The final time the Spice Girls played Top of the Pops as a quintet, I was one of the teens who’d waited for hours outside BBC’s Elstree Studios to catch their arrival. For a lanky, camp kid growing up in the 90s, pop music like theirs was an escape from school bullies and the tedium of growing up in sprawling, suburban Surrey. This was a time when bubblegum pop saturated the charts: B*Witched, Steps, the Spice Girls. It was also a time when those high-energy, disposable hits and synchronized dance routines were drip-fed to the public with precision. Pop then was carefully managed, decades away from the no-filter honesty of Rihanna staring into her smartphone’s lens—and the eyes of millions of Instagram followers—while slathering bronzer on her shoulders or smoking a joint.
But on Thursday, May 21, 1998, my friends and I scrambled forward as five Mercedes glided past outside the studio, windows rolled down with one Spice Girl inside each car. Almost within arm’s reach, they waved and made small talk—all except one. Geri read a book, her face partially hidden by it. Inside the studio, five subdued women trundled onstage in the sorts of trouser suits and shift dresses you’d wear to a dead-end temping job. Four of them switched on their smiles to perform ballad “Viva Forever,” while Geri looked like she was at the funeral of an elderly relative she’d never thought much of. Watch it back, and you’ll notice how the camera barely focuses on Geri, skimming over her in wider group shots but focusing far more on Emma Bunton or Mel C. With 20/20 hindsight, that was the moment it all snapped.
We’re now all knee-deep in 20-year Spice Girls retrospectives, pegged to the 1996 release of “Wannabe.” But those articles don’t really talk about one thing: how the bigger moment to remember in Spice Girl, and thus British pop, history is actually May 31, 1998: the day Geri publicly quit the band for good. It tells a particular story about how well artists were insulated from mutual communication with their fans in the time before social media, and how much easier it was to both string along a lie (‘Geri is unwell,’ rather than ‘Geri can’t be fucked with this anymore’) and create a huge news moment without the risk of leaks online.
Now, by 1998, the Spice Girls were a very different band from the one they’d first been in 1996. Their run of number 1s had been broken, somewhat fittingly, with Stop. They’d sacked their manager. Struggling to progress beyond their caricatured personas, they looked burned out. After that Top of the Pops filming, the group flew to Scandinavia on tour. At the time, I would log onto our dial-up internet to visit the few unofficial Spice Girls fan sites and forums, waiting about five minutes for each ‘Word Art’-like page to load up the latest gossip on their movements in Denmark and Finland.
It all came to a head the Wednesday after their, as yet unscreened, TOTP performance. In those pre-Netflix days, people would gather round the telly to watch celebs release the balls for the bi-weekly National Lottery draw. That night, only four Spice Girls flew back to the UK briefly, to do so. “Get well soon, Geri!” urged Sporty Spice, staring into the camera lens, as presenter Carol Smillie, a 90s vision in a metallic satin jacket, quizzed the girls on Geri’s absence. The official line: a dicky tummy. These few televised moments gave us fans a chance to catch a glimpse of our idols, live in our living rooms. And for a change, the veil seemed to slip in this closely scripted interview.
Some of my friends were at that taping. Apparently, security had banned fans outside from taking photos of the group, and an altercation erupted when a paparazzo breached the rule. The next day, a Norwegian fan posted a grainy photo online of the Oslo venue where the girls were due to perform that night. A notice stuck to the door explained that, once again, the world would have to make do with a quartet. The biggest band in the world—sellotaping a handwritten bit of paper on the door? This did not bode well. By Saturday the front pages were rife with rumoured bust-ups.
On Sunday morning I woke up to the news that The Spice Girls would be making a statement that afternoon. Then came the proclamation, coldly read out by Geri’s lawyer: “Sadly, I would like to confirm that I have left the Spice Girls”. Next, the remaining girls’ publicist ended their own announcement with the line, “Friendship Never Ends”. I sat there in stunned silence, unsure whether to laugh or cry.
Geri’s departure left fans from Indiana to Indonesia inconsolable. EMI, the band’s label, reportedly saw 3 percent knocked off their share price as their biggest act looked on the verge of total collapse. Like One Direction after them or Take That before, the Spice Girls were so much more than their music. Pop stars are an idea, a brand to be marketed or exploited to over-excitable teenagers. Then, as now, we all wanted to get a bit closer to the idols we thought we knew so well, either through TV or iPhones. As soon as the mask slips or the bubble bursts we realize these people aren’t the two-dimensional caricatures living perfect lives. Manufactured pop bands aren’t just BFFs hanging out and having fun. Geri shattered that illusion. The decline of manufactured pop set in, as the internet destroyed the power of the record labels and fans wanted to see the ‘real lives’ of their heroes, not the PR spin we’d been force-fed.
Geri was the embodiment of a group as big as the Spice Girls, at that particular time. Their ‘feisty confidence’ brand had actually been crushed by relentless media intrusion and being worked to the bone. In interviews since she quit, she skirted around the reasons why she left, settling on the line: “it’s like a marriage.” But she didn’t even need to have those words ready to say, when she had a lawyer speak on her behalf—a world away from Fifth Harmony announcing Camila Cabello’s departure with a scheduled social media post. You can debate whether “Girl Power” meant anything more than clever marketing until you’re out of breath. But the Spice Girls left another legacy: being one of the last, major groups to lose a member who then got to retreat, without the noise of fans shouting at her on social media. These were the days of Top of the Pops, after all.
You can find Malcolm on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.