As the high-kicking, tracksuit-wearing Sporty Spice, Mel C was living her childhood dream, touring the world as one fifth of the ­biggest girlband in history.

After exploding on to the scene in 1996, the Spice Girls performed in front of millions, earning huge amounts of money and counting Nelson Mandela, Madonna and Prince among their fans.

But behind closed doors it was a different story for Melanie Chisholm, the working-class girl from Widnes in Cheshire, who began to struggle with imposter syndrome and guilt.

She questioned whether she was worthy of this staggering success and could not see herself as the confident on-stage persona her fans loved.

That and the intense scrutiny that the band came under led Melanie to suffer from crippling depression and eating disorders for years.

But now, at 46, still making music and mum to 11-year-old daughter Scarlet, Melanie has found peace and accepted that she will always be Sporty Spice.

Melanie explains: “I felt like I had spent many years trying to find myself, who I was when I wasn’t Sporty Spice. Then last year I kind of realised that I am Sporty Spice, what am I trying to find?

“I just kind of feel like I can exhale because I don’t need to search any more, I just need to embrace all of these parts of myself. Like everybody, we are so complex, there are so many sides to us.”

The pop star stopped eating and suffered with depression after finding fame

Melanie was 20 when she responded to an advert in The Stage looking for singers to form a girl group.

Mel, Mel Brown, Geri Halliwell, Victoria Adams and Emma Bunton became the Spice Girls and, in 1996, their debut Wannabe catapulted them on to the world stage.

The single got to No1 in 37 countries, selling more than seven million copies and starting a pop juggernaut that made them the five most famous girls on the planet.

Now almost 25 years on Melanie sees that the most amazing time of her life came at an inevitable cost.

She says: “I was still trying to figure out who I was anyway. But then being bombarded with people’s opinions of you, nothing prepares you for that.

“That was hard. You find yourself in this situation where you are living your childhood fantasy. I come from a working-class background.

“I was earning lots of money. I felt guilty and I think I felt maybe I didn’t deserve it and I think all of these things made me put an extraordinary amount of pressure on myself to fit and be what in my head was the idea of perfect, so I did deserve all of the things that were happening to me.”

Mel exercised obsessively, stopped eating and suffered with depression.

Mel C and the Spice Girls shot to fame in 1996 following the success of their debut single Wannabe

She says of when she finally got help with her depression: “It was the millennium when I was in LA with my family.

“I was struggling to get out of bed, I felt hopeless, I was very, very teary and I feel like my body took over my mind.

“I didn’t have the will any longer to stay in this life. That is when I decided to go and see my GP... the first thing he wanted to address was my depression.

“It was a massive relief to me.

“I just thought I was going mad, it had a name, it was something you could be helped with... recover from.”

Melanie feels sad she wasted so many years, which is why she is now so vocal about mental health issues.

She says: “When you are in it you can’t even imagine a way out.

“I just hope that my experience can help others either avoid it or heal from it, or at least seek comfort.

“You can get better. Everyone deserves to be happy, it is just finding what you need to get to that place.”

Talking to Melanie now, she certainly seems happy. As mum to Scarlet, she wants to be a good role model.

Mel C performs at the Edinburgh Playhouse in 2001
Melanie is now vocal about mental health issues

And it is themes of empowerment and acceptance that come across in the lyrics to her new self-titled album.

“When I became a mum everything changed,” she says.

“I was like, my body is amazing, it has created this perfect creature.

“In order to get the best for her, I want the best for me. A happy mum is a good mum. There is so much mum guilt – we go out to work or we have a night out. But mums need to have me time, time out. To be a good mum you have to be selfish sometimes.”

And what better role model can Scarlet have than one of the original pioneers of Girl Power? Melanie looks back with pride on the feminist movement that the Spice Girls brought to a new generation of women and girls.

“We wanted to conquer the world, we wanted to stand up for women, which very quickly became more than Girl Power,” she says.

“This movement had been going on for hundreds of years and then the Spice Girls came along in the 90s and made it more mainstream and more understandable for young people.

“Who knew that Girl Power would end up in the dictionary?”

Melanie is hopeful things could come full circle and see the Spice Girls – including Victoria – reunite again for a new stadium tour. Rumours had been rife that the big reunion would be next year to coincide with their 25th anniversary.

Melanie has not ruled out a Spice Girls reunion

And while Melanie fears Covid has put paid to that, she would love nothing more than to be back on stage with her Spice family.

“Myself and Mel B keep banging on about it, and we do all talk about it and it is something we would all want to do. So fingers crossed we will get our act together.

“We did see each other when lockdown eased for the first time.

“We went down to Geri’s place in the country and it was fantastic and it was all five of us.

“That was really special and we had a lovely ­afternoon. We are probably closer now than we have been in a very long time – and that includes Victoria.”

At the end of the day only Sporty, Scary, Ginger, Baby and Posh know what it was like to be a Spice Girl – and Mel says that crazy experience will bind them together for ever.

She says: “The whole world knows we don’t always see eye to eye and we have our fallouts, but we are just this huge dysfunctional family.

“It is a bond that will never be broken. If anything happens to anyone, we are there.”

Mel C's album is out on October 2 and is available to pre-order now.