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As Nick East signed Mel & Kim to Supreme Records, he knew that he had discovered something special, but nothing could have prepared him, or the girls, for the roller-coaster they were about to ride together! Almost overnight, Mel & Kim became the hottest and biggest act in pop, with a whirlwind career that would take in the incredible highs of worldwide success, tragically followed by the devastating lows of illness and loss. Here, Nick shares with us his own memories and views of an act which he remembers as "the real deal!"
Hi Nick, thanks for talking with us. Mel & Kim form an integral part of pop history. Do you find people still mention the girls to you or ask you about them?
Yeah, of course. Music is like the wallpaper to people’s lives isn't it? I met a woman a couple of months ago who was about six when Respectable came out - her mum was a big fan of Mel & Kim - and she said that, back then, she just loved the girls' music. But now, when she looks back and watches the girls' videos on Youtube, she sees that they really were a unique act! People say that to me a lot, and they also talk to me about what they were doing when Respectable came out. They also remember things like when Mel & Kim were interviewed on Wogan, after Mel had the cancer treatment, and that kind of stuff but it's funny... you don't often hear them much on the radio these days. Radio One don't play their records that much, and if I listen to Capital FM in London or Heart FM, I don't hear Respectable or Showing Out very often at all, though I don't know why. Mel & Kim were a unique act and they were the real deal… yeah, I get asked about them all the time.
When we spoke with music producer Steve Rowland, he told us that it was specifically a double act you were looking to sign to Supreme. Why were you looking for a duo specifically?
Well, actually, I was looking for twins (laughs)! I had an idea of the type of music I wanted to make, and I knew I wanted a family act, but one that was different to the other acts that were already out there... anyway Steve asked me what I was looking for, and he told me that he had these two sisters. I asked Steve to bring them in to meet me and that was it! Funnily enough, I remember a lot of people actually thought Mel & Kim were twins, which was weird. I mean, you could see they were obviously related, but they had different face shapes and body shapes and everything.
When you met Mel & Kim for the first-time, what impression did they make on you?
Well a good one obviously, I signed them (laughs). No, I'm joking! They were just a real laugh and they were really natural. I liked them the moment I met them. I remember Mel came in wearing a big leopard print coat, and she had that infectious laughter and just a great personality. As soon as I met them, I knew they were great, I knew they had the charisma and I figured the public would like them, so we put them in the studio. Kim had a more melodic voice, Mel had a real belting voice, but when you combined the two together, as you heard, it worked really well.
What do you think surprised people most about Mel & Kim when they met them?
Mel & Kim pictured with Nick and Nick's father, William. at Princess' album launch - Stringfellows Nightclub, London on 17th May 1986 (Website Exclusive!)
Their accents (laughs)! Their image was a combination of 'street fashion' and 'high fashion' and, as a journalist said at the time, they looked like a couple of Paris fashion models in some of the photo sessions, but when they opened their mouths they had these lovely Cockney East End accents, so I think that was kind of a shock for people, you know,? Their big personalities and their East London accents didn't necessarily go with the clothes they were wearing.
Was there any discussion about toning down how Cockney the girls were, in case their accents were lost in translation for the international audience?
No, not at all! I remember, in the first few months that we were working together, Mel said to me, 'Oh I had this manager before who said I should get elocution lessons to learn how to talk properly'. I remember saying to her, 'Don't be stupid (laughs), you sound great! You're natural. You don't need anything like that. Just be yourself.’
In the build-up to their impending début release, how were you and the girls feeling?
The girls were so excited! I mean, they were obviously impressed that they were asked in for a meeting with Supreme. We were only a year old at that time but we had already had a lot of success with Princess. Her single - Say I'm Your Number One - had been a massive hit for us so they knew we had a successful track record. Then, literally within a month, they were signed and they were in the studio recording System. We were all really excited!
What were your initial thoughts on System (the first track Stock, Aitken & Waterman wrote for the girls) and how was the sudden change in musical direction, with Showing Out (Get Fresh at the Weekend), received by those involved?
When System was recorded, I knew it wasn't right, and Pete (Waterman) and I talked about it. Pete agreed and came up with Showing Out and I knew that that had to be the first single. That said, a lot of people didn't hear it, because Showing Out was a quirky pop song and a bit off the wall, but that's what I loved about it. Mel & Kim's manager, at the time, thought that System should be the first single and even some people that worked for me tried to convince me that I was wrong to put out Showing Out - I guess, because it was so different - but Pete and I knew it was right. Even the girls were not quite sure at first, but they said to me and Pete, 'Okay, we will go with your judgement'. I mean it's easy to pick a hit record when you are listening to it on Radio One, because it's already been through the selection process, and it’s had to jump through about 40 hoops to make it onto the playlist, but when you are listening to material raw, it's much harder to pick the hits.
Indeed! We guess that it is all too easy to be an 'armchair critic' for people when it isn't their own money that’s involved.
Well yeah, that's the thing! I used to have producers and writers coming in all the time saying, ‘If you put this out, I know it will be a hit!' and I would always say, 'Well, I'll tell you what. If you’re that convinced then you put 50 grand on the table for the promotion, and we'll see’ (laughs). ‘Until then, I'll go with the track I think is the hit!’ When I heard Showing Out, I knew that it had to be the first single.
You mentioned that the girls’ manager felt System should have been their first single. Who was managing Mel & Kim at that point?
It was Alan Whitehead. When Steve Rowland introduced me to the girls, I was told that Alan was their manager, so I said, 'OK – fine, this is what we do and this is what we need you to do as the manager'. So, as I said, Alan wasn't sure. He thought that System was more of an obvious first single and I remember saying to him that, although System was more of an obvious single, that didn't necessarily mean that it was the right single.
We understood that you assisted the sisters to manage themselves. When did Mel & Kim part company with Alan Whitehead?
Just before Showing Out charted. During the promotion, I would book gigs for Mel & Kim, and Alan would take them to these gigs in his car. Before Showing Out came out, we were up in Scotland, doing a couple of gigs in Edinburgh or Glasgow. Alan couldn't take the girls so I went with them and they said that they wanted to have a chat with me after work about something. We were chatting over dinner that night and they told me that they weren't happy with Alan. It turned out that, the day before the girls had signed the contract with Supreme, Alan had given them a management contract and said to them that if they didn't sign it then Supreme wouldn't sign them - so obviously the girls had signed it. I asked them what they wanted to do and they said that they didn't want to work with Alan anymore, so I organised for them to see a lawyer and, luckily, that was the end of the contract. Alan had gotten them to sign the contract under duress, as it were, and the girls hadn't had any independent legal advice so it was invalid and Alan was out.
So, you then took on the added responsibilities of assisting the sisters to manage themselves?
I was the MD (Managing Director) of their record company so I couldn't ask them to sign a management contract with me. I couldn't be their manager but, after we lost Alan, I said to the girls that we would just keep doing what we were doing, and that was it. As far as the business affairs went, they didn't really carve up the responsibilities. If they wanted to talk to me about something, they would both talk to me about it, and they kind of just split everything down the middle really.
Did you find that the girls had similar personalities?
In some ways they were quite similar and in other ways… I mean Mel was very happy go lucky - you never really saw Mel in a bad mood - and Kim was great and a little more sensible. Kim was a couple of years older so she was slightly more mature. Mel was very easy-going and was always laughing - well, they both were, but probably Mel a little more so...They were proper sisters, you know? They would always be talking at the same time and stuff (laughs). When you look back at their interviews, they just interacted so well.
Mel & Kim talked of a long period of countrywide club appearances promoting, prior to the release of Showing Out.
Oh yeah, loads (laughs)! It was a good four months, I would say. Initially, no one knew who Mel & Kim were and we only had the one track. We just went out and promoted Showing Out, and it went down really well. Towards the end of the club dates, it came out in the press that Mel used to be a Page 3 model and had been in Mayfair and Penthouse, as well. When that came out in the press, we then had guys queuing up outside the girls’ dressing room to get Mel's autograph on copies of the Mayfair and Penthouse magazines.
There certainly seemed to be little attempt to hide Mel's past career but, privately, was there any concern that a press expose of her modelling portfolio would damage the sisters' burgeoning career?
No, I mean the girls told me about it after I had signed them to Supreme and they were worried, but I said, 'It’s not a problem, but were just not going to mention it. It's obviously going to come out at some point but it will just come out organically. We don't wanna promote you on this. We just wanna promote you on who you are now, and the music'. Then, when Showing Out started picking up Radio One play and the girls started getting press on them, someone realised that Mel had been a Page 3 model. By that time, the single was already out so it kind of worked in their favour. I always felt that, if we had started to promote Mel & Kim on the basis of Mel's past modelling career then it would devalue them as artists and perhaps devalue the music, so we just left it and sooner or later some journalist picked up on it.
After months of club dates, Showing Out entered the UK charts but it was the chance opportunity to perform the track on Top Of The Pops that seemed to suddenly light the fire...
Yeah, it was a great day. Back in 86/87, Top Of The Pops was absolutely huge but you had to be in the top 40 before they would invite you to perform on the show. Boy George had pulled out at the last minute, for some reason, and so Mel & Kim got the opportunity to appear - and it was their first ever television performance. I had been to Top Of the Pops previously, with other acts, and it was always a wonderful day. It feels kind of like a reward for all of the hard work that you have put in marketing and the act has put in promoting, to get the single high enough in the charts. We made a really good, tight team at Supreme and we worked together and pulled together, so we got as many people down to the studio as we could, it was fantastic! Mel & Kim loved it and we all loved it and the record took off like a rocket after that. It was amazing!
Showing Out performed on the UK music show - Top Of The Pops! October 30th 1986. The sisters first television performance!
When we spoke with Pete Waterman OBE, he told us that the original brief for Mel & Kim viewed them as a House Music band rather than a pop band. Did you share that view?
Well, I suppose Respectable was more of a House record but the brief I gave to Pete when I first signed them was that they are pop, but I want pop music with an edge, and there needs to be a danceability to it. Whether that's Garage or Disco or whatever, I don't mind but it needs to be pop with an edge and something you can dance to.
The sisters’ fashion sense was a huge factor in their success yet their projected image appeared to evolve and change with each release. Did the girls have a free reign to experiment in this area?
Well, with the first Showing Out image we did the photo session, but it didn't really work out the way that we wanted it to. We didn't really realise until after the session but it's always a work in progress. We then did another photo session where the girls wore the red and black outfits and the hats, which we then used on the second Showing Out sleeve. The look was still pretty 'street', but with almost an urban feel to it, which was the original brief. Then, when Respectable took off, it was so mass market and so pop my business partner and creative director - Kate Farmer - spoke with Mel & Kim and they decided to go more high fashion. It was supposed to be a combination of ‘urban street wear’ and high fashion, though it kind of grew organically, I suppose. Initially, I thought that it was going a little too high fashion, but it worked and people loved it. The surprise of seeing that image then hearing their accents and seeing their personalities was part of the big attraction.
Mike Stock recalled that you had expressed uncertainty regarding the "Tay, Tay, Tay" section in Respectable and that, initially, you asked for it to be removed from the final mix.
Yeah, absolutely! I mean, though I loved Respectable, initially I thought it was perhaps too commercial, because Showing Out had been such a cool record and had broken through the clubs. I was just worried that going from that to Respectable was just too big a jump but, luckily, I was proved wrong (laughs). The first time I heard Respectable - Pete (Waterman) said they had mixed it and it was ready so I went over to the studio, and I loved it. Then I took it home with me and listened again, and started to have second thoughts. The next day, I was flying to Holland, to Rotterdam, with Mel & Kim, to do a PA gig in front of about 5000 kids and, before we flew out, I rang Pete and said that I thought the 'Tay, Tay, Tay' was a bit over the top and too commercial. Pete disagreed, but I said I thought it should be taken out. Pete said, 'Well, if you want us to [take it out] we will, but you're wrong.' Anyway, we did the gig that night in Rotterdam, using the mix that still used the 'Tay, Tay, Tay' section, and by the time of the second chorus, there were 5000 kids singing along 'Tay, Tay, Tay...' Straight after the gig, I rang Pete back and said, 'don't take them out', and Pete told me 'We haven't!' (laughs).
Speaking of Respectable, do you remember where you and the girls were when you learned that it had hit #1 in the UK charts?
Yes, I think we were in Germany doing a TV show, I had the mid-week chart and it seemed that it was gonna go to #1 but I didn't tell the girls until it did and … yeah, it was amazing! The girls went crazy but, to be honest with you, we were so busy at that time and there was just so much happening. We were recording the album, doing the promotion. I mean, every country in the world wanted them at that point. America wanted them, so they had an American tour coming up, there was a Japanese tour coming up and an Australian tour. It was so busy and we were all working 7 days a week so I don't remember much more about that” (laughs).
It sounds like a whirlwind!
It was! I mean, we were literally just
running all the time, trying to catch up with everything. The F.L.M. album signing at Tower Records for instance… It was rammed with people, there were hundreds and thousands of kids there but we had to rush off to do a TV show. It is all a bit of a blur.
Did you accompany the girls on a lot of their promo trips?
Well, certainly on Showing Out and the early days of Respectable, it was either myself or my business partner Kate (Farmer). If I was with them then Kate would run the office and, obviously, if she was with them then I would run the office, so one of us traveled everywhere with them, at that point. Then things got so busy we realised we couldn't keep doing that so we got a tour manager and a security guard for the girls. We still went with them to the bigger TV shows and the bigger stuff but the tour manager took care of the rest. Initially though, it was myself or Kate.
So, are there any stories that stand out in your mind when you think of the girls' club appearances?
The girls had been booked to play quite a few clubs and we were doing this P.A. in a club in Essex, after Respectable went to #1. You don't get a massive amount of money for doing club dates, unless you are #1 in the charts, but this gig had been booked long before Respectable hit the chart so we had to honor them. Anyway, I remember the manager of this club was in the girls’ dressing room talking to them. He must have thought I was their tour manager or something, he didn't know I owned the label, and he was chatting to them saying, 'you've done amazingly well girls, number one record, you're so young, blah, blah, blah, but you've made one big mistake'. The girls asked him, 'Oh, what's that then?' He then said, 'You haven't signed to a major record label...
Oh no! (laughs)
Yeah (laughs)! I mean it was such a stupid thing to say. They, just politely, said 'Oh, okay, thanks for the advice, anyway we are off now so' (laughs). The thing was, a Sony or a BMG wouldn't take on a couple of girls like Mel & Kim, or if they had, then they would have tried to change them. They certainly wouldn't have put the whole project together like we did and it didn't stop them getting to #1, so there you go! In the rest of the world we were with the major labels, it was only in the UK the girls were with an independent.
The success of the first two singles lead to the recording of the F.L.M. album. Did Supreme's tag line 'A Statement In Soul', and the girls’ love of RnB influence the overall sound of the finished album?
Yeah, actually I was listening to the Mel & Kim stuff recently, which I hadn't done in years, and it reminded me just how soulful it was. Not so much the singles, but the album tracks had a real soulful feel to them. After Mel & Kim recorded Showing Out, we talked about the album and Pete said to the girls, 'Look, we are gonna do the singles this way. They are gonna be pop, but they are gonna be cutting edge, but how would you like the album tracks to sound? Come in and play us material you like.' The girls came in with some soul tracks, and stuff they liked, and they used that as inspiration for the album.
Were you happy with the chart positions the singles from the F.L.M. album reached?
Well, the initial two singles were massive, then the album was released. The third single - F.L.M. - would have also been massive, but it wasn't promoted because, obviously, that was when Mel became ill. It charted around the bottom end of the Top Ten - around 9 or 10 - and I felt we had at least two more singles on that album that could've come out. I mean, F.L.M. (the single) charted well but didn't go any higher but that really was due to the girls being unable to do any promotion because Mel was in hospital.
As we now know, the girls were also talented song writers. Did they express a motivation to be involved in the songwriting for the F.L.M. album?
Like most artists, Mel & Kim liked to write their own songs and they did write one of the songs on F.L.M., though I can't remember which track. In the beginning, I said to them, 'Look, at this stage in your career just let these guys write the songs and produce, they know what they are doing. Just focus on singing and performing and doing the promotion just now, but I will get them to put one song on the album you have written'. The girls were happy with that, though I do remember having big fights with Pete, because he didn't like other people writing the songs. Pete was saying they had never written a hit record before, and I was saying, 'It doesn't matter, they have got to write at least one song on their first album.'. So that was the deal.
Had the girls played songs they had written to you at that point?
Yeah, I had heard some demos that they had written and there were some nice songs on there, but they weren't, you know… writing hit songs is an art. The girls were quite happy, and they loved working with Pete and Matt and Mike. They knew Stock, Aitken & Waterman were expert song writers so they were happy for them to get on with it, plus they didn't have a lot of time. They were so busy, working 7 days a week doing everything else.
With Nick at the 'F.L.M.' album signing which was held at Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus, London on Tuesday 14th of April 1987
You mentioned the F.L.M. album signing, held in Tower Records. Were Mel & Kim surprised at how many fans had turned up to see them?
Yeah, though they were always surprised! You know it was hard for them, because they went from just being a couple of normal girls in their 20s, to being front page on all the magazines and having 8-page spreads in You Magazine and being in The Sun and The Daily Mail, but then they'd forget all that and walk into a McDonalds, and swarms of kids would jump on them and ask for autographs. It takes time to acclimatise but, you know, they took it all in their stride. They just wore two hats; they just saw it as a job, so when they were travelling around the world doing promotion and doing TV shows and radio interviews - that was a job - and then when they finished and went home, that was their normal life. Then, after Respectable went to #1, they couldn't live in Hackney any longer, because everyone knew where they lived and people would turn up at their door at all hours of the day and night. The girls weren't due their royalties for another year but there was so much money coming in that we said, 'Look, you need to go and buy somewhere to live each', so we gave them an advance on their royalties. Kim bought a flat in Kilburn, Queens Park, and Mel bought a flat in Highgate, in Hampstead, which sadly, she was never able to move into.
Around May 1987, Kim mentioned that she and Mel were now being managed by the same manager as AC/DC and Gary Moore. How did this pairing come about?
Well, I was running the record company and we had deals coming in for the girls from all over the world. Everybody wanted them. This was around the time that Respectable went to #1 and the pressure of being the MD of the record company and carrying out management duties became too much for me. Anyway, I decided that it might be better to have a qualified manager involved. I had done a deal with Atlantic Records, in New York, via Atlantic, in London, and the MD there said to me that he knew these guys who managed rock bands, and were very good. I already had the marketing and the A&R (Artists and Repertoire) for the girls taken care of so I just needed them to take care of the nuts and the bolts of the management. They were a professional outfit ran by a guy called Steve Barnett, alongside another guy whose name I can't quite remember, and they managed AC/DC, and a few other rock bands, so I agreed. Initially, it was good but after a while it didn't work out and we parted company with them. After that, we took over the management strings again, as it seemed simpler to just get on with it ourselves, again.
Soon into the sisters’ career, their popularity literally exploded on the worldwide stage. Did the speed of their success surprise you, and what effect did it have on your company, given that Supreme was a small independent label?
Well, we did plan for it to happen, though we didn't know it would happen that fast, but it just snowballed. We had done quite nicely with Princess, and we had done okay with The Three Degrees, who were the first two acts that we signed, but Mel & Kim really put Supreme on the map and, to be honest, they put Stock, Aitken & Waterman on the map as well. It was just so sad that, with just those two massive singles, they had already cracked it and then Mel got ill and that was the end of it. America was ready for them, they had the tour booked and had signed a big deal in America, Japan was ready, every country in the world wanted them... then Mel got ill and that was the end of the career.
In a report for Thames News, back in 1987, you said that, by the end of that year, you believed the girls would be the female equivalent of the hugely successful pop group Wham!. For the fans who have discovered Mel & Kim in more recent times, how would you describe the level of fame and success you achieved with the girls?
Well, The Spice Girls weren't around then but they were the equivalent of The Spice Girls for the first two singles, it took off like a rocket, and they were everywhere. I think Mel & Kim had the potential to be as big as The Spice Girls, and if Mel hadn't become ill then I think they were well on their way to being a unique female pop group, like The Spice Girls were.
Was there a specific moment when you realised how big it had become, or was about to become?
Yes! When Respectable had gone to #1 in the UK, I remember my production manager telephoned me to say that we'd sold 60 000 copies of the single in one day and that we now had to manufacture more copies in Germany or somewhere, because we couldn't deal with the demand in the UK. We ended up selling 800 000 copies of the single in the UK alone, which would be unheard of now, and we were at #1, but it was also #1 in Germany for two or three weeks, #1 in Holland, #1 in Scandinavia, #1 in France... it was pretty much number one everywhere.
And 'the success of Respectable was not just confined to the UK and Europe....
No! In America it was #1 on the Billboard Dance Chart, and we had already signed the deal in America, and we had also signed the deal in Japan. I mean, we had deals in virtually every country in the world, and they were starting to bubble in America so we had the tour booked to go to over there, and also go to Japan. At that point, I thought, well - this is it. We better start recording their second album as they look like they are gonna do in America and Japan what they have done in the UK and Europe. It just looked like it was unstoppable but, unfortunately, it wasn't unstoppable.
With Mel & Kim's signing to Atlantic Records in the United States, what were the plans for promotions in America, and what was the initial feedback from the US on the girls?
The buzz from the US was massive. The girls’ accents were a big thing for the Americans. They were saying, 'We love the album, we love their look and we love their accents’, and they were telling me they needed me to get the girls over there for at least six months. All I could say was that I couldn't guarantee that they could have them for six months, as that would mean we would have to ignore our home market. But we would agree something and then, obviously, if they really were gonna put the money, time and commitment into the promotion in the States and it took off as big as they believed it would, then we would definitely have to look at putting six months in.
The sisters were also very successful as far afield as Asia and Australia. Were there also plans to promote over there?
Yeah, we had done a deal with Mushroom Records in Australia, and certainly one of or both Respectable and Showing Out had hit #1 over there. We had booked a two-week Australian tour which was to be followed by a promo trip to New Zealand, as the single had also gone to #1 there. Then, the girls were due to fly to Japan to do a three-week promo tour there, and then we were due to fly from Japan to LA, before going to New York. We had a whole three-month tour campaign scheduled, during which Mel & Kim were also going to do some recording in LA, for their second album. Then we found out that Mel's cancer had returned and it all had to go on hold.
Mel & Kim expressed they were excited to tour and perform live. Did they discuss any ideas they had for a live show with you, and how do you envision a Mel & Kim live show?
Well, we had talked about doing a tour with a band further down the line, when it was viable to do so, but we never really got that far with it. We were just too busy doing promotion. There were all the TV shows to do and the radio interviews, and the girls were just too busy to actually plan a live tour. We did discuss at some point, maybe with the second album, doing a tour with a live band but, with the first album, there was just no time for it. Playing live would have been a real strength for Mel & Kim because they were both great singers. Mel had a really ballsy black voice, almost a rock voice and Kim has a more melodic, soulful voice, and when you blended those two together it created that unique vocal sound. The girls liked working with a team of people so if they had a band, they would have been able to just focus on singing and dancing and performing so I think that it would have worked really well for them.
Soon into 1987, Mel began to experience back pain and she then experienced further problems whilst performing in Montreux in early May of that year.
Yeah! We were over at the Montreux Pop Festival, which was a big TV show that the girls did in front of the lake in Montreux. I was there with my business partner Kate and Mel & Kim, and they were performing alongside the likes of Duran Duran and Culture Club, and many of the big bands of the 80s. It was a huge deal for the girls.
Wow! The girls certainly were in good company!
Yeah, amazing! It really was a great opportunity. After the show, we were all in a restaurant and the girls’ security team took Mel to the ladies [the toilet], and when he came back, he said to me that Mel had slipped on some beer and she had maybe hurt her back. The pain didn't get any better so, when we got back to London, we sent Mel to an osteopath, and various doctors, and eventually we found out that it was actually cancer. I hadn't known at that point that Mel had had cancer before, as she had kept it very quiet.
Things quickly worsened, and appeared to come to a head during a promotional trip to Tokyo - mid June 87. What happened?
A few weeks had passed since we got back from Montreux, and the girls were scheduled to fly out to Tokyo. I can't remember whether we knew Mel had cancer at that point but I knew her back was serious and I had advised against the girls going. I thought that they should stay in London, but Steve Barnett, their new manager, wanted them to go, because the live work they were going to do there would have brought in so much money. They went but the trip was the last straw, as Mel ended up holed up in a hospital bed in Tokyo for days on end, in really bad pain with her back, and they had to cancel the tour anyway. I think it was at least a week before Mel was able to fly back to London and, when the girls did return, they told me that they didn't want to work with Steve anymore. So, once again, I put them in touch with a lawyer and that was the end of the Steve Barnett and the management company.
With Mel's initial diagnosis, the belief was that she would bounce back quickly. Was there a lot of pressure on the girls and yourself to continue promotion, given that the album was being received so well worldwide?
Yeah, As I said, everybody wanted them. I mean there wasn't email then but there were telexes and faxes coming in all the time, with requests for the girls to do live work and TV, and we just had to tow the line with the story that Mel had injured her back, or that she was in the studio recording the new album. It really was whatever excuse we could make up. Mel's consultant told us to keep her as busy as we could, so any promotion she could do would be fantastic. Obviously, Mel couldn't do TV interviews, because she was quite bloated from the steroids, she was taking, but we got her to do the promotion that she could do. Mel was more than happy to do it and so that's what we did. We were very, very close with them and, I guess, just like most people at that time, I was pretty ignorant to cancer. When they put Mel into hospital, they put her in the children's ward and, because she was a pop star, it was great for those kids, but I remember being shocked that there were kids in there, like 5 or 6 years old, with cancer. Before then I thought only old people got cancer. It kind of opens your eyes and you suddenly realise that isn't the case.
With Mel suddenly becoming unable to promote F.L.M., Supreme must have been sent into crisis. What effect did Mel's diagnosis have on Supreme Records itself?
Yeah, it was hard! Kate would spend a lot of days at the hospital with Kim and I would be at the office running the label, and then, quite often, in the evening, I would meet Kim for dinner, and we would just talk about what we were going to do and how it was going to work, and just try and get through it. They say that cancer is a moving target, one day they were telling us this and one day they would be telling us something else, and in Mel's case it was pretty complicated as well. They were saying that, now it’s not just in the small of her back, it's moved here, and so now we are going to have to give her more chemotherapy. But, now we have given her more chemotherapy, this has happened and that has happened... so almost every other day there was something new happening. Sometimes we got false hope and sometimes it was bad news so... yeah, it was bad … a bad time.
People tend to focus on the person who is unwell, but it often hits those around them just as hard...
Well exactly! Kim was working in a factory before, and Mel - as everyone knows - was an unemployed Page-3 model and, within a few months, they had signed to Supreme and had two massive hit records. Their lives had changed and they were now able to buy properties in Hampstead. I mean, their lives had changed completely! Then, suddenly the cancer thing reappeared and Kim had got the terrible thing of seeing her younger sister afflicted with cancer again, and all of that kind of pressure. Then, the pressure of her ex-boyfriend selling the pictures of Mel to the press, and all that kind of stuff. There was loads of stuff going on! Their Jamaican dad, who had not seen them since they were young - when he had left their mum… he turned up on the door step with his hand out, trying to get money, because they were now so famous. There was so much going on that Kim had to deal with, and that I had to deal with, and then of course, Kim couldn't work and her career was over - ‘Mel & Kim’ were a matching set! Even though Kim did do quite well with her album with EMI, it was never going to be the same. Without Mel, it was going to be very, very hard for her.
How difficult was it to maintain the press ban and Mel's privacy during this time?
It was very hard, because we had played the press from the word go. When we were first promoting Showing Out, I couldn't afford to hire a PR (Public Relations) person, so I did the PR myself. I was ringing up the Bizarre column, in The Sun, and dealing with Gary Bushell. I would talk to him and got him on board ,and he ran the first story on Mel & Kim, and, from that , we started to get more press and to build it. As I said, we didn't promote the fact that Mel had been a model but, sooner or later, they found out and that just exploded the girls across the press. It was absolutely enormous! When they suddenly went from all this massive exposure, loads of photo sessions, loads of interviews and loads of TV performances, to us saying, 'They are not doing anything because Mel has got a bad back'… well, after about eight weeks or whatever, no one was believing that, but we had to do what Mel asked us to do and she didn't want anyone to know. Her consultant had said that they could do so much with the treatment but the most powerful thing was her frame of mind, so the more positive she could be the more chance she had of beating it. At this point, Mel was having the chemotherapy and she asked us to keep it quiet, which we did, so the press knew something was going on, but they didn't know what.
During this time, the girls suffered many attempts on their privacy by the press. How crazy did this get?
Well, you know what the press are like! Did you hear about the reporter from The Sun that came around to Mel's mum's house, pretending to be a nurse? I got home and there was a message from Mel on the answer phone saying, 'Nick, it's Mel! You better call me, it’s urgent... the dogs bit the reporter from The Sun! She said, you told her she could come and see me!' Mel had been allowed out of hospital for a few days, and she was staying at her mum’s, but no one was supposed to know she was there. Somehow, this reporter from The Sun had found out where Mel was, and went over there. Mel's mum answered the door and the reporter told her that she was a nurse from the Homerton Hospital, and that she needed to check on Mel. Mel's mum took this woman at face value and let her wait in the living room, then called Mel. When Mel came into the room, the woman admitted that she was really from The Sun, but told Mel that she had spoken to me and that I had said it would be okay for her to interview her. Luckily Mel knew this wouldn't be right, and she said to the journalist 'No he wouldn't, Nick would never say that!' Then she phoned me. Anyway, they had a very vicious Alsatian dog and someone let the dog out, not knowing that this reporter was in the front room, and the dog came running in and took a big lump out of the reporter’s leg, which I thought was fantastic. I mean, what a scumbag to do that! Anyway, The News Of the World ran the story that Sunday.
Unbelievable! Were the press also pressuring you to break the story?
Yeah! Luckily, they didn't know where I lived so they didn't come to my house, although the editor of The Sun had my mobile phone number, and rang me offering me £50 000 for my story. When I said there wasn't any story, he then offered £75 000. I reiterated that there was no story, other than what I'd already told him, and he said, 'We know that Mel hasn't hurt her back We know it's serious and we are prepared to pay you for the story.' I didn't take his calls after that, and we had a press company at that point, so everything else came through our press officer. One day, I was told that the News Of The World ,or The Sun, had made a threat, via our PR office, basically saying that unless I gave them the story on Mel, they were going to slice me up in the press. I just said, 'That’s fine, do whatever you are going to do!'
That is unbelievable!
Yeah... I said, 'I'm the MD of the girls’ record company. I'm not about to give you any story.' It was a lot of pressure and, like I said, I was trying to run my company during the day, while Kate spent a lot of the days with Kim at the hospital, and then in the evening, I would often see Kim. It was a very tough time for everybody but, obviously, particularly for Kim.
Had the story broken sooner, would it perhaps have lessened the pressure from the press?
Yeah, it would have, but with Mel... we had to keep Mel positive and she had to believe, which she did, that she was gonna get through this, and she was gonna get rid of the cancer. That she would lose the weight she had put on because of the chemotherapy and the steroids, and she would get back to looking normal - so no one would ever have to know. That's what she believed and that's what she wanted, so we had to go along with that.
After a number of months out of the public eye, undergoing treatment, Mel decided to check herself out of hospital for the recording of the 4th single - That's The Way It Is. How were the girls during the session, and what are your memories of the night?
Mel was great. She was really positive and just really glad to get back in the studio. I had warned Pete (Waterman) that Mel didn't look like she used to look, but when he saw her, he literally nearly collapsed. I mean, he didn't show it in front of Mel, but it was such a shock. As soon as she walked from reception into the studio, I remember Pete grabbing hold of the desk and saying to me, 'Fuck! You couldn't have prepared me for that! I can't believe the change in that young girl'. It was such a shock for Pete. We had seen it gradually, because we would go and see Mel at the hospital everyday while they were giving her the chemotherapy and the steroids, so we could gradually see her putting weight on and gradually not looking like the Mel we knew. The last time Pete had seen her, she was just this gorgeous 21-year old, and then suddenly you saw her all bloated from the treatment, so it was a major shock, but she was amazing. I just remember her laughing and being positive and just happy that she was back in the studio recording.
Pete Waterman shared with us his memories of Mel that night, and how aware she was of putting those around her at ease with her humour...
That's right. Yeah, Mel was very perceptive like that, and she would realise that people wouldn't know what to say or how to react, so she just got on with it and started laughing and just being herself. I remember Kim was looking nervous, but happy, that Mel was back in the studio, and she was looking after Mel. Kim was just concerned about her sister.
All seem to agree that Mel really enjoyed being back in the studio that night. Was remaining ‘at work’ important to her?
Yeah, she loved it. When Mel was well enough, every opportunity that she had, she did promotion. We would say to her, 'Okay Mel, we've got all these requests for interviews. Will you be okay to do a couple of hours?' 'Oh, I'll do five hours' she would say (laughs). We would be, like, 'No, that's a bit much Why don't we start off with two or three, and we can take it from there?' Inevitably she would end up doing three or four hours of phone interviews. She absolutely loved it!
Did you find that the visual absence of the girls in the video and promotion for That’s The Way It Is, increased the pressure from the press to disclose the true nature of Mel's illness?
Well, I wasn't taking calls from the editor of The Sun, so they went to Kim's ex-boyfriend and paid him for the pictures of Mel in hospital after the chemotherapy. They then published them on the front page of The News Of The World, and they printed these pictures of Mel, bloated in a hospital bed. They were personal family pictures they had taken, and he sold for whatever he got for them - though I don't think he got very much. As I say, I remember the editor of The Sun offering me £75 000 for my story, and I seem to remember that he got about £5 000 or £10 000 for those pictures which - OK, was quite a lot of money back then - but then I seem to remember somebody 'took care of him’ after that. He lived in the East End, and people just couldn't believe he had done that, so I think someone did beat him up and I think he had to move away. Too many people hated him, so it didn't do him any good. It really didn't! Then, when The News Of the World printed the pictures, their circulation actually went down, because people were so disgusted that they would print these pictures. It actually backfired on them all!
With those photos poised for publication that weekend, Mel made the difficult and courageous decision to appear for the first time in public since her diagnosis, and hold a press conference, and take the wind out of the story. How much time did you have to prepare and how was Mel?
Not much. Mel was absolutely devastated when she learned the photos were going to be published, but we knew this was coming, we knew these pictures were coming. We did everything we could to stop it but it was coming so we said to her, 'Look. The choice is this or we can just kill it in one day ,and you get it out the way you want it to come out. It's better that you speak about it rather than someone else'. Mel agreed, so we sent out the press release.
What are your memories of the press conference itself?
I remember the room being absolutely rammed with journalists. You couldn't get any more people in there, but when Mel first walked into the room, there was complete silence - absolute silence - and then, when she sat down and smiled, I remember them all cheering! Basically, it was Mel, me, Kim and the press officer, sitting on the 'head table', as it were. I said a few words at the beginning of the conference, then Mel did most of the talking after that, but we kept it short. The journalists were allowed to ask a few questions and then make notes, and that was that, but Mel was very clear that she wanted to speak, and say how she felt and what had happened. Mel didn't want it recorded and so we had informed the press it couldn't be filmed or recorded, but I still had to get the security to take two journalists out who were trying to film it. Mel spoke and she then answered a few questions, but I think we closed it after about twenty minutes or half an hour at the most.
Both sisters must have been understandably nervous?
Yes, I think Mel was nervous, but she didn't really show it. Mel was pretty good at fronting things. Kim was overtly nervous, and was worried that Mel might break down but, in the end, Mel did great, they both did but … it was a very, very tough time.
Was there a sense of relief after the story broke, and why do you think that Mel was so determined to fight her illness privately?
Yeah, it did take a lot of pressure off us, and it took a lot of pressure off the girls, because we would have just kept going until Mel said she wanted to tell people - which she never would have done. Mel was very much, like, 'Look, I just want this to go away. I'll have the treatment, and I'll get rid of the cancer, and then I'll be back and no one needs to know anything about this' - and that helped her to deal with it. I think that, if she had come out with it from day one and said to the press what had happened then, maybe she would have had less drive to keep going and motivate herself. Mel was just so adamant that she didn't want anyone to know. I think, if she had come clean about it sooner, it would have put more pressure on her and she would have felt that, perhaps, she was never going to get better, whereas by publicly pretending it wasn't happening, and staying out of the public eye, she was, kind of, convincing herself that she was dealing with it, and that she was going to recover from it.
Soon after the press conference, the girls appeared on Sir Terry Wogan's prime time chat show. What was the atmosphere like on set? What are your memories of that day?
I wasn't actually at the TV studio that night, but everyone remembers that interview. It really made people realise how strong Mel was. For the girls, I think it was just a relief that they had done the press conference, they had gone on Wogan and it just took a lot of pressure off them.
At this point, it was reported that Mel & Kim were recording their follow-up album with Stock, Aitken & Waterman. Were there any firm plans and any talk of what song would follow That’s The Way It Is?
Yeah, we were planning it. We already had people asking for the second album, so we were planning to put them back into the studio, with Stock, Aitken & Waterman. The American label – Atlantic – were the 'hot' label at the time, and they wanted the girls to also record in the US, with some hot American producers, so - yeah, the second album would have been recorded really quickly, if Mel hadn't have become ill.
Other than Megamix Ninety and the 'Italio' mixes of Showing Out, were any other tracks produced for the planned F.L.M. Remix Album?
No, we didn't mix anything else. The initial idea was for the Megamix to re-inject some interest into the F.L.M. album, and put some more promotion into it, because Mel wasn't doing any promotion, at that point. The F.L.M. album sold quite well off the backs of the first two singles but, because Mel wasn't able to promote it, it didn't sell millions like it should have done.
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From a professional and personal point of view, it must be a bittersweet experience when you look back on that whole time?
Yeah… life is cruel and the cruellest thing was what happened to Mel. Beautiful young girl and she had her career taken away from her, and then her life taken away from her, at such a young age. It was really difficult, and the sad thing is that Mel... basically, when Mel was 18, she had been diagnosed with a cancer in her back, and they removed it, and what the specialist told us was that, when they removed it, they must have just touched a bone or something when they moved the cancer away, and a tiny piece of it dropped off and fell into the small of her back. They gave Mel the all-clear, but said she would still need to come back for regular check-ups, and of course, Mel never went back for the check-ups. Had she gone back then, perhaps, they would have found that cancer in the early stages and she would still be alive now. It's just an absolute tragedy, but knowing Mel's personality, she would have been like, 'Right, I don't wanna hear any more about this cancer. They've removed it. I don't want any check-ups. That’s it done with now!'
That is so sad, and it really drives home the importance of regular check-ups!
We have spoken to many people for the site, including people who perhaps only met Mel & Kim for a short time, yet they made such a lasting impression on them, and it's amazing how much love remains. What was it about them that people found so affecting, and why do you think the memories have endured?
I think that the music is always the first thing, along with the production and the marketing. I mean, even if Mel & Kim had had different personalities and their image hadn't been as strong, I still think that those singles would have been successful, but the fact that Mel & Kim looked like they did, and the fact that they had those personalities and those accents... I think that was just the cream on the cake and made those records even bigger than they would have been. They were a unique act. They seemed to come from nowhere, and suddenly they were front cover of You Magazine, they were front cover of Smash Hits, they were in Cosmopolitan, they were in Vogue. They were across the board, and I think the biggest thing was that people realised that they were the real deal! Even though they didn't write the singles, they weren't manufactured as artists, they were completely themselves. People saw Mel & Kim, when they were being interviewed, and they were real, they weren't just sitting there playing the game. Mel had that infectious personality and laughter and, as sisters, they just came across absolutely brilliantly.
Mel & Kim were the real deal!