Were you a ladette? If you were, chances are you won't admit it. Not now. Not since the expression, and the women it set out to define, went from being celebrated as refreshingly uninhibited and outspoken, to being vilified as crass, amoral and destructive - both to themselves and the broader ideals of womanhood.
Once the word became finally tethered to the image of a young woman sprawled at closing time across a high-street pavement, wearing a mini dress hiked to her waist, too drunk to stand up but still shouting crude come-ons to passing men, that was the end.
What started as a form of feminism - women seizing equality with men, albeit in the fields of drinking and swearing - became embarrassing, anachronistic and, worst of all, just another way to please the same men it set out to go toe-to-toe with.
So, who were the ladettes, and what was it all about? The whole thing started 25 years ago now (if we date the phrase from FHM in 1995), and initially meant the kind of girl who would wolf-whistle at a guy in the street, tell him to get his top off, before suggesting a session down the local pub.
At its nucleus was a group of articulate, self-confident young women working, very successfully, in media - Zoë Ball, Sara Cox, Denise Van Outen, Gail Porter, Jayne Middlemiss, Ulrika Jonsson - bolstered within the broader culture by the Spice Girls in music, Kate Moss in fashion, and Blair's Babes in politics.
Although it quickly became the centre of a debate about what, » » exactly, 1990s feminism meant, at first, being a ladette was actually far more about social irreverence than sexual politics; specifically a two-fingers reaction to Britain's narrow, class-based society, and the rigid definitions of what was then acceptable for young women.
Ladettes, in their first incarnation, were a joyous antidote to the stifling cultural exemplar of a specific type of ideal of womanhood - the Sloane Ranger (of whom 1980s Lady Di was a classic example).
Sloanes were traditionalist, decorous and very focussed on country pursuits and getting married to the right man. Ladettes (who owed an evolutionary debt to the stepping-stone of Thatcher's yuppies) in response, were urban, fun-oriented, outspoken, and determined that anything men could do, they could do at least as well, if not better - particularly if that meant swearing like a trooper or downing 10 pints.
Instead of exiting smoothly from sports cars wearing headbands and twinsets, the ladettes fell out of nightclubs in jewelled thongs, flashing their boobs while clutching fags and bottles of booze.
They were hedonistic and assertive, determined to do their thing. Mostly, 'their thing' involved having a good time - at festivals, house parties, down the pub, in nightclubs, Ibiza, and often, on air.
Zoë Ball, the first female host of the Radio 1 Breakfast Show, has talked about broadcasting after an all-nighter in Ibiza, when she met DJ Norman Cook (Fatboy Slim), whom she later married: "We went into every club in Ibiza and I did the Breakfast Show the next morning on no sleep. But what a night! As the show finished and my high from the night before started to fade, I looked around at the Radio 1 people and thought, 'I might get the sack'."
She didn't get the sack - neither did Sara Cox when she talked about losing her virginity aged 15 in a field of sheep on her BBC Radio 1 show, or when she said the Queen Mother "smells of wee" on her 100th birthday.
Nor did Denise Van Outen when she stole an ashtray from Buckingham Palace as a souvenir, to convince her Big Breakfast co-host Johnny Vaughan that she had indeed been there. Instead, Van Outen returned the ashtray to the Queen, on air, along with a stuffed camel and a note saying, 'Sorry, Ma'am. I didn't mean to give you the hump.'
These girls were loud and proud and brash. They preferred a night down the pub to dinner in fancy restaurants; Glastonbury to garden parties at Buckingham Palace, and two-day binges to an early night in.
They intersected with the Primrose Hill set - Sadie Frost, Pearl Lowe, Meg Matthews, Kate Moss - although there was a noticeable class divide; the Primrose Hill lot were more boho and upper-class than the ladettes, who essentially celebrated what had traditionally been male working-class culture - pubs, betting shops, sessions with mates (one of the best thing about the ladettes was the celebrating of female friendships).
We didn't really have ladettes in Ireland. I should know - in the late 1990s, I was deputy editor of Ireland's 'first men's magazine', a home-grown answer to GQ and Loaded, and trying to find the Irish equivalent of Denise Van Outen, willing to be photographed in a hand-print bikini, or of Gail Porter, whose naked image was projected on to the Houses of Parliament in 1999… good luck to me. I might as well have been suggesting Playboy centrefolds.
However, I would argue that many of those who later became Celtic Tiger celebrities may have spent their formative years watching the antics of the ladettes.
We may not have had them, but we were fascinated by them, often in an appalled kind of way: Women like Ulrika Jonsson who could down a pint in seven seconds, often followed by a loud belch, were mesmerising as we struggled, still, with all the things 'nice' young ladies did, and didn't do. Ireland in the 1990s was a traditional place - which meant decency, modesty and churchgoing - and so while the media grappled in an appalled sort of way with the moral significance of ladettes, the rest of us wondered what bits we might get away with - the crop tops? The micro-shorts and vertiginous heels? The bottle of Jack Daniels in the handbag?
Most of all, we wondered about the frank attitude towards sex: women behaving 'like men' and admitting to - boasting of! - sexual desire, of going out to get laid. We needed a long time to think our way through that - at least a decade - but seeds were certainly sown.
For a while, ladettes captured the popular imagination. They were apparently 'post-feminist' (yes, remember when that was a thing?) and the perfect antidote to all the boring, buttoned-up ways in which it was acceptable to be a woman. They looked like they were grabbing the good things in life with both hands and guzzling them. And let's face it, who wouldn't want an all-day drinking session with Ball and Cox? Or a night out with the Spice Girls?
Wannabe, their first single, was released, with perfect timing, in 1996, and even though at least one of them has publicly rejected the ladette label since (Mel C, last August: "Because I had this tomboy image and I loved my football, people thought I was a bit mouthy, a bit loud, part of that ladette culture… And, you know, I'm really quite quiet, and I'm really gentle"), at the time they seemed to gel with it. Ambitious, outspoken, wearing Union Jack mini-dresses and spouting confused messages about feminism redrawn as 'girl power', they were a perfect how-to of ladette culture.
But it wasn't long before the ladettes were singled out as responsible for much that was bad about Britain. And when the hand-wringing over morals and manners didn't catch on, the tabloids went after them with faux-concern over their excessive drinking; the Red Top equivalent of getting Al Capone on his taxes.
Unable to persuade the public to really dislike these young women, the poison-pen columnists took a different route and began to lament the damage they were doing to themselves with all that boozing, not to mention the role models they provided at a time when binge-drinking among women had become a genuine cause for concern. And, yes, they were certainly doing damage, but really, was it concern for their livers that motivated the column inches? Or was it a heady combination of prurient outrage, sexism and classism?
Looking back, it's hard to work out if ladette culture really did contain the seeds of its own destruction, as the morally panicked media claimed, or if it simply came into conflict with the realities of life - women growing up, getting married, having babies - and the undoubted misogyny of the culture.
So many of the former ladettes have talked, regretfully, about that time, and what it cost them in career terms. Zoë Ball, now a non-drinker, has said: "I lost a lot of opportunities, I didn't do my job properly. There was a lot of time wasted, which could have been spent doing something constructive."
While Denise Van Outen said: "At the time, I thought it was funny. It wasn't until the work dried up that I realised it probably wasn't." She adds: "I was fun to be around, but it was all at my own expense, because I suffered professionally. I had to eat huge humble pie."
However, is that a problem with what they did, or with how society responded to it? Or, most likely, a bit of both?
I guess, the fun began to go out of it by 2002, around the time Sadie Frost's then two-year-old daughter, Iris, picked up an ecstasy tablet from the floor of Soho House, where she was attending a birthday party for Pearl Lowe's son Alfie, and swallowed some of it. She was fine, luckily, but the aftermath was a rush to judgment, and a lot of hand-wringing.
Then, in 2005, the first series of Ladette To Lady aired on ITV, in which a group of die-hard ladettes were sent to a finishing school on a five-week course, to learn how to behave like 'ladies.' They were taught deportment, elocution, etiquette, ballroom dancing, needlework, and their goal was to 'pass' convincingly as a lady among various polo-playing members of the upper classes. If that wouldn't sound a death knell on fun, nothing would.
And so the ladette vanished - burned out, grew up, got wise, got sober, was sneered, moralised and patronised out of existence. It's a trope that lingers here and there: there are definitely ladette antecedents to Gillian Flynn's 'Cool Girl' monologue in Gone Girl - "Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex…"
However, that book was published in 2012, and Flynn knows just how tarnished the ladettes became - later in that monologue, she deliberately annihilates the whole concept: "Cool Girl… is basically the girl who likes every f**king thing he likes and doesn't ever complain."
In so doing, she echoes Jayne Middlemiss, whose analysis of a moment is just as scathing. "I realised it had become a tool to titillate men… The ladette thing started out being about women being heard, about not being frightened to say things. Then, strangely, we started taking our clothes off. It became a straitjacket, except it was a bikini."
And yet, I think we needed the ladettes. They were the dam-burst of repression, without which we wouldn't be at the more measured flow of modern feminism. If we had never got used to shouting our round in a pub, or challenging some bloke to a shot-downing competition, would we have been able to find the words, pitch, volume required to call out the endless incidents that finally led to the MeToo movement? If we hadn't first tried drinking and shouting our way to parity, would we now be coming at it from an even lower base?
And looking back - certainly compared with the microscopic calculations and relentless calibrations of today's Insta celebs and Love Islanders - don't you miss the relatively guileless face-plant of the ladettes? l