Cheryl Cole survived a near-death experience, divorce, and an axing from The X Factor US to make her new album. Alan Corr meets the people’s pop princess and hears why she feels like a real woman now
Curled up and coquettish on the couch of a penthouse suite in London, Cheryl Cole has a look of unreality about her. She’s all dimples and big hair and every inch of the 5’ 3” People’s Pop Princess is dressed head to toe in her beloved and slightly chavtastic print patterns – a black shirt with small white love hearts, grey jeggings with red polka dots, and clunky heels with, you guessed it, red polka dots.
She’s quite a vision. Fame, any fame, does that to the beholder but after three solo albums, stealing the public’s hearts on X Factor, and becoming a tabloid fixture, Cheryl is surprised as anyone that’s she’s gotten this far. “Of course,” she says in the Newcastle accent that proved impenetrable to American TV viewers but which has charmed her adoring public. “Having a career in music at all is pretty unbelievable . . . ”
The last time I met Cheryl she was more sullen than sultry. It was eight years ago and Girls Aloud had recently won Pop Stars: The Rivals, the talent show forerunner to X Factor and they were gathered together in a Dublin hotel room strewn with the aftermath of a takeaway meal. The heady scent of chicken curry and pizza wasn’t exactly the sweet smell of success.
Maybe the pong was too much for Cheryl because she spent most of the interview outside on the balcony deep in conversation on her mobile phone. When she finally joined us, she remained slightly removed and a little impatient with the whole chore of meeting the media.
A lot has changed. Cheryl Cole is now Britain’s surrogate Lady Di, the people’s pop princess who’s transcended mere pop stardom, the Geordie who’s been remade and re-launched by Simon Cowell and more recently, will.i.am. In fact, so great has Cheryl’s reinvention been that even that ugliness with that toilet attendant back in 2003 has been airbrushed from history.
“I’ve been through dark times, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen the dark side but I like to think that me music is light and refreshing and empowering. I hope it’s not dark.”
Nadine may have the voice, Nicole may have the songs and the critical acclaim but Cheryl is the Girl Aloud who has raced ahead with the solo career. Now seeking one-name brand recognition (her latest product simply bears the legend “Cheryl”), she’s just released her third album, A Million Lights and it’s another streamlined collection of pop and r `n’ b that is largely anonymous but destined to follow the success of her first two No 1 albums.
The buzzword she’s using these days is “bulletproof.” Did she feel as though she wasn’t strong enough in the past? Maybe she didn’t get angry enough? 2010, after all, was very much her annus horribilis – near death experience with malaria, leaving X Factor US, and her divorce from former husband and dreadful penalty taker, Ashley Cole.
Getting through all that must have been empowering. “Absolutely. Of course,” Cheryl says. “To go through a near-death experience is going to empower you and make you stronger. It only can and I’ve grown up as a woman. I was 19 when I got in the industry and I’m 29 now so I’m a woman now and for that reason alone I’m a hell of a lot stronger.”
She seems eager to move on and who can blame her? But there is a new darkness to her music. Songs like Girl in The Mirror (her personal favourite) and the righteous anger of Screw You suggest that Cheryl is a woman scorned. “I think there’s many sides to me but dark? I don’t think so,” she says with a small frown. “I’ve been through dark times, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen the dark side but I like to think that me music is light and refreshing and empowering. I hope it’s not dark.”
Given recent upheavals, it’s clear why Girl in The Mirror is her favourite track on the album. “I love it. I think it’s catchy and I think that girls who buy my music will relate to it. As women we give ourselves a hard time, too much so sometimes. The message of that song is stop fighting with yourself and take it easy.”
So who’s to blame for women giving themselves a hard time? “Society puts an ugly spin on things,” Cheryl says. “There’s a lot of pressure for women to look a certain way, act a certain way and it makes it tough for a woman sometimes I think. In general what we do to ourselves as women, to try and fit and conform with everybody else. It’s hard being a woman sometimes . . . “
It can be hard being Cheryl Cole in particular, a woman who seems to be adored and despised in equal measure. “I think that’s life,” she shrugs. “There are people I can’t stand and people I love. It’s human nature so people are entitled to their opinion. If you hate us and you don’t know us that’s stupid.”
Other than Girl in The Mirror, she doesn’t actually have a lot to say about the actual songs on her new album. Cheryl often points that they’re written for her but what about the new level of risqueness in some of the lyrics? Does she have to be careful not to be too Rihanna-like so she can preserve her position as an all-ages nation’s sweetheart?
“Ah I like that about Rihanna,” she says, the dimples doing their thing. “I’m a grown woman but I wouldn’t necessarily be attracted to sing something like say S&M myself. My fans wouldn’t relate to me singing those lyrics because I’m not that type of person. I enjoy Rihanna’s music but I don’t carry that message.”
She has no plans to release A Million Lights in the US. Cheryl’s charms have not quiet travelled well and her experience on X Factor US was less than happy. “People have this misconception that I have this whole big ambition to break the states,” she says. “It probably came from the fact that I did X Factor US for a second. I actually don’t. I’m focussed on here and I’m happy here. If it came into my life and I wanted to do it I would absolutely put my heart and soul into it but I haven’t thought about it.”
So is her view of the US jaundiced by her short-lived experience as a judge on X Factor US? “No, not at all.” she says flatly. Do you miss Simon? “No. I don’t.” You haven’t really had any contact with him for a while have you? “No, I’ve spoken to him . . . “ Does he enjoy all the stuff in the media about you and him? “I don’t think he cares and it’s so old now. It’s old news, it was a year ago.”
What about the other one, Louis Walsh? “Oh god (she lets out a stagey snore). That’s a different story. What about your view of Louis? Boo hoo, so pathetic. I actually called him a few weeks ago because it read something he said about me.” What did he say? “What didn’t he say!? He went to town and I called him and I put it on Twitter. He sent me a text and a tweeted it. I’ve always had a strange relationship with Louis . . . Louis’s just Louis.”
After the collapse of her marriage to Ashley, perhaps she needed a father figure in the form of Cowell and more recently, will.i.am? “Emmm I think will would be pretty upset to be called a father figure considering that he’s 35 years old and Simon is the least paternal person you will ever come across,” Cheryl says. “There’s no paternal instinct. Big brotherly I guess, paternal . . . he’s got no children. He doesn’t feel those feelings. So, not a father figure, although I think it’s always nice to have somebody to be advised by who’s successful but that doesn’t just happen. You build those relationships because of the choices you make.”
"People have this misconception that I have this whole big ambition to break the states."
The day before we meet the papers were agog with Cheryl’s chance meeting with Nadine Coyle in a London nightclub and there was much talk of the pair healing the rift between them. “There was no truth to the story that there was a rift between us in the first place obviously,” Cheryl says, her eyes rolling. “If you look at it, it’s so black and white what they’ve done. Nadine’s the only person in the band who’s never in the country because she lives in LA. Of course it’s going to be me because I’m always the instigator of the group according to the headlines anyway. It’s such an obvious stupid tale to print. I think it’s quite pathetic.”
She lets out an audible sigh. Kimberly Walsh is, however, her bestie mate in Girls Aloud. “I’m definitely closest with both Kimberly and Nicola. Sarah has always been the one who did her own thing. It was never a problem but she is very free spirited. She doesn’t want to sit and have a cup of tea with us. She’d rather party, we’d rather sit and have a cup of tea at home so she’s the exciting one and we’re the fish wives. That’s what Sarah calls me and Kimberley because we’re always drinking tea and gossiping.”
However, Cheryl tends to drink less tea when she’s in LA and she does go out a lot more over there. What are the men like? “Different. They have a different mentality and there’s definitely a bit of eye candy there.” So what’s your type? “When I meet him I’ll get back to you.” Are you attracted to bad boys? Is there a history there? “You only know one person I’ve gone out with.” she says. So was that person representative of the type of men you like? “No. He wasn’t.” she says in an almost inaudible voice.
Can I ask you the obligatory question about Screw You now? “Yep, go!” The song was written for you but it’s about Ashley, right? “It isn’t about Ashley. I didn’t write it so how could it be about Ashley? Maybe you should talk to the person who wrote the song.” She says this with good humour but she’s well-versed in batting off questions about her errant ex.
Best to try a few more music questions before I’m frozen out. Does she see herself as a blank canvas for producers and musicians to project their ideas onto? “Well I choose all my own songs, me wardrobe, me choreography, I write some songs so it’s very much what I want my album to be really but I do love all genres of music so that’s where I hard because I could go any direction so I have to really make a decision and focus and I’ve done that with this album. I like indie music though. I like Coldplay. Chris Martin is one of the nicest fellas I’ve ever met. I love him.” Do you fancy him? “No, because Gwyneth’s me friend.”
So the girl from the council estate in Newcastle who bunked off school and who grew up in poverty with her troubled siblings has done rather well for herself. She doesn’t talk about those siblings however. “No I don’t because it’s not fair,” she says. “This isn’t their lives and they get stuff written about them unfairly because they didn’t choose to be in the limelight, they didn’t choose this life, they don’t want anything to do with my career so for me to talk about them is contradictory of that.”
As for her mother, 52-year-old Joan Callaghan, well she just doesn’t understand what Cheryl’s life is all about. “She hates it! Not what I do because she loves watching me live my dream and perform but other than that, she doesn’t involve herself in my life at all. It’s actually quite nice for me because she lives in her world. I see her a couple of times a month, quite often. She lives in Newcastle so she stays with me in London. I don’t go to Newcastle as often as I’d like.”
25 minutes in her company and I don’t know whether Cheryl has perfected the art of being an inscrutable famous person who appears to be telling you something but actually isn’t or whether she’s just fiercely guarded. Or maybe she just doesn’t have much to say.
Before I shake her dainty hand to say goodbye I ask her who knows this just turned 29-year-old woman best? The dimples return with full force and she says, “Me.”
A Million Lights is out now