You’d be forgiven for not immediately noticing the many parallels between Nicola Adams, the 38-year-old former undefeated Olympic boxer, and Mel B, the 45-year-old Spice Girl and television personality. Especially given the stark differences in their demeanours; Adams is coy and laid-back, and Mel B, best known as Scary Spice, snaps at me for “interrupting” when I attempt to chair their conversation. But scratch the surface and it’s impossible not to see the similarities. The pair are from Leeds, with parents who hail from the Caribbean (Mel’s mum is white British and her dad is from Saint Kitts and Nevis; Adams’s mum is from St Maarten and her dad is Jamaican). Both are among the few black northerners in the public eye.
Both women competed in hugely popular dance shows, Adams taking part in Strictly Come Dancing this year, while Mel B came second in the US equivalent, Dancing With The Stars, in 2007. They enjoy a shared status as LGBTQ+ icons, too: Adams danced in the first same-sex pairing on Strictly, before being forced to quit when her dance partner, Katya Jones, tested positive for Covid. Mel B has been hailed a gay-iety since her heyday as part of the world’s biggest girl band and has spoken candidly about her fluid sexuality.
Among these happy coincidences are darker connections: their conversation covers domestic violence, which Adams and her mother experienced at the hands of her father. In 2018, Mel B outlined the extensive abuse she faced from her former partner in her memoir, Brutally Honest. She is now a patron for Women’s Aid.
The duo get on famously, swapping details and planning a joint training session post-lockdown. But first they talk candidly about their childhoods, ambition and northern grit.
Mel B I’m so glad that we’re doing this, I’m a big fan of yours. Where are you, in Leeds or London?
Nicola Adams London. I’m going to start training for the [Strictly Come Dancing] final dance that we’re coming back for.
MB You’re allowed to do that? What happened with the competition?
NA Every Saturday, everybody gets tested [for Covid]. But the test results don’t come through till the Tuesday. So we were ready to start the new week, we were so excited. Then on the Tuesday we got the test back and Katya tested positive. I just couldn’t believe it. Katya was in tears, and that was it. We had to isolate. We just came out of isolation yesterday.
MB Well, that’s good that you get to do the final. I did Dancing With The Stars, the American version in LA – I came second. It was really hardcore, the training every day.
NA Oh wow! Congratulations!
MB Congratulations to you. You were doing really, really well. Are you based in Leeds? Because I’m in Leeds.
NA Yeah, I’m based in Scarcroft.
MB Really? I’m in Cookridge! Proper Leeds girl. How was it for you growing up? My mum’s white and my dad’s black, and back in the 70s when I was born, there was a lot of National Front activity. My parents had a really hard time.
NA I grew up in a heavily white-dominated neighbourhood. My family is quite mixed – some of my aunties are white, so the kids are mixed as well – and then I’d go to school and there’d be racist people. I never could get my head around what the actual issue was. It still baffles me now.
MB My family, just like yours, is completely mixed and interracial. I think it’s a beautiful thing to grow up with, but it’s also really hard if you’ve got nobody else in your community that’s dealing with that.
NA Definitely, it’s very strange.
MB I’ve followed your career, and you’ve broken all the rules and set your own standards. Where did you get that “oomph”, to just go at it with your own rules? Because I’ve done the same.
NA I’m not sure whether I was just born with that mentality. When someone says, “No, you can’t do that”, I think, “Why not?” I’ve always believed that there shouldn’t be a reason why women can’t box, or why a woman can’t dance with another woman. I don’t see why those rules exist.
MB When I was growing up, everybody used to say, “You have to braid your hair, you have to keep it neat and tidy.” And I was like, “I want to wear my hair in the biggest afro!” There’s something really lovely about having that within you, the natural thing that you gravitate towards, without being tainted by anybody else. Even if you don’t realise it, you are setting a precedent that is looked upon by so many people, who are so thankful for that.
NA Half of the time, I don’t even think about it in that way. I just do things and then I’ll be halfway through and think, “Oh, crap, am I actually doing this?”
MB For the first time ever! Something that nobody else has done.
NA I think it stems from my boxing career. Because it was such a male-dominated sport; women didn’t get any respect whatsoever. They were turned away from gyms that would say, “No, we don’t have the facilities for female boxers”, or, “We don’t train women.”
MB How old were you when you first started boxing?
NA I was 12. I only joined by accident. My mum couldn’t get a babysitter for me and my brother. And where she did aerobics, they had a boxing class there.
MB Oh my God, that’s so funny. That’s exactly like me. My mum could not cope with me because I was so hyperactive! And she took me to a dance class for 10p an hour to try to get all my energy out. Then I became obsessed with dance.
NA For me it was finding something that I was really good at. I wasn’t the best at school, but when I was 15 I said to myself, “I’m going to be the best boxer in the world and I don’t care what I have to do to get there.” I’d tell people I was going to go to the Olympics before women’s boxing was even an Olympic sport. They’d think, “Yeah, right”, but I was so sure.
MB Don’t you think that has something to do with our northern roots? Because they say – I truly do believe this – that northerners do have a certain grit and working-class mentality where we won’t be beaten down, even though we are underdogs. We have a mentality that, once we latch on to something that feels good, we just won’t stop, no matter what the odds are.
NA Yeah, definitely. The majority of the top boxers always come from the north. We’re made of different stuff. I think for me, my motivation was always wanting to look after my family. Because we were super poor. What was it like for you?
MB When I look back at it as an adult, it was horrendous, but as a kid, I had the best time ever. I was living next door to a drug dealer and a prostitute. We’d have people knock on our door and as a young child, I would know whether they wanted the prostitute or the drug dealer, so I’d send them either to the right or to the left. And that was really normal for me. Even though we were living on the breadline, there were a sense of community which is missing these days. Although I think lockdown has brought that back a little.
NA That’s been one good thing that we can take from the pandemic. It’s brought people together. Everybody’s helping each other. When we went into the first lockdown, I was getting a lot of messages on Instagram from people in the LGBT community who were struggling.
MB When did you come out?
NA When I was 14. I remember wanting to tell my mum, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know whether she was going to disown me, or if she was going to kick me out, or whether she was going to react in a nice way. But I knew that the struggle of hiding such a big part of my life was crushing me inside and I couldn’t take the weight. I came to the decision that I wanted it off my chest, whether it was going to end badly or whatever was going to happen. So I told Mum and she just said, “It’s OK. Put the kettle on.” She said she already knew. I was like, “I have been struggling with how I’m going to tell you for weeks!” But I guess mums always do know, right?
MB They say they do.
NA It was so nice, the way that she reacted, because I know for a lot of people it’s very, very different. With Strictly, I’d been asked to do it since 2012 and I’ve always said no, because I don’t like wearing dresses and I didn’t want to dance with a man. This year, I was supposed to go to Tokyo for the Olympics to do some commentary, then some presenting for the boxing. That didn’t happen and Strictly got in touch again. I was like, “You know what? I’ll do it. But I’m not wearing a dress, and I want to dance with another woman.” And on the call they asked me three times, “Are you sure you won’t dance with a man?” And I said no, either I do it this way or I don’t want to do the show at all. It took a couple of weeks. But they came back, and they said, “Yeah, we’re going to do it. We’re going to support you the whole way.” I never saw two women dancing on TV growing up, so I never thought that would happen.
MB And you’re in God knows how many millions of people’s front rooms, showing people that this is acceptable and this is normal. I think whether you’re talking about abuse, whether you’re talking about being accepted as gay, trans, bisexual, whatever it is, the more that we can talk about it, the more accepted it is. With all this exposure from Strictly and what you’ve achieved as a female boxer, where do you see yourself going next?
NA I’ve got my own fashion line coming out soon. Hopefully bringing out some gyms. I’m keeping up with my charity work as well, with the Prince’s Trust and Fight for Peace. They help get kids from disadvantaged areas into sport: they can do boxing, muay Thai, mixed martial arts, and through there, they get them back into studying, so they can apply for jobs.
MB I think it’s really important to get involved with charities and do something that’s close to your heart. I became a patron of Women’s Aid two and a half years ago because I had a really bad, abusive marriage. I wrote a book about it, more as therapy, as I suffered really bad PTSD.
NA My dad was very abusive to me and my mum when I was growing up. That’s why they got divorced.
MB It happens a lot. When I was growing up, people didn’t really talk about it. With Women’s Aid, I got to really dive deep into how people get themselves into that situation – because I got myself into that situation, and I stayed there for 10 years. My daughter is now 21, and she always says that I promised we’d get out, but she knew how broken I was. Yet I worked on America’s number one show, America’s Got Talent, week in week out. It was a whole different life in my marital home.
NA Everybody always says, “If it was me, I’d have done this, I wouldn’t have put up with it”, but my mum was the same. It’s so easy when you’re on the outside looking in, compared with what it is when you’re actually that person. It’s completely different.
MB You don’t feel like you have any way of getting out, because you’re cut off from your friends and family. Usually the perpetrator makes you have a bunch of kids with them, so you can’t leave. They control everything: your lifestyle, your kids. We all have exactly the same story, exactly the same things that went on underneath our roofs that nobody else knew about. Because of the pandemic, people are more inclined to talk about it. There are two women dying every week. For years, it was never spoken about.
NA It was under the carpet: “You don’t say stuff like that about your husband.” It’s only now that women have actually started to get more power and have been speaking out.
MB When I spoke about it, I didn’t even know if anybody was going to believe me. I hadn’t spoken to my mum for years, my dad had died. I didn’t think I had any hope or any help at all. Do you still speak to your dad?
NA We haven’t spoken for years. I said to him that if he apologised, I’d be able to have a relationship with him, be able to work on building something. But he’s in complete denial of ever doing anything.
MB They always are.
NA I said, “Look, the door’s always open, if you want to be a man and apologise.” It’d be so much more of a nice story, if he was like, “I’m sorry. I apologise for what I did and I’m getting help now.”
MB I do believe that situations in our childhoods pave the way for the kind of person that we become as adults. I’ve blamed my parents for enough stuff in my lifetime, but my mum was so shy that I became this outrageous, outspoken person, so I have to thank her for being where I am now.
You’ve achieved all these accomplishments, which are frigging amazing as a black woman. Don’t you feel really empowered, knowing that people look up to you?
NA I know I’ve accomplished a lot of stuff, but I just see myself as a normal person.
MB But you’re not really normal, are you?
NA [Laughs] I know, but I see myself as just standing up for what’s right and I don’t really think about all the other stuff.
MB My kids just see me as Mum, whether I’m performing at Wembley Stadium or whatever. They ask if I get scared, but I just cannot wait to get out on stage. What goes through your mind before you compete?
NA I’m excited, nervous, but I can’t wait to get out there and put on a show for the crowd. All the training and the sore body is all for that moment. It’s like something else takes over and I’m just watching.
What was it like being part of the Spice Girls?
MB I joined when I was 18. I was a dancer at Blackpool Pleasure Beach when I was 16, and then I auditioned for this girl group. They wouldn’t sign us to a contract, so we lived on the dole, and wrote all our own music. It was amazing – we were all misfits, none of us looked like we’d get on or be able to have a conversation, but we really clicked. We were all the rejects, but we believed in ourselves, and we wanted to start a movement. We wanted to spread girl power – all our parents thought we were bonkers and were begging us to get a job – but it turned out that what we were saying resonated with people. It happened, and it happened in such a big way that even we were shocked.
NA You were everywhere! I think it worked so well because you were all so diverse. Nobody had seen that before.
MB Nobody had ever seen what you did before! You paved the way, completely. I know as northerners, generally, we never give ourselves a pat on the back, but every now and again you have to say, you know what? I’ve done bloody good. My mum might not say it to me, but I will say it to myself. I’ve done good!
NA I might have to start doing that to myself, actually. Just saying. “Yeah, you’ve done good.”
MB When you’re next in Leeds, we should get together. I don’t really like many people, I normally get bored after 25 minutes, but you’re very interesting and nice to talk to.
NA Definitely, that would be awesome! Looks like I’ve got a new friend.
For support and information about domestic abuse or to donate to Women’s Aid, visit womensaid.org.uk