Here are things I think about when the Spice Girls come to mind:
Driving around in my aunt and uncle’s brown minivan, listening to the Spice Girls’ famous tracks on repeat and singing at the top of my lungs as the rest of my family wished they had earplugs.
Having this brilliant Spice Girls ruler that I used for absolutely everything. I hid it in my Spice Girls sticker book so no one could take it when I wasn’t looking.
I had reoccurring dreams that the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys picked me up from elementary school in their really sweet double decker limo and would bring me to their fancy mansion somewhere to sing and dance.
Going to the band’s reunion tour stop in Toronto in February 2008 and being so content – I classify this concert as one of the happiest times in my life.
And then, I heard that a Toronto-based Spice Girls tribute band, called Wannabe SGT, was performing at The Mod Club in January. Next thing I knew, I was standing in a sea of people scream-singing along to every classic tune.
I caught up with Barbara Johnston, or Ginger Spice, to learn more about how Wannabe all started and what’s next for these Canadian ladies bringing the 90s Girl Power phenomenon back into the lives of many.
1. How did the five of you meet?
We go waaaayyyyy back. Baby Spice (Catharine Merriam) is my sister and we grew up with Posh Spice (Suzy Wilde) because Suzy’s mom is a singer and my dad was her piano player. We’ve been doing shows together quite literally from the time we were three. We also went to the same arts high school, Wexford School for the Arts, as did Scary Spice (Te’Anne Collins). Sporty Spice (Anika Johnson) and I met at Ryerson University 10 years ago as acting majors.
2. When did Wannabe SGT officially form?
Wannabe had its first show four years ago at the El Mocambo in January 2012.
3. What was the first step you had to take to make Wannabe SGT what it is today?
Getting the idea.
Much to our surprise and delight, Wannabe took off immediately. We had planned to put on a show for our friends and family, a fun “one off” sort of thing. We had friends in DPT (The Daft Punk Tribute Band) and they were doing well, and so we thought, “What could we do?” We spent about four months rehearsing every weekend. This entailed listening to Spice Girls songs obsessively and assigning harmonies, holding choreographic rehearsals, Posh Spice wrote out all band arrangements, we had to source costumes and wigs, etc. Much to our surprise, (and delight), we sold out our very first show. After that, things just started growing.
Over the years, we have continued to add material — including other 90s covers not by the Spice Girls — costumes and additional Spice looks, while also expanding on technical aspects. We have toured Canada and performed in the US.
4. Was Wannabe SGT always in the plan, or did it just happen by fluke?
Fluke. Pure fluke.
All five of us have a lot of training in musical theatre and dance — we have degrees in classical acting and jazz music, and so when we graduated from post-secondary school, we did not expect to be dressing up as the Spice Girls. As artists starting out, Wannabe was just going to be one of many projects we would work on together. It just so happened that this particular project hit the early wave of 90s nostalgia just as 90s nostalgia was beginning to really take off. It was a combination of a good idea and really good timing.
5. You’ve performed in a few places across Canada – where’s your favourite place to sing and dance as Posh, Sporty, Baby, Ginger and Scary?
We really love playing in Edmonton. We’ve had a few stints at the Citadel Theatre out there, and at various clubs across the city, and we always have a really great time. The crowds are enthusiastic and the cowboys aren’t half bad either. Haha. Our home shows in Toronto are very special though, because our (home) community can come out to see us.
6. What was your reaction when you performed a sold out show at The Mod Club in early January 2016?
Are you kidding?!!! We were thrilled! Honestly, the whole night was a blur. The show sold out within two weeks of tickets being on sale and the demand kept growing. People were selling and buying tickets on craigslist. But yes, the performance itself was extremely exciting. The energy in The Mod Club was electrifying.
7. What’s it like to perform as yourselves, acting as other people, while also putting your own twists on classic songs like “Stop,” “Too Much,” and “Viva Forever?”
We have always approached playing the Spice Girls in the same way we would approach taking on any role as an actor: There are certain Spice characteristics we want to emulate of course, but we try to put our own spins on it and think of it less as an impersonation and more of an interpretation. We bring the spirit of the Spice Girls, the high energy, the humour, the camaraderie and the message of “Girl Power” to the stage, but it’s a lot of us up there too. Luckily, like the Spice Girls, we are five strong personalities, who love to perform and love to perform together. That makes it easy.
8. What inspires and amazes you about the Spice Girls?
Their originality. The more we have delved into the Spice World, the more clear it is just how very special and unique a group the Spice Girls were. The girls have these huge, differing personalities; they are attractive, but not in an alienating way. They are loud, pushy and unapologetic and all the while remaining utterly charming and charismatic. I really like that they were always sending themselves up.
Watching old footage of them, you get a sense that they are doing exactly what they want to be doing and are not panning to anybody else’s idea of what is attractive, cool, sexy or fun. It’s like they’re saying, “If you wanna have the best time of your life, come hang out with us.” I have to say, the girls of Wannabe totally share that sentiment and try to bring it to all aspects of our lives. It’s a nice way to live.
9. What is your favourite Spice Girls song to perform together?
Personally I really love “Who Do you Think You Are.” It’s a lot of fun, high energy and I love the choreography. Also, Suzy did a killer mash-up of “Generation Next” and “Move Over” that is unreal! We just recently performed a mash up of “Holla”/”No Scrubs”/”Hollaback Girl” and it was so much fun to do, as well.
10. What has been the most rewarding aspect of your journey as Wannabe SGT?
Definitely the reaction from Spice Girls fans. At every show, we always have people coming up to us expressing how grateful they are that we have brought the Spice Girls back to life for them. People share memories from their childhood of dressing up like them, which Spice Girl they were when they played dress up as kids and how great it feels to sing and hear those songs again. It is very moving to look out into the crowd and see many people [of all genders] with tears streaming down their faces singing their guts out to “Mama.”
We also always have a large number of people at our show from the LGBTQ community, including many men who speak to us about having to hide their love of the Spice Girls as kids, but feel they now get to love them openly.
11. What is a day in the life of Wanabe SGT members like?
There is a lot that goes into making Wannabe work. Lots of logistical elements, budgeting money, organizing rehearsals, negotiating with venues, etc. When we are prepping for a show or a tour, we are rehearsing together, rehearsing with the band, having costume meetings, shopping for costumes and promoting it all. We are a self produced operation (our manager is our saxophone player) and that means we have control, but we are also responsible for everything. We do it all and it’s not always glamorous or easy.
12. Where is your favourite place to find inspiration? Why?
Everywhere. We see lots of music, lots of theatre, lots of art. We watch old footage of great performers of the past. We talk all the time and find inspiration from one another.
13. Describe what your reaction would be like if the Spice Girls went on a 20-year reunion tour!
We would show up in full costume and then we would die.
14. What do you do when you’re not Wannabe-ing?
Ironically, we all work together on many other projects as well. Most recently Sporty, Posh and I wrote at teen musical called Summerland, which was a big hit at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Baby Spice was the costume designer and Scary was one of the stars. We all work in “the biz” as composers, singers, dancers, makeup artists, event planners and teachers. That’s the reality of being a working artist in Canada.
15. Is there anything you would change about this whole thing?
Not a thing.
16. What advice would you share with up and coming entertainers?
Find the thing that’s missing and fill it. If you think there should be more of something out there, then be the one who puts it out there. When you find people you love to work with, keep them around. Be patient. Trust the process. Keep yourself open to opportunities you may not have anticipated. Work for free for a bit and then don’t ever again. Value yourself and your product. Be professional ALWAYS. If you really want it, keep going. When there is no work, make your own.
17. Where are you playing next?
Thank you to Barbara for taking the time to chat with me about Wannabe and what’s next for the Toronto band. Best of luck in 2016, Spices! I’ll see you at the 20-year reunion tour!! #PLEASELETTHERUMOURSBETRUE!