Cheryl: ‘If my single goes in at No 80, it’s time for me to move on with my life.’ Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian
Post-Liam Payne, post-baby and post-new single Love Made Me Do It, the pop star discusses her tumultuous career and the (unlikely) prospect of a Girls Aloud reunion
In a secluded Surrey mansion in 2002, Cheryl perches on the edge of her bed. She only moved in recently but her bedroom has a few homely touches: pictures on the bedside table, that sort of thing. She thinks carefully before answering questions but when I ask what scares her, the answer is immediate and direct. “Meeting the man of my dreams then getting hurt,” she says, quietly. “When you trust someone and they cheat on you, it’s not a nice feeling.”
Flash-forward 16 years and The Artist Formerly Known As Cheryl Tweedy is sitting in Guide HQ poking at some sort of grain-based concoction with a plastic fork. Our paths have crossed a handful of times over the years, but when I point out that we haven’t met since Cheryl turned 30, five years ago, she gets very excited. “Nice to meet you!” she beams. “I’m a new person! Same accent, though.”
New Cheryl is a woman, she says, when she was just a girl before. “Being a teenager is disgusting,” she’ll say. “I’d never want to be in my 20s again. My life since the baby, and my life prior to the baby … they’re two different people, in the best possible way.”
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So what scares her now? The answer is “Anything to do with my baby”. I remind her of how she answered in 2002. She gasps. “There you go,” she says. “Look what happened! You can’t allow your fears to become reality.”
On the upside, Cheryl’s dreams became reality, too. (Spoilers follow, if you haven’t yet seen the final of Popstars: The Rivals.) In 2014, she became the first British female to have five solo No 1 singles in the UK, and that’s before you factor in the record-breaking run of 20 consecutive Top 10 singles she achieved with Girls Aloud. Factor in also talent-show judging and endorsement deals and Cheryl is one of Britain’s most famous women, and has been for more than a decade.
It’s not only Cheryl who has changed, however. The system that created her has moved on, too. Non-cake-related TV talent shows are no longer an event and a specific strand of celebrity mag has depleted in influence. Chart stars are just not as obsessed-over. Her two-year relationship with Liam Payne should have given her an insight into how pop works now: while Harry Styles is twice the pop star, Payne has twice Style’s listeners on Spotify. An X Factor results show appearance doesn’t automatically lead to a No 1 seven days later. “I know that’s not going to happen,” Cheryl says on the topic of her new single, Love Made Me Do It, her first new music in four years.Instead, success is now defined as happiness, Cheryl says. Even if the song goes in at No 80? “If it goes in at 80, it’s time for me to move on with my life,” she accepts. “I’m not going to jump around working hard and spending time away from my son for that.” She has a good way of describing the opportunity cost of a pop career: “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”
Something definitely worth the squeeze has been the snappily titled The Prince’s Trust Cheryl’s Trust Centre in Newcastle upon Tyne, which opened earlier this year and, after six months, has helped 600 young people find work. It doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine that in a world where Popstars: The Rivals never happened, Cheryl might have made use of a similar programme.
“Absolutely,” she nods. “It’s possible. One of my friends is now a primary school teacher, another friend moved away and had a family, but some just went down the line of drugs and unemployment. The area had the highest unemployment rate in the UK two years ago. I don’t know what the statistic is now: 600 people better, I guess. Now that feels like success.”
Elsewhere, Cheryl still has her L’Oréal deal, which was in the news last year when the brand terminated its contract with Munroe Bergdorf, after the activist model published a post criticising white privilege. It was a bit rich, Bergdorf argued, for L’Oréal to boot her off its diversity campaign while retaining the services of Cheryl, who was accused of racially aggravated assault in 2003 (she was convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm but cleared of any racist element). When I ask Cheryl for her thoughts on this, the temperature in the room seems to drop several degrees. It’s all “irrelevant”, Cheryl says; it was 16 years ago; it’s “not news”; the subject is “boring”.
“I don’t understand why you’d even bring it up,” she adds. How would an X Factor-winning girlband respond if a member were involved in a similar incident in 2018? She’d be kicked out, right? “Not really,” Cheryl decides. Is she really surprised that people still mention it? “I don’t think they do!” she replies. They do, I say. “Not really,” she says. And so on. I ask whether she’s read Lily Allen’s memoir, in which Allen apologises for the pair’s mid-00s beef. She hasn’t, but has heard good things. “We’re both women, now. We’re both mothers. It sounds like she’s been through a lot of stuff we didn’t know about,” she says. “Honestly, she’s quite fascinating to me. She’s ballsy, and outspoken, and says what she thinks regardless of what people think of her. To be a woman in the industry and do that takes some balls. I like that about her. Nobody wants a wallflower, do they?”
On the subject of social media, she believes that Twitter, Instagram etc is “just noise”, and is happy with her decision to keep her one-year-old son Bear away from it. His face has never appeared in the press. “I’m not going to take his childhood away from him and expose him like that!” she says. “It’s not my decision to make. And there’s trolls everywhere. For someone to make time to go on my page and write something shitty, they’ve got to have a pretty sad life. At the end of the day, I think trolls are just confused fans.”
Cheryl is happier discussing less contentious topics. She defines Girls Aloud’s legacy as “good pop songs, for a good chunk of time”; she says their best song was Call the Shots (correct) and the worst was The Loving Kind. At one point, the latter was supposed to be the launch single for the band’s final album. “Me, Nicola and Kimberley went in and fought for The Promise,” Cheryl remembers. “As we left, some guy said to us: ‘We’ll do it your way, but you’re committing career suicide.’” The Promise became 2008’s fastest-selling single, also winning a Brit and an Ivor Novello nomination.
That story doesn’t leave much to the imagination when Cheryl later says that her time in the five-piece girlband left her with “two lifelong friends”. Right on cue, her phone goes off: it’s a text from Kimberley. I ask what it would take for a Girls Aloud reunion to take place. “It’s not going to happen,” she says, and that’s that.
Except that’s not that. Seriously: what would it take? “It wouldn’t take anything, it’s just not going to happen. We’ve … ”
“I’ve got 10 million quid and I’d like to give it to The Prince’s Trust Cheryl’s Trust Centre in exchange for one Girls Aloud reunion,” I bellow.
Cheryl looks slightly annoyed that I’ve got her over a charitable barrel. “Well, for 10 million pounds … ” she smiles.
It’s a yes. Now we’ve established that she’s up for it, all that remains is to haggle over the price. Five million? “No.” Seven million? “No.” This isn’t going very well. “But 10 million? Yes.” A pause. “It’s not going to happen.”
The thing is, I say, any multi-platinum act has millionaires among its fanbase. There are more than 80,000 multi-millionaires in this country from a UK population of 66 million. If 1.4 million people have bought a Girls Aloud greatest hits, that suggests 1,696 multi-millionaire Girls Aloud fans. Knock off the pensioners, Cheryl herself and people who preferred the Sugababes, and there’s still a decent chance we could get 10 million quid together by Christmas. “Oh,” she says, “You do know I meant 10 million for each of us, right?”
There is, at least, some sense of getting the gang back together when it comes to Love Made Me Do It. Cheryl worked on the song with Nicola Roberts, along with Girls Aloud songwriter Miranda Cooper and producer Jon Shave. It is about Cheryl falling in love willy-nilly, and she says that Roberts delivered some home truths during the writing sessions. “It’s stuff that only a friend of 16 years would get away with,” Cheryl smiles. “She’d go: ‘She doesn’t fucking stop to think!’ You don’t think that about yourself until someone you love and respect brings it out.” Confusingly, Cheryl also denies that the song is an attempt to reclaim the narrative surrounding her private life. “It’s so interesting that you think that,” she says, which is Cheryl code for “U wot m8”. It’s just tongue in cheek, she says, in an explanation that also includes “It’s not meant to be read into that deeply”, “It’s not that deep”, and “It’s not deep” (twice).
There’s a bit in Love Made Me Do It where Cheryl sings about the Yellow Brick Road, which Cheryl says today is about finding her way home. You can’t mistake the analogy, but it’s also true that in The Wizard of Oz the road leads Dorothy to discover that the story’s titular character is just an idiot behind a screen. A good metaphor for fame? “It depends how you experience it,” she begins. “If I was running around the world feeling isolated and fed up, being pulled, prodded and poked, it would drive me mad. That’s why I like the fact that I can go to different countries and be anonymous.”
That is the upside, I suggest, of never having made it in the US. She agrees. A mention of the notorious jumpsuit she wore for her ill-fated US X Factor debut prompts an unexpected response. “Orange and purple,” she sighs. “I was not mentally well then. I’d been in hospital in the July with malaria. I’d just suffered the breakdown of my marriage, and by the time I got to America … On reflection, I shouldn’t have been there. I was struggling inside. I felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders, and I couldn’t place why.” What a shit year, I helpfully offer. “What a shit year,” she concurs. “The bottom line now,” says New Cheryl, who actually sounds quite a lot like Young Cheryl, “is this: if I’m not happy with something, and I’m not comfortable, I’m not fucking doing it.”
It is time for Cheryl to go. Her son has been ill, and she’s ill, too; the traffic back to Surrey is bad, and she’s got to record a radio version of the new single without the word “fuck” in it. I ask how Cheryl feels about Jess Glynne having recently broken that record for solo No 1 singles. Reclaiming the throne must be important, right?
“Is it bad,” she asks, “if I say that if I get another No 1 that’s great, and if I don’t that’s fine?” It’s strange to hear this sort of pop star frame their ambition in this sort of way. Refreshing, too, in light of what she has said about the endless hamster wheel of A-list pop fame. The laissez-faire approach rather suits Cheryl. So much so that when we say goodbye and I wish her luck with the single, I’m also kind of hoping she never has another platinum record.
Love Made Me Do It is out now.