Andrew Essex
December 12, 1997 AT 05:00 AM EST

On a busy street outside the staid London betting parlor known as Corals, it’s business as usual in Spice World. In England, where girls still dream of growing up to be Sporty or Posh, the sight of three 10-year-old towheads with their hair tied in Baby Spice pigtails singing ”Tell me what you want, what you really, really want” is as Brit as Big Ben.

But inside Corals, something odd is happening: Elderly men in smoking jackets want a few things from the Spice Girls too. (And no, it’s not that.) These days the hottest action at Corals, where betting usually revolves around soccer and horses, is predicting the exact moment in which the decade’s most successful girl group will self-destruct.

The smart money says the answer is very soon indeed.

Just weeks ago, the idea that you could get 4 to 1 on whether Sporty Spice would be the first of the Girls to go solo would have been inconceivable. The group seemed unstoppable earlier this fall after making a grief-stricken Prince Harry swoon and reportedly prompting Nelson Mandela to call meeting them ”one of the greatest moments” of his life (quite a compliment from a man who knows what it’s like to be freed after 27 years in prison). But now the British tabloids are packed with stories of squabbles among Emma, Geri, Victoria, Mel B, and Mel C. And there’s been a weaker-than-expected start for their second album, Spiceworld, which suggests that the Fab Five may no longer be the musical flavor of the day. A big surprise? Hardly, given the group’s reputation for being as artificial as bubble gum. But a potentially big problem nevertheless — especially for the group’s troubled record label and the upcoming Spice Girls movie, Spice World, scheduled to arrive in U.S. theaters in seven long weeks.

Discord first sounded for the Spicers in early November, when the Girls unceremoniously fired their manager, Simon Fuller, the man credited with turning Spice into a global sensation just over a year ago. The British media blamed the beheading on an affair between Fuller and Baby Spice that was driving the band apart (she has denied the affair; he’s refused to comment). Other reports speculate that the group, intoxicated perhaps by their burgeoning Girl Power, simply resented Fuller’s 20 percent cut of all things Spice. (A report in a British finance magazine said they would gross approximately [pounds]30 million — about $50 million — in 1997.) ”The golden rule in the industry,” says the manager of a major American rock act, ”is don’t earn more than the talent.”

Fuller, who reportedly received a [pounds]10 million severance package to keep the details of his departure to himself, has refused all interview requests. The ex-manager’s brother, Kim Fuller, screenwriter for Spice World, would not comment on the alleged affair but confirms the split ”was fairly sudden. They didn’t talk to Simon about it, and they haven’t talked to him since.”

Dubbed Svengali Spice for marketing the heck out of the group (Spice Girls potato crisps?!), Fuller also made them seem as infallible as the Queen Mum. But within days of his departure, the group became mired in controversy. On Nov. 13, the Spice Girls delayed a Grammys-like awards show in Barcelona, Spain, refusing to perform until photographers left the building. Much to the group’s surprise, the audience greeted their action with boos and hisses. On Nov. 17, European critics treated to an advance screening of Spice World, a Hard Day’s Night-style romp, promptly panned the flick.

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