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Anyone who still cares about the Spice Girls, including Ginger Spice fans bereft after the blowzy temptress’s defection from the group, would probably settle for some really good Spice dirt. Early reports that the former Ginger, currently you-may-call-her-Geri, had started the hair-pulling with her (first?) autobiography were met with premature reports that the four remaining Spicettes were poison penning a tell-all of their own.
The hardcover catfight may not materialize, and if it does, Ginger had better have some untold stories tucked in her new sleek-look Jil Sander trousers. Unless they’re big babies who are upset at Geri for jumping ship before it occurred to any of them to acquire contingency skills—or they’re reading between the lines in an occult Spice code only known to the girls—Scary, Sporty, Baby, and Posh have little to rebut. Geri hasn’t told all—she hardly even tells some—so what is she nattering on about for 385 pages?
Well, it’s kind of interesting that she does fill so much space, and how she does it is indicative of the nature of the Halliwell literary soul, such as it is. After all, this is a gal whom Newsweek quoted as peppily reminding the interviewer that “Elvis Presley said all the world’s a stage,” and this after going back to college to catch up on the classics.
If Only is destined to become a classic of the spunky, information-free, how-I-went-through-the-madness-and-found-peace celebrity bio, by the kind of woman who 20 years from now will assuredly refer to herself as “a survivor.” (Oh, great, I can see the blurbs: “Destined to become a classic; she’s a survivor!”—Washington City Paper.) Oops, here it is on Page 13, referring to her status as one of many children in her Watford household: “This gave me the sense of being a survivor and how to scrap for attention.”
As you can see, her grammar is a sight to behold, as are the nudie pix in the middle of the book, which she still insists on calling “glamour photography.” Her flat, droning narrative style helps the many undigested oddnesses pop right out—like a joke told deadpan. There may be no other way to report such genealogical musings as this one, on her father’s wartime activity as an engineer: “He once told me that he managed to get out of the fighting by pretending he was gay and wetting his bed. I don’t know if I believed him, although I can’t see why he’d lie.”
If Only is an easy target—even if she was the de facto Queen Spice, Halliwell isn’t the smartest gal to ever put on a pair of platforms. The book is less instructive as a personal memoir than as a general guide to the mentality and system behind a modern phenomenon, to an urge unfathomable to anyone who hasn’t felt it. Since childhood, Geri, like the other Spices and countless Brittanys, Ashleys, and Cristinas the world over, has wanted to be a pop idol.
This is a recent desire, and in fact the job description itself—by definition a vague one—is a democratic remodeling of the space previously held by American society and the rest of the world’s minor royalty who hobnobbed with social-register types and striving arrivistes in an endless round of newly designated hot spots up through the 1950s. Since then, it’s been game-show regulars—remember wondering what all those hearty, bitter “celebrities” on Match Game did for a living?—and personalities (like Anita Bryant and her former protegee, Kathie Lee Gifford) who have occupied this nebulous but glamorous space. And prefab pop bands, too, whose brief, blazing success is an object of scorn to music elitists and of the most intense desire to lame-clad wannabes.
In his autobiography, Boy George gives a convincing account of wanting his homemade post-punk pop moment to be as brilliant as that of Hayzee Fantayzee—make the hit, buy some clothes, and get out. But George O’Dowd is, let’s call it, much less stupid than a stone. Geri Halliwell trusts completely in the world of fame for fame’s sake, and her list of dream jobs is fittingly, maddeningly devoid of the call for skill—TV presenter, “lifestyle program” host, game-show girl; “What about music?” is a pondering that comes rather late in her career but in the book just before she compares herself to Hamlet.
The specific meaning of this urge and the course necessary to fulfill it are obscure. Halliwell goes about finding fame by taking off her top, citing Madonna and Kim Basinger with impeccable Ginger logic—after all, their rediscovered skin-mag posings didn’t hurt their careers. To the author, celebrity is celebrity, and therefore desirable; she’s always comparing some handsy photographer or open-shirted nightclub owner to an obscure (for an American reader) British name—the biggest stateside comparison she can come up with is “a thin Chevy Chase.” The first third of the book is the most fascinating part; Halliwell comes across as spunky but stupid, spending four years of her young life going to “auditions” in moldy fifth-floor flats where her chief strategy is: “If he tries anything, I’ll knee him in the balls.”
They all try something—an expected byproduct of the scruffy business, which Halliwell dismisses as natural but, in her case, unwelcome. This is where If Only reads like a naughty, parallel-universe version of a biography of some theatrical figure’s dignified career. Here’s Geri dashing to the newsagent’s every morning, not to scour reviews of a stage debut, but to flip through to see if her topless-in-suspenders shot has been chosen for that day’s Page 3. (The likes of Sir Alec Guinness are—how to put this?—ever so much smarter than your average box of rocks; if he ever bought the paper daily in search of a reference to himself but later started merely flipping through them, he would never admit it in an autobiography. Perhaps she wasn’t sure on what page the Page 3 girl appears.) Here’s Halliwell all frothed that a famous nudie photographer is going to take her picture—after all, he’s the “Herb Ritz [sic] of glamour photography.” Here’s thoroughly modern Geri updating the old celebrity confession by the teenage star in question who thought he had invented masturbation—by claiming the same sense of revelation about forcing herself to throw up. Here are excerpts from her diary—but no, these are delicacies that must be consumed with one’s own fork.
These four years constitute Halliwell’s foray into using her body to sell, although not selling her body. It is a fine and depressing line to walk, though, and she bounces from a gig dancing at a Majorca nightclub to posing “provocatively” for a calendar to patrolling the boardwalk in another club’s T-shirt, handing out fliers. When auditioning for the Turkish version of Let’s Make a Deal, Halliwell is so used to stripping down for a roomful of men upon demand that she starts to unhook her bra before wondering why a TV show would require the producers’ having a gander at her boobs. (Then again, cutthroat fame-lusters like Madonna usually, er, have more brains than a post.)
Once Halliwell gets her big break, after another ambiguous tryout, the “producers’ showcase,” the juice dries up. Nothing scandalous and therefore nothing too informative makes the cut—no inter-Spice backstage spats, no nasty habits, not even their shared addiction to nicotine, as noted by Vogue when Les Girls were its cover story (an occasion not recounted by Halliwell). If Only trudges dutifully in the deep footsteps of innumerable a-star’s-life-on-the-road accounts, freshened only by the safe assumption that each step in the fame labyrinth—the anonymity of hotel rooms, the boredom, the confusion, the mad pace, the dreariness of moviemaking in which “Three minutes of film of could take two or three days to shoot”—is a revelation to the author. The book’s biggest laughs are not deliberate; they come from Halliwell’s fizzy attempt to communicate ideas with slapdash approximations of the precise words, which leads to poor-taste howlers like the chapter describing how the Spice Girls trained for their first live concert by holing up in a Provence mansion for a grueling four weeks. They called the experience “Spice Camp,” but the chapter title is Halliwell’s own berserk invention: “Spice Kampf,” a misunderstanding on so many levels that it beggars explanation.
Halliwell has one ironic and amusing insight of note: Fame means never getting to use the front door; it’s the smell of rotting vegetables in the back-kitchen rubbish bins that tell a megastar she has arrived. Far more revealing than Halliwell’s thumbnail assessment of her colleague’s personalities—I regret to note that she admires Melanie “Scary” Brown’s “natural rhythm”—is her early rundown of their eating habits, a telling snapshot from a gal obsessed enough with food to know instinctively what consumption of various treats means. Sensible Leeds girl Scary cooked herself “proper meals”; homesick Baby ate an “endless supply of baby food”; Posh lived on cheese and crackers; maverick Sporty “ate things like mashed potatoes with tomato sauce.” And Geri herself was either sanctimoniously nibbling at bean sprouts or polishing off entire carrot cakes before a pukefest.
Throughout, Halliwell comes off as friendly and frantic, insecure, monstrously ambitious, and not as selfish as she fears; thus the autobio may be a fairly accurate portrait of the author. She seems smart enough to omit but not enough to make stuff up. If Only is the kind of contentless, snacky reading that makes your brain feel numb and cheesish, but it’s harmless and, in its unique way, enlightening. She recounts specifically how a gregarious girl from Watford can make it to superstardom on nothing but grit and pop-song invocations to hang on to her dreams (only to find that “money would never stop the ache inside of me,” of course). She’s the first to chart a map through this territory, full of determined optimism and humiliating setbacks but not a single dance, singing, or acting class, of vaguely yearning wannabes “desperate to be discovered, to have their name in lights.” And she got what she wanted, whatever that is. CP