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Forgotten Spice Girl; WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ONE WHO TURNED HER BACK ON FAME.

Byline: DOUG KEMPSTER

SHE was the first to be chosen from more than 600 hopefuls to form a glamorous new pop group. With four more lucky winners she was whisked away to a "safe house", and spent weeks in the studio planning their first hit single.

A day in the life of a typical Popstars winner, you might think.

But for Michelle Stephenson, 25, the ending didn't work out quite so happily. After months of hard work she decided to quit the band to go back to university. It seemed the right thing to do at the time.

How was she to know they would turn into a global pop phenomenon called ...the Spice Girls.

Now, as she joins the rest of Britain in following the fortunes of the Popstars winners, the memories of sharing a home with the girls who became Posh, Scary, Ginger and Sporty Spice have come flooding back.

And Michelle, who was replaced by Baby Spice Emma Bunton, has decided to speak out for the first time about why she turned down the chance of fame and fortune.

She says: "Of course I regret I'm not a multi-millionaire like them. But at the time I left the group I knew I was doing the right thing - and I still think it was the right thing.

"It wasn't my kind of music and they were not living the lifestyle I wanted."

Michelle had been in her first year of studying theatre and English at London's Goldsmith's University when she saw an advert in showbiz magazine The Stage announcing open auditions for an all-girl group.

Although she had been a member of the prestigious Young Vic and National Youth Theatres and had performed at the Edinburgh Festival, she had little hope of making the grade in the pop world.

She says: "I went along for the experience more than anything else. There were hundreds of people there and I didn't expect to get very far. But I got invited to two more auditions.

"When there were only 20 girls left we were split into two groups - Mel B and Victoria were in mine - and had to perform together.

"We were asked to sing Sign, Sealed, Delivered by Stevie Wonder and do a dance routine. About a week later I got a call to say I'd been the first to be chosen - and I was over the moon."

The girls first stayed at a bed and breakfast near Windsor, Berkshire.

But they soon moved into what was to become her home for two months - a house in Maidenhead.

Michelle says: "It was nothing as luxurious as the one in Popstars. It was more like university digs. And we were only given pounds 60 a week each to live on.

"There was one single room, a room with twin beds and a room with a double bed. Geri got the single because she was the oldest - no discussion.

"Victoria and I were first up the stairs so we grabbed the twin beds and the two Mels shared the double bed. It was very confusing initially because at school and college my friends called me Mel.

"So whenever someone in the house called out `Mel', I'd be answering. I had to keep reminding myself that my name was Michelle.

"Can you imagine it? Mel C, Mel B and Mel S - it was just getting ridiculous.

"But I got on very well with all of them...it was a case of having to because we spent so much time together.

"Mel B was really cool because she was very down-to-earth...she still comes across exactly like that.

"I really liked her because she always said what she thought. There was no messing around. I really like people like that, who are straight to the point.

"Geri was the bubbly one, full of life. She would get us all up in the morning to go running. You didn't have to go, but you felt that because everybody else was, you had to make the effort. I'd always been very keen on keeping fit so I didn't really mind.

"However, Mel C and I were always trailing at the back. I'm not saying that Mel wasn't sporty, it's just that we liked to jog at a slower pace.

"There were tensions. When you all live in a house there will be problems.

"Something as simple as queuing for the bathroom in the morning caused the biggest arguments.

"It wasn't like in Popstars where they have all luxury bathrooms.

WE had one bath and we didn't even have a proper shower. We had to fix the shower head on to the taps.

"And we were all girls, not a mixture of girls and boys. Boys are generally quicker in the bathroom, but we all took ages.

"Mel B took a bit longer than the rest of us because she had to control her hair.

"But, on the other hand, we didn't have the same pressures as the Popstars.

"We weren't being followed by cameras every step of the way - so we didn't feel we had to put on loads of make-up all the time.

"We could sunbathe in the front garden and chat to the neighbours. There was no secrecy surrounding us. We were in the studio every day. We were different because there weren't that many all-girl groups around at that time. That was part of the Spice Girls' success, there was very little competition for their kind of set-up.

"The main competition as we saw it would have been Eternal - that was it."

But it wasn't all work. Michelle says: "Mel B lived in Leeds which was quite a long way away, so she would stay at the house during the weekends.

"Mel C and I would sometimes go back to London, but mostly we played it by ear.

"We spent a lot of our spare time in the house, although we occasionally went out clubbing or to bars or to dinner.

"We all cooked but everyone had different tastes - Geri was really into bean sprouts.

"Victoria was addicted to cornflakes with honey - she'd eat them at any time of the day. She got me hooked on them too.

"At other times we would eat out at Pizza Hut or some place cheap.

"Geri had a little car and we'd all climb in when we were going out. She was a good driver, but was notorious at roundabouts.

"She could never decide what exit she needed to take and the rest of us used to joke about how many times we'd go round before we got on our way. Every time I've seen her on TV or in the papers since then I've thought of her driving! When we stayed in we'd often rehearse for the next day. We weren't the Spice Girls in those days. We were called Touch.

"Our bosses said it had to be something with five letters so that a letter would stand for each of us.

"None of the songs we recorded were released by the Spice Girls. The music was nothing like they are doing now. It was pretty awful.

"The lyrics to one song went: `Where do you come from, falling from the sky, you're someone very special, I'm flying I feel so high'. It was very, very young pop.

"I was more of an Indie chick - I liked Oasis, and the Prodigy. The others were into Take That."

The girls were already developing the traits which would lead to their famous nick-names.

Had she stayed with them Michelle could well have become Clever Spice, Brainy Spice or Business Spice.

She says: "The idea of giving each of us a name came from us. Mel C was always referred to as sporty because she lived in track-suit trousers.

"Because of my university background it was thought that I'd appeal to the slightly more intelligent, business type.

"Victoria was the posh one because of the way she dressed - she had some beautiful clothes. The idea was that each one of us would appeal to a slightly different fan, something they stuck to when they became the Spice Girls - and it obviously worked."

But, within a month of moving in to the Maidenhead house, Michelle began to have doubts about her future with the band.

While the others had their hearts fixed on stardom, she wanted to return to her theatre studies.

And she knew her family would understand. Her father George, who works for lock company Chubb, mum Penny and art director brother Simon have supported her dream to be on stage since she was a child.

She says: "I had been hooked on acting from the moment I was asked to play a sunflower in the village hall when I was five. My family has always been there for me and supported everything I have done.

"But when my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer I realised life is very short - and that it was time to make a decision. I called our boss, Bob Herbert, and told him I wasn't coming back. I then called each of the girls and explained.

"They were all shocked. For each of them their ambition, their life, was to be a part of this all-girl group and they couldn't understand that I was willing to jack it all in.

A FEW years back Mel B said that I left because I didn't have the same dedication as the rest - but it wasn't my kind of music and I had different plans for the future.

"The whole Spice Girl thing just wasn't right for me. The other girls and I wrote for a time, but then we were all busy and we lost contact.

"I wasn't really surprised when they became famous. I always imagined they'd do well."

After leaving the group, Michelle travelled in Europe and then returned to Goldsmith's to complete her degree.

She has since recorded backing vocals for singers such as Ricky Martin and Julio Iglesias and is working on an album of her own.

She has also been a reporter for Carlton TV's Wired series - and now earns pounds 84,000-a-year presenting the new Friday evening LWT six-part series Wild Weekends.

And she says: "I'm very happy with what I'm doing and don't regret a thing. If I had to give the Popstars advice I'd tell them to take things a day at a time.

"It's all so exciting that you can get into a bit of a panic. It's a question of believing in yourself as much as anything else.

"They have all been chosen because of their talent - so they just need to believe in what they are doing.

"Above all they should enjoy themselves because life is so short you have to make the most of it.

"People often ask me about the Spice Girls, I don't get fed up with it, but it was only six months of my life.

"I like what they are doing now, I thought Holler was very good, but it's still not my scene.

"There aren't any bad feelings. I never look back on things, you have to look forward."

CAPTION(S):

SPICE AUDITION: Michelle; THE FAMOUS FIVE: Michelle was replaced by Emma and the line-up of Scary, Baby, Posh, Ginger and Sporty took shape; NO REGRETS: Now Michelle is carving a new career as a singer and TV presenter
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 4, 2001
Words:1904
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