She publicly split from her husband Ashley Cole, contracted malaria and has been hounded by the press. But Cheryl Cole has refused to talk – until now. She opens up to Simon Hattenstone
The dressing-room door opens and a lapdog jumps off Cheryl Cole and scurries across the floor. “Hello, dog,” I say. “How are you?” “Hello,” says Cheryl Cole barely moving her lips, “my name is Blue and I’m very well, thank you.” Blue jumps back on to Cole’s knee, and before I know it they’re swapping soppy, sloppy kisses and I feel as if I’m playing gooseberry.
“He’s not my dog,” Cole says. “He’s the son of one of mine.” She looks into his eyes – great, dark, wet pools, not unlike her own. “He’s a gorgeous boy. Very cute. He looks like his mam.” She smiles her X Factor smile – warm, gentle, empathetic. Cole recently said, “I don’t trust anybody in my life except my mother and my dogs.”
Not surprising, really. While she has enjoyed huge success as a solo singer and as part of Britain’s most successful female pop group, Girls Aloud, and perhaps most of all as a judge on The X Factor, her private life has been hellish. Her split from footballer Ashley Cole was played out in the tabloids, with evidence of her husband’s infidelity splashed across the front pages. When she didn’t talk, the press speculated whether Our Cheryl was having a breakdown, was anorexic, had lost it as a judge, had fallen out with Simon Cowell, was seeing other men for revenge, was seeing lawyers for the ultimate revenge… Probably only Princess Diana and Posh Spice have obsessed the media as much. But even when it was announced Cheryl was divorcing Ashley still she didn’t speak.
Ten months on, she’s sick of having words put into her mouth and has agreed to do one television interview (with Piers Morgan) and one newspaper interview, with the Guardian. After this, she says, that’s it – she will never discuss her private life in public again.
On a scale of one to 10, how bad has the last year been? “Eleven,” she says instantly. She starts off with marriage, but mid-sentence changes to malaria. The disease, which she contracted three months ago while holidaying in Tanzania, is an easier place to begin. “It was the day after my birthday when the symptoms first started. I put it down to that I’d been drinking vodka the night before, because I’m not a regular drinker. I put it down to just a big hangover. It got gradually worse and worse.”
What were the symptoms like? “I was exhausted and having flushes, goosebumps one minute – blue lips, blue fingertips, blue toes – to then being boiling hot. My skin was wet. I couldn’t breathe properly.” She was diagnosed and admitted to intensive care at London’s Hospital for Tropical Diseases.
Is it true she thought she was dying? “Yeah,” she says quietly. “You want to know the details? I had no liver function, no kidney function, I was swollen with the fluid, I had no oxygen in my blood, I literally had 24 hours to get fluid out of my body, otherwise my insides were going to pack in. You know how sometimes you feel ill and say, ‘I feel like I’m dying’? Well, I actually felt like I was dying. I asked the nurse outright – was I going to die? She said, ‘There’s a possibility.’ ”
She comes to a shocked stop. Was she terrified of dying? “No, I was too tired to be scared. Honestly. I can’t even describe to you – I was just like, I wish it would hurry up.”
She asked if she could make her will, and was told that if she didn’t improve in 24 hours she should. The critical state lasted 36 hours and she was in hospital for 10 days.
She is still spooked by the illness, not least by the fact that the previous year she had climbed Kilimanjaro to raise money for malaria sufferers. “It is weird, isn’t it?” she says, almost to herself.
Today, she still looks a little fragile. I offer her some of my sweets.
“I’ll have a wine gum,” she says.
“What’s wrong with jelly babies?”
“I don’t like the flour on them. It goes through us.”
Cole is about to release her second solo album, Messy Little Raindrops. The subject of the album is lost love. More explicitly, it is about being cheated on, the desire for vengeance and the recovery of self-respect. It couldn’t be more personal. The only thing missing is a namecheck for her former husband. The songs are so specific, I assume she must have written them, but they have been written for her.
On Happy Tears, she sings, “I cried when I heard you were cheating, I cried when I said I was leaving, I cried when my heart stopped believing… I cried when I slashed all your tyres, I cried when your suit hit the fire, I cried cos I knew I’d never see you again… but those were happy tears.”
Let’s talk about those lyrics, I say. She gives me a wary look, and stresses that she didn’t write them.
So she cried about the cheating?
“You’re not going to say obvious things, are you? That wouldn’t be very fun.”
Did she slash his tyres?
Did she feel like slashing his tyres?
And did she feel like setting his suits on fire?
“It’s all so recent,” I say. “You must still feel that anger?”
“You know what? I’ve dealt with anger for two years now, so I’m on top of it.”
It was two years ago there were first allegations of Ashley Cole’s cheating. At the time, Cheryl said it was just malicious gossip.
Did she know then that he’d been unfaithful?
And she gave him another chance?
Did she already know the first time, or did she learn about it through newspapers?
“I don’t know. I’m a bit numb. I’ve dealt with a lot of it. A lot of it on my own,” She’s speaking faster and louder now, and you can hear the upset in her voice. “A lot of emotion and feeling. More than anger.”
Did she feel embarrassed?
“Of course. I’m a human. I’m still a person, you know. I know to a lot of people the headlines and the stories they read are like some sick entertainment or soap opera, but it’s my life and I’m really dealing with it, and it’s really happening. It’s my real life. Of course I was embarrassed.”
The strange thing is, she’s so widely adored and loved by people who don’t know her, and yet her husband just goes off with a stranger who means nothing to him.
“I don’t think either is the case,” she says. “When you’re going through stuff or turmoil, whatever, I don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘The world loves me.’ Nah!” She says even if she had, it wouldn’t have helped. “Nothing is much comfort at times like that. Nothing.” She pauses. “Maybe music.”
What was she listening to?
“I had…” She stops. “God, that feels really personal to tell you that… no, I won’t tell you that. I listened to an album.” What kind? “Soulful. Music is a big healer.”
One thing that emerges strongly from the new album is that Cole does not regard herself as a victim. “I have met a lot of young girls, and they said they’d watched my actions and it had inspired them. It had helped them through a situation, and that’s the best feeling ever.”
Can she trust men now?
“You know what? I haven’t had time to deal with everything yet – even to reach that point where I’m thinking like that. It’s not like I’m talking to you about something that’s in my past. It’s very present. If it had happened five years ago, it might be easier to answer your question.”
Cole always hated being talked of as a football Wag – she made it clear she had her own successful career. “Footballers’ wives are just as bad as benefit scroungers – it’s just a higher class of scrounger,” she said in 2006, soon after marrying.
At The X Factor studios, we are a few yards from Wembley Stadium, where the wives and girlfriends would turn out to watch their partners represent England. It must be a relief that she no longer has to do that, I say. “I thought ‘Wag’ was a derogatory term. It put you in the position of not being a person, just being the wife of someone, and I’m very uncomfortable with that – not in terms of going to Wembley to support your husband, but in terms of what that tag means and how you’re perceived.”
Cole is not the first woman whose footballer partner cheated on her. This year, it seems that half the England team have been on the front pages for the same thing. Why is what happened to her so common in the football world?
“Mmm,” she mutters.
“Yet all the other women have stayed with their footballers,” I persist.
And now she really is upset – whether it’s with me, or my wording, or everything we’re talking about, I don’t know. “I don’t feel it happened to me. I hate that. ‘It happened to you.’ I just hate it. It didn’t happen to me. It’s someone else’s actions. The malaria happened to me. I just hate it. Hate it. Hate the whole fucking thing.” It’s the only time in our conversation that she swears. She gulps, and chokes back a tear. “Hate this year.”
“Sorry,” I say, pathetically.
“It’s all right, there’s a new one coming.” She smiles, and recovers her calm. Look, she says, the fact that Ashley Cole is a footballer isn’t relevant. “It doesn’t matter what occupation they’ve got. When your heart is breaking, your heart’s breaking – it makes no difference what either of you do.” She returns to the partners who have stayed with their straying footballers. “You can’t judge somebody on their decision, because that’s up to them. Just for me personally, that was my choice.”
Cole, now 27, always wanted to be a successful singer. Not famous, she stresses, just successful. She grew up on a rough council estate in Newcastle. So many kids drank and took drugs and ruined themselves before they’d even embarked on adulthood. Her parents separated when she was 11, she was suspended from school twice (for fighting, and for swearing) and her brother was in regular trouble with the law. But there was always something special about young Cheryl – she won Boots’ bonniest baby competition, was named World Star Of Future Modelling at the age of six and appeared in TV commercials for British Gas.
When she made her first appearance on Popstars: The Rivals, the show that created Girls Aloud, she looked like a pretty little street fighter. She had crooked teeth, a bit of a belly, and was at home in her tracky bottoms. I ask if she’s seen the oft-repeated TV show documenting her transformation from “chav” to “people’s princess”. She smiles. “I still am very street – I just have nicer clothes. I’m not ashamed of that. I love that. You know what, a lot of people that don’t have that are worse off because they’re not street-smart.” How did she become the people’s princess? “I have no idea. I find it all a bit… weird.”
Of course, she says, she was different when she won – back then, she was a teenager; now, she’s a woman. Has her character changed? “No, I was the same as I am now. I might have chilled out a bit and grown up a lot.” Was she angry then? “I definitely had teenage syndrome.”
And some. Just after winning Popstars: The Rivals, she almost killed her embryonic career. In January 2003, Cole got involved in a fight with a nightclub toilet attendant and was charged with racially aggravated assault and assault occasioning actual bodily harm. The prosecution said she was “high on fame” while the judge described the attack as “an unpleasant piece of drunken violence”. Cole pleaded self-defence. The jury cleared her of the racist element, but found her guilty of assault occasioning actual bodily harm. She was ordered to pay £500 to her victim, £3,000 in prosecution costs and sentenced to 120 hours’ community service.
Did getting into trouble back then strengthen her in the long run? “Yes, 100%. It wasn’t just a little bit of trouble, it was a big thing.”
With the media storm, did she think, “God, my career’s over”?
“No, my career hadn’t really started. It was a few weeks in, and I actually thought, ‘This is the real ugly side to fame.’ People say the street and whatever, but the beauty of the street is that people are really loyal and honest. Brutally so. And this was my first experience with the opposite.”
Did she think that if she’d been at home, nothing would have been made of it? “Nothing would have been made of it. That’s how you’re bought up – to stick up for yourself.”
This mix of the hard and soft is one of the most fascinating things about Cole. Often, depending on the context, she is described as one or the other. One day she might be the stoic saint coping with marital adversity or the Mother Teresa of The X Factor, smiling beatifically as her kids perform for her; the next she might be the hard-nosed bitch who lip-syncs her way through a “live” TV performance while her X Factor wannabes have to do it for real, and who is happy to advertise L’Oréal shampoo while wearing hair extensions.
Both versions, she says, are a caricature. “I’m not saintly at all. I do have a toughness. That’s what’s embedded in us, to be tough.”
Can she live a normal life when she goes home? She laughs. “I can act normally, and I can go out, but people around you don’t act normally. If it was normal, I’d go out and have my dinner and nobody would be video-phoning me eating my dinner.”
Has she heard that young girls have started stapling their cheeks together to recreate her dimples? She looks as if she could be sick. “Yeah, I heard. Oh God. What on Earth am I’m supposed to say about that?”
Don’t do it?
“Yes. Don’t. It’s funny, because having dimples is something I always struggled with growing up.”
It’s late afternoon. The dressing room is dimly lit and largely empty – no photos, no good luck cards, just huge tubs of Butterkist popcorn and bottled water, Diet Coke, a cigarette packet and a box of matches. She gives Blue a quick cuddle, stuffs some Butterkist in her mouth and I ask a series of random questions.
“If Simon got down on his knees tomorrow and said, ‘Marry me, baby,’ what would you say to him?”
“What’s the punchline?”
“There are rumours that you have fallen out recently.”
“I don’t know where these came from. If anything, we’re the closest we’ve ever been.”
“He’s helped you when you’ve been down?”
“Why has everything got to be gloom and doom? We have funny conversations. He checks I’m OK, he reads me really, really well. I can’t hide anything from him.”
“Why did you hire a group of singing dwarves for his birthday present?”
“That was great, wasn’t it?” She laughs. “What d’you get Simon Cowell for his birthday? Singing musical dwarves! You want some popcorn?”
“How will your beloved Newcastle be affected by the Tory cuts?”
“I was brought up Labour and it is pretty sh!t times. But I also think pop music helps that. And that’s what I’m going to focus on – being a pop star. I’m not a politician.”
“The perfect politician’s answer,” I say. “But you are still Labour in your heart?”
She stands up to wash her hands. “Sorry, I’m all sticky.” For the first time I notice how tiny and slight she is – skinny legs, virtually no bottom and a giant tattoo across her lower back.
“What is that tattoo?” I shout a little too loudly.
“It’s just times in my life, I suppose. More specific times when you felt certain things or whatever…”
How many tattoos has she got?
Which is her favourite?
“I like the one on my hand, the little one. Just an abstract thing… it’s cold in here.” She seems to have forgotten two of her other tattoos – one on her bottom and the other on the back of her neck saying Mrs Cole.
Does she want to get rid of any of her tattoos?
“No… I’m not ashamed of anything. I’ve got nothing to rub away.”
There have been stories of yet another tattoo, dedicated to the dancer Derek Hough. Soon after she and Ashley Cole separated, the rumour mill went into overdrive – Hough was her new boyfriend, Hough was a cover for her new boyfriend.
I ask if she really is going out with him. She replies with a fabulous evasion. “I know one thing for sure. I have spoken about everything that’s been written about just to put everything to bed, close the door on this year, close the door on this chapter of my life, and start afresh. And from now on in I will never talk about my personal life again.”
What is it she most wanted to say?
“Not want to say. I had to say. I just wanted to say, right, this is from the horse’s mouth. And then I can move on, and try to have as much sanity and normality as possible.”
Outside the studio, there are paparazzi perched on their ladders trying to peer in. Is she aware of them? “Yes, it’s sick. You know the worst thing is, when I was in intensive care, they were outside the hospital. There’s people in that hospital dying, there are families going up there to sit with people for the last hours of their lives and there are 30 photographers outside.”
Perhaps it’s impossible to reconcile such a high-profile career with a desire for privacy. Does she ever think, “Sod this for a game of soldiers, I’m getting out?”
“Yeah, I’ve thought that a few times, but I’m not going to let them ruin my dreams. I want to make music.”
I do think she is being sincere, and that she does want to get stuff off her chest. Yet I’m equally aware that she is promoting a new album, which focuses on the breakdown of a relationship. For what it’s worth, there is certainly no sign of a boyfriend. My feeling is she’s still trying to get her life back together.
I tell her about a 10-year-old girl who insists on calling her Cheryl Tweedy because it is empowering and Tweedy is her true name. No, she says, she’s staying as Cole, and that’s the truly empowering thing to do. “I don’t feel sentimental about the name. If I went back to being Cheryl Tweedy, I’d be… I’m not ashamed of my marriage, it’s a period in my life. And I am Cheryl Cole. That’s how I feel.” Cheryl Tweedy is who she was as a little girl, she says, and that’s a lifetime away. And Cheryl Cole is who she’s been most successful as, and Cheryl Cole sounds a cool name, and Cheryl Cole is a great brand. Why shouldn’t she keep hold of the positives from her marriage?
If she’s sticking as Cheryl Cole, does she think that one day she might get back together with Ashley? This time she opens her mouth and it just stays open in shock or maybe horror. “We’ve been divorced. That’s a pretty big ending. Maybe we can be friends… one day.”
Does she think he regrets lousing up their marriage? “I can’t speak for him. You’ll have to ask him that.” Then she grins. “Maybe ring his publicist.”
Cheryl Cole’s second solo album, Messy Little Raindrops, is released on 1 November.