Cheryl Cole is now known as Cheryl. She gave up her first surname, Tweedy, when she married the footballer Ashley Cole in 2006.
Then he was allegedly unfaithful, and then there was some boomeranging back and forth, with rings coming off fingers and newer, bigger rings that seemed to bellow ‘FORGIVE ME’ back on fingers, and then he was allegedly unfaithful again and then that was that, because Cheryl-Tweedy-Cole-Cheryl may be a bad picker but she is nobody’s fool.
So, of course, it makes sense that you may not, aged 29, relish the prospect of lugging someone else’s surname around with you for the rest of your life. But Tweedy was never going to re-stick. I mean, who is Victoria Adams? And so, for her third album, A Million Lights, she’s just Cheryl, thanks very much. I suspect her manager Will.i.am had a flickering, busy old hand in this branding, because that’s what he does, essentially. He spins and rinses and brands. And she, wisely, listens.
‘He’s a genius,’ she says. ‘He has a genius mind. Just to listen to him…’ It’s a compelling partnership, this self-proclaimed Queen of Chavs and the slightly space-age Black Eyed Peas frontman, solo artist, super-producer, actor, designer and techno-guru from the LA ghetto. It seems clear from the start that one of the reasons they rub along so well is because he talks and she listens.
And, my word, does he talk. He is monosyllabic, dry, locked-in and seems to be battling a stammer until the verbal flood-gates fly open and all of a sudden he’s on a manifesto-centric roll, holding forth, twitchy, lyrical, cheeky. It’s overstimulating stuff. Contrarily, one of the first things apparent in Cheryl is that she is difficult to overstimulate. She is, these days, calm and powerful. She radiates resolve.
We are on the ES shoot in St John’s Wood on a balmy Saturday morning. Cheryl pitches up punctually in a Phillip Lim top, tight jeans and soaring Burberry heels. She is quiet, obliging, self-contained and, as we all know, absurdly pretty. Even Rihanna recently declared the Geordie girl ‘the most beautiful woman I have ever seen’. Because Cheryl is so serene, the entire crew are super-tranquil. Not so when Will slides in two hours late, puncturing the zen with his studded Louboutin slippers, off-kilter energy and wonky humour. Suddenly everything is a bit weird and overexcited; suddenly everyone is a bit gaspy and fizzy. Everyone, that is, except our Cheryl.
The pair met four years ago when, in her first musical expedition outside Girls Aloud, she featured on his solo single ‘Heartbreaker’. Everyone assumed that if they weren’t in love, then he, at least, was. ‘Of course that’s the natural thing people go to,’ she says. ‘Heaven forbid you should have any other kind of relationship with someone from the opposite sex.’ And then, faintly scandalised: ‘I was still married then, too.’ Ashley may be the faithless kind; his ex-wife is not. ‘I had always thought Will was quirky and out there and just ridiculously talented, and he is all those things. He’s amazing and we just clicked straight away.’
Will — who has produced for U2, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj — took her seriously as a musical force. He persuaded her to go solo. Commercial and delightful though she clearly is, it is perhaps challenging to identify the trigger for his extreme enthusiasm and commitment. I don’t think it’s as simple as a bloody great crush. He’s too odd for that. So what inspired him, in an early studio session with Cheryl, to compare her lyrical delivery to that of Michael Jackson? ‘Her personality,’ he says baldly. ‘Charming, approachable, adorable, sweet, broken, fragile, strong.’ Fine, I can believe all of those things — but, for once, Will, answer the damn question. ‘So, what is music?’ he asks instead. ‘Music is channelling, collaboration, rinsing. Music is harmonious, it’s tolerant, it’s compromise. Music is about going through shit. And thinking about shit. Shit is the shit. Shit is the only thing that is f***ing nasty but that can grow grass. Shit is f***ing dope.’ His mother is also dope, the house we are shooting the pictures in is dope, my dress is dope, Prince Charles is dope.
Because Will has recently come over all Anglophile. He spent much of this year in London recording The Voice, the talent show featuring Jessie J and Tom Jones that went up against Britain’s Got Talent. He stays in a hotel near Hyde Park — with a net worth estimated to be hovering around the £50 million mark, he has bought houses for his entire family yet prefers to live in hotels, rarely staying anywhere for more than seven days at a time — and in a small room at that: ‘I like to be cosy. I need a place to recharge.’ I envisage him lying down and plugging himself into some kind of battery pack. He rarely sleeps, getting about three hours a night, and punctuates his days with ten-minute dozes. And the thing about time zones is that there is always someone, somewhere who is awake, so he can have a thought in the middle of the night, Google the hell out of it and then hit the phones, going, ‘Dude, check this out…’
So here in London he called his manager and said, ‘You know that money that I got from The Voice? I’m going to give it away.’ He had already put $1 million into his Peapod Foundation and mortgage-relief programme in the States. A couple of days later it occurred to him to bring the idea of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education for kids to the Prince’s Trust, his theory being that ‘If one Mark Zuckerberg comes from Brixton, then Brixton is changed forever. If one Jack Dorsey comes from East London, then East London is changed forever.’
Which explains why, the morning after the Jubilee flotilla, Will found himself sitting opposite Prince Charles, fleshing things out. ‘He had just found out about his father [Prince Philip had been hospitalised with a bladder infection], so it was heavy. He spoke very passionately about inner cities and philanthropy, and I got into the car afterwards and I thought: “That guy is something else” — because he had just found out about his father but he still kept the meeting. That guy is awesome.’
A few weeks later Will was charging around Taunton with the Olympic flame, a deal brokered not by Prince Charles but by Coca-Cola, a huge Olympics sponsor, with whom Will is partnering on Ekocycle, his bid to help large corporations go waste-free. ‘I’m like, “What if I can take their by-products and make new products? What if I can take their bottles and turn them into jackets and glasses, and I could make a base cloth out of their aluminium to make bicycles and chairs and computers and phones?’ Big-picture branding, that’s his schtick. He’s a curious sort of scientific-creative (he’s also Intel’s director of creative innovation), veering from inspiring to absurd — but then no one gets it right every time.
It occurs to me that intimacy with a man like this would be — if indeed it were at all possible — most peculiar. He’s been accused of being both gay and asexual, and will only confirm that he is straight and ‘not lonely’. I imagine him sitting across from a woman and them sending Ghostbuster-style streams of protons into the air, the beams meeting in the middle and… wow. But romance for Will, he says, ‘is just deep. Then I like… [huge pause] then I get deep. Like, almost spiritual. Like spiritual and science. The marriage of the two. For me, love is like… that’s why it’s hard. I like talking about deep shit. Just lying in bed, snuggle-wuggles, conversation. I like to communicate, conversate, dive into freakin’ theories.’ Sounds exhausting. Touching, too, though.
But as much as Will riffs and rolls and chatters, Cheryl just doesn’t. She’s a master of the courteous stonewall. She comes from a generation where clichés — ‘I was just a girl with a dream’ — are de rigueur and serve a valuable purpose in that they just bore you off the scent. But she isn’t boring. She has good timing and proper backbone and excellent judgement, but she is virtually unquoteable because her answers are so ridiculously vanilla.
They didn’t used to be. At the beginning of her career, as a girl from the mean streets of Newcastle, with a drug-addict ex-boyfriend and her own 2003 conviction for assault, she was happy to turn the air blue. She is now embarking on an autobiography, which may prove more revelatory than anything thus far because she will have complete control. ‘The amount of shit I’ve had to read and endure and cry about and deal with,’ she says, ‘has become very frustrating. And then there was a point earlier this year when a guy called MC Harvey [who was married to Aleesha Dixon but then cheated on her with Popstars: The Rivals contestant Javine Hylton, with whom he later had a child] claimed he’d had a relationship with me. It was completely false. I’ve had enough of other people’s shit and it’s time to have my own say. I was always happy to keep my mouth shut, but it’s like when a bully slaps someone and slaps someone and finally I’ve had enough. That story just tipped us over the edge. I’m going to put it in my own words.’ She has yet to comment on the recent rumours about a new romance with an American backing dancer called Tre Holloway, after sightings at Nobu, Roka and Cecconi’s.
Before the book can be put together there is a tour of the UK and Ireland (her first) as well as a mystery end-of-year extravaganza to celebrate Girls Aloud’s tenth anniversary. Beyond that, Cheryl has no plans. Her marriage to Ashley was a long-term plan, and when something like that goes so wrong, and so publicly, a catastrophic loss of faith can ensue. ‘Family life is more important than a career for me,’ she says. ‘You never know where life is going to take you.’ And we’re back in cliché land. But clichés are clichés for a reason.
Will has Cheryl in a clinch. She nicks his hat and sticks it on, Sally Bowles-style. He grabs a camera from the floor and pretends to snap her, like in the Blow Up poster. We’re watching two incredibly different, vaguely lonely animals at play. And from where I’m sitting, it looks like a mutually satisfying situation. ES
Cheryl plays The O2 Arena on 7 October. Her album A Million Lights is out now. Will.i.am’s solo album #willpower is out on 15 October