Spice World

by

01/19/2020

Neighborhood: Midtown, Theatre District

My daughter Hazel, after ten years of listening to what her parents wanted to hear and wanted her to hear, found music that neither her father or I could lay claim to, pop music designed for girls her age: Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera. We’d taken her to see Bob Dylan at Jones Beach when she was one, Hazel Dickens at two; Patti Smith in Central Park; Johnny Cash. Now in an act of unconscious defiance against parents whose music choices were deep and personal, she’d chosen the most commercial, most popular music available.

Her greatest love was the Spice Girls. They were inescapable in 1998, with no one female and under the age of ten immune to the siren call of Girl Power. I’d walk by her room and hear the scrappy, calculated anthems issuing out of a tinny-sounding CD player, punctuated by her big-soled shoes clomping to the music like her Brooklyn bedroom was a happening Manhattan dance club.

Hazel’s classmates at PS 116 regularly auditioned for commercials and parts in movies and plays and TV shows. Some had parents that worked at ad agencies, and a few had actual agents. This was New York City after all. “No way will I be one of those stage mothers,” I thought. No headshots sent off to casting directors, pageants or the nineties equivalent for our little family. “Unless she wants me to,” I added. 

When I was an eight year old growing up in Pittsburgh, my mother had entered me into the Little Miss Soapbox Derby Of Southwestern Pennsylvania beauty contest without my knowledge. I’d been forced to put on a dress usually reserved for Sunday Mass, tape down my unruly bangs (which popped up as soon as I hit the runway) and stand, pivot and stroll past a row of judges and soapbox derby cars. I didn’t win—hadn’t expected to win—and was pleased enough with the consolation prize: my very first LP, a compilation album called Back To Cool. Up through the sixties and into the seventies, our parents had believed they knew what was best for us. In the late twentieth century, no one was really sure what the right thing to do was. Letting the kids decide absolved the modern parent of too much responsibility.

“Look, Haze!” We were sitting at the enamel-topped table in our red Brooklyn kitchen on a bright fall Saturday. There was an ad in the New York Post: ‘BE IN A SPICE GIRLS COMMERCIAL! Dress like your favorite Spice Girl—come to Roseland to audition!’ I pushed the paper across the table. 

“I do look a little like Posh,” she said.

We weren’t in the habit of letting the Post tell us what to do. The newspaper was a guilty pleasure, an occasional splurge that put me in touch with a side of the city it was almost possible to shut out from our cozy bohemian enclave in Williamsburg. Even after two decades in New York, those tawdry tabloid pages still held the allure of the risky, brash side of life I had to admit could make my pulse race. It was the paper you loved to hate and hated yourself for loving, with its undercurrents or overcurrents of graft, opportunism and the fantasy of problem-solving by way of an OTB payday.

Hazel put together her best Posh Spice outfit: black tights, chunky black shoes, tiny checked minidress, and practiced a routine for hours in front of the big hallway mirror.

The day of the audition was one of those unexpectedly freezing autumn days, the kind that makes even the simplest errand impossible. The wind blew straight through the cross streets of Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River. I picked my daughter up at school on East 33rd and we took the R train to 49th Street and Broadway. Hazel huddled in a puffy winter coat over her brief Posh outfit.

As we exited the subway three blocks from Roseland, the scene quickly changed from the usual Times Square gallery of ghouls and working stiffs to an organized corridor of hysteria: there were dozens—no, hundreds—of mini Scary Spices in leopard print catsuits; three foot high Babys with blond pigtails; haughty Posh toddlers teetering on platform shoes; lycra-clad Sportys with scraped back ponytails jogging in place to keep warm. (Ginger had by this point left the group so there’d been no call for red-haired wannabes.) All the girls were propelled by mothers in urban cold-weather wear—down jackets, fake fur, ear muffs and ski hats, with a few sheepish looking fathers mixed in. The line went around an entire city block.

Hazel and I looked at each other. “Should we bother?” I asked. We were at least an hour and a half away from the entrance to Roseland. Her teeth were already chattering, but she nodded grimly. We were doing this.

There was cheerful camaraderie in the line, mother/daughter teams holding strangers’ places to take turns going for coffee and hot chocolate. It was the great democracy of New York in action, everyone free to be a dreamer. This was why my grandfather had traveled alone from Italy on a boat into New York harbor aged ten, just he and his fourteen year-old brother. Well, not this exactly. He’d worked his butt off first in a brickyard and then as a barber in a small town, sending his seven kids to college. But sometimes you just wanted to cut the line, and grab for the nickel-plated brass ring.

Finally a woman in a silver jacket and black leggings barked into a walkie talkie up ahead, then signaled with a wave like a cowgirl swinging a lasso. A murmur went down the line, and we started moving towards the Roseland entrance.

Each corner of the lobby was set aside for a different Spice Girl group. “Poshes, over here!” The woman with the walkie talkie snapped her fingers high the air. A few hundred mini-Poshes milled around. Most looked ready to throw up. Waivers were passed out to mothers and guardians to sign. “GIRLS! Your group leader will take you downstairs and show you your routine. Don’t run!” she screeched but it was too late, there was a stampede of Poshes, echoed by the other Spice factions exiting down the staircases from the massive lobby. “Moms? Go down that staircase OVER THERE and wait in the ballroom until you see your daughter finish her routine. If she makes the first cut, we’ll call her number.”

Out on the streets of New York, I still found myself reaching for my daughter’s hand at every intersection and crosswalk. She was so tiny. Now I waved goodbye as she disappeared with all the other brown-haired girls, and prayed I’d see her again.

Down in the legendary ballroom of Roseland we waited. When her Posh group came out for their turn, I had a hard time picking Hazel out of the crowd. That Posh there, with the chin-length bob? No, wait—maybe it was the one in the black tights and disproportionately-large Skechers? But then I felt sure her dress was yellow, blue and green? 

When the music started, I spotted her little face immediately—brow furrowed, mouth set in determination. Her moves were perfect. No smile, but then wasn’t Posh the sophisticated haughty one?

I noticed some of the mothers around me chanting the lyrics to the song, moving their hands and feet at the same time as their daughters, as if through motherly puppetry they could help them get the steps right. I restrained myself, silently willing Hazel to do well—not that it mattered, I told myself.

But when they called her number to go through to the second round of auditions, I found myself punching the air and shouting “YESSS!” in a voice that belonged to somebody else. It’s all been building up to this, I thought. I’d put out two solo albums and was back to temping at CBS. Maybe I’m just supposed to be a songwriter, working quietly behind the scenes but she—my daughter—she’s meant to be A STAR! 

I wasn’t all that different from my mother.

The second routine was trickier and Hazel seemed to have lost interest by then. When she didn’t get through to the next round, she ran over to me, almost relieved.

“Can we get a slice of pizza?”” she said, no trace of Posh left, except in the way she didn’t ask, just handed me her twenty pound backpack to carry.

***

AMY RIGBY published her first book, Girl To City: A Memoir in 2019. She is a songwriter, musician and recording artist. Hazel Rigby is a musician who performs under the name TBHQ. Visit amyrigby.com and tbhq.bandcamp.com for more info.

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