The tantrums. The egos. The breakdowns. The threesomes. Melanie Blake saw it all during her career behind the scenes in the music business. And she doesn't hold back. (Needy 90s pop stars should look away now.)
Some people who have worked with celebrities are tediously bashful about it. Bashful isn't really Melanie Blake's style. Today, she's a 42-year-old multimillionaire music manager-turned-novelist. In the mid-90s, the heyday of Take That and the Spice Girls, Oasis and Blur, she worked on Top of the Pops, a 19-year-old blonde from Stockport gone rogue, as she puts it. If Top of the Pops had been a film, what you saw on your television would have been classed PG - parental guidance. Backstage, she says, was R18 – restricted to over-18s only, a riot of sex, bitching, debauchery, rampant insecurity, A-list stars, D-list divas and kittens. Kittens?
"Mariah Carey wanted them. I was dispatched up to the dressing room and told by an assistant, 'Mariah's really bored and if she doesn't have something to do, she's going to leave. She wants some cats to play with. She just really likes kittens.'"
Blake nipped out to a nearby pet shop, bought four kittens and told the confused shop owner that she'd return them later. So Carey managed to fend off boredom long enough to record her performance, the assistant kept her job, the pet shop owner kept his money and his kittens. Everyone was happy.
"Pop is an evil, twisted, mad place and anyone who expects pop stars to be normal is insane," she says, on the phone from her home in north London. "How can you expect someone to think they're so juicy that they can go out and entertain 100,000 people, then come backstage and make you a cup of tea? They're mad. Of course they're mad. They have to be. They're show ponies, preened and pushed around and, in the end, dumped."
An exception was Michael Hutchence of INXS, whom she didn't meet on the show but "on the scene, as you do". They embarked on a casual two-year affair. "He was gorgeous. He could have got a nun out of a nunnery and in her lingerie within 10 minutes. He was like the snake in The Jungle Book; he could just do that to you. And he was adorable, a great, great guy, so kind and loving and sexy."
She never considered him to be her boyfriend and accepted they weren't exclusive, because, "It was very clear that he was not going to be faithful to anyone". But she has nothing but good to say of him: he was incredible, she says. They would talk for hours about life and love, their dreams, hopes and ambitions. He would play her new material and give her career advice and buy her dinner. He bought her a ring with two heart-shaped sapphires interwoven with diamonds. "But it was a gift; it didn't mean anything. I was under no illusions." Hutchence was found dead in an Australian hotel room in 1997, at the age of 37. Blake had known he was unhappy.
"Why? Because of his drug addictions. He was definitely addicted, no question. And he drank a lot. But he was a rock star, you know? That's what they're meant to do."
The last time she saw him was an awkward encounter shortly before he died, when another of his exes, Kylie Minogue, was hosting Top of the Pops and he was making what would be his last appearance. Blake says Minogue is lovely but she could never understand the attraction for Hutchence. She rattles through a few of his other girlfriends.
"I'm a bit of a bad girl, Paula Yates was a bad girl, Helena Christensen was a supermodel. But Kylie Minogue was just so incredibly sweet. He certainly liked a lot of different women. He was very varied in his tastes."
Blake found that many of the people she met on Top of the Pops were, like Hutchence, surprisingly nice. It was the people around them who weren't, the managers and publicists and hangers-on. Blake says the crew was told by one of Jennifer Lopez's staff not to look her in the eye, but when Blake told J-Lo, she was furious. Beyonce, then still with Destiny's Child, was "lovely, really, really lovely", not grand at all. She would walk round the room thanking the crew and chatting. Britney Spears was sweet but lonely, desperate for friendship. She lent Blake her limo when she went to see her in Los Angeles, and Blake says the chauffeur tried to seduce her. "If even her driver was behaving like that, God knows who she could trust. You could tell there were drugs; you could tell there was drink. She was on a constant promotional tour and you could tell it was all starting to take its toll. It was like hanging out with Lindsay Lohan – you could see there was a car crash coming."
Poor Whitney Houston was surrounded by what Blake calls a "toxic bubble of clingers-on and bottom-feeders. The people around her were scumbags and thieves and you could tell she was literally being pimped out within an inch of her life."
Robbie Williams, then still in Take That, thought he could do whatever he wanted, including kicking a football against the studio's soundproof doors. When Blake asked him to stop, she claims he threatened to get her fired.
"He was being such a dick. He was at the height of his fame and arrogance. I've heard he's nothing like that now but the boy bands were just big children really, setting off fire alarms and breaking out the fire extinguishers."
If Oasis and Blur were both appearing on the show, extra security had to be brought in to keep them apart, otherwise there'd be trouble. Most of the people in most of the bands hated each other, she says. As soon as they achieved what they wanted, they felt like they were trapped in a bad marriage and were desperate to leave. Geri Halliwell famously did just that in 1998. Blake was later at the Brits the night the Spice Girls won the lifetime achievement award and watched her doing everything she could to steal their thunder. Halliwell is one of the few about whom she's scathing.
"Geri Halliwell is a joke. She should be embarrassed by herself. Everybody loved her because she had very little talent but a hell of a lot of charisma and determination. But then the delusions of grandeur happened. First it's the posh boys, then it's the clothes, then the boobs go and she's stick-thin, then it's all about the UN. You know what? She had big tits and was from Watford and that's what people liked about her. She proved herself, she made it from nowhere – that's to be applauded. Now she sounds like she's straight out of Buckingham Palace. Why try to be somebody else?"
Her last record, Blake adds with grim satisfaction, released in Australia, sold less than 400 copies. She claims her former bandmate, Victoria Beckham, seemed insecure and liked to have David with her at all times. Blake's job was to make sure she could see him when she was performing. One time, she says, they somehow hid him in a speaker, in the middle of a dancefloor full of screaming girls, who would, Blake says happily, have wet themselves if they'd known. But Posh was also a grafter: like Halliwell, Blake says she didn't have much in the way of natural talent "but she worked her arse off. Whereas Sophie Ellis-Bextor just sat on her arse and it came to her. Deservedly so, because she was fabulous but she didn't put in the hours that Posh did."
Blake is critical of the effects of fame – almost all pop stars, she suggests, are driven by insecurity and then find that fame and fortune aren't all they're cracked up to be.
"If you get what you want and it doesn't make you happy, then what will? What more is there than worldwide adulation, more money than you can spend, anyone you want sleeping with you and everyone saying you're wonderful? If that doesn't fulfil you, it becomes a huge void and that's where the drink and drugs come in. Dave Stewart called it 'paradise syndrome' – you get everything you dreamed would make you happy but you're not happy."
The ones that fare best, she finds, are the ones who do something else – they get out, get married, have children and juggle things, like Beyonce or Robbie Williams, Lionel Richie or Alice Cooper. On Top of the Pops, it was almost a given that the bigger the star, the easier they were to work with. It was the new ones, the cocky kids with their first hit single, who were a nightmare. And then there were the soap stars-turned-pop stars.
"Monsters," she says. "Absolute monsters. They were the worst. If they were in a soap and got a record deal, you could guarantee they were a monster. Ginormous entourages, expecting people to pander to them, rude and insulting."
It was a glamorous job. David Beckham would be playing football in the corridor with Robbie Williams, the dressing room doors were banging as everyone went in and out shagging everybody else. And then there were the after-parties – she recalls some legendary nights at the Primrose Hill home of Noel Gallagher and Meg Mathews, then a couple.
"I was always at Supernova Heights, which of course was a great big drugs f***fest. I never did drugs; I used to stand back and observe. It was a debauched hotbed of mess. I used to ring my brother from the bathroom sometimes and say, 'You'll never guess what I've just seen.' Lesbian threesomes everywhere you looked. One room was full of beds – it was meant to be a movie room but I never saw any movies on. You'd go to parties at Claridge's and suddenly you'd turn round and everyone was at it on the bed. It was crazy."
Blake comes from a solidly working-class background in Stockport, Greater Manchester, a town famous chiefly for its viaduct. Her mother was a cleaner, her dad a printer who, when she was 7, became extremely religious overnight. Television was banned and Top of the Pops was the devil's music. She used to hide her pop posters inside her wardrobe, because otherwise he'd rip them down and say they were false idols. She and her older brother went to the local comprehensive, where the headmaster told her she'd never amount to anything. Her mum took her out on her cleaning jobs, to stop her watching TV, sending her to the library for a book to keep her quiet while she worked. When she was 9, she read Jackie Collins' Rock Star, about music and managers. It changed her life.
"It was about women who didn't have lives like my mum, who didn't stand underneath the Stockport Viaduct eating Jaffa Cakes. I discovered that you could, if you really, really wanted it, have a different life."
She ran away from home at 15 and lived in a squat in Oldham, working under-age in a bar to get the money to move to London. She did work experience in a record shop, because she thought it would help her learn what people bought and why. She arrived in London on her 17th birthday, knowing no one, with enough money to last three months.
She sent letters to every manager and TV company and music company, and got a job handing out flyers. For two years, she got nowhere. No interviews, no calls, nothing. After one particularly dismal day handing out drinks at Euston, she decided enough was enough. She would head back northwest, settle down and accept that her dream of a life in music wasn't meant to be. When she got home, the phone was ringing. It was the agency that got her the flyer work.
"They said, 'Have you ever been a camera assistant?' I said yes. I had no idea what it was. They said, 'Can you get to Elstree at 10am tomorrow?' I said yes. I had no idea where it was. I got there at 10, and I looked up at the studio and it said Top of the Pops, and I said, 'Thank you, God. It's not you He's looking after, Dad – it's me.'"
After four heady years on Top of the Pops doing not an awful lot but having a marvellous time, the arrival of a new producer saw her move on and reinvent herself as a music manager. It was doing this, with clients like Claire Richards from Steps, Bros, some members of Spandau Ballet and Mis-Teeq, that made her the fortune she now takes enormous delight in spending on designer handbags and shoes. She specialised in what she calls "after the screaming stops" pop stars, getting them writing and TV deals, clothes endorsements, building the brand.
"As a manager, you're a trader. You trade the talent for as long as it's viable. I specialised in trading post pop stardom."
Having made her millions, she gave up music and turned her hand instead to writing. She's written a bestselling novel, re-released for lockdown, called The Thunder Girls, about a girl band that gets back together 30 years after they split. Unsurprisingly, most of the more outrageous scenes are true. She's never married and is currently happily single, saying she finds dating a distraction from work. When Jackie Collins died and her jewellery was auctioned, Blake bought five pieces, including a 50-carat morganite and diamond necklace.
"Who would have thought that the little girl who read those books could have a life like that?" she says incredulously. "I still can't believe it happened. It feels like a dream."
The Thunder Girls by Melanie Blake is published by Pan Macmillan as a special edition ebook
Written by: Hilary Rose
© Financial Times