Egos, orgies and top of the strops: Pop manager MELANIE BLAKE lays bare the crazy demands from spoilt divas, A-listers’ tangled sex lives and drugs passed around like sweets
The moment I was standing at a party at London’s Claridge’s hotel, surrounded by A-list pop stars, models and actors — many of them intertwined in assorted positions on the bed behind me — was when I truly realised my life had come a long way from a Saturday job in a record store in Stockport.
There I was, threesomes going on everywhere you looked — featuring some of the most famous faces in Britain — and Class-A drugs being passed around like sherbet dip dabs. I didn’t partake in either, but I won’t lie: it was a riot to be part of it.
This was the Nineties, a time of Britpop and Cool Britannia, of the Spice Girls, Take That, Oasis and Blur. It was an extravaganza of egos, divas and bad behaviour before camera-phones, Instagram and Twitter could document it all. And here I was, just 21 but watching it unfold before my very eyes.
Even better, I had pretty much blagged my way to the heart of it after landing a job as a camera assistant on Top Of The Pops (TOTP) at the tender age of 19 — despite not knowing what on earth a camera assistant did.
Melanie Blake realised her life had come a long way from a Saturday job in a record store in Stockport the moment she was standing at a party at London’s Claridge’s hotel surrounded by A-list pop stars, models and actors
By 21 Melanie was working at the BBC’s iconic Top of the Pops show and by 27 she had built a reputation as one of the UK’s leading music and entertainment managersPictured: Melanie with Spice Girls singer Mel B
Astonishingly, I brazened it out, staying with the show for four years, giving me time to witness the rampant insecurities and rocket-sized egos of the performers at work and the debauchery they could get up to when they were off duty. After I left that job and made millions as a writer and manager, it all became ripe material for The Thunder Girls, my best-selling novel drawing on my crazy years on the pop frontline — and now shooting up the listings as a re-release during lockdown.
But even 19-year-old me worked out quickly that, by and large, pop stars hate each other — and that often includes their own bandmates.
You’d see them turn out a stellar performance, all back-slapping and guitar duos, when only minutes before they’d stood on stage not speaking to each other. I remember marvelling at Jon Bon Jovi, who seemed to be perennially grumpy, standing in front of his microphone scowling while his band shifted uncomfortably behind him.
The second thing I quickly twigged was that it didn’t take long for newcomers to turn into monsters: these adorable people would arrive to do their first performance when their single was at number 30 in the charts — then return three weeks later, their song at number one, already throwing their weight around.
A lot of the time it wasn’t their fault: it was the people around them. I remember the lovely Irish pop star Samantha Mumba coming into the studio when her first hit single had entered the charts. It was all so relaxed, but it was a different story a few weeks later when her single was at number one and her entourage wouldn’t let us get near her.
It’s hard to keep a grip on normality when someone won’t let you hold your own drink to your lips. On occasions the stars seemed oblivious to the haughty instructions their managers were doling out on their behalf.
The former pop manager wrote the book The Thunder Girls, a novel inspired by the crazy demands of the job from spoilt divas, A-listers’ tangled sex lives and drugs passed around like sweets
After a decade at the top, Melanie decided to manage a smaller client list and concentrate on her other passion, writing. Pictured: Melanie with Irish girl group The Nolans
Prior to her appearance on TOTP, we were told by Jennifer Lopez’s team not to make eye contact but after watching her rehearsal I couldn’t contain myself. I walked up and said: ‘We’ve been told not to look at you, but I wanted to tell you that I think you’re amazing.’ She was totally bewildered — and furious. The next thing we knew, half her team had been dismissed.
Mariah Carey’s team instructed us to clap when we saw her. Surely, said the studio executive, that meant after her performance? No, came the reply: at her mere presence. The executive soon put her manager straight — although Mariah didn’t disappoint on the diva front, as I discovered when one of her assistants was dispatched from her dressing room and told me the star needed some kittens to play with to alleviate her boredom.
Luckily there was a pet shop nearby where I could purchase four — promising the bewildered owner I would return them, buying enough time to keep Mariah busy until she had to perform. Sometimes you could see the sneaky manoeuvring of managers who had singled out a band member for solo stardom: Beyonce — then in Destiny’s Child — was a charming guest, happy to indulge in small talk with the crew, but she didn’t know her managers were asking that her bandmates be zoned out of camera shots to focus on her. Often bandmates were making their own manoeuvres. Take Geri ‘Ginger Spice’ Halliwell. Everyone loved her at first: this determined, pulchritudinous girl with not much in the way of talent but charisma by the bucketload.
But as the years went by you could see her getting delusions of grandeur and by the time she returned to TOTP with her first number one single in 1999 it was like having Princess Diana in the studio: even her accent had changed and she marched around like she owned the place.
The other Spice Girls weren’t averse to generating headlines, of course: I remember Mel C walking hand in hand backstage with another woman, clearly enjoying the whispers that accompanied her, while Mel B was that pop rarity: a lovely, down-to-earth gal who wasn’t changed by fame. I bumped into her a few months ago — the first time in 20 years — and she hadn’t changed a bit.
Robbie Williams, then in Take That, was also inclined to arrogance. I once had to tell him off for playing football in the corridor backstage with David Beckham and Dane Bowers from R&B band Another Level.
Robbie Williams told Melanie ‘I could get you fired’, then winked when she told him off. She had to tell him off for playing football in the corridor backstage with David Beckham and Dane Bowers from R&B band Another Level
‘I could get you fired,’ Robbie told me. ‘Try it — but stop kicking the ball in the meantime,’ I told him. He winked, showing a flash of the charm that went hand in hand with the swagger.
Make no mistake: some stars had egos that were off the scale, matched only by their lack of capacity for grace. I was a big fan of American artiste Anastacia until, after congratulating her on her performance one evening, all she could muster was a terse ‘Yeah. It’s what I do’ before stalking off.
Sheena Easton was no better. At the time she was on the comeback trail — as I recall she was hoping to target the ‘pink pound’ with her new single — but threw her weight around as if she was a Hollywood A-lister. I had to laugh when, her microphone still on after her performance, she shouted: ‘Do you really think the gays are going to buy this s***?’
And don’t get me started on the soap stars turned pop stars, who were almost universally a nightmare. I would love to unmask the soap actress who turned her back on a charming genuine A-lister who had given her a wave as she arrived for her rehearsal.
It was unspoken code that rehearsals were the one ego-free zone — everyone, no matter how big a star, clapped everyone else’s performance — but our soap actress, back turned, just twiddled her hair extensions throughout.
We got our revenge. Her rehearsal performance was amazing but at the end she was greeted with stone cold silence from the crew.
On Michael Hutchence (above), Melanie says ‘for years I was just one of his extra-curricular girls’
Melanie says ‘don’t get me started on the soap stars turned pop stars, who were almost universally a nightmare’. Pictured: Melanie with singer-songwriter Claire RichardsClaire Richards
The action off stage, of course, was every bit as colourful. This was the era of The Primrose Hill Set, with legendary parties held at Supernova Heights, the North London home of Oasis supremo Noel Gallagher. It was the party pad of the day — so many people were there that you rarely crossed paths with the host, but everywhere you looked was a debauched mess of drugs and sex. That applied elsewhere, too: at another party with the band’s arch-rivals Blur — in a big country house just like the one they sang about — everywhere you looked people were off their heads on drugs.
It was one of so many crazy episodes: at a music party I sat at a table between one of Britain’s most famous supermodels and a ‘close friend’ of hers, watching as the model leaned across and said to her friend: ‘Is that your husband, then?’ I didn’t think anything of it until her friend leaned in and whispered to me: ‘That’s a bit rich — she was my bloody bridesmaid!’
Then there’s the close female friend who told me about how she had been asked for a threesome by two male A-list pop stars, both legendary lotharios of the era. She agreed — only to find herself swiftly pushed out of the way as they concentrated on each other.
Those years even delivered me my own bona fide rock-star romance in the form of a two-year dalliance with INXS singer Michael Hutchence, a man so devastatingly attractive that he could have made a nun break her chastity vows within minutes.
When I met him in a London nightclub, he was officially with model Helena Christensen — although she would soon make way for Paula Yates and I was under no illusions that I was just one of his many extra-curricular girls. Sometimes we would spend days in a hotel where I sadly saw the true extent of his addiction to drink and drugs. But he treated me with nothing but respect and was one of the kindest men I have ever met.
It was all a long way from my modest upbringing in Stockport. My dad ran a successful print shop and while we didn’t have Rockefeller money, it was enough to pay for a semi-detached home.
The Primrose Hill set, including Noel Gallagher (pictured), threw parties that ‘were a debauched mess of sex and drugs’
But when I was seven, Dad fell in with a religious cult who believed anything that wasn’t in the Bible was a ‘false idol’.
That meant television was banned, along with pop music, which Dad considered to be the Devil’s work (I recall Neneh Cherry gyrating her pregnant bump on Top Of The Pops being the last straw on that front).
Even at seven I knew his beliefs were crazy, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Mum had bigger worries: with the church now Dad’s primary focus, Mum had to take on cleaning jobs to boost our income, dragging me along with her whenever her work was after school or at weekends.
The compensation for this was that I was allowed to get a book from the library, and it was there that I spotted a glossy, sexy novel by an author named Jackie Collins. Rock Star was a racy tale and it would be my schooling in a different kind of womanhood, where we could be ballsy music managers ferried around in limos.
I resolved that a music manager was what I was going to be. I got a series of Saturday jobs — all proceeds going to my ‘running away fund’ — then at 16 wangled a work-experience placement at a record shop to help me understand who was buying records and why.
I left home to live in a squat in Oldham then, just under a year later, boarded a train to London with a hold-all, £1,500 in savings to last me three months, and not a single contact. I found a room to rent for £50 a week and set about trying to get into the entertainment business.
Almost two years after I had first arrived in the Big City, the only job I had found was handing out flyers, and I was starting to think that I would have to go back up North and give up on my dreams.
Melanie says Mariah Carey (pictured) demanded four kittens in her dressing room to play with
The final straw came when I was handing out bright red fruit drinks at Euston Station and a female celebrity I won’t name walked past me, accidentally knocked one of the drinks over my white top and said: ‘You should get a proper job.’
I walked behind the concourse to get changed, vowing that tomorrow I would be on the train North.
It was then my clunky flip phone rang. On the other end was the flyer company asking if I had ever worked as a camera assistant.
I didn’t even know what that was — although that didn’t stop me saying yes. The following morning, two buses and a long walk later, I arrived at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire as instructed, looked up and saw a sign saying Top Of The Pops. ‘Thank you, God,’ I whispered to myself. ‘It’s not you he’s looking after, Dad — it’s me.’
I walked through the doors into Pop Narnia, and was told I was on camera number three.
The rest is history, but four years later, I struck out on my own, helped by the lovely Claire Richards from Steps who was my first signing. Later I worked with members of Bros, Spandau Ballet and Mis-Teeq, among many others.
By 27 I had built a reputation as one of the UK’s leading music and entertainment managers, specialising in post pop-star stardom and what I dubbed the ‘after the screaming stops’ deals. Long before it became customary, I had an eye on branding.
Melanie brought back Eighties girl group The Nolan Sisters in 2009. Pictured: with singer-songwriter Claire Richards and Nolans singer Coleen Nolan
Then, in 2009, I attempted my most ambitious project yet: putting Eighties girl group The Nolan Sisters back together.
Everyone told me I was crazy, but within 24 hours of ticket sales to their reunion tour going live — and ten years to the day since I had walked into the Top Of The Pops studio — box office takings were £2 million. Only a slice of it went to me, of course, but I was well on my way to making my fortune.
I quit the music business not long after, wanting to go out while I was at the top, becoming an agent for soap actresses. But it was looking back at all these crazy times that was my inspiration for The Thunder Girls, a riotous tale of revenge, betrayal and debauchery that became a bestseller — and cast-iron proof that you should always write what you know.
With no small irony, it led to me being hailed the Jackie Collins of my generation — a compliment that could not be more apt given she set me on my journey in the first place.
- The Thunder Girls published by Pan Macmillan is available on Amazon.
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