‘It’s just iconic, isn’t it’: Performer Keri Rae on WANNABE – THE SPICE GIRLS SHOW


Lucy Wiggins (she/her) talks with WANNABE’s Keri Rae about life as Baby Spice, what the Spice Girls mean today, and the joy of a screaming audience.

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Image by Spice Girls show

By Lucy Wiggins

Before Keri and I have been talking for five minutes, we have already used the word iconic. Referring, of course, to Baby’s pink bunches and mini dress look. Keri performs the part of Baby Spice in the show Wannabe, which she is clear to establish is not a tribute or impression, but a celebration of the Spice Girls’ music, with Keri having as much admiration for Baby as any audience member.
The show is a long standing success, and has become “a massive part” of Keri’s life. Originally from Newcastle and knowing from a young age that this is what she always wanted to do, she moved down south to pursue a career in performance. After landing the part in the show as one of her first jobs after graduating, Keri has been involved for almost five years. Wannabe has toured the UK and globally, last year touring Australia for a whole month, and is becoming “bigger and bigger as time moves on”. From the start Keri makes it clear how much she loves doing the show, because it is “just so much fun”.
The Spice Girls have sold over 85 million records worldwide. Astounded by the girls’ continuing success, I was intrigued to see what Keri’s thoughts would be on this transcendence –-- not just of place, but of time.

Why do you think the love for them is so universal?
“I think it’s due to the fact that there’s one that everyone can relate to. Definitely growing up it was like, ‘who’s your favourite, this is who I’m going to play, or this is who I am’. I think that because there is such variety – and obviously the music, banger after banger – there is always someone that they can relate to, especially growing up. I am a nineties baby so I was around for that music, I remember my sister introducing me to it. But just remember as a kid I latched onto Baby because I thought she was my favourite. I think that’s probably why they’re still going today – people remember it, and it’s nostalgic.”
On a night out their songs are sure to be screamed by everyone. And we joke about the absurdity of this obsession as kids, as I remember being introduced to Take That by my older sister, and each of us deciding which band member was ‘ours’. But this makes their music have a real connection with your life, a shared history with the band, and listening now reminds you of where you listened to it first, and, more importantly, who with.

Do you get a lot of hen parties, or nights out?
“Yeah, loads of birthday celebrations. There is a part of the show where we can give them a shoutout, which is a really nice moment, and can engage with them. But not just hen parties, sometimes we see parents with their children, younger kids. That is also really sweet, because they weren’t around in the nineties but they’re keeping it going. I’ve always found the audiences are such a nice mix of people, everyone is there just to have a good time. It’s really lovely, really warm, and really fun.”

The concept behind the show talks a lot about this nostalgia. How important is that for you? Do you feel that theatre and musicals are really about that, and you need that nostalgia and the desire to escape back to those memories?
“Absolutely – I think that’s why people enjoy coming to watch this show in particular.
We make sure that we cover all of the classics for that very reason, because people are going to remember the Spice Girls like they remember the Spice Girls. That is what they want to go and see, to escape everything, have a good time, take them back for one night.”

You mentioned growing up as a nineties baby. I was born in the 2000s, so I missed this really influential period with things like Britpop, girl power, all these cultural things happening. What are your memories of it?
“I remember my sister having a Spice Girls video on VHS, watching it and dancing along in the living room. I’m a younger sister, so I hadn’t really heard about them, didn’t know what was going on. Like yours, she just brought me into that.”
Thinking about terms like ‘girl power’ before the interview, I realised I had mixed feelings about it, a fine balance between empowering and patronising. It reminded me of phrases like ‘girl maths’ used casually today. Not meant maliciously, but in some way condescending, as if girls do not belong with standard ‘maths’, requiring their own version. But in the nineties, putting girls and power together in the mainstream was certainly a step forward.

What do things like girl power and Britpop mean to you?
“With the show, we do touch on girl power. Especially for the time, it was actually really important to see five role models being really successful in the industry and smashing it. We touch on how important girl power is, and there are parts where we encourage everyone, even the men too, to shout out ‘GIRL POWER’. We don’t touch on it too much in the show, but we do definitely have a little nod to it. They were really influential at the time, and they were one of the first really big girl bands to make it - and they were women, and it was the nineties. I think it is important we do touch on it. But we don’t go into it too much, it is more just celebrating girl power.”
I mention the worrying persistence of female artists being scrutinised by the press. Seeing women horribly treated, for instance Amy Winehouse, as Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film released this year reminds us, or even Taylor Swift, her immense popularity questioned. With female artists so watched, so criticised - it still seems a struggle to just inhabit that role. Girl power, then, began a fight against this through their music. I mention the mini dresses they wore, that they didn’t really care about what people thought of them.  Keri vehemently agrees, that they “definitely spoke their minds”, and “to have five outspoken women is really great”.

Have you experienced sexism in the industry?
“In the industry. . (sighs) . . it’s hard . . I think it’s moving in a way where a lot of people are very conscious of that, so they try. . I mean, now, I’ve had great experiences, and people are actively going out of their way to make sure that that doesn’t necessarily happen, I think because of what’s happened in the past. So, I’d like to think that it’s going to continue going that way. And people like the Spice Girls, setting a precedent to stand up for yourself, I do feel like that has had an impact today, because people are so aware of it.”

As we’ve said, the girls have a massive following. How do you feel about the fan culture, performing for that kind of devoted audience, who, like yourself, might have that shared history with the band? Do you find pressure in it, or does it spur you on?
“At the very start when we come out, the lights come on, and it is like we just appear, people scream and go mental. And, honestly, from the very beginning you can tell that they are on your side. It’s not about pressure – we are with them and they are with us, all celebrating together. And I always say, there will never be a moment in my life where I have that much screaming for myself. Going out as them, they treat you like you’re the real thing, and they’re screaming. So you know everyone is just so excited for it, everyone’s here together for a good time.”

What do you feel is the biggest part of their legacy?
“Probably girl power. I feel like the legacy is all about girl power, and just female empowerment, being a woman and being successful. And also the iconic songs.”

And like you’ve said, it goes beyond the generation that grew up with them. Why do you think it continues to inspire young people, young girls now?
“I think the parents introducedintroducing their kids to it, and that’s why it’s still going on now. And the songs, they’re timeless in the sense that they’re still being played now, and everyone still has the same response as they did back then, because they’re so iconic. The iconic music, really, is what’s keeping it going.”
‘Girl power’ has come to mean more than they could have possibly imagined, in the industry and in our culture, with an endless amount of writing, criticism, and art associated with it. And on its Wikipedia page, a whole section is on the Spice Girls.

So with ‘girl power’ ruling the pop scene at that moment, and all the implications of this, how important do you think gender is to their story?
“It’s important because we’re talking about the 90s and girl power. But it’s definitely not just exclusive to women, in the sense that it’s a whole celebration, the night out. We have all genders there and we’re just celebrating the Spice Girls. Obviously, we talk about girl power, and how they set that tone in the nineties – we cheer for it. But it’s not like ‘a women’s night’ for example. It’s all inclusive, everyone’s welcome, and we’re just there to celebrate them really.”
With Keri mentioning seeing whole families with their children at shows, I realise I hadn’t considered the expansiveness of their fanbase. Their music means something different to everyone - and girl power isn’t just significant for girls. I mention tentatively that it seems like they have a connection with the gay community, then and now.
“One hundred percent,” Keri replies, “they were icons with the LGBTQ+ scene, and we find that in our audiences as well. It’s such an eclectic mix of people that come to watch us, from hen parties to families. We’ve had dads bring their children before, women, men, every gender – just everyone.”
In creating a kind of dreamland through their music, where the nineties kids can pretend to be someone else, and the power positions seen in society are reversed, their music becomes a world where everyone is empowered to be whoever they want to be.

Do you ever get nervous about playing such big venues?
“I don’t necessarily think about the size of the audience before I’m about to do the show. But there have been a couple of times, when you come out, the lights come on, and you don’t actually realise the scale of it until everyone is sitting in their seats, and you’re like ‘oh my God, there are so many people here’. But because that is the moment when they’re screaming back, singing along, and they are so on side with you, it’s never a nervous thing, like you’re being judged. It’s just one of the most fun shows I’ve ever done, on stage with four of your friends, having a good time.”

How do you deal with rejection?
“Everyone finds it hard, and it would be silly if I said it doesn’t bother me, because it does. But I think it bothers us way less, just because we’re so used to it. It’s so normal you have to not take it personally and understand that it’s a huge jigsaw that they’re putting together, and just because you didn’t fit necessarily that time doesn’t mean you’re not suited for it another time. You’ve just got to not take it personally and move on to the next one.”

Do you think that’s the hardest part of this sort of work then, the competition?
“I would say, yeah, the competition. Because it’s the best job in the world, so many people want to do it as well. Everyone is talented, everyone is good. So it’s just remembering that you’re one of many, but there will be something that you’ll be right for.”

I always overthink things. Do you look back on past performances? Or do you enjoy how theatre is, where it’s been and gone?
“I think you can always beat yourself up on things, but we’re all human. It’s live theatre, so of course things might not be one hundred percent perfect. It could be something like, ‘oh, I looked the wrong way’, or I moved my head half a count before I should’ve, so specific. And we’re so well-rehearsed to make sure that we are on it that quite often your body just does the right thing anyway. You sail through it, and afterwards you’re like, ‘did I just do a whole show?’ - you blink and it’s over.”

I ask Keri if she has any other favourite projects that she’s done, and the answer is not one I was expecting – an international tour of PawPatrol. And even more surprisingly, Keri is able to compare it to Wannabe, as when she comes out, “everyone’s screaming because they know who you are, they could see the character’s that you are, and all the kids are going mental because they’re seeing their favourite characters on stage.”

Do you have any advice, in general, or for anyone wanting to become a performer?
“Just to work really, really hard and be the best that you can be, and don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Just focus on yourself and just get as good as you possibly can, and that’s all, and then see what happens. Because it can be really overwhelming, but if you just focus on yourself and really push yourself and get to the best stage you could possibly be in, then no one can fault you.”

So is that a big thing for you, not comparing yourself to others, being grateful instead of focusing on what you’ve not got?
“One hundred percent. Like I said, there are so many people in the industry it can be really hard to go to an audition where, say for example casting for Baby Spice, there are going to be a lot of people that look quite similar, or have a similar vibe to you, so it’s really hard to not be like ‘oh, she’s got this’, or ‘she’s got that’, or ‘they’re really good at doing this’. But you’ve actually got to remember that you also have things to offer. So just don’t worry about anyone else and focus on yourself. And get as good as you can be, because it is really tough.”

I’m interviewing Keri when she is not starting the latest rehearsal process for Wannabe for another month. I naively ask what she’s spending her time doing in this ‘break’. “Oh yeah,” Keri replies, “but I’ve got my other jobs.” She laughs, “we have so many other jobs.” When Keri tells me this, I realise most freelance artists, or even just those working in the arts industry, that I’ve spoken to have mentioned balancing more than one job at a time. During Covid, this flexibility, or instability, of a creative career was highlighted. Keri tells me she was on a UK tour of Wannabe just before Covid, with “all these amazing theatres” booked in, and she remembers suddenly getting an email being told that “it’s not happening anymore”, as “the whole industry shut down”. Keri has an optimistic outlook on this time –-- once theatres opened up again, it felt amazing, “even more so to be back then.” But during this period of uncertainty, she tells me that all the performers she knows “ended up doing other jobs” and “found different things”, for instance, Keri worked as a dog walker.

In this interval before touring,  Keri is working as a supply teacher, doing other gigging work, and working in a café.  Keri explains to me that this can be one of the hardest parts of being a performer: “you have to find ‘normal’ jobs, non-performing jobs, that are really flexible, because in the industry you could have an audition the next day and you have to be able to go. You can’t really commit yourself to a normal nine to five job because you have to be able to just leave as soon as a performing job comes up.” We laugh about the secret life of supply teachers, children not knowing that their teacher will be on stage as Baby Spice the next day. Keri tells me that this “juggling” of jobs can be “overwhelming”. As, “it’s  really hard to not let people down. So you have to be so transparent from the get go, and just do jobs where they fully understand what you do, and that you might have to go to a recall, or might have to go. But I think performers are so adaptable, we can do so many things.”

Talking about Wannabe and her career, Keri is full of joy and enthusiasm, and it is clear how much the show means to her, and how much it means to the audience. It made me appreciate the boundless love connected with the Spice Girls’ music, giving everyone much more than just iconic songs. I ask Keri if she thinks the girls have really changed the world, “yeah,” she replies laughing, “I really do.”

WANNABE – THE SPICE GIRLS SHOW comes to Grand Opera House York on 20 June for one night only. Get your tickets here.