During the late ’90s the Spice Girls became one of the biggest bands on the planet. In the span of four years, they released three albums, toured the world, made a movie, and brought girl power to the masses. They were unstoppable. But by the early 2000s “Spice Mania” had come to an end. It’s been over two decades since the height of their popularity, but their influence continues to be felt in today’s pop culture landscape, especially for five young performers based in Toronto. Nearly six years ago, out of work and in between gigs, Suzy Wilde, Barbara Johnston, Anika Johnson, Catherine Merriam, and Jasmyn Fyffe formed Wannabe, a Spice Girls tribute band.
“Suzy and I were brainstorming one day,” explains Johnston, who portrays Ginger Spice. “Our friends were in a Daft Punk tribute show, and they were doing well with it. We thought what could we do? We jokingly said, ‘Well, remember that time we dressed up [as the Spice Girls] at the Drake? That was fun.’”
Prior to forming Wannabe, Wilde (Posh), Johnston (Ginger), and Johnson (Sporty) were in a pop folk band called StoneFox. During a Halloween show, StoneFox decided to dress up as the Spice Girls. A few years later they decided to do it again. Catherine Merriam, Johnston’s sister, joined them as Baby Spice and Jasmyn Fyffe as Scary Spice. In preparation for the show, they met every Saturday for months to rehearse. Impressively, they did most of the work in-house with each member contributing. Wilde worked on arrangements, Johnston on choreography, and Merriam on sourcing costumes and promoting the band. They recruited a six-piece backing band, polished up their British accents, and preformed to a sold-out crowd at Toronto’s El Mocambo.
“We had no expectations,” explains Johnston. Wannabe was supposed to be a one time show for friends and family, but soon after it morphed into “this whole other thing” that was “beyond anything we could have imagined.”
Since then, the band has toured across North America, played major festivals, and appeared on network television. The band’s success, in part, comes from their genuine love of the Spice Girls, their strength as performers, and their friendships with one another.
“We’re all sisters and friends,” explains Merriam. “You can see the chemistry between us. We’re not just doing a show.”
“We’re not trying to be a cardboard cut out [of the Spice Girls],” says Johnston.
“That’s not what the Spice Girls are about,” adds Wilde.
“We wear the wigs and we do the moves, but you’re seeing us,” clarifies Johnston. “We care more about the dynamic between us and the energy with the audience than being a photocopied version [of the Spice Girls].
Wannabe has successfully tapped into a market that reminds people of a happier time. Nostalgia makes people feel good. Additionally, the women suggest that no band or artist in twenty plus years has even come close to what the Spice Girls symbolized. They embodied “love, self love, girl power, friendship, and sisterhood,” says Fyffe. And that’s what Wannabe aims to do too.
“The Spice Girls came right before 9/11,” says Johnston. “There’s a certain optimism that died when [9/11] happened. I don’t mean 9/11 specifically, but I’m referring to it as a mark of the world changing. The Spice Girls were the end of a certain kind of innocence. They’re sexy, but they are not soulless. That’s something our culture is missing. It’s very easy [for people] to dismiss the band.” But Wannabe is bigger than just ’90s nostalgia. “Our shows seem to mean something to people…a certain sense of camaraderie, empowerment, and female friendship that women need.”
Next up, Wannabe heads to the Middle East. In mid-November, they’re back in Canada for a few shows on the east coast.
“I mostly dance and choreograph. I work in dance theatre, a little bit in film, and I sing with this lovely band.”
“I’m a trained dancer. I’m also a singer and actor, but dance is what I’ve been doing for the last decade. I dance for a Brazilian dance company is Toronto. I train in Brazil and we’ve toured internationally. I also work for a theatre company. Keeps me busy.”
“My mom is starting a theatre company, and I do a lot of behind the scenes stuff like costume design and producing with her. We did a show in the Toronto Fringe Festival. I’m stepping out of the stage stuff and doing a lot more behind the scenes.”
“I write musical theatre with Suzy and Anika, and I direct and do musical staging. I also work a lot with art schools in Toronto, which I really like to do.”
“I mostly do music. I play in a couple of different bands. I do composing and arranging. I’ve written a couple of musicals with Barb and Anika.”
*Anika Johnson also portrays Sporty Spice