Backstage with One of Britain's Top Spice Girls Impersonators
When provincial clubs need someone with a passing resemblance to Ginger Spice and co to sing at their student clubnight, they call Wannabe.
All photos by Rosaline Shahnavaz
Towards the end of last summer, I decided to leave my semi-stable but soul-crushing job to go freelance. It felt like a big and brave move, but also idiotic given my profession, so I spent the weeks in the run up to it in a constant state of panic, wondering if I'd ever earn any dollar again.
To reassure me that I wasn't pathologically self-destructing, my boyfriend took me on a night out to celebrate my last day at work. He bought us tickets to see Wannabe, a tribute act who regularly perform at The Venue in New Cross, south London; a student nightclub that feels more like a trip to a hen party in a sad seaside town. Spread over maybe four or five floors, the place was full of horny undergrads on MDMA, fingering and fighting one another, and dancing passionately to every chart-topper from the last 60 years. Then the moment of glory came—then Wannabe entered the room.
As a kid I never got to see the real Spice Girls, so when the ladies took to the stage I lost it and began screaming my head off; as did every drunk punter in the audience. It was as though all those years of wearing polyester camo two-piece sets, dreaming of having red hair and massive boobs, and collecting goddamn pull rings from cans of Pepsi to win Spice Girls merch finally came to fruition.
And they were good; the gang nailed their routines with high-octane girl power. And in a weird and warped sort of way, Wannabe—also known as Spice Girls 2 for the purposes of the clubnight—felt like the real thing. And as they zig-a-zig-ah'd under the creaking disco ball, I squinted through the thick e-cig vapour and thought to myself, Who are these women with their Spice skills and knock-off wigs? I felt compelled to meet them.
As soon as their set came to an end, I made a beeline for the backstage area. Just as a bouncer was about to grab me by the scruff of the neck and chuck me out the back door, a nasally Mancunian voice yelled out, "She's alright!" I turned around to see Mel B 2 (Nicola Twardowski) stood in the doorway. Dressed in a skintight animal print jumpsuit and towering spiky platforms, I gawped at the Northern babe who'd come to the rescue. Twardowski ushered me towards the dressing room. As we exchanged pleasantries, she slipped me their manager's number—she actually turned out to be Geri 2 (Anna Slater)—to arrange a date with the rest of the group.
After weeks of texts, emails, and calls back and forth, Wannabe finally agreed to meet me during soundcheck at their next London gig. They arrived over two hours late; most of them had driven from all over the country. Maybe they were weary from their long journeys, but they seemed reserved at first—but it wasn't long before they were fizzing with energy and chatting animatedly while adding the finishing touches to their stage costumes. Except Mel C, who didn't speak at all during the interview. I'm still not sure why.
In my naivety I had conjured up a Spice Girls fairytale on how they'd met; I had hoped they'd been best friends since primary school and formed on that basis. When asked, they paused, looked at one another, and burst into hysterics. "No, love," said Posh 2 (Amy Wigglesworth) sympathetically. "We all work for Pink Productions, it's a company that produces tribute acts; there's Spice Girls, One Direction, Taylor Swift, all sorts and we do various bits and bobs, this is kind of a side job for most of us."
That's when it dawned on me that the line up looked different from when I saw them the first time. Baby Spice 2 (Rachel Grundy) must have noticed that I'd stopped blinking out of shock and trauma, and quickly interrupted Wigglesworth. "We've all worked together loads before and know each other really well!"
I knew that Geri 2's stand-in, Nathalie Thompson, was there because regular Geri performed as a Céline Dion tribute act and had to fly out to Dubai for a last minute show, but I had no idea they weren't a legit girl group. Surely they'd at least chosen their respective Spice out of genuine admiration?
"Obviously, I'm Scary because I am truly petrifying," Twardowski said sarcastically, pointing to her afro curls. "Yeah and I'm really posh," added Victoria 2, who went on to explain, "Quite often, it just comes down to who we look most similar to and sometimes it's just who can pull off a wig. So we are rocking the wigs tonight."
"I've always liked Baby," Baby Spice 2 said. "I've actually just worked with Emma Bunton too. I was doing the Rocky Horror Show in the West End and we did a gala performance for Amnesty International and she was one of the guest narrators. So I got to do the time warp with Emma Bunton and when I met her I was like, 'I'm you!' and she was like, 'What?' and I said, 'I do a tribute act and I'm YOU!'"
According to the girls, manager Slater has a revolving cast of Spice Girls whom she trains up strenuously to know all of the parts. This guarantees a replacement if anybody is performing elsewhere—Thompson, for example, also does a Lady Gaga tribute act and Twardowski, who is mixed race, moonlights as Beyoncé and Rihanna. "What else can this hair do? Where else can it take me?" she jokes.
But the staged nature of the group—added to the fact that most of the band don't quite look like the real thing—doesn't mean that Wannabe can't draw in the crowds. "It's amazing though some people go absolutely crazy for it as if we're the real thing," says Thompson. "It's when they catch you on your way out in your trackies and you're like, 'Eh-hem, oh yeah, that was my sister Geri.'"
"Yeah, because we are basically exactly like the Spice Girls," shrieks Grundy enthusiastically. "They film us and sing along. My favourite thing is when we sing 'Mama' and people always ring their mums." On the night I saw them, audience members did actually pass their mobile phones to various Spices on stage, who belted out note-perfect renditions of the song down the line.
But life as one of Britain's premier Spice Girls lookalikes isn't plain sailing. They wince as they recall a meet and greet they did at the Hilton Hotel for a global cosmetics brand. It included other tributes such as an elderly lookalike of the Queen, resulting in the brand's foreign clients going absolutely berserk.
"This poor 80-year-old lady dressed as the Queen was stampeded and crushed up against a wall," Wigglesworth said. "They really thought we were the real deal. It was pretty awkward but really funny." Once, they got to perform "Wannabe" at a plush mansion house in Ascot that looked like the one in the music video.
Their career highlight, however, involved something a little less glamorous. Thompson nudges Grundy. "Oh my god. Tell her."
"We did a Spice Girls tribute at funeral," says Grundy. "The funeral was in Birmingham and we had no idea what to expect. We performed at the wake and it was for a DJ of a really well-known gay club. He was a massive Spice Girls fan. He would always wear a red cap apparently, so everyone there including us wore red caps too. It was really lovely actually."
Viva forever, girls.
Wannabe/Spice Girls 2 will be performing in London at The Venue Saturday, March 26.