NEW YORK — The last time Americans met Emma Bunton, they knew her only by her alter ego Baby Spice — a girlish, giggling whirl of white-blonde pigtails, baby-doll negligees and cumbersome platforms that looked more like ancient torture devices than shoes.

Things are different now for Bunton, who’s ready to conquer the U.S. again, this time with her first solo album, “Free Me,” to be released Jan. 25. Most obviously, she’s not traveling with her four best friends forever — Posh, Ginger, Scary and Sporty (Victoria Beckham, Geri Halliwell, Mel Brown and Mel Chisolm, respectively). The five made up the Spice Girls, one of pop music’s greatest prefab success stories in the late Nineties, selling a whopping 80 million records and singles worldwide. This time, when Bunton lands in New York, she won’t be greeted by mobs of screeching fans. But people may look at her and wonder, “Hey, wasn’t she...?”

To Bunton, though, the biggest difference is that, as she says, “I’ve grown up.” She turns 29 on Jan. 21, and her music reflects that maturity. The supercharged, half-sung, half-shouted pop songs of the Spice Girls have now been replaced with a Sixties-style album that swings from Motown to classic bossa nova, including a cover of “Crickets Sing for Anamaria,” a dance-y tune first made famous by Astrid Gilberto.

“When I was growing up, my mother and father would play Motown constantly, and I loved it,” she says. “I mean, I did get into music like Bananarama and Bel Biv Devoe, but nothing touched me as much as Motown did.” So in step with how albums used to be recorded, Bunton called all her session musicians into one studio to record everything live. Except for “Crickets Sing for Anamaria,” Bunton wrote the lyrics for all the songs.

Before tackling the U.S. market, Bunton released the album in her native Great Britain early last year. While critics had panned the solo efforts of the other Spices, they were relatively kind to Bunton, giving her props for dishing out perky songs that didn’t pretend to be anything other than fun. “It was just lovely,” she says of the reception the album received from critics and fans back home. “Obviously, it was a big sigh of relief.”No doubt, the album’s popularity was also fueled by the well-produced videos that went with the singles “Free Me,” “I’ll Be There,” “Maybe” and “Crickets Sing.” They all featured a scantily clad Bunton against Mod sets and backed by either girl go-go dancers or sexy men. Sometimes both. “The video is one of the most exciting parts, because it’s an extra expression of the song,” she says. “Generally when I’ve written a song, if I come up with an idea for a video right away, I know it’s right.”

In keeping with the Sixties theme, Bunton molded her video image into that of the ultimate pinup of the time, the Bond Girl. “It’s something we all want to be at some point in our life,” she says. “And I got the opportunity.” Best of all, she got to have her say with the fashion.

Bunton has traded in the kitschy Baby Spice costumes for vintage YSL, Marc Jacobs shoes and good old jeans. Right now, she names Diane von Furstenberg as her favorite designer. “Her dresses are really so pretty, and they’re not overtly sexy,” she says. Otherwise, she mixes the latest “gorgeous bits” from Chloé and Matthew Williamson with vintage finds from Camden Market near her apartment in London.

But it’s Jacobs’ shoes that take up the most space in her closet. “His shoes suit me right down to the ground,” says the singer, who has a voluptuous 5-foot 2-inch frame. “They are quite Sixties and very high — they’re perfect for me.” She says she won’t even consider wearing any shoe with less than a 4-inch heel.

Like many pop singers, however, she has considered starting her own fashion line. “I’d like to do it, I think,” she muses. “We’re not all 5 foot 10 inches and skinny. I’d like to be able to help the curvier women.”

For now, though, she’s more than happy just to sit on the fashion sideline or, even better, in its front row. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” says Bunton, who hopes to attend Jacobs’ and von Furstenberg’s shows here next month. “You don’t really get the gist of a fashion show until you actually go to one.”“I remember at my first show, Julien Mcdonald, I saw Naomi Campbell, and I just gasped because she looked like a racehorse, so incredible,” she recalls. “It was really powerful and crazy.”

Sort of like her life up to this point, which, she admits, is still quite unbelievable because of the Spice Girl phenomenon. “Even now, I go, ‘Oh my God, I met Nelson Mandela. I played for Madonna. She went to Madison Square Garden to see me,’ ” Bunton says in wonder.

She regrets nothing of the Spice saga, either, including the utterly embarrassing movie “Spice World” (1998). “Do you know what? I was looking back at that, and we’re really taking the micky out of ourselves — there are some great jokes in there,” she says, arguing the film’s merits. “It was a good experience. I’m one of those people who learns from everything — even the mistakes.”

While the five Spices have long gone their separate ways, she says that they still catch up from time to time, as they did for the christenings of Beckham’s children, Romeo and Brooklyn. And since Victoria and David Beckham are hands-down the most photographed couple in Britain, anyone who attended the events got a good amount of play in the country’s myriad tabloids. Bunton says all of the Spices, however, no matter what they do, whom they marry, where they go, will always be linked by shared experience. As she puts it, “No one else will know what we went through but the five of us.”

They have certainly earned their place in the pop-culture lexicon. Bunton and her Spicemates made “Girl Power”— meaning the moxie inherent in every girl — a global slogan. For this, she will never fully shed her Baby Spice persona — and truthfully, she doesn’t necessarily ever want to. “I got one of the best names, so I don’t mind it. Baby was quite cool,” she says.

There are signs, however, that Spicemania is showing signs of age and that it’s ready to be placed in the time capsule so that the five women can get on with their lives. “A little while ago, in London, a mum spied me and said to her daughter, ‘Hey look, it’s Baby Spice,’ ” Bunton relays. “And the daughter said, ‘No, mum, that’s Emma Bunton.’ ”

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