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The Sunday Times photoshoot & interview
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There’s no stopping Cheryl Cole – beauty icon and tv and pop star. The geordie lass talks about fame, the future and being the nation’s sweetheart

There’s something about being known as the nation’s sweetheart that makes Cheryl Cole seem like a modern-day Dame Vera Lynn. You imagine white cliffs, bluebirds and a soppy sentimentality (helped by her now characteristic blubbing on The X Factor), all to cheer up the nation in troubled times. And, of course, we feel that in adoring Cheryl, we’re rescuing her right back — the poor, wronged woman who has remained dignified and outwardly cheery throughout her very public heartbreak. Which goes to make her bombshell entrance at a north London studio for this photoshoot all the more unexpected. The gal’s a total knockout. And Ashley Cole is an idiot — officially. She’s clad in a white T-shirt, a striped APC blazer, stacked Stella McCartney wedges and micro blue shorts that reveal legs so toned and perfect (and, yes, cellulite free) that your eyes follow them round mesmerically while your brain registers simple disbelief. Her hair is scrunched back and her face devoid of make-up (that Cheryl mask of big hair, dark lips and smoky eye will come later), which, she volunteers, makes her look about 10 years old. It also clarifies that she really is a fine-featured beauty, the sort who deserves to front beauty campaigns such as her current run with L’Oréal Paris.

This is the real Cheryl, the at-home version. “I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting around in your tracksuit with a full face of make-up,” she breezes in her Geordie burr. “I hate that, when you get marks on your pillow because you went to bed with your mascara on. Then everything has to be washed.” She’s also more likely to be wandering around in pyjamas than hot pants, chez Cole: “I like hoodies to snuggle and be comfortable.”

Yet, what’s this? Down-to-earth Cheryl is also touting an unexpected accessory. No, it’s not her wedding ring (surely the most photographed and analysed accessory of the decade). It’s a chihuahua, dressed in an on-trend Breton stripe top. Has the northern lass gone all Paris Hilton on us? She is, after all, an hour and a half late. But the dog belongs to her assistant, Lily. “It’s my dog’s baby. She had to have a litter before she could be spayed,” says Cheryl, cuddling the teeny mutt. And the lateness? Traffic jams, of course, not tantrums.

It turns out she even remembers me (we met for all of 10 minutes, nine months ago) and details of the conversation we had. “I’ve got a photographic memory. I’m good at remembering faces, though not so good at names,” she says, before disappearing into the dressing room. The only thing that emerges for some time is her Starbucks order (a grande skinny vanilla latte extra hot with an extra shot). The L’Oréal pr doesn’t even have to make the coffee run. “Is it for the person who just arrived?” asks the young chap at reception. Affirmative. “I’ll go and get it,” he immediately volunteers. That’s the Cheryl Effect for you; she makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, ready for any act of human kindness. Two hours of hair, make-up and styling later, she’s ready for her close-ups. In between shots, she taps away on her BlackBerry, tucking it under her skirt when the lens is focused on her again. Is she busy dispelling the rumours that have surfaced that morning that Girls Aloud are re-forming in September? Is she hammering out separation issues with her (allegedly) errant hubby, Ashley? Who knows, and Chezza certainly isn’t telling.

According to the make-up artist, Cheryl is tired — hardly surprising, since her European tour (supporting the Black Eyed Peas, led by her vocal admirer started a couple of days ago, and her London debut is the next evening. Plus, there’s that floundering-marriage business, which is sure to exhaust a girl. Still, once she’s ready for the interview — shoes off, slippers on, legs curled up on a sofa — you’d never know it. She smiles — big, beaming smiles — looks you in the eye and talks freely. Well, sort of. For joining us in the room (PRs are also always present) is the elephant of Ashley Cole. No personal questions, please. I tell her I’m coming to her gig, and her face lights up like an excited child: “Are you?” When I ask about her costumes, she’s nervous about spoiling my surprise. “Should I tell ya? I feel bad even talking about it, ’cos it’s been a secret.” She shuns praise, dismissing any idea from reviews that she outshone Fergie on the opening night. “No! I love Fergie. She’s such a nice person, like a girl’s girl.” And how about “He’s clever, very creative. He’s one of the few men artists that I know who loves fashion. He appreciates it. But I don’t need him to get involved in what I do.”

So, what’s driving Cheryl fever? She’s frequently voted Britain’s sexiest woman by men, and women adore her, too: in this month’s Style Beauty Awards, never mind Audrey Hepburn or Linda Evangelista, it was Cheryl who was named favourite beauty icon. In fact, she finds the subject matter “cringeworthy”, and almost physically shields herself from it, putting up a hand to her face and turning away. “I don’t get it. I find it hilarious sometimes. No, I don’t get it. I don’t know what to say. It’s a bit embarrassing,” she says. “If you could just give me one word to be, ‘inspirational’ would be the one, I think.” What would she like to inspire women to do? “To make the best of themselves. Like, one woman said to me, ‘I’ve got you on my fridge door to inspire me to go to the gym,’ and I felt like that about Britney when she did I’m a Slave 4 You. So to think that I can be inspiring someone like that — or in any kind of way.”

Interesting that Britney inspired her, when she seems such a bundle of positive energy herself. But then the early days weren’t plain sailing for Cheryl — she fell out publicly with Charlotte Church and Lily Allen, and there was the assault of a lavatory attendant. She’s still no pushover, she says, “I’d stick up for myself. I still do that.” The product of a single-parent council-estate upbringing, she’s learnt to — her brother has been in prison, was recently arrested following an armed robbery and has had drug problems — but for the most part Cheryl seems to be a cheery, glass-half-full, everyone-deserves-a-second-chance kind of a person. The kind who paints her toenails bright colours — she calls them “happy feet, cos when you look down they’re all happy and smiling back at you”. Her mother is her role model. “My mum’s a great person. When I was growing up, she was never somebody that commented on other women. You know you hear women commenting on other women in a mean way? My mother was never like that. Everybody’s lovely in her eyes.” Cheryl and her mother are close — so close she moved her mum into the marital home. There was much tabloid speculation that Cheryl’s mother was a factor in the breakdown of her marriage, but for her part, Cheryl barely reads any press, so she can’t say if she was surprised by that, or the furore over her having hair extensions and yet being the face of L’Oréal Elvive Full Restore 5 Replenishing Shampoo. “You’d know more than me. I don’t read all that stuff. I can’t. I can’t deal with it,” she says.

There was a point when she did read it, but it started to get to her. “You know, the speculation and all the stupid rumours or whatever. But as soon as I stopped reading the stuff and cut it out of my head, I could deal with everything more. I can’t listen to everyone, because everyone is gonna have an opposite opinion. I live by that saying, ‘You can please all of the people some of the time, some of the people all the time, but you’ll never please all the people all the time,’ so what’s the point in trying? No, just let people have their opinions. You get to that place where you know yourself and you start to listen to yourself.” Strictly speaking, she’s talking dresses, but she seems to be addressing a raft of unspoken topics.

Sometimes it still bugs her. The only time she seems even remotely rattled during our interview is when I ask if it’s true she’s had electrolysis on her face. “There’s so many rumours out there, honestly! This is when I wish I had Twitter, when I just want to go nuts on it and go, ‘That’s not true, that’s not true, that’s not true.’ And then there’s this other thing that people seem to think, that I get styled, like somebody comes in and goes, ‘You’re wearing that.’ I’m a 27-year-old woman, do you know what I mean? I’m not a child.”

As for any rumours she’s willing to confirm or deny, she’ll only give this. She does indeed try to follow the blood-type diet: “It’s hard when I’m on the road, and I don’t have a sheet of paper that says what I have to eat or anything”. She doesn’t sit on a Hypoxi bicycle, and she didn’t recently blow a fortune in a spending spree. “I get sent some really gorgeous, expensive stuff like handbags I couldn’t ever justify buying. But people are kind enough to send them, and I’m in a really fortunate position where I can get gifts like that, and I’m gonna use them, thank you very much. Even now I get this rush of guilt when I open the bag, and I’m like, ‘Lily, I can’t accept this.’ And she’s like, ‘No, they’ve sent you it, it’s fine.’ So now I’ve started enjoying them, but you know people go, ‘She’s spent five grand, 10 grand, 15 grand…’ Come on now, seriously, this was a gift. But then I get this, ‘Oh, she gets given them, but she can afford them,’ so I can’t win. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. So I just get on with doing what I want to do.”

So, what might that be in the future? She likes the idea of having her own fragrance, maybe a fashion line. She has a new album coming out later this year, “which is really exciting”. And her 27th birthday is only weeks away, though she has no plans yet. “I haven’t actually thought about it. I need to do something. I’m not one of them celebratory people, who finds any excuse for a party. But when I do have one, I like to do it properly.” She seems happy — she certainly looks it. I wonder if recent events have actually set her free. They say, I tell her, that the best beauty tip is happiness. “That’s sooo true,” she agrees. So is she? “Do you know what? When I’m performing, that’s when I am completely at my most comfortable, most happy. That’s what I love — music and performing. And then, on top of that, you have your lip gloss on and your hair sprayed…”

And with that, ever the charming professional, she mentions the lip-gloss colour she’s created for L’Oréal Paris and the limited-edition Elnett hairspray that will have a sketch of her face on the can (the first time in the product’s history). “It’s amazing. I can’t believe it.” She turns on the full Cheryl beam. “I still won’t believe it till it goes on the shelf.” Yes, Cheryl Cole is riding high — but she’s the only one who still doesn’t quite get the extent of her own power. Maybe, when she finally does, she’ll lose it. Maybe she’ll go stratospheric. But, for the time being, she is still our sweetheart.

Cheryl’s glamour guide

— I love my long hair. It always makes me feel glamorous. I’d still play around with it, though. Hair grows, so if it gets cut off or coloured, it’s no big deal.

— I wore a brace called Invisalign for two years, and it straightened my teeth. Two of them are capped. I wouldn’t think of going to bed without brushing my teeth.

— A bit of lip gloss makes you feel more alluring, and when it’s a bit shiny, it’s sexier.

— My mum never really wore foundation. You knew she was going somewhere if she had mascara on. She had five kids to look after; she didn’t have the time.

— I’m a nervous-energy person — my heart is always pounding, “doof, doof, doof”. A three-minute performance on TV is like a 20-minute cardio session because of the adrenaline that pumps through my body.

— I’ve only recently developed this glamour thing, but I now get it — I feel great in these shoes, I get it! You should be allowed to enjoy it and not feel guilty about it.

— I used to hang things up for months because I couldn’t justify wearing them — it was my new dress for when I was going somewhere special. But you just don’t know how your day’s going to end up, so I want to feel nice every day. I want to feel gorgeous.

— I prefer to shop online. I hang it all up at home and then I go, “Oooh, I love that,” then return the rest.

— Whatever position I’m in now, my brain won’t let my body pay £5,000 for a bag — it just won’t!

Cheryl will be appearing in campaigns for Elnett hairspray and Glam Shine Reflexion this summer. Her limited-edition Elnett can will be in stores nationwide from June 1

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