Cheryl Cole: ‘I’ve dined with Prince Charles, but I’ve also sat in a crack den’
From teenage wannabe to the nation’s favourite Geordie, Cheryl Cole’s life has captivated us for a decade. She talks to Barbara Ellen about bringing back Girls Aloud, the importance of loyalty – and why she’ll never be part of Simon Cowell’s harem
Cheryl Cole has one of my favourite voices of all time. I’m not talking about singing – though what I’ve heard of her new album, A Million Lights, sounds great and the likes of Kanye West are predicting a major US breakthrough. It’s when she speaks – the expressive Geordie accent that can go from warm and lilting when she’s seriously considering a question, to soft and silly when she’s having a giggle at herself, to acid and disdainful when she feels like it.
Her voice is certainly warm when she enthuses about her forthcoming solo outing (her third, after 3 Words and Messy Little Raindrops): the first single “Call My Name”, the haunting title track, and another song (“Ghetto Baby”) written by Lana Del Rey. It’s also warm when she discusses Girls Aloud “doing something special” for their 10th anniversary later this year. “I missed everything about them – even the drama of five girls trying to get ready for a live performance,” she says. Nor is Cole above having a giggle about her recent revelation that she’d dreamed of nuptials with Prince Harry: “Oh yeah, I married him in me dream, didn’t I?” However, the voice isn’t so warm or soft concerning a certain Simon Cowell saying she “manipulated” him on The X Factor. “He’s crazy!”
We meet in a London studio after the Observer photo shoot. She clomps into the interview room on a pair of towering heels, her famously dimpled face, with the deep-brown eyes, is almost obscured by a veritable lion’s mane of tumbling chestnut hair. Cole settles down on the sofa, gratefully accepting a bottle of water. She’s friendly and engaged, though at certain points she seems washed out, talking in trailing whispers – perhaps unsurprising given the constant travelling across the Atlantic to finesse the album, as well as the very steamy “Call My Name” video (lots of back arching in tunnels, and the like).
Cole is now completely over her 2010 (potentially fatal) bout of malaria. Is a near-death experience more frightening in retrospect? “Absolutely,” she says. “It takes a long time mentally to come to terms with it. As it’s happening, you’re just going through it. Looking back, you think: wow, that was really near.”
Coming up to her 29th birthday, Cole has just won an injunction against the paparazzi, who’ve pursued her for a decade of not only near-death experiences but also fame: “music Cheryl”, “TV Cheryl”, the on/off marriage to England footballer Ashley Cole, their eventual divorce and, lately, being fired from the US X Factor.
“I just wanted to wake up in the morning and not have 30 strange men sitting outside my door,” says Cole. “They would follow us all day and all night. I had no freedom.”
Cole isn’t overplaying the ongoing fascination. Her life and times have turned her into a global perma-trending topic whether she likes it or not. At her X Factor height, it was almost as though Cole morphed into a beatific “Geordie Diana”. Her sacking from the US X Factor felt akin to the OK! magazine version of the fall of Rome. Even now Cole’s every thought, move and change of leggings is recorded, as if it were of the gravest public interest. It’s not difficult to see how there could be times when her fame might feel like a magnifying glass, with her as an insect being fried alive.
All of which could account for Cole’s legendary stonewalling in interviews regarding relationships (Ashley!) and anyone or anything she deems too personal. My own sneaky attempts to barge into her personal space, as it were, get me precisely nowhere, and I rather feebly give up. Cole’s reserve seems absolutely genuine. On the other hand, one of her new tracks is the provocative “Screw You!” (“I loved you so much, but you couldn’t give up fucks”). Isn’t this asking for trouble (at least a load of nosy questions about Ashley’s infidelity)?
Cole points out that her songs are written for her, not by her. Moreover that she understands public interest: “I’d get it if I was the president of the world, and I was preaching to people not to take drugs, and I was secretly smoking cannabis. I just don’t understand what interest it is to the public what colour knickers I had on last night.” She feels that there were times when she went though a lot. “I had malaria, I was going through my divorce – they’re hard enough by themselves.” She sighs: “You hear that people sometimes call the paparazzi themselves, to tell them they’re on holiday – it baffles my brain. Some people, some celebrities, obviously enjoy it. Me personally…” Cole shakes her head and lets the thought trail away.
Cole and I have met before, in 2003, not long after Girls Aloud were formed by Popstars: The Rivals – the band went on to notch up millions of sales and a stream of number ones and awards. Cole was already mired in controversy (after getting into a fight with a nightclub attendant), but I found her to be warm and natural, with a quick northern wit. After I’d made some rather garbled point to the band about feminism not being about hating men, she joked drily: “You know what? I don’t know about feminism, but I may be a bit of a man hater.”
It feels strange that Girls Aloud – those five excited young girls – are nearing their 10th anniversary. All these years on, does Cole have any new thoughts on feminism? “Yes, I love it. Sisterhood is important to me. Up until recently, every single person on my team was female. I was surrounded by females, and I found it very empowering. It’s only us who know how each other feels. Men don’t understand it.”
Cole says that the break felt necessary for all of Girls Aloud. “Because we got together so young, we needed to grow as young women. We were kind of one personality towards the end. We needed some space as humans.” There was a rumour about Nadine Coyle signing up for the next Celebrity Big Brother – is this something Cole would do? “Would I shite!” she scoffs. “But nor would she.”
At first Cole is similarly brusque about her mysterious sacking from the US X Factor, to be replaced by Nicole Scherzinger (in the end the public and critics said they preferred Cole). Initially she goes into stonewalling mode, blandly repeating variations of: “I’m just so happy that I could focus on this album.” There may be an element of truth to this. “TV Cheryl” was a belated phenomenon – her childhood dream was to sing and dance, not to become a talent-show judge. Still, it was a very public humiliation, by a friend and mentor she trusted – it must have stung?
Cole shrugs: “As you said, the TV world came into my world – I’d been in the group years before I went on to TV. I only anticipated doing one X Factor.” Word was that she felt embarrassed and let down by Cowell. “No,” she says. It must have been upsetting? “I think people think it was, but it wasn’t. I should probably care more than I do.” Cole previously stated that she won’t return to The X Factor, and now looks openly bored. “There’s been so much, to put it bluntly, crap, written about it – the whys, hows and ifs. I don’t speak. I never do speak. Just let them get on with their little side of it and I’ll get on with making music.”
What about Tom Bower’s recent Cowell biography? The book revealed that Cowell had a crush on Cole, and implied that, while nothing ever happened between them, she was not above employing a modicum of feminine wiles to get her way backstage on The X Factor. Cole has been reported as calling Cowell “creepy”. “I read something about him being creepy, but he was never creepy to me,” says Cole. “He never insinuated anything other than work. Ever.” She pauses, a little smile playing on her face: “He said I manipulated him?”
In Bower’s book Cowell is quoted as saying: “She would come in dressed in her tracksuit and slippers, drop her eyes and play the soulful victim to get around me. She played me. When she walked over, I felt I was the mouse with a beautiful cat.”
“Tracksuit bottoms – oh how seductive!” drawls Cole. “That’s actually really flattering, because if I can seduce him in me tracksuit and slippers, I must have something good.” She shakes her head, amused. “You know, he said the same thing to my face about me manipulating him. I said: ‘Simon, seriously – you’ve become so cynical that you think people manipulate you, but I’m not one of those people. Maybe what confuses you is that I don’t play with you; you can’t buy me.’ And he said to me: ‘When I say you manipulate, I mean it in the sincerest form of a compliment. Meaning: you’re highly intelligent, and I don’t even think you know you’re doing it.'”
But she wasn’t manipulating him. “Sorry, but if I was going to do it, it wouldn’t be in me tracksuit bottoms. I take that as a big compliment that I just have to rock around in me Juicy trackie. The only reason I’d even be in a trackie is because I’d be getting my hair and make-up done and wanted to be comfortable.”
Doesn’t the fact that Cowell speaks about Cole in this way place her in his “harem” – along with grisly exes Sinitta and Jackie St Clair? “No! I’m definitely not. And I think that’s what annoys him. I’m my own person. Even the fact that we’re talking about him is irritating.” Are she and Cowell still friends? There’s a wryly amused pause: “Yeah, we are; we’re friends.”
Regarding (yet more!) rumours about responding with her own “tell-all” book, Cole says she has been offered the chance to do a biography. “I’m torn. The past 10 years have been incredible – the whole of my 20s. That would be amazing to put into words, and go into my 30s with a clean slate. But then I think: I can’t be bothered.” If the book does happen, it won’t be a tell-all on Cowell: “I don’t know if I’ve got 300 words to say on Simon. He might get a footnote if he’s lucky.”
By now Cole is slumping listlessly against the sofa arm, letting the water bottle dangle from her fingertips. This sort of thing appears to drain her energy? “I just can’t be bothered with it,” she murmurs with real feeling. “It’s playground stuff to me. I just don’t need this nonsense any more.”
What Cole wants is to make A Million Lights a success, and although she doesn’t say so, that means cracking America. Indeed, while Cole describes herself as “100% British”, the US seems like a logical next step. The album is strong, and with artists such as West and Cole’s manager, the Black Eyed Peas’s (and now Voice judge) Will.i.am, claiming her as one of their urban “streetwise” own, it’s not unlikely that she could become a J-Lo for a new generation.
As Cole earnestly puts it: “I came from reality TV, but I’m not that person who got famous from Big Brother, and that’s all my life is about. All I ever wanted was to perform, make music, make videos. Unfortunately that was my deluded idea of what this world is. It was in me blood. I had no second option.”
Born in 1983, Cheryl Ann Tweedy was the fourth of five children (three half-siblings), to mother Joan, to whom she remains close. Life was tough in their neighbourhood. She tended to “wag off” school, but gained another kind of street education via poverty, troubled siblings, drug-addicted boyfriends and a granddad who died of alcoholism.
Now Cole barely drinks and has no time for trendy showbiz decadence. “Being drunk in this industry and being drunk on the street are two totally different things.” I tell her that listening to her sometimes it sounds as if she is much older. “People have said that to me since I was 12 years old: ‘You’ve got a seriously old soul on your shoulders.’ I think maybe I was exposed to a lot when I was young.”
These days Cole remains fiercely proud of her Newcastle roots but feels that she’s seen both extremes of the class divide: “I’ve dined with Prince Charles, but I’ve also sat in a crack den, if you like.” Her feeling is that everyone is basically the same. “But you know what amazes me, too – that there are people from back home that I grew up with who have nothing, who are on the bones of their arses, no better way to put it, and they have nothing but pride. These people would never betray you or speak to the media. Then you meet people of another class who would happily *Duck* you over.” Her eyes glint. “It’s interesting.”
What does Cole make of the word chav? She shrugs: “I’m a chav, aren’t I?”
Wasn’t she called “Queen of the Chavs”?
“Queen of them now? I love it. What’s that about – being derogatory about someone who’s done well from nothing? That’s hilarious. I love that. I hope I really wind them up. Again, it’s a big compliment – to want to drag you down, they obviously feel that you’re above them.”
Cole’s disdain is on full beam. She tells me that, early on, she was the victim of a kiss-and -tell by a druggie ex, and felt mortified. “I rang him to say: ‘You *Bar Steward* – why would you do that?’ And he said: ‘I’m so sorry, but I’ve never met anybody before with a dream who accomplished it, and I’m actually really proud of you.’ And that thought stayed with me – that he’d never met anyone before who’d had a dream and accomplished it. It stuck in my brain.”
Recently her UK X Factor replacement, Tulisa Contostavlos, found herself in a similar situation. “The sex tape?” Cole looks disgusted. “It’s just hideous. You never expect in a million years to be put in that situation. Whether or not you choose to do that, you still would never expect that to happen. It’s an intimate moment with somebody I suppose you believe you can trust. It’s sickening.”
How does she think Tulisa handled it? “To come out and say: it was me, I was 17, whatever age she was, and I was in love and everything – I think that’s the best way: just face it head on, you know.” Cole pauses reflectively: “I just think there should be a line drawn – just that you’re a human being who goes through real things, and emotions.”
An aspect of fame Cole did enjoy was artist Lee Jones portraying her as a weeping Angel of the North in 2008. “Mind-blowing,” she says. “It’s something I can show my grandkids and remind my own children of their roots. Like: ‘You know that big rusty angel that Mammy was painted as?’ That’s special.”
Children are increasingly creeping into Cole’s conversation – she’s been known to pick out baby names: “I’d love a massive family,” she says wistfully. “I’m from a big family. I’ve got 10 nieces and nephews.”
My mind flashes on the £1m wedding, the divorce, big life plans probably gone awry. Have things gone wrong for her in this way? “No, I wouldn’t say wrong; I’d probably say right,” she says tartly, adding that she’ll probably start her family by her mid-30s. “Me mam’s like: ‘You’ve done it the right way round. I didn’t even know myself when I had children. You’re at that nice age where you’re developing into a young woman and you can give your children the things they need.'”
The interview is drawing to a close. I ask Cole what quality she most values in a person. “Loyalty,” she says instantly. “Someone who is always there, not judging you, regardless of what situation you’re in.” Will.i.am has been one such friend; she tells me he convinced her to go solo. “We call each other family,” she says.
Another famous fan, Rihanna, called Cole “the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen”. Obviously Cole’s looks are part of her appeal, her “brand”, if you will – she recently launched a shoe range, she’s the face of L’Oréal, there was the bestselling cover for Vogue. However, when I try to talk to Cole about her beauty, she bows her head in agony, declaring the topic “cringey!”: “I just don’t see meself like that! You know those ‘FHM’s sexy women’ or whatever? I don’t jump out of bed and frame them. I view people differently anyway,” she says. “It’s almost as if I can see people from the inside. And that’s far more special to me. It’s like, someone could come into the room and take your breath away by how she looks. Then she opens her mouth and she’s a complete *Female Dog*, or she’s got an ugly soul. And I see that. Or there’s the girl in the corner who has nothing to say and her hair is in a messy bun. She’s not what you’d call commercially beautiful, but she speaks with such elegance and grace, and she looks stunning to me.” It’s all about inner beauty? “Yes, I see inside. I get a powerful sense of people.” Cole smiles: “I feel people rather than see them, I suppose.”
It’s time to go. I leave the complicated, defiant, but rather lovely Cheryl Cole to what she tells me is her ultimate single goal: “to be happy”. As I leave, I happen to look back – she is already curled up on the sofa in the foetal position to sleep.