With a new album, new job (sort of) and a new hair colour, Cheryl seems like she is on the cusp of something special. She has come full circle, recently announcing she was returning to The X Factor. We chatted to the Geordie pop goddess about what she’s looking for on the show, recording with Pharrell and why there’s too much sex in the charts…
She enjoyed huge success as 1/5 of Girls Aloud and has thrown the girl band rulebook out of the window by enjoying a post-group solo career, releasing three hit albums. She’s been on the cover of Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. She’s a judge on the biggest show on TV. And she’s a modern-day style icon, although not in her own mind. She is most comfortable when kicking back in pyjamas and Ugg boots, watching trashy TV with her dogs and a Chinese takeaway. Are we ruining the illusion? Sorry. Let’s get back to the glamour.
With a huge smile on her face, the newly blonde singer seems happy. The interviews she gives are few and far between, but she has made an exception to talk to us about a very exciting comeback. She recently announced her return to the show that cemented her place in the nation’s hearts. Having quit The X Factor back in 2010, after winning the show twice with her acts Alexandra Burke and Joe McElderry, she decided to focus on other projects, mainly the day job: Pop superstar. Three number one hits, the Calvin Harris-produced Call My Name being the most recent, showed us she was more than just a talent show judge and could still hold her own in the music stakes. That song is played in every bar and every club, every Saturday night. It’s everything a pop song should be. Was it obvious she had an anthem on her hands? “You never really know how the public will react when you record a song but the level of success it has achieved is amazing. Amazing.”
As well as the show, there’s a new album on the way. She will debut the first single, Crazy Stupid Love, with a performance on Britain’s Got Talent later this month. What can we expect? “I want the new record to be something I would want to listen to,” she says. “That means going back to my pop roots but having some songs with an R&B feel.” She’s also dabbled in the fashion industry with a successful line of shoes for StylistPick and even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2009 for Comic Relief (“I’d do something adventurous again, but another mountain is definitely off the cards!”). But it’s clear that music drives her.
During her Girls Aloud days, the band was lauded as the first genuinely good act to come from a reality show. They were put together on Popstars: The Rivals, the predecessor to Pop Idol and The X Factor. They won the show and in turn, clinched the Christmas number one spot in 2002 with Sound Of The Underground, a song that any pop act would have killed for. The girls released hit after hit, including Love Machine, Biology and The Promise, which won them a Brit Award for Best British Single. After a hiatus in 2009, the group returned to the charts with Something New, as well as a greatest hits album and tour. Then, they announced it was over. 10 years on top of the pop industry, they were ready to abdicate their thrones.
On her own, Cheryl is on to her fourth album. Her first, 3 Words, spawned a number one in Fight For This Love and garnered positive reviews from ‘proper’ music critics from the likes of Q and The Guardian. The follow-ups, Messy Little Raindrops and A Million Lights continued her success and produced a further two number ones. Like her or not, she’s paid her dues.
One thing I’ve always admired about Cheryl is the feeling of sisterhood she has instilled in her. She’s a girl’s girl. She loves other women and supports them. Maybe it comes from having a sister herself, or being in a girl band. Or the fact that her mam is her best friend. But, when I ask her about which other female artists she admires right now, her response is somewhat shocking. “No one. I feel like it’s all become a bit too sexual for my liking. People can do whatever they like, but it’s not for me.”
She hasn’t had the easiest ride of the music industry rollercoaster. She’s had to withstand rumours of feuds with band mates, relationships that have been played out in the national media and a very public battle with malaria in 2010 that left her fighting for her life. However, her fans, affectionately named ‘soldiers’, have stuck by her through thick and thin and if anything, she seems to have come out of every bad experience stronger and more resilient. And having family around her during the tough times is vital to the singer. “It’s so important. To have people you trust and who are loyal is rare so having family around is comforting. It feels like home and keeps you firmly grounded.” Cheryl’s mother Joan is by her side whenever possible and her younger brother Garry, 26, now lives in London and works with her.
Speaking of family, Cheryl’s band mate and best friend Kimberley Walsh is expecting a baby this year. She’ll be the second GA member to become a mother. “I literally can not wait for the baby! It looks so weird to see Kimberley with a bump because I’ve known her for 12 years.
“It’s going to be like having another niece or nephew.”
I bring up the reason hers is the name on everybody’s lips: The X Factor. Why now? “It felt right. I’ve been asked to go back for the past three years but it hasn’t felt right until now,” she says. Simon Cowell recently said he had to beg her to return but it’s clear she’s buzzing to be back on the panel. “The excitement to find new talent is stronger than any reservations I had.” She was the winning mentor twice on the show, winning her first series with Alexandra Burke and second with Joe McElderry. She got to the final with Rebecca Ferguson in 2010, the season that found One Direction and Cher Lloyd. Fans of the show will remember her excitement when Cher auditioned. “No one else saw her potential but me and she turned out to be one of the most successful contestants from the show. She didn’t win, but has gone on to sell millions of records not only here, but in America too.” She says that was her ‘wow, we could have something here’ moment but when I ask her if there’s any contestants she wishes she had in her category, she’s loyal. “I’m actually happy with who I had. I helped two winners and took two others to the final. I feel like I got the best out of my acts.”
So, we know Cheryl is back. We know Mr Cowell is back. But there are still two empty chairs at the judging table. Over the past few weeks, names banded about to fill them have been as varied as Ellie Goulding, Mel B, Robbie Williams and Olly Murs. I ponder over who would be Cheryl’s dream panel. “Beyoncé and Pharrell,” she replies without missing a beat. “Artists like that would be genuinely driven to find talented people and would get the best out of the contestant once the show has ended.” Speaking of Pharrell, I wonder if he’s on the new album. Cheryl has famously worked with Will.I.Am, Snow Patrol and Gary Barlow in the past. And Pharrell is no stranger to collaboration, having produced for some of the biggest artists in the world. And he’s partial to a beautiful woman…”I would absolutely love to work with him. He’s a genius! He’s not on this record, but there’s definitely a few surprises,” she says coyly.
The X Factor auditions have already begun. Well, the pre-auditions have. Cheryl and co will begin their search this summer. She obviously wants to add a third winner to her list of acts. What is she hoping for?
“I’m always looking for original and fresh artists. I don’t want a cut out of someone who is already established because that’s not exciting for me or the public.”
And finally, any advice for her fellow judges, whoever they may turn out to be?
“I hope they’re all bringing their A-game because I left with mine and I’m bringing it back!”
Now, that’s fighting talk. This soldier is ready for battle.