Cheryl: ‘I had people stalking me, it was unbearable’ (2023)

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Cheryl is still famous enough not to need a surname. On the poster for 2:22 A Ghost Story, the spooky hit play in which the singer formerly known as Tweedy, Cole and Fernandez-Versini is about to make her West End debut, she is billed simply and definitively as “Cheryl”. The 39-year-old has been using the mononym for so long now – since her 2012 solo hit “Call My Name” – that she didn’t even think about it until she saw her name on the Lyric Theatre’s marquee. “I was like, I guess that’s what it is then,” she says in the warm Geordie accent familiar from her judge’s critiques on The X Factor.

She has maintained a low profile in recent years. In the late Noughties, when she juggled The X Factor with a hugely successful music career – first as a member of Girls Aloud and then as a solo star – Cheryl endured a level of press attention that she describes as “unbearable”. It’s to her immense credit, then, that she doesn’t seem wary or guarded when we meet at a south London rehearsal space where she and her castmates are knocking the play into shape. She enters the room with a beaming smile. She is dressed casually but immaculately, with her hair tied back – very off-duty pop star.

Though Cheryl is happy to revisit all eras of her enormously successful career as a singer, TV personality and so-called “nation’s sweetheart”, she does frame her answers carefully and, at times, a little vaguely. When I ask when ITV and Simon Cowell might bring back The X Factor from its now four-year hiatus, she replies: “I mean, I think it’s Simon’s baby, so I think he would struggle to admit that maybe not. I don’t know if the public want it anymore. We had Pop Idol before that, then Popstars, then us.” By “us” she means Popstars: The Rivals, the 2002 reality show on which Girls Aloud were assembled. But in the streaming era, Cheryl continues, “it’s not the same as when everyone was gathered on the sofa on Saturday because X Factor was the biggest thing on TV. So, ‘I don’t know’ is the answer, but the public would have... it would have to be what they want.”

If Cowell’s baby did come back, Cheryl thinks “it would have to be totally reformatted”, partly because grouping older contestants as “overs” would feel “inappropriate”, and partly because its binary approach to gender is now reductive. “You’d have to have a gender-neutral option,” she says. Lucy Spraggan, a 2012 X Factor finalist who quit during the live episodes due to illness, has said the show had “absolutely no offer of support for anyone’s mental health”. Does Cheryl think a revamped X Factor would have to pay more attention to this? “Well, having experienced it first-hand, I would say, ‘Absolutely’,” she replies, drawing a parallel with the intense pressure she faced as one of the show’s high-profile judges. “I think [because] I was going through it myself and in my world so much, I didn’t really realise there wasn’t that in place. I just assumed there was.” She also suggests that potential contestants on programmes like The X Factor and Love Island should be “evaluated” before they’re put on screen. “You have to have a certain amount of mental strength to get through an experience like this,” she says. “You’re going to be criticised daily, whether you like it or not, on social media.”

Cheryl still has the natural earnestness that made her a great X Factor judge, but she is also good fun. When I refer to her in passing as “an actress”, despite her relative lack of experience, she replies quick as a flash, with a glint in her eye: “So, you think I’m an actress, then?” Cheryl calls acting “a natural extension of what I’ve already done” – a fair point given that she’s made 30-odd music videos and completed seven arena tours. But she also admits she hadn’t thought “seriously” about it before she was offered the role of Jenny, a teacher and new mum who becomes convinced that her and husband Sam’s recently purchased house is haunted. The role was originated in 2021 by another well-known pop singer, Lily Allen, and has since been occupied by I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! winner Giovanna Fletcher and former Love Island presenter Laura Whitmore. Though Jenny has also been played by Doctor Who actor Mandip Gill, who has plenty of stage experience, it’s a role that has become associated with big names who don’t necessarily have bulging acting résumés. Still, Cheryl says her own casting was unexpected and serendipitous.

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By chance, she had tickets to see 2:22 A Ghost Story on the same day she was meeting its writer, Danny Robins. She didn’t even realise Robins had created the play until the morning of the meeting; then he surprised her by suggesting she should watch it with a view to playing Jenny. “So I ended up watching it from a different lens,” Cheryl recalls. “The whole time I was thinking, I could so do this.” What does she find so relatable about Jenny? “You notice when you watch that she’s always making sure that people who feel uncomfortable are OK,” Cheryl replies. “And I’ve realised that about myself as I’ve been learning this play – I totally do that.”

When Cheryl’s casting was announced in December, Twitter wags had a field day, joking that everyone from Liz Truss to Amanda from The Traitors would be next to play Jenny. Given that Cheryl’s stage debut is already attracting negative press attention – The Sun has claimed she is “under fire” because she is new to acting – does it feel risky to be putting herself out there? “No, it really doesn’t,” she says matter-of-factly. “You know, the rest [of what I do] has become second nature. Like 20 years later, it’s just embedded in us. So this is allowing me to step out of my comfort zone again, but in a really good, healthy way. Not in a scary way. I’m actually excited to get my teeth into something new.”

Aside from her headline slot at 2021’s Mighty Hoopla pop festival in London and presenting a short-lived podcast, 2:22 A Ghost Story is Cheryl’s first job since the BBC reality show The Greatest Dancer, which finished in 2020 just a fortnight before Boris Johnson shut down the country. Cheryl says she enjoyed lockdown “a bit too much”. That’s because she got to spend time with Bear – her son with One Direction singer Liam Payne, whom she dated from 2016 to 2018 – before he was old enough to start school. Then, having effectively pressed pause on her career, she came out of lockdown thinking, “OK, well now what?” This play was the first opportunity she wanted to say yes to.

At this point in her career, 20 years after she broke through with Girls Aloud, it’s easy to appreciate why Cheryl wants to be selective. Back in 2011, her public profile reached a toxic high watermark when she began a much-publicised stint on the US version of The X Factor, but was unceremoniously dropped after one episode. She later sued the producers for loss of earnings; the case was settled out-of-court with Cheryl being paid an undisclosed sum.

Today, she gives a pretty unpleasant description of being super-famous at a time when no one really considered the wellbeing of celebrities. “I was already known with Girls Aloud,” she continues, “and it [grew] slowly for the first four or five years, just being at a certain level of fame. And then The X Factor hit, and I had a lot of personal stuff going on at that time.” In 2010, Cheryl released her second solo album, Messy Little Raindrops, filmed her third series of The X Factor, and divorced her first husband, the Chelsea England footballer Ashley Cole. “It was all just like a perfect storm,” she says. “I was caught up in it, I couldn’t get out of it. It was too much for me. There was too much pressure and that made it less enjoyable. And it was constant.” When I ask how she coped, she says bluntly: “I honestly didn’t.”

How did I cope? I honestly didn’t

Cheryl

When she married French restaurateur Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini in 2014, then divorced him two years later, the column inches continued to rack up. Does she think the press scrutiny was more intense because she was a successful woman from a working-class background in Newcastle? “I think all of that just heightened the interest, maybe,” Cheryl says. “People were like, ‘What is this woman doing that’s making it this way?’” But it wasn’t just the media lens that made life feel like a pressure cooker. “I had people waiting outside my house, people stalking me, people stalking people I was associated with,” she says. “It was quite isolating in the end.” Did it make her second-guess the motives of people around her? “Yeah, it wasn’t a healthy state to be in or a healthy level of intrusion.” Cheryl lets out a wry smile. “But I got through it somehow. I survived.”

Cheryl’s tenacity has never been in question; she also has form when it comes to proving people wrong, which bodes well for her performance in 2:22 A Ghost Story. Because they were formed on Popstars: The Rivals, Girls Aloud weren’t really expected to last. But they completely obliterated the music industry’s low expectations by racking up 20 consecutive top 10 hits with modern pop classics including “The Promise”, “Biology” and “Sound of the Underground”. The latter, Cheryl notes proudly, “still slaps”. Girls Aloud worked hard and gradually earned the respect of their peers: their hit “Love Machine” was covered by Arctic Monkeys, they supported Coldplay at Wembley Stadium, and finally, in 2009, they won a long overdue Brit Award. “I believe the five of us were meant to be together,” Cheryl says. “When you mixed our personalities, I think we were relatable to a lot of young girls at that time. And the music was fun and kind of timeless because it captured a moment of the Noughties. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

Girls Aloud went their separate ways in 2013 after a farewell arena tour, but Cheryl remains close to her bandmates Nadine Coyle, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh. When Roberts competed on Strictly Come Dancing on Christmas Day, it was incredibly poignant to see her three bandmates in the audience without the fifth member, Sarah Harding, who died of complications from breast cancer in September 2021. “It’s just not something you ever think will be part of your story,” Cheryl says, welling up. “You look back and you can’t help thinking, God, when she was coming into tour rehearsals kicking her heels that [in] 15-20 years we’d be mourning her loss.” By this point, tears are streaming down Cheryl’s face, but she keeps her composure. “But if anything, it’s brought us all closer together,” she says. “We reconnected a lot over the last few years. Bittersweet, very bittersweet, but it just reminds you how much you love each other.”

In October, Cheryl and her bandmates held a fundraising gala in Harding’s honour, but there are no plans to tour as a four-piece. “I think right now, it still feels pretty s****y,” she says. “It’s not long [since Harding died] and even for Sarah’s mam and brother...” Cheryl lets the thought hang, before confirming that no one feels ready to regroup. “We’re not there. We’re not there yet,” she continues. “I wouldn’t ever say never because I’ve learned in life to not do that. But there isn’t anything on the cards and we haven’t spoken [about anything] outside of friendship in the last few years. We haven’t spoken about Girls Aloud; we’ve only spoken about life.”

Cheryl‘s solo career is also on hold. She released two singles in 2019, “Love Made Me Do It” and “Let You”, which didn’t match the success of her 2009-2014 imperial phase, when she became the first British female solo artist to score five number ones (Jess Glynne has since bested her with six). “I get the occasional urge – sometimes it can get triggered by watching a TikTok,” she says. “Performing’s in my bones, I love that aspect, but the rest of it... not so much. If I could just go out and perform every night, I would be in my element. I’d take Bear out of school, give him a private tutor, and off we’d pop. But it’s not that simple.” Still, there is a glimmer of hope for fans: when a 2:22 colleague asked if she would ever collaborate with Kylie Minogue, she replied: “Well, yeah!” Is there anyone else Cheryl would duet with? “Dua [Lipa]. I’ve never seen her live, but her songs are just everything. She’s the new pop queen.” Cheryl quickly corrects herself. “Pop princess, sorry. Kylie is the queen.”

At this point, Cheryl may have made it through the eye of the tabloid storm, but it’s still raging. The Sun has claimed, rather confusingly, that she is getting £100,000 and “up to £750,000” for her four-month West End run. It’s little wonder she won’t be reading her opening night reviews. “Why would I? It’s not that I don’t care – I do,” she says firmly. “But you know, I take supplements and go to the gym and do everything to stay healthy, so why would I then go and fill my mind with trash or toxicity?”

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As for the future, she says she’s open to future acting roles: maybe a romcom or “something really gritty that’s just not me at all”. At the same time, Cheryl isn’t deluded. “I would have to really hone the craft of learning different accents if I wanted a real serious shot at acting,” she admits. “I mean, I’ve been here [in the South] for 20 years and I’ve still got a strong Geordie accent. There aren’t many roles I could do with this accent.” Maybe a reboot of Byker Grove – you could run the youth club? “Yeah, exactly, I’d slot right in, wouldn’t I?” she replies playfully. “And I wanted to be in Vera. Sometimes I hear some dodgy accents [in that show] and I’m like, ‘Guys, give me a call, I’ve got this’.”

‘2:22 A Ghost Story’ is at the Lyric Theatre from 21 January until 23 April

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