True pop confection or canny concoction? Either way, the bawdy Spice Girls are made from all-fresh ingredients

Time’s running out in a Manhattan studio. ”Hurry up your f—in’ a–, then!” barks Spice Girl Melanie Brown to the photographer framing her group’s portrait. As the harried lensman hunkers behind his equipment, Brown and her tarty cohorts coo, ”C’mon, baaaby….” And it seems to do the trick. Their image securely in the can, the fivesome race to meet a shrieking busload of radio contest winners waiting outside for a prized tour of Manhattan with Britain’s brassy queens of bubblegum pop. It’s a telling scenario, capturing the sour and sweet moods of the Spice Girls, as well as the breakneck pace of their global hype-athon.

Inciting Spicemania Stateside is the vampy hit ”Wannabe,” the secret weapon in the Girls’ bid for worldwide pop-cult dominance. Unleashed Jan. 7, and currently No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, it’s poised to pounce on Toni Braxton’s ”Un-Break My Heart.” The single has already topped the charts in 35 countries across four continents — an international tear that began in Japan eight months ago. Upon its release in America, ”Wannabe” tied the record for the highest-charting entry by a debut artist. And its accompanying video, a vanity romp in which the saucy Girls just wanna wreak havoc on a chichi London social club, has similarly gate-crashed MTV’s heavy rotation playlist.

But brace yourself. ”Wannabe” is only the first maneuver in the no-holds-barred marketing blitz behind their debut album, Spice, a platter of slick dance pop that has already sold 7 million copies overseas.

Reminiscent of another hysteria-inducing British export, the fab five are a multimedia sensation made up of equal parts personality, product, and push. Consider this: Currently in the works in the U.K. are a Spice Girls magazine, a Hard Day’s Night-inspired feature film, two TV shows, a multimillion-pound Pepsi endorsement deal — even action figures.

Characters in at least one sense of the word, the Girls come complete with distinct looks, attitudes, and nicknames: There’s chatty ”Sexy Spice” Geri Halliwell, 24; lithe B-girl ”Sporty Spice” Melanie Chisholm, 21; funky amazon ”Scary Spice” Melanie Brown, 21; style-conscious femme fatale ”Posh Spice” Victoria Aadams, 21; and virginal ”Baby Spice” Emma Bunton, 21. They comprise a postfeminist palette of archetypes ranging from madonna to whore with a few stops in between. Call them Josie and the Pussycats, with an agenda.

That agenda is their much-trumpeted message of ”girl power,” a mantra of female solidarity and strength. ”No one wants to be classed as a bimbo anymore,” theorizes Mel C in a rare idle moment during the photo shoot. ”You can wear your Wonderbra, you can wear your mascara, but you’ve got a bit of intelligence…. Don’t rely on your sexuality, but don’t be afraid of it.” Emma takes a pithier approach: ”Just because you’ve got a short skirt on and a pair of t–s, you can still say what you want to say. We’re still very strong.” Not content merely to make a splash, the Spice Girls want to make a difference.

And they have—at least on the global Top 40 teen scene, which, until now, has largely been the domain of antiseptic boy bands like Menudo, New Kids, and Take That. Not only are the Girls female, they’re unrepentant swearers, drinkers, and smokers; broads who speak frankly about sex and are not averse to the occasional frontal flash at a male passerby.

That brashness is evident in a now-legendary—in the U.K., at least—litany of outrageous behavior, utterance, and rumor: Much has been made of Geri’s stint as a soft-core porn model and Mel B’s work as a “private” dancer; the Girls sent blowup effigies of themselves to their Virgin Records signing party, later hurling them into the Thames; a trip to L.A. last year found them streaking through the halls of the Four Seasons Hotel, and Mel B relieving herself into a potted plant. Asked about the likelihood of extending their transcontinental success to America, one of them told an interviewer: “They eat, they s—, they fart. Why shouldn’t they like the same music?”

If the most pressing question provoked by all this hoopla has been “Who’s your favorite Spice Girl?” (Britain’s apple-cheeked Prince William’s is Baby Spice), the most obvious question is “Are they for real?”

The folklore-cum-history of the Spice Girls goes thusly: Struggling dancer-actors on London’s audition circuit, they came together in May 1994 in response to an ad in a paper called The Stage. A local talent manager wanted to assemble “an all-female act for a record deal.” After a brief partnership with the manager, the Girls bolted. According to the group, his vision of a cookie-cutter combo of supporting players with a frontwoman, performing other people’s material, was too stifling.

Dropping one member and picking up Emma, the Girls made their headquarters a house in nearby Maidenhead, where—if their story is to be believed—they tapped into a previously unmined vein of musical talent, began writing songs, and discovered themselves to be soul mates and totally distinctive, marketable personalities. Demos in hand, they hooked up with seasoned manager Simon Fuller (Annie Lennox, Cathy Dennis) in March ’95, stormed the offices of Virgin International, and proceeded to make pop-music history.

Many have questioned the truth of a rags-to-riches tale so serendipitous it makes the Monkees look like modern-day Horatio Algers. It’s in this context that girl power seems a convenient posture, propping up the group’s claims of authenticity. Says Emma, “We could sit here all day and scream that we are not manufactured, we write our own music, we dress how we want to dress, and we’re best mates, but the fact is, it’s not our problem if people want to think [otherwise].”

As to the legitimacy of their personas, both artists and management claim that what you see is what you get, although Virgin U.K. deputy managing director Ashley Newton admits to a little tweaking: “It wasn’t like there’s been some gargantuan transformation. We just recorded the music properly and put a magnifying glass on the characters that were already there.” Accusations of image making—it has been speculated, for example, that up to a half-dozen years have been shaved off the Girls’ ages—cause Fuller to bristle: “You can say that Pearl Jam’s calculated by doing reduced ticket prices, by being a ‘group of the people.’ I mean, what’s calculated? Where does it end? A thought is calculated.”

John Davis, editor of the British music mag Select, would like to dismiss the quintet as “vaudevillian girls with pushy mothers” but expresses a grudging admiration: “It’s incredible that for the first time you have a pop group occupying the teen market who seem to be the most approachable, human, flawed people imaginable. And they celebrate that they’re not perfect. Which means, in a sense, that they can’t fail.”

As for the songwriting, the Girls insist they pen their own material. Period. But a little nagging wins a clarification. Says Geri, “The top-line melodies come from us, and we work with technicians who translate what we’re doing.” The technicians are a stable of proven hitmakers assembled by Fuller: London-based composer-producers Biff ‘n Memphis (ne Richard Stannard and Matt Rowe), and production team Absolute (Paul Wilson and Andy Watkins). All are, in fact, given writers’ credits, but the true extent of their contribution to what is an extremely sophisticated piece of pop product is anyone’s guess.

An even murkier detail, however, is the identity of the alleged first manager. If there was, indeed, a Svengali involved in the creation of the Spice Girls, curiosity necessarily revolves around him. Questions elicit evasion, even amnesia from the Spice camp. Neither Fuller nor any of the Girls claims to remember his name. Finally, Mel C offers, “I can’t really say, for legal reasons….”

One U.K. journalist alleges that in fear of retribution from Virgin, music reporters are shying away from the story. Even the notoriously tenacious Fleet Street tabloids have come up empty. Jane Atkinson of The Sun speculates that the Girls “got pissed off, then buggered off and left. Obviously, this is a situation where he might say, ‘I want a cut, ’cause I made you who you are.'”

For whatever reason, information control has become of utmost importance. According to USA Today, the Girls just cut short their U.S. publicity tour after several journalists refused to sign a mandatory “interview agreement” intended to, among other things, indemnify the Girls against “liabilities” resulting from disclosures made to the press. Not the sort of behavior likely to shore up an already shaky back story.

And so the question is begged: Are we witnessing a pop fairy tale? Or are the Spice Girls just a sleeker, shrewder, lewder, package than their heartthrob predecessors? The answer seems to be…yes!