There’s a scene in the 1997 cinematic classic Spice World in which our five heroines, the Spice Girls, participate in a boot camp of sorts, performing obstacle course challenges while wearing matching camo ‘fits and singing about “strength and courage in a Wonderbra.”
Fast forward 26 years, and Melanie Brown (aka Mel B, aka Scary Spice) has once again donned camouflage gear on screen for a series of physical tests requiring the utmost strength and courage—only this time, the stakes were much realer and way higher.
The British musician is one of 16 celebrities on Fox’s ambitious new reality show Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test, in which the brave contestants venture to a remote desert in Jordan for a series of demanding training exercises. They’re supervised by an elite, intense team of ex-special forces operatives, who give them the opposite of “star treatment” by regularly screaming at them, calling them “buffoons” and “clowns,” and making them do push-ups when they step out of line.
For some of the show’s contestants, it was clearly a humbling experience; a punishing lesson in humility. For Brown, however, it was an opportunity to reclaim the confidence she’d lost during a decade-long abusive relationship. (Though she never named her ex, she was married to producer Stephen Belafonte for 10 years and has publicly accused him of emotional and physical abuse. She filed for divorce in 2017 and released a memoir the following year, Brutally Honest, that details her relationship struggles.)
“I did this because I’d been in a 10-year really abusive marriage. And I’m about five, six years out of that now,” Brown tells The Daily Beast. “During that marriage, I suffered a lot of abuse on every single level. So when you’ve gone through something like that and it’s the person that you’re married to and you’re in love, or was in love, [with], and you watch them absolutely destroy you into a million pieces, you only have yourself to piece back together. And that doesn’t just happen overnight. I saw this show as being part of me facing my fears and mending those little bits and pieces that I need to fill within myself.”
Since the end of that marriage, Brown has become a patron of Women’s Aid, a charity organization that helps survivors of domestic abuse by providing them with shelter, therapy, and other support services; she even earned an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for her work. She sees Special Forces as another platform where she can continue that work.
“When you’ve gone through abuse, you have to really look at yourself and you’ve got so much shame and so much guilt for not leaving, for not standing up to it,” she says. “So when I finally left, due to my father passing—I’d promised my dad that I was going to leave my abuser—I wanted to be able to stand strong and stand proud in my own body and my own mind, spirit, heart, and soul,” she explains. “And I was really proud of myself because I not only showed myself that I could handle being yelled at, which is very, very triggering—all of it was very triggering—but I wanted to show that other survivors out there, you’re not dead and gone because of what this person’s done to you. Remind yourself of who you are and what you were.”
“I wanted to show that other survivors out there, you’re not dead and gone because of what this person’s done to you. Remind yourself of who you are and what you were.”
Everyone on Special Forces had their reasons for being there. There was a slew of retired athletes, who were clearly craving some competition and a chance to keep pushing their physical limits: ex-Olympians Nastia Liukin and Gus Kenworthy, retired NBA champion Dwight Howard, former women’s soccer star Carli Lloyd, and MLB Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, for example. Others seemed to want to prove they’re not just a pretty face: former Bachelorette lead Hannah Brown, actress Jamie Lynn Spears, and 7th Heaven child star Beverley Mitchell. Then there were those pop culture figures still trying to cling to relevance, like Anthony Scaramucci, and reality stars who just obviously love being on camera, like Kenya Moore and Kate Gosselin.
Because Brown’s story was unlike anyone else’s, her decision to leave the show during last week’s episode, the season’s third, has thus far been Special Forces’ emotional high point—especially because it came as a shock to viewers impressed by her steadiness and grit. She hadn’t been struggling in any challenges; quite the opposite, in fact. She was one of the few who executed a “perfect” backwards fall out of a helicopter. She was ordered to give herself a pat on the back after having to aggressively fight a man wearing protective padding and then cooling herself off within a few seconds. And she was the first contestant to successfully complete the scary car dunk challenge, where she was plunged underwater in a car and then had to keep her hands on the steering wheel for 20 seconds before unbuckling her seatbelt and swimming to safety.
As the show went on, however, Brown revealed that the military-style environment—including being constantly told what to do by a man—was triggering for her. So, she decided to say goodbye on her own terms.
“I was hooded in the first episode, I was yelled at, I was drowned, I was told what to wear, told when to wake up, told what to eat. Everything that I went through in my abuse was very similar and very triggering to what I did on [the show],” she explains to The Daily Beast. “But I decided to do that show, and I think I’m far enough in my healing journey that I want to hold myself accountable and to prove to myself that I am that badass.”
From the way the episode was edited, it first seemed as though Brown might have left because her friend Spears had also chosen to leave the same day. Then, there was some mild tension between Brown and Moore, who was annoyed that the former Spice Girl was smoking cigarettes she’d managed to smuggle into the camp. Brown, however, told us that her decision to leave had nothing to do with her fellow contestants, and everything to do with her own sense of accomplishment.
“For me, I didn’t even think I would last five minutes. I was like, even if I lasted one or two minutes, I’ve proven something to myself,” she says. “So I didn’t have any set game plan for how long I was going to stay. I just felt after day three, OK, I’ve been yelled at, I’ve been suffocated, I’ve been drowned. I’ve gone through enough. I was like, OK, this is where I need to stop before it can have the adverse effect. I’m very comfortable and I’m very aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and I knew that that was just the right time for me to leave. It wasn’t because of a challenge. It wasn’t because of anyone, because I thoroughly loved everyone I did the show with. It was just my time to go.
“And I think I stayed long enough, in my eyes,” she continues. “Because you don’t really sleep, you don’t really feel pain, you just go for it on that show. I literally went in there head-first, and I did it. It wasn’t about winning to me. It wasn’t about completing every challenge. It was more about, can I mentally overcome certain parts of my abuse that trigger me? When I put myself into these situations, can I cope and can I deal? And I dealt with enough that I [could] say yes. And I loved it.”
“I just felt after day three, OK, I’ve been yelled at, I’ve been suffocated, I’ve been drowned. I’ve gone through enough.”
Asked if she’s ever wondered how she would have fared in some of the later challenges, Brown is adamant that she has zero regrets.
“I’m not really the kind of person who thinks like that,” she says. “I think whatever’s gonna happen is meant to be. And as long as you’ve done your best and you’re honest with yourself, that’s all you can do. It’s not ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda,’ ‘what if,’ for me. I’m a very gut-feeling, hands-on person, and I know myself inside out because I’ve had to piece myself back together.”
Not only that, but the show also gave her a group of new friends whom she’s managed to build close bonds with—which makes sense, given that all 16 of them had to sleep in the same tent and use outdoor toilets right next to each other. (One of the premiere episode’s highlights was when a horrified Brown shouted, “You are not pooping beside me!” at Dwight Howard).
“I think it’s just like the Spice Girls. Once you go through something so extreme, you just have a bond that just glues you together forever. It’s kind of unexplainable,” she explains. “But I’m so thankful and happy that I got to experience that with such incredible people. I mean, Dwight Howard, Dr. Drew, we really did, and still do, have an amazing bond. … We’re all in a WhatsApp group chat: me, Jamie Lynn, Nastia, Beverley, Carli, Dwight, everyone.”
Part of that has to do with one of the most fascinating aspects of Special Forces: There are no eliminations on the show. Contestants are not sent home or voted off; there’s no scheming or forming alliances. Instead, everyone who’s left thus far has either been forced to because of an injury (like R&B singer Montell Jordan, who broke his thumb) or, more commonly, chosen to leave on their own accord, like Brown did. With no threat of elimination or betrayal from their fellow contestants, they are only competing with themselves—something Brown credits with helping her rebuild her confidence.
“All of it was really challenging. Leaving my three kids to come all the way across the other side of the universe, it felt like, to be in Jordan, and stick to it, and just have myself to rely on,” she says. “Because you don’t know the other 15 people. You’re literally thrown in at the deep end, and that’s what it feels like when you’re in an abusive relationship and you can’t get out. But I chose to go there and I came out so much happier and more confident. I felt completely empowered.”
Before we let Brown go, we had to ask her about that aforementioned Spice World scene and whether it prepared her, in any teeny, tiny way, for what was to come on Special Forces. Let’s just say the answer was a resounding “no.”
“What?! I was 19, I’m 47 right now! I don’t think so, it’s a movie!” Brown laughed, before adding that she “of course” remembers the scene and has only the fondest memories of it.
“I watched that movie with my kids like a month ago. It’s great. It brings back really lovely, fun times,” she said, before promising that although Spice World isn’t currently on streaming services, “It will be soon. Watch this space!”
In the meantime, Special Forces should be all the proof you need that Scary Spice is, indeed, still that badass.