn’t know so many – in gay and straight relationships – suffer too.
In so many ways these past two years have been a deep, dark education for me. I have woken up, I have learnt, I have absorbed and I have campaigned. In the grim months after my split, I thought I would be happy. I asked my friend, the writer Louise Gannon, to work with me on a book about what I’d been through.
But then I just didn’t want to talk about it. She realised – because she did her research – it wasn’t because I was just being difficult. It was because I couldn’t. I was traumatized. I didn’t understand that. I thought I should be happy because I was no longer in that relationship, but I wasn’t because it was all still in my head, in my body, in my very core.
Louise lived with me for months. One day she put down a piece of paper and asked me to read it. “What is it?” I said. “You tell me,” she replied. It was a page of numbered sentences, and it was easy for me to work out what it was. “You’ve done a timeline of my relationship,” I said. She shook her head. “Melanie, this is information from a domestic abuse organisation. They are signs of what to look out for in an abusive relationship.” I froze. Tears were running down my face. Why had I never seen anything like this before? Why wasn’t this made into posters, stuck in nightclub loos, or on the walls at school? If this information was out there, why the hell didn’t I know?
I am not an academically educated woman. At Intake High in Leeds, I sat through classes in maths and geography daydreaming about performing. I am dyslexic. I have ADHD. A lot of subjects didn’t make sense to me in the same way music and dance did. I missed some of my GCSE exams because I got a job dancing in Blackpool, and I didn’t care because I was only just 16 and the youngest person to ever be taken on by Mystique dance troupe in Blackpool, which was – back then – the Las Vegas of the north. I couldn’t see the point in learning facts about history or science.
For years I carried a chip on my shoulder about my lack of education. My dyslexia and ADHD were only diagnosed recently. It’s actually only recently I’m no longer ashamed of the fact that I can’t spell. I understand it. It has been explained to me. But more to the point, so many things have been explained to me and these past two years have been a massive education for me. I am not stupid, I never have been. I am just someone – like millions of others – who for all those reasons didn’t fit into the academic world of school.
I can’t help thinking about myself as a teenage girl at Intake High. Education is about so much more than rock erosion and quadratic equations. It’s about preparing our children for life, for relationships. At 16, I couldn’t wait to leave school, but now I can’t wait to get into schools because I want to talk to kids about these issues. I want to pass on lessons that I’ve learnt. I’ve learnt that I’m not stupid. I’ve learnt that if I ask the right people for the right explanations I can understand and speak about them myself. I’ve learnt that I want to be an educator.
When my book, Brutally Honest, came out last year, I was proud but also anxious. People were going to realize I wasn’t just Scary Spice, I was a woman who was abused, who wasn’t perfect, who fell from the highest to the lowest point in life. I insisted that the page Louise had shown me went into my book because I wanted other women to read it. I wanted it to be out there so that men and women can read about what to look out for in abusers. I wanted to pass that knowledge on.
Incredibly and overwhelmingly for me, Women’s Aid asked me to be a patron on the strength of my book. They told me it was the messiest, most real, and most truthful account of an abusive relationship. They told me they wanted copies in their refuges because they felt it was important, that others could learn from my book.
I am used to standing on stage and having people scream at me. But when I sat in a refuge in Leeds with other women I felt a bond and an understanding beyond anything I’d ever experienced before. I wasn’t being supported and loved because I was perfect, I was being supported and loved because I wasn’t perfect. I was one of them, one of millions who have fallen victim to abuse.
I don’t want my story to mean nothing. I have spoken to women who know and understand, but I want to talk to kids in schools. I want to show the pattern of abuse so they can recognize it early on, understand it, and see the signs of what to look out for in abusive relationships to be. It needs to be something our young men and women know before they fall victim to what I went through, because it breaks my heart to know there are millions of men and women out there suffering in silence, blaming themselves, losing themselves, and feeling trapped and unsafe not even knowing there is help out there.
In my role as patron of Women’s Aid, I went to Downing Street to talk to Theresa May’s advisers. I spoke – with my Leeds accent – about what I had been through. I felt proud that I was being listened to by men and women in Downing Street, but I felt more proud of the fact that I was telling my story on behalf of those women in that refuge in Leeds.
I spoke to the MP Jess Phillips, who used to work in a refuge – and I was told that it is on the political agenda to educate kids about these things. No, it is not okay that your partner wants to look through your phone. No, it is not okay that he doesn’t like your friends and wants you to stop seeing them. You need to know that these things are big flashing lights along a path of control.
I have recently been back on stage with my girls, doing what I love. Scary is back and I loved putting on the leopard print and putting on a show in front of hundreds of thousands of fans. But Scary Spice isn’t my whole story, she’s just a part of who I am. I’m incredibly proud of her, but I’m also proud of Melanie Brown – the woman who was abused and is now telling her story, not just for herself but for millions of others. That’s why I also decided to do “in conversation with” shows. I’ll be at the grand theatre in Leeds on 25 August and the Savoy theatre in London on 1 September to talk about all of this.
Of all the life lessons I have learnt, this has been the hardest, and if I can help to educate others by getting this message across to kids in schools and colleges then I cannot think of a better legacy for myself, for my daughters, and for all kids out there sitting in classrooms who need to grow up in a safer, better world.