By Justine Picardie
For a girl who was once so huge, Geri
Halliwell now seems tiny. Ginger Spice and her big hair, bit
boots, big breasts - they've all gone, to be replaced by something else entirely. "She's so sweet, so
SMALL," say the Vogue fashion editors when Geri pays a visit to the office. "And so much prettier
than when she was in the Spice Girls." Geri stands in the middle of the Vogue fashion room - five foot
two, scrubbed face, sensible black polo-neck, knee length black skirt - looking as nervous as the
youngest, shortest new girl on her first day at school, tongue-tied and blushing beneath her freckles.
It's hard to believe that this is the woman who invented the phrase "Girl Power", shrieking it around
the globe and into space via the MTV satellites; the 26-year-old self-made superstar who had six
consecutive Number One hit singles and made herself a millionaire 10 times over; who sacked the
Spice Girls' manager and then ran the whole show herself; who pinched Prince Charles on the bottom
and glad-handed Nelson Mandela.
Where did she go to, that wild Ginger Spice Girl? Well, she left the group last May and said she
was devoting herself to good works. Then she sold all her clothes for a children's cancer charity (even
her Union Jack minidress, the one she wore on front pages the world over) and re-emerged, like a
penitent, in a new wardrobe of sober grey and convent black as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN
Population Fund. It was the very opposite of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly; something seemed to
have made her shrink, both inside and out.
It was then that I first met her, at George Michael's house in the south of France, where she had
retreated, alone, last summer. Geri Halliwell had rather unexpectedly summoned me there, after
reading my sister's book, "Before I Say Goodbye". She told me that Ruth's account of her struggle
with breast cancer had precipitated her sudden departure from the Spice Girls at the end of May.
She'd had a lump removed from her breast some years ago and now, she said, she knew it was time
to "give something back"; to raise money for breast cancer charities. But she seemed so tearful, so
vulnerable, so suddenly fragile, that I couldn't quite imagine her doing anything for herself, let alone
As the months when by, snippets of a new Geri Halliwell were released to a public ravenous for
news of her: Geri snapped by the paparazzi reading a self-help book (The Road Less Travelled);
Geri venturing out with her new best friend, George Michael; Geri looking more confident as a UN
ambassador; and Geri on television at the beginning of this year, telling Michael Parkinson that she
was back, and recording a new solo album.
She rang me the day after the Parkinson interview and said she was still nervous; and sounding so
brittle that I thought she might crack up into even smaller pieces. But by February she was more
certain, more confident. The executives at her new record company, EMI-Chrysalis, loved her stuff.
And she loved being loved by them. She seemed to grow again, to flourish in the warm glow of their
The week that her first solo album was accepted by the record company, I visited her at her new
house in Buckinghamshire - her first big house in the country, the symbol of her status, wealth and
success. It is called, appropriately enough, The White House. "It's her very own Highgrove," the
architect tells me. The architect is still there, alongside several builders installing a complicated
computerised lighting system. Geri only moved in the day before, and you can smell the fresh paint.
I drive up the newly gravelled drive and park outside, in front of the topiary and the white marble
statuary. The house is enormous; a Georgian monastery standing in 18 acres of prime Home Counties
countryside, surrounded by very high walls and security cameras and black remote-controlled front
gates as tall as the entrance to Brixton prison.
Geri is nowhere to be seen, but her mother gives me a guided tour. Anna Halliwell is even shorter
than her daughter, and though she has lived in this country for over 30 years, she still speaks with a
thick Spanish accent. "Oh dear, oh dear," she says, like a Catalonian Mrs Tiggywinkle, "I'm cleaning
and cleaning and washing and washing, but there is so much dust from the builders and Geraldine has
a dog what isn't potty-trained." Geri's mum has always cleaned for a living, and she isn't stopping now,
even though her daughter is a multi-millionaire pop star.
"The builders have ripped everything out," says Anna, "because the monks, they always live in little
cells. Now, it's this big." She gestures to the grand central staircase in the entrance hall. "Geraldine
always wanted one of these. When she was a little girl, she wanted to be in Gone With The Wind,
you know, to sweep down a big staircase in a ballgown." Anna laughs and shakes her head.
"Come, come," she says, and herds me along a marble corridor to the left of the main hall. "See,
the Madonna," she says, pointing to a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary and crossing herself.
"Did the monks leave that behind?" I ask.
"No, no!" she laughs. "Geraldine put it there - look, opposite the toilet." She propels me into a
downstairs cloakroom. "See here, the pictures of French sexy women?" And there they are, framed
prints from the Fifties, balconette breasts and bare bottoms, cavorting before the Madonna's
"Now, look at this room!" cries Anna, shaking her head again. "The dining room! Look, look at it!"
The walls are painted a dark, vivid red, and a Victorian painting of "The Last Supper" hangs above the
long, mahogany table. "She choose it all herself!"
"MUM!" says Geri, appearing at the door.
"Oh, Geraldine," says her mother, laughing nervously.
"I like your new house," I say.
"Yeah, it's wild!" says Geri. "It's schizophrenic, like me. This is the red room - now come and see
the white room." I follow her back down the corridor, as she scuttles across the entrance hall with its
huge mirror hanging on the wall, and into an enormous drawing room; white walls, white sofas, grand
piano, and another, even bigger mirror. Geri throws herself onto one of the sofas and lights a Silk Cut.
"It's my New Year Resolution! I started smoking again!"
She takes a few puffs, then stubs it out, and unwraps a Tesco bacon sandwich. "Is this fattening?"
she asks, before dipping it into her mug of tea. "My weight always goes up and down," she says,
between bites. "I've always struggled with it."
"But you look so small now," I say.
"Well, I'm smaller than everyone imagines - and in the Spice Girls, I always wore things that
accentuated my size. In the Spice Girls, we got bigger and bigger, larger than life. Now I look at
pictures of myself from the American MTV awards and I don't even recognise myself. I looked so
ugly then. Part of me loved it at the time, but also I was hiding behind layers of make-up, hiding the
real me. It takes a lot of courage to say, right, THIS is me."
She points to herself: no make-up, grey jumper, grey trousers, un-gingered hair. "The way I'm
dressing now is non-committal," she says. "You know, if we strip each other down, we're all like
onions - the soul in the middle, the spirit, the personality, then the clothes. There's nothing fake about
how I look now. I had already thought about toning down my look in the Spice Girls. But people
wanted to see Ginger in a bustier and big boots..."
She finishes her sandwich, and starts singing, surprisingly powerfully. "WHAT YOU SEE AIN'T
WHAT YOU'RE GETTING! LOOK AT ME - NEXT TIME USE YOUR EYES!" She looks at me
expectantly, bright blue eyes shining. "I wrote that myself! That's from my new single!"
"What's the album going to be called?" I ask.
"Schizophrenic!" she cries. "At least, that's the working title..."
Heaven knows what a psychiatrist would make of Geri: born plain Geraldine Halliwell in Watford
on August 6, 1972. "My mum still lives in the same house," she says. "It looks like 'Coronation
Street'." Her father, a car dealer, had already been married but his first wife left him and their two
children. "He met my mum when she'd just arrived in this country - she was a Spanish au-pair - and he
wooed her. He was always a bit of a chancer. So they had my brother Max, he's five years older than
me, and super-brainy. He's got a PhD, he's a scientist. Then there was Natalie, who's 29. She was
always the beautiful one, with lots of boyfriends - and then me. I was the goofy kid, short for my age...
"We were horribly poor. My mum always made sure we were clean, that we had food on the
table, but my dad didn't work from the day I was born. He'd been in a car accident and he was on
Right from the start, she says, she felt like the odd girl out at school. "All the girls there were better
off than me - very middle-classed. I had jumble-sale knickers, literally. One day at infant school I wet
myself, in my stripy knickers with no elastic in, so the teacher gave me a dry pair to wear. I was really
pleased, because I'd never had such nice ones."
Life got even harder at junior school when her Catholic mother became a Jehovah's Witness. "That
meant no Christmas presents, no birthday presents. I was embarrassed all the time. She used to drag
me from door to door..." She catches me looking sympathetic, and shrugs her shoulders. "It's OK, it
made me who I am today. I was always living in fantasy land, sitting on the step of the outside toilet,
Even now, she can make her Watford childhood sound romantic. "My father was half-Swedish.
My grandmother had an affair with a Swedish sailor, but her disappeared and she married Mr
Halliwell instead. So I'm a true mongrel dog: a bit mad, but with a good personality."
She left Watford Girls Grammar at 16, and went to college for a year. "Then I got a proper job,
doing quality control for a local video company. I lasted about six months and then I left because I
wanted to be rich and famous." She survived on very little: hungry for any stray scraps that came her
way. "I danced in a few pop videos - you might see my elbow - and I fell into glamour modelling, but
it wasn't glamorous, just seedy, though I did go topless in a Katharine Hamnett campaign. She did a
girly calendar: I was Miss July, covered in sea-shells, and Miss October, who was a witch...
"I've got one of those faces that changes every day, You can dress me up, make me look vampy,
and then make me look 12 years old. But don't all women do this thing? We all take on these roles."
It was, perhaps, this instinctive understanding of role-playing that made the Spice Girls so famous.
Scary, Sporty, Baby, Posh and Ginger. Something for everyone. Cartoon characters, like the
Simpsons or the Teletubbies, yet as real in the minds of our television-raised children as their very own
best friends (and with the added attraction, for their pocket-money-paying fathers, of legs and breasts;
and for their mothers, a feel-good notion of bubblegum sisterhood).
For those of you without children - because it is children (or "tweenies" as they are known in
record company marketing departments) who really branded the Spice Girls on our minds - these are
the facts. The group was born in 1995 as the brainchild of a (male) management company, yet quickly
took on a life of its own through Geri's made-to-measure catch phrase. GIRL POWER! It echoed
around the nation's playgrounds and ricocheted into the newspapers. (I remember sitting in the editor's
office of the broadsheet newspaper where I was working at the time, while the morning conference
addressed the socio-economic importance of the Spice Girls, before degenerating into a rowdy
argument between several fortysomething journalists as to which Spice Girl was the best.)
"We were unstoppable, we were on a mission together," says Geri. "I look back at it with a smile,
but it feels so long ago. I feel like I've lived 20 years in the last four."
So what went wrong?
"Fame and fortune brings out the worst and the best in everyone," she says, gnomically. "It
Like the rest of the group, she will say no more on the subject; but it is clear, from talking to those
who worked for the Spice Girls at the time, that Girl Power went very sour indeed. "They were on this
roller coaster," says one employee from their former management company. "They were all going up
together and then the media picked up on the fact that Geri was the articulate one. Emma would get
the teen magazines, Mel B would do the black stuff - but Geri was getting everything else: the Wall
Street Journal, and the Daily Mail - you name it, they wanted to interview her. She was getting
ahead, and the others were being left behind. That was when the problems started. The others started
excluding her, constantly, picking on her. It was like Lord Of The Flies." But in this case, Piggy was
Ginger; and despite a brief respite when the group's aggression was diverted towards their
ex-manager, Simon Fuller, she simply wasn't up to the fight.
The more famous they became, the more pronounced were their personae. Scary got aggressive;
Baby retreated to her mother; Posh spent her time buying Gucci frocks; Sporty got fitter... And
Ginger? Well, she got bigger. "She was comfort-eating a lot by the end," says a friend. "And she
started hiding behind Ginger Spice, who got more and more outrageous as Geri got more and more
All of which made matters worse, for as Ginger Spice grew, so did her fame, and so did the
distance between her and the rest of the girls. It was bound to end in tears...
"I still cry a lot," says Geri, feet curled up on her sofa, and her dog Harry by her side. "I cry about
the Spice Girls, and I cry about my dad. He died just before I joined the band. I was always daddy's
Geri says she doesn't need a psychiatrist to deal with her problems (though her former manager
suggested she see one). "I've been my own shrink for the past few months; I've gone through the
blackest of depressions and come out the other side. But I'd still love to be able to stand outside
myself and see what other people see..."
She already sees reflections of herself everywhere, of course: in the mirrors around her new house,
and in all those snatched tabloid shots strewn across her kitchen table. Yet none of this has helped her
decide who she really is, I think. Big brassy Ginger couldn't last forever; and nor will the nun-like Geri.
But at least she's done some good, in the midst of her confusion. "She's perfect," says Corrie
Shanahan, the spokeswoman for the UN Population Fund. "We were looking for someone with a high
profile, a role model for the teens and pre-teens - and we've had such a positive response to Geri.
She's so strong, so empowered, and she's seen that way right across the world. We knew she'd reach
across Europe and the United States - but we've also had a huge amount of letters and press
coverage from China, India, and Africa. Her impact had far exceeded our expectations."
"I AM happy," she says, retreating to the corner of her couch, "but a piece of me is still really sad.
It runs like a sash from my shoulder, across my breast, across my heart." She strokes her left breast,
almost absentmindedly (and suddenly her empathy with my dead sister begins to make sense), then
she rubs her head, mournfully. "I've had growing pains in my brain," she says, almost visibly shrinking
before me, a dejected Alice in her self-made Wonderland.
But then, when she starts talking about her new album, her face lights up again like a manic
Tinkerbell. "Sorry, I know I keep digressing, but the fundamental thing is that people want to feel
individual but also connected. Hopefully, this new album will do that. People will feel, 'I'm down there
with Geri or up there with her too.' Can you make that sound intelligent, please? Add some verbs and
nouns? There's a fine line between bullshit and genius - and I'm not sure which side I'm on."
When I leave her that day, alone in her monastery with her little dog, I'm not sure which side she's
on, either. Happy or sad? Mad or misunderstood? Strong-minded or a woman on the verge of a
nervous breakdown? I'm no clearer a few days later, driving back to the big house with my two
children in tow, plus my son's friend Rosie (a passionate Ginger fan). It is a slightly strange gathering:
Dawn French and her two children; Molly Dineen and her daughter; Emma Freud plus small son and
daughter. Why are the adults here? As friends, or yet more mirrors for Geri to observe herself in?
(Emma's brother Matthew does Geri's PR; Molly is making a film about Geri; Dawn did Comic Relief
with her and thinks Geri is fabulous...)
But somehow the day works, mainly because the children adore her. She dances with my
nine-year-old son, who promptly falls in love with her. She tickles my five-year-old, who says he
wants to live with her forever. She shows all the children her pink bedroom, with its crystal chandelier,
full-sized Barbie doll furniture and en suite Jacuzzi. They climb into bed with her and she shows them
how to do a headstand. And then she plays them, the tweenies, her very new single. So what do they
think of it?
"BRILLIANT!" they chorus.
They liked the way she was that day: neither nun nor pop diva. Unfortunately, being herself at
home in jeans probably isn't enough to sell another 30 million records. I don't know who Geri
Halliwell will have to turn into in order to stay famous, but I'm sure she'll do it, whatever it takes.
Her new single, by the way, is called "Look At Me".