By ALLISON KUGEL
Melanie Brown, aka Mel B, has reigned supreme as the spiciest of her bandmates since bursting onto the entertainment scene as Scary Spice in 1996 with the group’s Number One hit Wannabe. With her wild hair, piercings and a raucous personality to match, she instantly began making headlines, and she never stopped. Her tempestuous marriages and some romantic near misses, including her split from Eddie Murphy, have at times overshadowed her on-camera talent on hit shows like UK’s X Factor and America’s Got Talent.
For years, rumours swirled about drug use and a party girl image cultivated during her marriage to ex-husband Stephen Belafonte. What few knew was the house of horrors that existed behind closed doors, which Melanie’s oldest daughter, 19-year-old Phoenix, and Melanie’s mother Andrea, both attest to in excruciating detail in Melanie’s memoir, Brutally Honest.
Brutally honest it is, as the outspoken girl from Leeds, England, with the heavy Yorkshire accent recalls everything from growing up of mixed-race heritage during a time when it was anything but the norm, to Spice Girls fame, drugs, bisexuality, and a ten-year marriage that she claims was so abusive that it drove her to attempt suicide in 2014. Four years after that horrific episode, which left her with organ damage and bruised pride, Melanie slowly rebuilt her strength, finally filing for divorce from Belafonte in 2017. The two remain embroiled in a bitter legal battle, but Melanie takes solace in spreading her message about domestic abuse and domestic violence. Along with promoting her book, she is advocating for others who have experienced various forms of intimate or domestic partner abuse as a part of her daily work with UK’s Women’s Aid, along with motherhood and preparing to hit the road with the Spice Girls this year.
How are your spirits these days?
Obviously, I’m still on my healing path and it’s going to be an ongoing thing. Just taking care of myself, meditating, doing my reiki and eating well. I actually couldn’t be happier right now. I know there are more happier times to come, but right now I’m in a really good place and it’s taken me a long time to even get to this place, so I’m thankful.
Let’s go back a bit so people can get the big picture. What did the Spice Girls fame and hysteria of the 1990s feel like at the nucleus of it, from the inside looking out?
It was tiring, but we really didn’t care because it was five girls together who all had each other, living our dream life. We were living in England, struggling financially, not having much to eat, convincing people to let us borrow their recording studios so that we could sit down and write and [record] our music. There was a phase of a couple of years where it was really tough. When we got to release our first single, Wannabe, and we signed with a record company and got Simon Fuller involved to manage us, it was really good, happy times that all five of us had dreamt of, and we were actually living that life. We were travelling the world, singing, performing, dancing, writing music and making a movie. It was a beautiful few years. Of course, we were tired, because we didn’t allow ourselves any time off. But we were in control of what we did and when we did it, and we knew that we had to soar through life like a big tornado and strike while the iron was hot.
What do you feel you came into this life as Melanie Brown to learn?
Well, I think the number one thing is that I come from a white mother and a black father. Back in the 1970s when they got together and had me, that was seen as something that wasn’t really done. They had a lot of things that they had to overcome in bringing me into the world and raising me in an area of England, four hours outside of London, where there weren’t any other mixed-race girls. That was one thing I had to find, was my own identity. Apart from the likes of Neneh Cherry and maybe Tracy Chapman, there really wasn’t anybody that I could look up to where I felt like I belonged, or anyone who I felt like I even looked like. For me, it was all about creating a path where hopefully other mixed-race girls, and other mixed-race kids could actually follow. For example, I never had my hair braided. I always wore my hair out. I’m very opinionated, but for the right reasons; not just to cause a ruckus. I do believe that I am here, somewhat, to make it okay to be in the skin that you’re in and the colour that you are.
One thing that is an ongoing thread in my life since I’ve been very young, like two or three years old, is being honest. Kids are honest, and they’re not sidetracked by their surroundings. They say exactly what they feel. That’s one of my things that I stick by and swear by, which is being completely transparent and honest. It’s not to offend or intimidate anybody. It comes from a good place and I have good intentions.
I always say that none of us are so fallible that we have nothing to teach, and even the wisest among us are also here to learn. We are all students, and we are all teachers.
Sure. We can’t know everything, and knowledge is power. I wasn’t very educated when it comes to schooling or on paper. I’ve experienced more education through life’s experiences, through travelling, and through getting myself into certain situations, whether it be through work and dealing with contracts or from talking to the man down the street who’s waiting for his bus.
Obviously, the situation with your most recent ex, Stephen Belafonte is extremely contentious. But in general, how are you navigating co-parenting with three different fathers in the picture?
My oldest is 19, so I had to do every other weekend and certain weekdays for 18 years, and there’s a point where your 14- or 15-year-old doesn’t want to go to her father and that’s a difficult task. I’ve never said a bad word about any of their fathers to my daughters. Angel’s 11 years old and she sees her dad (Eddie Murphy) on a regular basis. My seven-year-old, Madison, that’s all happening through the court, so that is kind of out of my hands. One thing I do with all my three girls, is I make sure they know that they’re loved, and that they came from a place of a loving relationship. Even though they didn’t quite work out, and me and their dads didn’t stay together, they all know that they came from a lot of love. One thing that is mandatory is that I always make it an exciting thing when I send them off to their fathers. Angel is different, because me and her dad don’t have any problems with each other. With Madison [Brown’s seven-year-old daughter with Stephen Belafonte], they take everything in, so I try to make it exciting for her, even though I obviously have huge issues with her father.
Are you frightened for Madison when you send her off to see Stephen? Based on the abuse you’ve described in your book, aren’t you frightened for her to be around her father?
I don’t think it’s fair for me to say that. All I can say is that I fought through the courts for her to have mandatory therapy every Saturday with a specialised therapist who is aware of the situation. If there was anything for the therapist to be concerned about, she would be able to flag it, based on the kind of intense therapy that she is doing with Madison. I have to trust and believe that if there was anything that I should be majorly concerned about, I’ve got a professional right there that can spot it before I do.
I would imagine it took courage to keep a lot of these passages in the book. What was the hardest part, not just to write, but to keep in the final draft of the book?
Everything that is out there now is pretty salacious, and I know it seems so random about the sex and the drugs. The physical and emotional abuse had already kind of been out there, whether it be just a journalist presuming or whether it be my ex getting a story out there somehow. I just wanted to make sure that I clarified and made my puzzle understandable. When you read my book, you do understand that certain things were due to coping mechanisms, which are common with somebody that’s in an abusive relationship. The book addresses things like why it took me so long to leave. It’s because you’re trapped, and you don’t have friends and family because you’ve been isolated due to how your abuser does things. That’s why in the back of my book, I put the 15 warning signs of what an abusive relationship looks like. Sometimes we don’t know until it is too late, and you’re heavily in it. In my book, I address an array of points and situations that hopefully make the reader understand everything that I’ve been through. There are certain things I did leave out due to legal reasons. I didn’t want it to be a legal war. I wanted my book to be more of an education and insight into what it looks like to be in an abusive relationship.
You paint a picture of a wide range of abusive behaviours that you experienced.
Right, because abuse isn’t just physical. It can be verbal, it can be emotional. It’s a broad spectrum. And usually an abuser doesn’t just do one type of abuse. They get you on every single level, eventually.
I hear everything you’re saying, but here is the piece I don’t quite understand. From reading your book, I got the impression that even after everything that went on, your parents remained steadfast in their support of you as their child. I got the impression that at any time you could have flown home for refuge and you would have been met with open arms.
No way. How could I do that? How could I book a flight when he had my credit cards and my phone? I’m not allowed to leave the house, I don’t have a front door key. I’m working 24 hours. I didn’t even have a holiday. And your every move is being monitored by your abuser. Every phone call, every text message.
How about from work? Even a phone call from work?
I wasn’t allowed to take my phone to work. And like I said, this doesn’t just happen overnight. They chip away at you, so you wind up going, “Oh, he took my phone because he wanted to get it fixed for me, or he’s going to put a new app on there.” It’s all done in a controlling, obvious, yet un-obvious way. That’s the part that you don’t want to believe is happening. You still want to believe that they love you. It’s like, “Oh, I’ll go see the accountant because you’re working today.” You think, “Oh, that’s nice,” when they’re actually going behind your back taking your credit cards and changing the name on the accounts to their name. When you’re in an abusive relationship, everyone is isolated from you, and they’re scared to call you. They’re scared to get in contact with you, because they too have been verbally abused by your abuser. You end up walking around going, “Why hasn’t my mom called?” Or “Why is my friend being really strange with me?” You don’t really know why, but now looking back, I know exactly why.
I get what you’re saying, but I know that I could literally go to my mother at any time. I could go to a police station and call her if I had to.
How could I when I’m only allowed to be driven by him, or a driver that is one of his friends? And all I did was work-come home; work-come home.
It’s good to gain this deeper understanding from you, because people will think, she’s not your average Jane. She has all the resources in the world.
It’s like having everything and nothing. And on the flip side, you’re not ready to admit anything to anyone else. If I were to call my mom up and say, “Mom, I’m being abused,” she’ll go, “What?!” You don’t want to admit to anybody and have to explain, because there is an element of no one’s going to believe you, which is what the abuser will put into your head, “No one’s going to believe you. You’re just fat and ugly. If you leave, I’m going to expose you on this level and that level. And even if you said anything to anybody, no one’s going to believe you,” kind of thing.
Your self-esteem is in the gutter and you stop believing in yourself. It becomes a mental prison, is what you’re saying.
When I was at work, I did believe in myself, because he couldn’t get to me at work. Nobody wanted to see him. They wanted to see me on camera. I’m experienced and I’m confident in what I say, so that was actually my saviour, going to work. It was coming home that I dreaded, because I didn’t know what I was going to be experiencing that night.
You spent a decade walking on eggshells.
Yeah, basically. Having spoken to a lot of these women who are in [shelters], and that are essentially in hiding from their abuser, they have exactly the same story that I have. They’re controlled, they’re captured, they’re abused on many different levels, they’re embarrassed and ashamed, and they don’t want anyone to know.
Your oldest daughter, Phoenix is old enough to understand the full scope of the situation. I am assuming she read your book cover to cover…
Oh yeah. She is the one who pushed me to write it, along with my friend who wrote it with me, Louise Gannon, because this story is bigger than just me. I’m just a voice that happens to be yelling about it right now. It happens to many hundreds of thousands of women, and men. It doesn’t matter if you have no money, or if you live in a mansion with servants. It can happen to anyone. When you’re in this situation, you think it’s only happening to you. It’s only when you get out and get to safety that you realise how bad this relationship was, how wrong it was. These abusers, they’re smart and you don’t find them, they find you. They find women like me, who were in a vulnerable situation, and they latch onto you like Prince Charming, making you believe they are going to give you everything you need.
My takeaway from your book was, do not go into a new relationship when you are feeling depleted, because you’re likely not going to make empowering choices.
But sometimes you may think that you’re over your ex, or you’re over the drama of having a baby with somebody and then breaking up; you think that you do feel fine. Sometimes it’s the kind of thing where you say, “I’m just going to smile, because the more I smile, the more I feel good.” And you’re thinking that you do feel good. There is no set time as to when you definitely feel at your most confident, or your vulnerability is gone. We’re women. We’re always going to have that little bit of self-doubt or that moment where before our period we feel a bit bloated and a bit frumpy. Women are emotional, so there’s no set rule as to whether an abuser can come into your life. They don’t show up and go, “I’m an abuser. I’m going to do this and that to you.” No. They gaslight you. They make you feel like a princess one day, and then they make you feel like you’re a fat, ugly, unworthy cow the next day. And like I said, they find you, you don’t find them.
As a parent, knowing how difficult certain conversations can be between parent and child, I have to ask, how do you have a conversation with your teenage daughter about some of the more explicit things in your book? In your book, you’re talking about cocaine use, about threesomes … and Phoenix read all of this. What does that conversation even look like?
It’s not like I said, “Let’s sit down and talk about cocaine.”
But how could that stuff not come up?
I’m very, very open. I sit down with her and have a conversation with her in a way that’s relatable and understandable. I’ll let her know that if she wants to be sexually active or if she is sexually active, number one is to be safe. And if you want to experiment with a girl, or if you want to experiment with, let’s say, a threesome, make sure it’s consensual and make sure you actually feel safe. It is a conversation that you need to have. I’ll always say to her, “Why do you want to do this?” and “If you do that, how do you think it’s going to make you feel?” Because you never want to encourage your kids to go out there and try everything and anything; there’s always a reason. Some kids, they don’t need to try that kind of stuff. They don’t need to try anything sexually, apart from just to be with one person. They may not need to try lots of drugs, even though their friends [are doing it] or they’re around it. Luckily, I’ve got a good, solid 19-year-old that has seen a lot and been around a lot. She knows, morally, what she feels comfortable with, and her morals are solid. She isn’t one of those teenagers running around, up to no good.
She didn’t express any disappointment, that you, her role model, fell from grace in terms of the drug use?
No. If anything, I’m a hero that got out alive and I’m eloquent enough to be able to speak about my story without too much pain in my voice, even though there is a lot of pain. She’s proud of me. She’s encouraging me to talk more about it. That is why she, along with my mother, wrote a passage in the book.
Are you clean and sober today?
Yeah. I haven’t taken a drug since the day I left him [Stephen Belafonte]. What you’ll find in these abusive relationships is that the abuser is the one that provides you with all your alcohol and all your drugs. I’ve never had an addictive personality. I’m addicted to loving life, but that’s about it.
In a recent interview Phoenix gave about your marriage to Stephen, she describes walking halfway up the stairs one night and witnessing a rape in progress, and then running back downstairs to her room.
I’ve always had houses where my bedroom is at the top of the house away from the family rooms, the kids’ rooms, everything. I guess one time she snuck up[stairs] because she heard me screaming or crying. She jutted the door open a little bit and she witnessed that, which I didn’t even know she’d witnessed until after I’d left him two years ago and started writing the book. She was adamant about that story going in the book. That story didn’t go in the book, but it actually went into an interview that she did, and she was adamant to talk about it. I did say to her at the time, “Are you sure about that?” She said, “Well, yeah mom, it’s important, because when you’re in an abusive relationship; it doesn’t just effect you. It effects your kids, your friends and your family.” She said, “I want to talk about it.”
Why make a public declaration that Eddie Murphy is the love of your life?
It wasn’t really a public declaration. Don’t forget that when I started writing the book with my friend, there was no contract between me and my friend, there was no book publishing deal; there was nothing. I was writing it for self-healing; just for me kind of a thing. The more we researched, the more we learned that it didn’t just happen to me. It happened to many women, and we realised we needed to get this story out. We decided to delve deeply into all of the issues that people don’t talk about. I’m a source of information when it comes to coercive behaviour and abuse, because I’ve lived it for ten years.
One of the parts of the book that my friend couldn’t quite piece together was, why was I at my most vulnerable when my abuser came into my life? I’d just had Angel. She was two months old and then the monster came into my life. My friend and co-writer, Louise, was trying to figure out why I was feeling so vulnerable. Then it became, “Oh, you felt vulnerable because of the Eddie situation, so let’s talk about that.” I wanted to be able to talk about it and express it. I didn’t even fully understand it when we started talking about it; what went wrong and how it all kind of fell apart. It was important for me to put it all down on paper and do it from my recollection, to remind myself that I do know what a loving, respectful relationship is, because I had that and much more with Eddie. It was so important for me to put pen to paper with that, because I also had never spoken about it. I wanted people to know, and I wanted my daughter to know that it wasn’t just a wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and let’s move on to the next. It was a loving courtship. It didn’t end well, but it was a major love story that was one of the biggest love stories of my life.
And your mom is, of course, back in your life…
Yes. When my dad died, even though those circumstances were horrendous, and it was heartbreaking, my dad was at the point of no return. He was going to die and that was that. His death brought my whole entire family and my friends back together again. It was quite a serendipitous time, because it brought us all back together in a way that was sad, but really happy in the fact that we could all be in the same room together. For my mom, it’s been healing. She, like my 19-year-old, wanted to write her own chapter in my book. And they both did the audio for my book. My mom and my daughter both really wanted to be a part of this.
You’re about to run off to a Spice Girls meeting later. Can you share?
It’s about the tour. We put six shows up for grabs and we ended up doing 13 because they sold out. We’re going to be talking about staging, choreography and our dancers. It will be all of us on tour, but without Victoria. She sends all of us her blessing, but she has always been adamant that performing is not really her thing. She’s busy with her family and her fashion empire. I still have hope that at some point she joins us, but as of right now she’s not.
The Scary Spice of 20 years ago was brash and bold, and very tell it like it is. You were the tough girl. After everything you’ve been through so publicly with heartbreak and abuse and people seeing that you are quite vulnerable, now who will Scary Spice be as you head out on the road in 2019?
I’m still the same. A little more educated and more aware, and I would say more honest which could be misinterpreted as being even more brash and even more loud.
What qualities will you now look for at some point when you want to find love again?
I don’t even want to think about that! It’s not on my radar. I’m happy being single. I’m raising three kids, I’m on my own healing journey and I’m busy with work. I’m the only one paying my bills, and I’m paying the monster’s bills also every month and the lawyer’s bills. I’m focusing on the time I have off from work, just being with my kids.
What is the rainbow or silver lining in the cloud for you?
It would have to be my kids. They’re the ones that I wake up to every morning and I go to sleep with every night. It’s reassuring for me that they’re happy, they’re on track academically, they’re on track with me as far as our mother/daughter relationships goes. I’m so very, very proud of them. Also, what has been eye opening and reassuring for me is the fact that Women’s Aid (https://www.womensaid.org.uk/) had made me a patron of their federation. They deal with these kinds of abusive relationships. They find you help, they find you refuge, they help you get educated, they help you if you need help through the legal system. They reassure you that you are not alone, that this happens a lot, and they make you feel safe.
If you or someone you care about is currently in an abusive relationship, and in need of assistance, please contact https://www.womensaid.org.uk/ in the UK, The National Domestic Violence Hotline at https://www.thehotline.org/ in the US or https://choma.co.za for help and resources.
Brutally Honest by Melanie Brown with Louise Gannon is available in bookstores and on Amazon. Download the audio version of Melanie’s book exclusively through Audible.com. Photo Credits: Courtesy of Melanie Brown/Hardie Grant Publishing
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A Memoir Of A Life Unhinged And On The Record available on Amazon. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.