Girls Aloud on public bullying, getting older and reuniting after the loss of Sarah Harding: ‘I keep expecting her to burst into the room’

Estimated read time 18 min read

Cheryl has a wind problem. We’re meeting at rehearsals for Girls Aloud’s comeback tour, standing in what will later become the Gift Wrapped Kitty Kat VIP Zone – essentially a pit next to the stage named after a ludicrous lyric in their equally ludicrous 2004 single Love Machine. It’s Monday, the tour starts on Friday, the band only performed a first onstage run-through yesterday and everyone is on edge. Cheryl (formerly Tweedy, but now professionally just Cheryl) is joined by her bandmates – Nadine Coyle, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh – on two lightly battered white leather sofas surrounded by empty Coke cans, dozens of sparkly high-heeled boots and, intriguingly, four motorbikes.

It’s not nerves that are causing the wind issues, but an overzealous industrial fan being aimed inside a 10ft billowing red skirt being tested on stage by the band’s stylist Victoria Adcock. “Less wind,” Cheryl shouts between furtive puffs on a vape. No one listens. “LESS WIND!” she bellows again in her thick geordie accent. (Ironically, a week after we meet, on tour in Dublin, Cheryl’s skirt will fail to inflate at all.) The look is for the band’s performance of Sexy! No No No, another brilliantly bizarre hit that still sounds as if it’s been beamed in from pop’s future. As the shiny red material continues to inflate, Roberts has noticed another issue. “Unless we’re pushing it down it’s going to look like we’re fucking toilet roll covers,” she says, to much amusement from the other girls (despite all now being in their late 30s and early 40s, everyone still refers to them collectively as “the girls”).

I suggest maybe a dancer could emerge out of the tent-sized skirt like a weary festival-goer. Cheryl tries to laugh while scoffing a salad. “We’ve still got a few days left to do that,” she adds. It’s Roberts’s turn to bellow: “LESS WIND OTHERWISE IT’S GOING TO LOOK LIKE A TOILET ROLL COVER.” Finally, with their views heard, it’s left to Walsh to refocus them: “Let’s do the interview, and then we’ll look at this situation.”

Cheryl wearing a dark, sparkly top and a 10-foot-tall red inflatable skirt against a red backdropView image in fullscreen

The band are preparing for one of pop’s most unlikely comebacks in a boiling hot studio in Elstree, north London, usually reserved for Strictly Come Dancing. It’s unlikely because as recently as 2018, Cheryl, former X Factor judge, solo star with five No 1 singles and L’Oreal-sponsored nation’s sweetheart, replied with a determined “It’s not going to happen” when asked about a reunion. In 2013, a previous comeback had ended in public acrimony after Coyle claimed that she’d been blindsided by the rest of the band’s announcement that they’d split. Rumours swirled of a rift between Cheryl and Coyle (rumours which were recently reignited in the tabloids), but today the pair seem completely at ease in each other’s company, laughing and chatting on their sofa during the interview to the point where Walsh lightly admonishes them with a motherly “Girls!”

There’s a far more concrete and tragic reason why a reunion seemed unlikely. There should be five women, not four, squashed on to the two white sofas discussing wind machines. Five women proudly sporting their own band’s new merch as old dance routines come flooding back. Five women revelling in a record-breaking legacy – the biggest-selling British girl group of the 21st century, with 20 UK Top 10 singles in a row – that turned 00s pop on its head via a coterie of audacious pop masterpieces married to an exciting zero-fucks-given attitude. In August 2020, however, the band’s firebrand Sarah Harding announced she had breast cancer; in September 2021 she died aged just 39.

The girls found out about Harding’s illness via their manager and long-term collaborator Peter Loraine. It was coming up to 20 years since Girls Aloud were created via ITV’s short-lived 2002 talent show Popstars: The Rivals, and plans were under way to mark the occasion. “We hadn’t set a tour in place, we were just thinking about what it could be,” explains Cheryl. “Then Peter said, ‘I’ve spoken to Nadine, now I’ll speak to Sarah.’ But when he came back for the next chat he brought us the dreaded news that actually Sarah was unwell and this wasn’t going to be possible.” In an instant, all the Girls Aloud plans went out the window.

Girls Aloud on stage with dark blue and back projections behind them of Sarah Harding’s face and of the band togetherView image in fullscreen

“There’s a bigger sense of togetherness now than there was before,” says Roberts when I ask if Harding’s death has brought them closer. “We’re all relying on each other,” adds Cheryl. For Walsh, there was a united sense of grief: “We’re the only four people who know how it feels. And know her the way we know her.” Coyle, often the band’s most pragmatic member, looks down. “It’s the oddest thing that she isn’t here. We had a bit of a moment earlier because we saw some footage of us together and it’s just the weirdest, most tragic … ” She trails off leaving Roberts to add: “It’s unbelievably shocking.”

After Harding’s diagnosis, the five girls had sleepovers, watching old Girls Aloud clips and talking reluctantly about a future without her. There was one thing she was keen they should do: go on tour. “She said it to me, but at that time I just wanted her to stop talking, honestly,” says Cheryl. “It was painful to hear her knowing what was coming. It was bizarre. How do you have that conversation? It felt wrong.” Roberts sighs: “Your heart’s breaking for the person asking you to go on and do it.” “And you know she would have loved this,” Cheryl continues.

“I keep expecting her to burst in,” adds Coyle in her glorious Derry accent. “With some tale of woe, like a horse ran in front of her and then this happened and this happened and she had to rescue it.” Everyone laughs. “She always had these amazing tales; getting from A to B, she’d have A to Z happen in between.” The reminiscing continues. “She’d always have loads of bags. She’d have multiple hats, books, glasses and water bottles. Loads of trinkety bits.”

Cheryl reaches into her vast handbag and pulls out a small drawstring bag containing a smooth white stone inscribed with “you are loved” on one side and a feather on the other. It was a gift from Harding before she died. “I thought they all said the same thing,” smiles Walsh. “Mine says ‘love’.” Coyle’s says “hope”. Roberts – always portrayed in the tabloids as the miserable one – starts to laugh. “She brought a pouch with these stones in and we all picked one and I was last and mine – and this is hilarious – says ‘smile’.” Everyone erupts into a joyful cackle.

Nicola Roberts, Nadine Coyle, Sarah Harding, Kimberley Walsh, and Cheryl on stage holding microphones and wearing red sequin dressesView image in fullscreen

I spend the day watching the tour preparations; the mood ricochets between joy and sadness. At one point, I wander into a dressing room that hints at the future spectacle, with red and black latex catsuits and reams of shimmering gold sequins. Near the stage, a burly man in overalls is attaching rigging to the fake motorbikes. It’s a big, silly, glorious, important pop show. But then you notice there are only four water bottles on the edge of the stage and the sense of loss bubbles up again. During an earlier run-through of the full set, the band perform the Motown-esque Brit award-winning chart-topper The Promise. As the chorus ends, the music cuts off and the girls turn their backs to the small audience of managers, PRs and their 10-strong, all-male dance troupe. Harding’s raspy, full-throated voice sings “Here I am, walking Primrose / Wondering when I’m gonna see you again” not once but twice, a pin-drop silence emerging between each word. When the band turns around, they’re all in tears.

“We’re cried out,” Walsh says later when I mention how beautiful it was. “We want to go through the emotion now so we can be strong [later],” adds Cheryl, whose mascara is still streaked down her cheeks. “You know what’s going to kill me? Looking out and seeing the audience looking sad. I can’t handle it. I cannot deal with that.”

“We’re not trying to pretend we’re not doing this without her – we feel that loss massively, on stage and in every song that we do,” continues Walsh. “I really hope that we’ve done a good job of making her presence felt.”

Girls Aloud were never supposed to last two singles, let alone two decades. The format of Popstars: The Rivals – forming a boyband and a girlband before pitting them against each other in a race for the 2002 Christmas No 1 – seemed geared towards a victory for the grinning mannequins One True Voice. Though they were lumbered with a hopeless ballad in the shape of Sacred Trust, it was still assumed they’d take the spoils. What no one had banked on was that Girls Aloud’s debut single, created like all their subsequent singles by outre hit factory Xenomania, would eschew the usual obvious cover – though East 17’s Stay Another Day was mooted at one point – in favour of the careening, drum’n’bass meets surf guitar mashup Sound of the Underground. Released on 16 December 2002, it spent a month at No 1.

Kimberley Walsh, Nadine Coyle, Cheryl Tweedy, Sarah Harding and Nicola Roberts in 2002, all wearing tops and skirts or trousers in shades of brown, cream and burgundyView image in fullscreen

A sign of the band’s unvarnished spirit arrived early. “We covered the boys’ single and did it better than they did, which was just a slap in the face,” laughs Coyle. There were plans to put their version of Sacred Trust on the Sound of the Underground CD, thereby eliminating the need to bother with the other one at all, but the label put a stop to it. When I mention One True Voice’s parenthesis-heavy second single, Shakespeare’s (Way With) Words, Cheryl looks confused. “Second single? I didn’t even know they had one.”

It was a wild time. On paper they were managed by Popstars: The Rivals judge Louis Walsh, but they were essentially left to go it alone. “We didn’t have a manager,” Coyle confirms. “We were a new band one day and we were No 1 the next week. It was like the horse had bolted through the gate before we really knew … ”

“How to put the saddle on,” Roberts says, completing the analogy.

“We didn’t know anything about each other or the industry,” Coyle continues. After all being moved down to London from around the nation to live in a converted former mental asylum, they also didn’t know anything about paying bills. At one point, their electricity was cut off after a year’s worth of warning letters were ignored.

The lack of stage school sheen gave them a raw edge; catnip not only to pop fans looking for more grit in the slipstream of the sugary-sweet Steps and S Club 7, but also to the tabloids and celebrity magazines. “We weren’t being like, ‘Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir,’” says Coyle, who by this point has removed not only her shoes, but also her socks, and is applying a thick painkilling gel to the soles of her feet. “We were more ourselves, and it meant that we could be genuine. We didn’t conform to the pop princess image that everybody assumed we would conform to.” Cheryl, who would become a fixture on the tabloid front pages, looks thoughtful. “I don’t remember myself as her,” she says. “I feel sad for her sometimes when I look back.”

There was public bullying too, mostly aimed at Roberts – the youngest of the band, just 17 when they started – who was called a “rude ginger bitch” by Busted’s Matt Willis and derided in similar terms by Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles. “[That] changed my personality,” she says. “I’m not as big a character as I probably should be because I’ve tried to protect myself.” Coyle looks appalled: “We need to change that Nicola, we can’t be having that!” she says.

Nicola Roberts standing in a dressing room wearing a pale embellished stage costumeView image in fullscreen

“It’s traumatising,” adds Cheryl, as angry as she’ll sound all day. “People don’t realise the impact they’re having on another human being. A young girl. They should be embarrassed of themselves. They wouldn’t get away with it these days.”

skip past newsletter promotion

The band did attract some more welcome press attention, specifically from the NME at a time when the pop v indie wars were still raging. With each rule-breaking single – be it No Good Advice’s new wave strut, or Biology’s flagrant disavowal of pop structure, or Call The Shots’s pensive glitter-bomb – they started to fall in with the “cool” indie crowd. “They were in with us,” corrects Cheryl. “It was fun. It was a big compliment, especially when Arctic Monkeys covered Love Machine [on Radio 1’s Live Lounge in 2006]. It’s a big show of respect.” (On the tour’s opening night in Dublin, a bunch of flowers will be left in the band’s dressing room from the ultimate beacon of rock authenticity, “your fan, Bono”.)

It was a world Harding relished. “She’s the one that would drink whisky neat out of the bottle at the NME awards,” smiles Cheryl. Coyle remembers seeing a picture of Harding from that awards show and being “almost starstruck looking at her”.

Nadine Coyle in a dressing room having her hair doneView image in fullscreen

Harding wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the party lifestyle. I remind Coyle of a story she told me about being injected with muscle relaxants to aid a monstrous hangover while rehearsing for ITV’s musical monstrosity Greasemania. She looks shocked: “Wait, did I openly tell you that?”

“That was pretty epic,” laughs Walsh. “You looked green.” Roberts, meanwhile, remembers one specific moment on GMTV. “Me and Cheryl had come straight from the club and she fell asleep live on TV. During the interview.” There’s a cackle of laughter. “We were young,” adds Walsh. “We couldn’t miss out on all of it.”

Clips from Greasemania, as well as an odd early appearance on Blue Peter where the girls were dressed as frumpy nurses throughout history (complete with bonnets), have recently been rediscovered and celebrated by the various irony-slathered, nostalgia-fuelled Hun Instagram and TikTok accounts. “Sweet baby Jesus I saw that recently,” laughs Cheryl of the band’s Florence Nightingale runway show. “I nearly had a heart attack.”

Cheryl, it turns out, is quite a fan of TikTok. “Cheryl is the queen of TikTok,” confirms Roberts. I assume she’s referring to Cheryl’s comedic talents as displayed on the official Girls Aloud account, in which they’ll jump on seemingly any trending topic. “No, if you could only see the private TikToks that she makes and sends to us, they’re incredible.”

Nicola Roberts, Cheryl, Kimberley Walsh and Nadine Coyle in glamorous pale coloured stage costumesView image in fullscreen

The voice of their long-term creative director Beth Honan booms out of the speakers announcing a return to the stage. It’s time to practise being hoisted into the air, not only for the show’s opening in which they’ll descend on platforms to the sounds of pearlescent single Untouchable, but also straddling those massive motorbikes during bolshie rock stomper Wake Me Up. Roberts looks uneasy. “I’m really terrified of heights.” Ah. “Two tours ago they got me a shrink, and it just didn’t work.” As the rest of the band get ready – Cheryl swapping her beige fur-lined Crocs for heels – Roberts takes a deep breath. “This is the bit that feels like my heart’s going to fall out my … ” and before she can finish she’s ushered towards the stage.

The first run-through on the flying motorbikes seems to go off without a hitch, unless you count Roberts never once opening her eyes and, when they land, the front wheel of Cheryl’s bike precariously perching on the not-quite-wide-enough runway that juts out from the stage. Weirdly, no music is played, so the band rely on Honan keeping time and intoning lyrics such as “Was it just the margaritas or are you lookin’ at me?” like modern poetry. When the song is finally played for the next run-through, Roberts doesn’t bring the microphone to her lips, choosing instead to grip the handlebars for dear life.

They also rehearse certified banger Something Kinda Ooooh, a breakneck dance-pop romp featuring the gloriously nonsensical line “jumping on my tutu”. (At one point, Cheryl and I get into a minor disagreement about another lyric in the song involving a map; I’m convinced it’s “should have come with a party map so I know where the night will take me”, whereas Cheryl, AKA a person who sings on the actual song, is convinced it’s “body map”. Later, I email Girls Aloud songwriter Miranda Cooper who confirms Cheryl is right and I am wrong.) The performance is frenetic, with the 10 male dancers – whom Coyle had described as “old enough” when I’d enquired about their ages for journalistic purposes – pushing and pulling the girls in all directions. Earlier, I’d asked them about how tricky it’s been returning to dance routines initially created for teenagers. “I thought it was going to be, ‘Yeah, let’s take it easy on them’ … But no,” says Walsh, who will later lean on my shoulder to heave herself up off the sofa with an exhausted “I’ll be fine once I get going.”

A hospitality room with armchairs, mirrors and snacks and drinks laid out on a table, and Kimberley Walsh sitting on the floor doing stretchesView image in fullscreen

In the band’s cult 2006 fly-on-the-wall documentary, Girls Aloud: Off the Record a young Cheryl says that she couldn’t imagine herself as “a 30-odd-year-old singing Love Machine”. Now she’s 40: here we are again. “In Cheryl’s defence,” Roberts jumps in, “when you’re that young, it’s very hard to see that far in the future.”

Do they think attitudes towards women ageing in pop have changed in the last 20 years? “I don’t care if they have or if they haven’t,” Coyle states firmly. “We’re going to do what we want, and they can either like it or not. It’s up to them. People are always going to have a problem, it’s just not our problem.” Walsh has been pleasantly surprised by the reaction of her friends outside the band. “I have a lot of women in my life now, school mums and things, and they’ll message me like: ‘This is so inspirational what you’re doing.’ Being able to be that for some people is incredible. Just by getting up and doing it.”

We talk briefly about Madonna and what people expect female pop musicians to do after a certain age. “Die,” says Cheryl. “Wither away.” Once again, Coyle won’t be drawn into any outside distractions. “See, don’t ask people what they would like you to do – just do it! Asking people is your first issue.”

Besides, there’s no time for all this. As well as the arena tour, the girls are headlining Brighton Pride later in the summer and have an O2 Priority show at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire on their schedule. “That will be amazing,” says Walsh. “A more intimate vibe. I went to see Kylie do a similar gig and it was great.”

“It will be fun,” smiles Cheryl. And after that? “Who knows what’s next. We’re like sisters now, so it never really ends. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve cried laughing. It’s been really fun.”

Cheryl, Nadine Coyle and Kimberley Walsh, wearing white, embellished stage costumes and having a group hug backstage at a concert, with other people in the backgroundView image in fullscreen

While the stage is being set up for some more aerial acrobatics, I ask Roberts about those last few days with Harding. She remembers a sleepover at Soho Farmhouse where Harding insisted they watch every episode of Off the Record – highlights of which include Cheryl moaning her way up a hill in Greece, Roberts drunkenly covering the Cheeky Girls, and Harding crashing a race car. “We were like: ‘Why are you making us relive this?’” she remembers. “We were all sitting with our hands over our eyes, just cringing, and Sarah was laughing away. She had a strange way about her where she didn’t show any inhibitions. She was so human and in herself.”

Roberts looks at the empty stage. “She was completely free up there. Zero inhibitions. She was so alive.”


You May Also Like

More From Author