Saturday, 19 December 2009

Sarah Harding on Girls Aloud, St Trinian's and Cheryl Cole's fame

Curled up on a battered old sofa in a white-walled office at Ealing Studios, Sarah Harding is waiting to be summoned to resume work on her new career as an actress.
It is her new passion, although, as she would be the first to admit, her role in St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold hasn’t exactly meant that much of a transformation.
“I play Roxy and she’s like a more laid-back version of me,” she says in an accent that’s a hybrid of Manchester and Home Counties. “She’s like an indie rock chick, but maybe a bit cooler and calmer than I am.”
A movie aimed squarely at the schoolgirls who buy her records is an astute or cynical piece of casting, perhaps both, depending on your point of view, and it helps when it comes to marketing a movie. But it says much for Harding that her role has been expanded from a cameo in the 2007 St Trinian’s – the film that reinvented a British comedy franchise which dates back more than half a century – and that she’s sharing the screen with the likes of David Tennant and Rupert Everett. It’s a laugh, says Harding, but she’s taking it seriously.

“I need to work on my skills, that’s the priority,” she says. “I’d love to do some action stuff. I’d be a good Brigitte Nielsen kind of baddie. Or maybe the kind of character that Grace Jones played in A View to a Kill. A bad Bond girl. I don’t see myself doing the glamour stuff. I’m kind of edgier.”

Kind of doesn’t come into it. Her striking looks and cropped blonde hair are in sharp contrast to the more girlie femininity of Girls Aloud bandmate Cheryl Cole. Sarah’s the one with attitude, the southern girl who moved up north with her mum when her dad started an affair with a woman not much older than his daughter. Sarah is the caner, the one who’s papped strutting out of nightclubs in cross-
me-if-you-dare outfits that have young men walking into lamp posts. No wonder that apart from the movie career and her part in one of the most successful girl bands of all time, she’s entered into a partnership with Piers Adam, owner of Mahiki bar in Mayfair, to open a nightclub in Fleet Street.
For all the front, though, the back story is showbiz, but not nearly as brazen as the outfits suggest. There’s the steady boyfriend of three years in the form of DJ Tom Crane, a new house in Buckinghamshire and the steely commitment to a career forged in a teenage life of part-time jobs and gigs in back-street bars.
Though today Harding, 28, is wearing an understated grey ensemble of baggy hooded sweatshirt and skirt, with her tanned legs curled beneath her, you sense that, were she
to whip off what she calls her “comfy outfit”, there’d be a sequined frock underneath. She points out that she has been in a constant state of readiness for the spotlight almost since she was born. “I grafted, I really did,” she says. She spent years driving her old Ford Escort from one gig to the next, mostly playing clubs or caravan parks for little more than forty quid a night, belting out standards like I Need a Hero. “It was demeaning at times, but it was my apprenticeship,” she says. Her income was supplemented with a series of dead-end jobs.
“I was a barmaid, a hairdresser, I was a pizza delivery girl. I even worked in a car park once. But I was always singing at night and I’d have my head in the karaoke songbook, learning the words. And I always had it in my heart that I would be in London one day if I was going to make it on a serious level.”

Then out of the blue came ITV’s Popstars: the Rivals in 2002. Presented by Davina McCall, the programme created two groups – one boy band, one girl band – out of 40 wannabes who had never met before. Each week they would perform and then be ejected or voted to stay on, leaving five boys and five girls to be moulded into two rival outfits who would compete for the Christmas No 1 spot. It was a bear-pit talent contest that set the template for The X Factor.
Harding, along with Cheryl Cole, Nadine Coyle, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh, became Girls Aloud and they beat One True Voice to the prize with their first single, Sound of the Underground, going straight to the top of the charts. For Harding, it was fate taking a decisive hand. She was in the right place at the right time.
Seven years on, Girls Aloud have five albums to their name, a string of hit singles, sell-out arena tours, Brit Awards and, crucially, they have gained the kind of street credibility that acts emerging from a talent show can only dream of. Arctic Monkeys covered Love Machine, the Pet Shop Boys gave them a song (The Loving Kind) and Coldplay asked them to open their two Wembley shows in September.
The Coldplay gigs were the first time that the girls had been together for months and rumours had been circulating that a split was imminent. After all, Cheryl Cole has become a national treasure as a judge on X Factor and just enjoyed a number-one solo hit; the others too are pursuing their independent careers.

Maybe there’s a tinge of jealousy when she looks on as Cheryl Cole becomes something close to a national obsession? “No way. We’re all really supportive of each other,” says Harding, who’s recorded three songs for the St Trinian’s soundtrack. “I was on the phone telling her well done when she went to number one. I’m proud of her, man. We all took this break and you don’t do that without having an action plan. And that’s what Cheryl’s plan was. Nadine’s got her solo stuff taking off soon and Nicola is doing her make-up range and Kimberley is doing her acting and presenting.

“I know they keep saying that we’re going to split, but we’re not. We’ve been on the treadmill for so long and we just need time to do other things in our lives. We aren’t getting any younger, and it gets tedious doing the same things year in and year out. We want to see what else is out there. We have a bond, but there are times when you are like, ‘Oh no, I just can’t sit in a room with everyone gabbing on.’ Sometimes you just want to pull yourself away and have a bit of peace. But at the end of the day, we stand as a unit and we know where our bread is buttered.”
The dark side of fame
The flip side of that is seven years as a fixture in the gossip pages – and on the net, where alongside footage of Harding singing there are video clips of her looking the worse for wear as she is stalked by a crew of paparazzi. She’s discovered that life in the public eye can hurt you and those around you.
“I didn’t really know what fame was before I got into it and I didn’t expect everything to be so intense. I don’t like fame, I like performing.
“For St Trinian’s we were doing a scene at Liverpool Street station and that was hard for me because there was nowhere to escape from the public glare. There were camera phones in my face every two minutes, people coming up between takes, sometimes during takes, trying to get an autograph. The place was full of paparazzi too, trying to get pictures of me in these hotpants I was wearing for the scene.
“I went to get a sandwich from M&S and I looked round and the window was covered with big lenses. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. I was freaking out, going, ‘Oh my God, I can’t handle this.’ There are some days you take it in your stride and others where you don’t.
“I can totally see why people like Britney Spears and Mariah Carey lost the plot because you can’t live a normal life. Like yesterday, we were filming in a public place again and I was walking with these two big bodyguards either side of me and I feel like a bloody prima donna. And the public are all around and I feel like they look at me and go, ‘You ain’t all that, love. Why have you got security?’

But I didn’t ask for that. All I wanted was to go and get my lunch like everybody else.”
Fame has also brought her estranged father, the musician John Hardman (she decided on the stage name Harding instead, and says that’s who she now feels she is), back into the picture.
Hardman separated from her mother, Marie, when Sarah was a teenager. Mother and daughter moved back from Staines, Surrey, where she grew up, to Stockport in her mother’s native North West. She hadn’t spoken to him for eight years when he gave an interview detailing his side of the story in 2002.
Her father claimed that he tried to keep in touch with his daughter but that she sided with her mother and brushed aside any contact. He hadn’t seen her for two years when he switched on the television and saw her auditioning on Popstars and then tried to contact her again.

He was only interested in building a relationship with his daughter, but his attempts at reconciliation had been rebuked, he claimed, saying: “Some people seem to think that the only reason I have tried to make contact is because she is famous. I don’t want her money. I want nothing but a connection with my daughter.”

Harding is having none of it. “After he and my mother divorced, he just wasn’t a nice person. I know there are always two sides to a story, but what’s done is done and things happened that I can’t forgive. A lot of things have come out and I’ll never forgive him for that. And now he’s selling stories on me and saying, ‘I’m not in it for the money, I just want my daughter back.’ As far as I’m concerned he’s dead to me.
“I know it’s harsh, but I have no place in my life for someone like that. I came close to being in contact with him again, but after the recent few things that he’s done, talking to the press and trying to sell pictures of me as a child, things like that, I just thought, ‘You don’t want me, you just want the glory, the money and whatever comes with it.’ He’s a very selfish person. As far as I’m concerned he’s not a part of my life and my mum is. As well as my mum, I have my friends and I have Tommy. Those are the people that I trust.”
Securing the future
She and Tom Crane divide their time between a house she bought in Buckinghamshire a year ago and her apartment in Camden, while Crane is on the look-out for a new “crash pad” somewhere near the City of London, where their latest venture as part of a consortium with Piers Adam and Nick House, a nightclub called Kanaloa, opened a few weeks ago. She helped design the interior, had input into the menu and will be a frequent visitor, especially as Crane will be playing there. Perfect for a party girl who likes a drink or two.
“It doesn’t mean I’m there to party,” she insists. “It’s a business venture.
“I’m very much into investing, putting money into bricks and mortar. You have to think about the future, and I’m not ready to settle down properly until I’m financially secure and have paid off my mortgage and everything else. Hopefully we’re going to have more clubs opening over the next three years.”
Harding is a curious mix of vulnerability and toughness. One minute she’s talking of a picture-book domestic life (babies and a barn conversion) and the next detailing plans for a string of nightclubs. She mentions that she already feels old in the pop business, and the same ambition that set her on her route to stardom is apparent as she talks of investing her money to secure her future.
“I’m pretty thick-skinned, because you have to be in this business,” she says. “But actually, underneath, I’m quite vulnerable. I can be hyper and loud, but there are times when I want to be left alone, when I just want to be at home with the dog and the cats.”
Today is her last on set for St Trinian’s and she’s sad that it’s coming to an end after six weeks of bonding with the other “girls” and the likes of Rupert Everett, who plays headmistress Miss Fritton, and David Tennant as the villainous Lord Pomfrey on the set of what the crew have called Hogwarts for pikeys. No longer will she have to dress up as the lads’ mag dream of a schoolgirl in hotpants and biker boots with a low-cut blouse and stripy tie.
“I am sad it’s over,” she says. “The girls have been lovely and we’ve bonded. I love them to bits. And Rupert has kept us all entertained.”
Next year, at some point, she’ll reunite with the rest of Girls Aloud and maybe there’ll be a solo album too. In the meantime, she hopes to find time to just “hang out” with Crane and her pets and go for long walks. She’ll put the shades on and meander across the fields and nobody will bother her. “And then I’m not Sarah Harding from Girls Aloud or whoever. I’m just me.”
St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold opened yesterday

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