Monday, 12 January 2009

Louder and louder

Sigh. "Oh Girls Aloud again - of course it's Girls Aloud," TV presenter Harry Hill expels wearily. We are all - myself, Girls Aloud and Hill - standing in the back corridors of a TV production studio just after all of the above (minus me) have appeared on The Paul O'Grady Show. The Girls, as everyone around them refers to them, are now blocking Hill's exit, their mere presence having caused a traffic jam of photographers and gawpers. "Ooh, sorry!" "Oh, yeah! Go ahead!" Kimberley, Nadine, Sarah, Nicola and, of course, Cheryl break off from posing in pink dresses to usher Hill through the melee with endearing grace. Judging from Hill's abashed grin, it's hard to grumble that people are divas when they smile at you and refer to themselves as "meself, lahk".It is now commonplace for a pop group to be described as "a phenomenon" - even Blue stopped traffic in their day - but Girls Aloud definitely come with a phenomenal story. Leaving aside their music for a moment, and all those record-breaking statistics that are de rigueur for any pop act these days (in GA's case, they hold the record for the most consecutive top 10 entries in the UK by a female group, with 19 so far), just the fact that they're still here is impressive. They were formed on a reality TV show, Popstars: The Rivals, alongside a boy band, One True Voice, in 2002. Popstars and One True Voice have long since faded away. Girls Aloud are touring with Coldplay this year and Chris Martin, never a man to fear hyperbole, has described them as "the ultimate form of life".As soon as the line-up of Girls Aloud was announced, back in 2002, two of the original members opted out and were replaced by Kimberley and Nicola. Worse was to come. Their manager, Louis Walsh, could hardly be bothered with them and has since admitted that he "didn't expect them to serve their purpose much beyond the TV show". The main problem, he charmingly explained later, was that they were female: "I found it easier to deal with boy bands. Girls want to talk about hair, clothes, makeup, all the things that are important for their look on stage, and for me, life was too short for that." And so, just after their first album, they parted ways with Walsh, one of the most successful pop managers in Britain, and they announced that "we will manage ourselves", a phrase that is rivalled only by "looking at various film projects" in terms of bad omens for a pop star. Four years later, when Cheryl became a judge on The X Factor alongside Walsh, wasn't she tempted to walk up to him on her first day on the show and shout "naah naah nah nah naah" right in his face?We are now ensconced in a dressing room and the Girls have changed out of the pink frocks into jeans or miniskirts and tummy-revealing vests. Cheryl smiles beatifically when I ask about Walsh, and shoves another crisp in her mouth. "What's the point? He's so . . ." she pauses, chewing on some more crisps, apparently deep in thought, "stupid." And with that, she puts down the crisps and moves on to the complimentary cheese platter.Hanging out with Girls Aloud, whose ages range from 23 to 28, is sometimes like dealing with a bunch of mouthy teenagers and sometimes like confronting a group of very practised media professionals. Occasionally the personas overlap, as when I asked them what roles each of the Girls fulfil in the group. Kimberley says she is "the organiser"; Nadine promptly and repeatedly describes herself as "the singer - I do most of the vocals", which chimes oddly with the group's frequently professed "confederacy of equals" ethos. But then Nicola breaks off, protesting the question is "too . . . too . . ." Self-analytical? "Yeah!" she cries, and the rest loudly agree. Are they bored by such introspection? Or are they trying to avoid revealing too much? A little of both, probably.The most revealing moment of the group dynamic comes when they try to reveal nothing at all. Eventually, and squirmingly, I bring up the infamous tabloid story from last year about Cheryl's footballer husband Ashley Cole's vomit-flecked one-night stand. Did she do The X Factor partly to shuck off her "poor Cheryl" tabloid moniker?"It wasn't, y'know," she begins, not even blinking at the question. "We didn't even talk about it, did we? Well, we did but . . ." When it looks like she might be beginning to go off-message Kimberley jumps in with a soothing PR-friendly statement: "I just think it's great that it's all ended so well. That's all I've got to say." Cheryl takes her bandmate's lead: "Yeah, I have far more positive things to go on about, so I do."Judging from other interviews, done on her own, without the rest of the band, it is only because of her bandmates' protective presence that Cheryl doesn't go on about some negative things, too. Despite being far more in the media spotlight, and having been burned by it, she can be pretty direct when it comes to voicing her thoughts, which is commendable considering the furore she caused a few years ago when she compared her fellow Wags to "benefit scroungers, just a higher class of sponger". Unabashed, Cheryl picked up this theme again in her interview in Vogue this month, describing the Wags as "like wooden blocks". In Vogue, she merrily slags off Simon Cowell ("can be a total sh!t"), Peaches Geldof ("totally up herself"), Alexa Chung ("acted all superior, like") and Victoria Beckham, for not having called her after Ashley's infidelity. Now, when I ask what she thinks of Beckham's new fashion line, Cole swiftly dismisses it, describing it as for "older women". "She means older than us! Not, you know . . ." Kimberley hastily interjects. "Yeah, it's not like stuff we would wear," Cheryl continues, obliviously.Girls Aloud have outlasted, and outsold, all the pop bands who were around when they first emerged, such as Atomic Kitten and Blue. Even Sugababes, their only real rival for the title of most popular UK pop band, have had to constantly change their line-up to survive. "I think it's down to our songs - we've always made sure every song on every album works," says Nadine.This isn't entirely true. Their most recent album, Out of Control, has, at a generous guess, a ratio of about 1:3 in terms of quality to padding. Happily, the new single, The Loving Kind, most definitely counts as quality. It is brilliant - everything you would hope for of a product borne from a collaboration between Girls Aloud and the Pet Shop Boys, who co-wrote the song.Nadine is right, though, that it's the songs, or at least the singles, that are the secret to their longevity - although they don't actually write their own music. Nothing shameful about that, but it does make one wonder how big a part the individual Girls play in their group's success. Would it have made any difference if the original line-up had stayed as it was, minus Nadine and Kimberley? "It's down to both [the singers and the songs], isn't it?" counters Sarah, slumped sleepily in her chair and talking for perhaps the first time in 45 minutes. ("I'm either really, really mad and out of control or just, y'know, done," she muttered later.) "Yeah, if somebody else had sung Love Machine it wouldn't have had the same effect because it's about the chemistry," says Nicola, far chattier than her somewhat sulky expression in photos would suggest.Onstage and off, the chemistry does work. They are clearly all very fond and protective of one another. Their image is one of sass and cheekiness - as opposed to the Sugababes' too-cool-to-be-bothered look - and that certainly seems to be the reality, although their claims that they're "still the same" down-to-earth Girls they always were now seem a little forced. Nadine, for one, now lives in LA; she had a high-profile relationship with Jesse Metcalfe, the hunky gardener from Desperate Housewives, and is currently involved with Jason Bell, a player for American football team the New York Giants. Cheryl has recently moved into a nine-bedroom, 18th-century mansion. But questions about how they knew how to manage themselves, post-Walsh, are met with the vague reply "We just learned as we went along." The probable truth is that they were fortunate enough to be surrounded by good writers and PRs from the start, although sticking with them instead of being tempted elsewhere, or, worse, trying to do more themselves, requires a certain canniness and self-knowledge on the part of the Girls.All of them had long wanted to be pop stars before they went on that show - Nadine had won a reality TV pop music show back home in Northern Ireland but was too young to be allowed to join the resulting band. They arrived with a good idea of what they wanted the group to be like and began to style themselves accordingly. The Girls claim to be horrified at the idea that fame might have been part of the attraction: "People who want to be famous - that's like them people off Big Brother," says Cheryl, nose crinkling. "Yeah, it was just the singing," says Kimberley. "It wasn't for me," Cheryl interjects. "I just love entertaining."If the band's survival has been improbable, then Cheryl's emergence as "the nation's sweetheart", in the words of the tabloids, is even more so. Only five years ago those same papers were writing about her a little less enthusiastically when she was accused of a racially motivated attack in a Guildford nightclub on a cloakroom attendant. (Cheryl was cleared of racial abuse but was convicted of causing actual bodily harm.) At least part of the media fascination with her lies in the contrast between her tendency towards Waggish bling, with all the exaggeratedly false hair and lashes that entails, and her tough childhood, although her love of the former can probably be explained by the latter. Her brother has been in court 50 times and Cheryl herself was suspended from school twice for brawling, which perhaps makes her 2003 nightclub encounter a little less surprising. ("I would have hit her again at the time. That's what we were taught to do on the estate," she has since said.)Her hugely popular appearance on The X Factor has helped her, too, and Simon Cowell is said to be taking her to America as his next protegee. Are her bandmates worried that she might leave the band behind? "That's a horrible thing to think," says Cheryl. "I mean, I'm not comparing us to Destiny's Child, but they all went off and did their own things but then came back to the group." Yes, until they effectively disbanded in the shadow of Beyoncé's overshadowing fame. The rest of the Girls, for their part, all insist that they support Cheryl "100%". Aside from her being on the cover of Vogue this month, on the day we meet Grazia has named Cheryl as 2008's People's Fashionista. "Oooh, I haven't seen that!" she giggles delightedly. "Yeah, People's Fashionista," says Nadine, with a small smile but not quite looking at her. "It's brilliant."Whether Cheryl turns out to be the Robbie Williams to their Take That (the great hope who quickly burns out) or the Beyoncé to their Destiny's Child (the success story who leaves her bandmates in the dim, forgotten past) remains to be seen. At the moment, they all look perfectly content, talking loudly over each other. Do they ever wonder what would have happened if they hadn't won Popstars? "Oh, I'm sure we'd all just be the same, somewhere, singing . . ." says Nadine dreamily. Cheryl shakes her hair extensions and, again, proves to be the unlikely voice of image-shattering truth: "We'd be completely different people".

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