Q & A
Football's biggest stars in the hot seat
If the 2006 World Cup was anything to go by, glam rags, bitchiness and an obsession with accessorising are the basic requirements for any self-respecting footballer’s wife.
Certainly the WAGs’ escapades in Germany did little to break the stereotype. Posh and Coleen were already past masters, but a new breed came to the fore: Cheryl, Elen, Abigail, Carly... and then there was Melanie Slade.
The 17-year-old girlfriend of Theo Walcott, Slade was thrust into the spotlight when the Arsenal striker received his shock call-up to the England squad. A complete unknown – not unlike her fella – she joined the Gucci set as a Primark apprentice and emerged as the paparazzi’s unpolished gem. Slade, whether she liked it or not, had become one of ‘them’.
Yet on closer inspection, she’s anything but. The daughter of John Slade, the Mayor of Southampton, her summer ‘holiday’ was punctuated by AS-Level exams in biology, chemistry and psychology, while this year she has embarked on A-Levels in free-standing maths and critical thinking. Longer-term, there’s talk of a physiotherapy career.
“Mel’s turned down some substantial offers to concentrate on her studies,” says Warwick Horton, Walcott’s agent. “She also made it clear that she didn’t want to be a distraction to Theo at such a critical time.” Hardly a typical WAG.
The two met before he’d even made the grade at St Mary’s. “I was working for Claire’s Accessories and part of my job was to hand out baskets on the door,” she tells FourFourTwo from the comfort of Walcott’s large house in rural Hertfordshire.
“It was a Thursday night and Theo kept walking past. He then walked in and gave me his number. I didn’t know who he was. Our first date was to see Land of the Dead – very romantic! Things progressed from there.”
And quickly. Walcott’s elevation to the Saints first-team, big-money move to Arsenal and call-up to Sven’s squad ensured that the fledgling relationship became a public affair. The attention hasn’t sat comfortably.
“When Theo moved to Arsenal, nothing really happened,” she explains. “I remember being ‘papped’ going to college – but that was it. Then when the World Cup happened, everything exploded. It was a normal day at college and my mum told me the news. I was like ‘Brilliant!’ But then my sister called when I was in assembly and told me there were six people outside the house.
“I looked awful, so I had to sort myself out before I went home. I got out of the car and was surrounded by people: journalists, photographers – all asking questions. I just smiled, ran into the house and hid!”
Media evasion was also on the agenda when the Beckhams invited Slade and Walcott to their villa in Portugal before the World Cup. “I was only there for three days, so I only packed a few things, then the Beckhams invite us round for tea! I didn’t know what to wear. I think it was jean hot pants and something from Claire’s... obviously!
“We spoke about how they cope with the attention and they told us it’s important to keep some things personal. They were really nice and friendly, so different to how I thought they’d be. Victoria even gave me some of her Victoria Beckham jeans!”
In Germany, Slade’s exam schedule meant staying a different hotel to the WAGs, but the interest didn’t lessen. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but my life had changed. I’d always wondered what it would feel like to become famous overnight, then all of a sudden it’s happening to me. I’m at the World Cup, meeting famous people and being photographed. I’m in the papers, strangers recognise me... it was surreal.
“It’s hard to explain, but it didn’t feel like it was me in the papers – even though it was. Mum received flowers, dad a book, all in an attempt by the press to get me to do things. I didn’t know which way to turn. In the end a statement was issued asking the media to give me some space while I was studying.”
Her one night with the WAGs was equally enlightening. She was quoted in Reveal saying that Coleen McLoughlin was less than welcoming, but says she was misinterpreted. “Elen, Frank Lampard’s girlfriend, and Louise Owen were nice. In fact, they all were. And all that was meant by those quotes about Coleen was that she didn’t really say much – even though we’re a similar age.”
Fortunately for Slade, some normality has now returned. She travels to Chez Walcott on Friday, then back to Southampton on Monday morning to continue her studies. Throughout our visit, she’s smiley, friendly and confident, but clearly determined to keep her feet firmly on the ground.
“I still have the same friends, and when I see Theo we spend quality time together because we don’t see each other that often. It’s never been on the agenda that I’d quit my studies and move in with ‘Thee’. It’s important to have something to fall back on. My family have an educational background and I want to follow suit. I want something I’ve earned through my own hard work.”
Like we said, not your typical WAG...
THEO ON MEL...
“The biggest help Mel gave me at the World Cup was just being there. It was nice to have someone to go back to and not be bombarded with questions about football. Ever since I’ve been with Arsenal, all people have wanted to do is talk football, so it’s nice to get away from those pressures and be able to talk about different things.
Mel was out in Portugal with me pre-tournament, when the spotlight was really on me, which was a big help and I appreciated the fact that she also flew out for the games in Germany, even though she had her own exams to think about and concentrate on. Now she comes up at weekends and we have a normal relationship away from the spotlight.
In a way it’s probably been worse for Mel than me because she hasn’t had the protection of Arsenal and England, like I have. She’s been ‘papped’ and followed in cars, or had people jumping out of bushes and following her into clothes shops. But the fact that we’ve gone through this together has made us stronger, and our relationship closer."
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