STYLE YOUR HAIR DAILY
Pop music works best when all of its elements come together and resonate… and Mel & Kim’s debut single Showing Out (Get Fresh at the Weekend) is a case in point! The track was an instant smash in the clubs, yet it proved a slow burner on the UK singles chart, due in part, perhaps, to its original sleeve image which, although striking, did little to convey the chic, hat wearing girls in the video. Cue a hasty sleeve revision, courtesy of photographer David O’Dowd. David perfectly captured the sisters' streetwise personalities and the spirit of their song in an instantly recognisable shot which was undoubtedly instrumental in connecting the single in the stores with the girls on film, and in propelling the track into the UK top 10.
Here, David shares some amazing unreleased shots from the Showing Out session and takes us behind the image to reveal what Mel & Kim were really like to shoot and his pride in watching them go on to become the "proper little popstars" he believed they would be.
I can remember the day I first met Mel & Kim as if it was yesterday…
At the time, I used to offer free photo sessions to both signed and new artists as it was a good way to get in there early with the artists and my studio in Greewich, like most studios, would have empty slots - or what we called ‘down time’. My studio was large enough that I could keep the lighting set up permanently, ready to be wheeled into any configuration in minutes, but still work in the same space, so when I wasn’t shooting, I was either in there doing stock syndication or editing and copying pictures shot in the last few days (or even hours) to send out to magazines or newspapers. It was my office and sometime living quarters, and it was definitely my favourite place to hang out. Anyway, I had a call from the girls’ record company [Supreme}, asking if I would like to photograph them as they were slowly getting airplay with Showing Out but were unhappy with the single cover shot.
The day of the shoot, I could hear Mel & Kim in the corridor, laughing and being loud, way before they entered the studio. Looking back, I could always tell if someone was comfortable walking into my studio. It was normally people who had come from the same type of backgrounds. You have to remember, I wasn’t based in the West End or trendy Clerkenwell, which was the hub of the creative world in London at the time. My studio was in an industrial site in Creekside, Deptford (in the London Borough of Lewisham), that was so close to Greenwich village, in SE8, that they shared the same postcode - but the girls weren’t phased by that at all. They were both incredibly comfortable in those surroundings.
I’m not going to lie, the first thing I thought was how cute they both were. Really strong facially, with smiles that could light up any room, and just really down to earth. I also recall the surprise on their faces, realising I was about the same age, or only a few years older. I showed them the dressing room and got really big smiles from them at how ‘showbiz’ it all looked: long rows of bright lights hung around shiny mirrors and places to hang your clothes, and a huge dressing room table to put your makeup and get ready.
Mel & Kim appeared shortly after, in their red and black outfits and the trademark hats that would unknowingly become the front cover for their huge hit Showing Out, and start the look that they would become so well known for in the early days. To me, the clothes the girls wore at our photo shoot was an acknowledgement that they were aware that image was a must. I loved the tailoring of the pant trousers and Spanish type matador jackets, and the hats just finished off a look that said, 'we could be from South America, Europe or the Caribbean’! (But we ain’t ever going to be respectable, lol!)
The girls were so natural in front of the camera. It was a joy to spend time with them, and I just shot loads of colour and black and white film. I could see they had it together and were never not going to make it in the industry. Their smiles were magnetic, and they were both beautiful. I remember thinking I must get as many pictures as I can because, if they sing like they look, they will be taking off to new heights very shortly and I’ll struggle to get them back in the studio. Between shots, I was saying to them, “You guys have done this before, right? You have modelled?” Something was telling me that I had seen Mel before, but it was the way they posed and changed stance without awkwardness and kept momentum, like models I had photographed, that told me they must have done some kind of modelling. Mel had a sparkle in her eye the whole shoot and told me when leaving that she had indeed done some modelling, and then I realised I knew her agent and had probably seen her model card at some point.
I think Mel & Kim were in the very same position that most of the artists I have worked with, who are on the brink of stardom, found themselves. They had put their hearts and souls into making it in a very fickle industry and they had all the right attributes - along with a cracking song - but they were aware that nothing short of hard work was the key to success. That night, I remember describing them both to my girlfriend. Kim, to me, was the sensible head and the leader of the band, but was also bloody gorgeous, and Mel was just gorgeous! It's surreal to remember but my girlfriend asked me if they were twins and I remember saying, ‘Mmmmmm, no they’re not, but it’s weird, as they act like twins and they seem to bounce of each other, like twins. Yet they look different and are both incredible hot in so many ways.’ Now remember, we were all of same age, including my girlfriend, who eventually said, "So basically you fancy both of them!" "Mmmmmm lol!"
If I am honest, I can't remember ever seeing two sisters who the camera loved equally so much in the same photo shoot. I had shot family members who were in bands more than once but I always noticed that the camera would love one more than the other, and that often meant that you had to choreograph the photo shoot to make sure the one the lens loved was more prominent. But, Mel & Kim could literally pose anyway they wanted - and that included candid laughter shots to moody sexy - and the camera loved them both equally.
One of my favourite moments from my life was walking up Oxford Street, in London, and seeing that HMV were displaying huge photos from our photo-shoot, promoting the Showing Out single, and the girls were obviously becoming proper little 'pop stars'. You have to remember that, like Mel & Kim, I was also busy trying to get ahead in the music world and establish myself as a music photographer. I was only 20 years old at that time, with a brother in one of the world’s biggest bands - Culture Club. Like George, I was a huge fan of music, but my love was always photography, so to see a band I had snapped become successful was extremely uplifting and a pointer that I too was going in the right direction. We didn’t have camera phones in those days so I came back at night with my girlfriend, to show her the huge display and to snap some pics. Hearing how good their song was and seeing that huge display just about made my year! Especially when I saw the video for their second song Respectable on Top of the Pops, and noticed they had also used the shots from our photo-shoot in the background of the video that accompanied that single .
As I said, I also worked in music-based press photography (I trained in press photo journalism) so, as the months went by, I continued to bump into the girls in different parts of the UK and Europe. We would see each other at various awards shows, charity events (like the recording of the Ferry Aid single Let It Be) and at the odd glitzy party or two that I had been lucky enough to get an invite to. It was always nice saying hi and joking with them that they were now ‘proper pop stars’!
David captures Mel & Kim recording for the Ferry Aid ensemble charity single Let It Be, on March 16th 1987
Whilst at the 1987 Montreux Rock & Pop Festival, in Switzerland, I remember being at a hotel party in a basement corridor that, for some reason, anyone who was anyone at the Festival attended, and seeing Kim talking to Morton Harket (from the band A-ha). That made me smile and, in some ways, also proud that these two young girls from Hackney were now mingling with the good and the great from the music industry. That said, I never noticed they had changed - and that will always be my memory of them.
From a photographer’s point of view, the lens loved Mel & Kim, and you can’t fake that.
David O' Dowd