Crouch End agent uses inside knowleedge of the music industry for her debut book The Thunder Girls
PUBLISHED: 15:43 29 July 2019
From rags to riches Melanie Blake’s life has been much like a character of her hero Jackie Collins - now she’s written a hotly tipped page turner about the music industry
Melanie Blake's debut novel sat in a draw for two decades before she dusted it off to became a hotly tipped blockbuster.
In the intervening years she went from a struggling assistant on Top of The Pops to a top agent for actors and singers - mostly female and over 40.
From the brink of bankruptcy to a millionaire with a huge pad in Crouch End, she has brought her hard-won life experience and insider knowledge - working with the Nolans, Steps, Five Star and Spandau Ballet - to the story of an 80s girl-band who traumatically break apart then get back together for one glorious gig.
Like her idol Jackie Collins, The Thunder Girls (Pan Macmillan £7.99) is a shamelessly high octane page turner but with a very British edge and a contemporary twist that brings up #Metoo, social media trolls and middle aged women trying to wrest back control from a sexist industry.
"I wrote it 20 years ago and I was offered an enormous amount of money if I would change the women's ages," says Blake, 40.
"They said 'who's interested in middle-aged women?' But I have always believed in women and never thought they had an age limit. Even though I was desperate for the money I didn't take it."
Blake's Thunder Girls experience lashings of ageism and sexism along with a meddling record boss, a stalker fan and a viper journalist spilling their secrets. Two decades on, their story has even more currency in an age when nostalgia music gigs and shows like Loose Women have prolonged women's careers.
"The women I work with take no s***t," says Blake. "My clients are all considered past their prime by the business, but I fight for all those women I represent. I made a big change to the industry, 40 was considered old. When I put the Nolans back together people said it wouldn't sell tickets but it took £2m at the box office and proved you don't have to be cool to be popular. It's one in the eye for ageism and snobbery."
But the story of Chrissy, Roxanne, Carly and Anita is also one of jealousy, betrayal and bitter rivalry. When Chrissy goes solo, it spells the band's doom, but thirty years later she's on the brink of bankruptcy and has to grovel to ex band mates during the mother of all booze-fuelled reunion dinners.
Blake felt strongly that a story about young girls wouldn't pack the same er.. punch.
"Love is the highest high and the lowest low. The book is about friendship and betrayal. Girls haven't had that knowledge of pain and heartbreak like older women," says Blake who has adapted it into a play which premieres at Manchester's Lowry Theatre in September starring her client Beverley Callard.
Blake had a "normal" upbringing in Manchester until her father joined a religious cult.
"We were happy in a nice semi, then overnight he became obsessed by this End of Days doomsday cult where everyone was a sinner. He gave all our money to the church, ripped all the pop posters off my walls and we had to read from the Bible every night. You either break or become unbreakable under those circumstances."
She sought escapism in library books with "glittery covers" by the likes of Collins and Shirley Conran.
"Jackie is the first lady," says Blake, who bought a diamond pendant and other jewellery from the author's estate sale which she wears as talismans for success.
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"My mum was doing a cleaning round and I had to go with her to other people's lovely houses which rubbed salt in the wound. I would read about women who came from the sort of background that I had, who didn't marry their way up the ladder but made it through their own determination. I was entranced and found it totally empowering"
Still a teenager when she made herself homeless, she lived in a squat then a council flat in Salford before leaving for London at 19.
"I was skint living in bedsits but I was never depressed because I was free."
She blagged her way into doing 'camera work' every Thursday on TOTP - when they realised she hadn't a clue they let her stay.
"For four years I was paid to watch the world's biggest stars up close and interact with them".
She would offer honest advice, telling Kylie which light to stand in, advising Westlife to axe the wind machine.
"I realised no-one told pop stars the truth, they sat around telling them lies," said Blake,
"The first thing that struck me at TOTP was how excited they would be to get there.
"The nicest girl who would have patted every dog in the city after three weeks comes back at No3 and is a diva bitch from hell who won't even hold her own drink, it was sad.
"A pop star I represented had lost everything, gone bankrupt within a year I'd made them a millionaire and they were back to the monster they must have been."
While at Top of The Pops, Blake got on well with Claire Richards from Steps. "She told me 'you'd make a great music manager if I went solo I would pay you'."
By 23, living in Kentish Town, £50,000 in debt and facing insolvency, Blake was just about to quit when Richards called.
"She signed me as her agent and my life changed."
"I had a bad start but you can overcome it," she says. "I am from a working class family and I've never changed. If you are working class and you make it, you either become a parody of yourself and turn into Cilla Black or pretend you are from Buckinham Palace like Geri Halliwell - no-one likes her as they did when she was a big busty Watford girl who got there through sheer determination."
One day, a psychic touched Blake's Collins pendant and said "this used to belong to a powerful woman, you have written something and she wants you to get it out, it's a bestseller".
Blake set about rewriting Thunder Girls and says "everything in it is true".
"I have lived it. I've been at TOTP, I've been on tour, in the studio, at the Brits. I saw what really went down, bands up close and personal. In real life it's mainly the manipulation of the management that causes a breakdown; whispering to one, you pick out one and praise them, that's show business.
"I have also lived through band reunions. Apart from the Nolans, after 30 years no-one wants to see each other again, it's like the worst divorce from a bad marriage times ten, but these women are offered a life changing amount of money to reunite and it reopens old wounds."