At times, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini speaks almost entirely in platitudes. And this is fine because she's Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, a woman so beloved that even a complicated double-barrelled surname cannot dispel her myth. "I'd been on a treadmill all the way through my twenties," she says at one point. "I felt numb for the longest time ever," she repeats more than once. "I was just a young girl with a dream," she says around three quarters of the way through our interview. "And sometimes" - dramatic pause - "it's been a nightmare." But this, I suppose, is what happens when you become a Princess Diana for the X Factor generation.
Throughout our interview I find I am either making comforting cooing noises or giggling wildly, like a schoolgirl trying to impress a crush, or more likely a stalker who has come face to face with the object of her affections. Fernandez-Versini, 31, seems unfazed, probably because she is used to it. I imagine that for our Cheryl (and she is our Cheryl, isn't she?), life smells of eau de simper.
During her 13 years in the public eye, she has been through three surnames, one conviction of assault on a nightclub lavatory attendant, 12 tattoos (including one the breadth of her bottom), one girl band, a solo career, an acrimonious divorce, one near-death experience and three incarnations on The X Factor. The latest "scandal" is her second marriage, to a man - the French former playboy Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini - she had the temerity to wed in secret after an alleged "whirlwind romance".
Despite all of this turbulence - perhaps because of all of this - the British public have rallied around her: Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, formerly Cole, née Tweedy, is one of the most successful British female artists of all time, and has sold almost two million albums since going solo five years ago, adding to the six platinum records she released as part of Girls Aloud. From zeitgeisty teenagers to middle-aged political journalists, few interviewees prompt such a singular reaction when I mention her name. It's a delightfully joyous look that suggests that every time she walks in to a room she is responsible for a lot of affectionate pant-wetting.
Fernandez-Versini says she stopped reading about herself after divorcing Ashley Cole in 2010 (the same year she contracted malaria and was sacked from the US X Factor), so has "absolutely no idea" of how she is perceived. "I know that they don't know us," she says, Geordie accent still true. "They only know what they're fed and what they're given, and half the time, that's not me."
She is now used to going through life hearing the click of camera phones, seeing their flashes in her peripheral vision. When she shot to fame in 2002, winning her place in Girls Aloud on Popstars: The Rivals, "nobody had cameras on their phone. If you were going to a club nobody wanted a picture, they just wanted to say hi." Life now "is just so weird. Usually I hear that" - she makes a clicky sound with her tongue - "and I think, 'You've just taken a picture of me, why didn't you ask?' And the next thing it's [out there], what you're eating and what you're wearing." How does she deal with that? "I have my ways and means after this long in the industry. You find your way, you dip and dive."
We meet in an east London studio on a sunny February afternoon. Fernandez-Versini has been shooting since the morning with the professionalism of Kate Moss and the manners of Kate Middleton. She is self-critical about how she looks in some photos, but is very polite about everything. She is wearing a baggy jumper, jeans and fluffy Birkenstock slippers. Her entourage - an assistant and her PR - is smaller than the rock on her engagement finger, but she won't talk about her marriage, other than to tell me her French is coming along - "I understand it more than I can speak it. I'm definitely not there yet, but I understand" - and that she thinks there is no real rule book to marriage.
"You hear so many stories, don't you? People who have known each other two weeks and they're together for 75 years, people who have been together six months and they break up. So there's no right or wrong." She beams when I congratulate her, refuses even to dignify rumours of pregnancy with a response, and says only that "it's good, it's a good time in my life".
With Ashley Cole, she was "so open" - what with the wedding photos going to OK! magazine, not to mention the ad the couple did for the National Lottery - and all she got in return was mockery (he was very, very unfaithful). So now her lips are sealed.
"I have to have something that's for me," she says. "I'm aware that everybody wants to know what the eff is going on, but I'm not going to say anything, for my sanity."
Anyway, she has glossy locks, wide eyes and a cute, twitching nose. I was going to say she has an air of Audrey Hepburn about her, but the film star I would most liken her to is Bambi, shortly after his mother has been shot. We are here to talk about her new single, a ballad called Only Human, which she says is about "going back to basics, and saying, 'Look, we're only human, we're only dust. That's all we are made from'."
The album of the same name opens with a speech from the Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts about money not equalling happiness, an ethos that people usually buy into only once they become very rich (she is said to be worth £20 million). "I know there are people out there who think, 'Oh yeah, someone with money telling us that money doesn't matter', but the truth is I've experienced both."
She grew up on council estates in Newcastle, one of five children, learning that three of them were half-siblings only when she was 11, shortly after which her parents broke up. A brother became a heroin addict - in 2011, Andrew Tweedy was sent to prison for six years for his part in planning an armed robbery - and she herself dated a drug addict as a teenager, so it is hard to see how her current life could feel more difficult.
"There are big downsides that come with having money," she says, looking very serious. "As many as with not having money. I mean, they're different types of stresses, but they're both stresses."
She has never been one to mince her words, and today she is particularly meaty about the music industry. Despite her success, she says there is "a lot of fighting for what you want", and has met numerous "arseholes, both men and women, sadly". She mentions moving from Newcastle to London aged 19, "and it was a really difficult transition to go through. Coming in to this industry and being an object. An ornament. You're not a person any more. They forget you've got feelings. I really struggled with that adjustment."
Ballsy, barely clothed women now dominate the charts, but is it still really a man's world, I wonder? "Yeah,"she nods, "because the music industry is dominated by men behind the scenes. And older men, too. You shouldn't have to… I mean, sexy and all that is great to an extent, but you shouldn't have to sexualise yourself to be selling music." Does she question whether performing barely clothed is actually empowering? "I don't know what's happened."The tousled hair shakes from side to side. "I'm sure some women are naturally like that. They objectify themselves because they want to be like that." Pause.
"Which is fine. No judgment at all. But sometimes it's just unnecessary. If you're dressing sexy, there's a way to do it. If you are going to be explicit with your lyrics, dress differently. It's a bit much at the moment, I feel. And I get women who say, 'Why should men objectify me? Why can't I go naked?' Yeah. Do whatever you want. I just feel some of it is insincere, which is a little bit sad."
Has she been asked to do things that felt uncomfortable? "I mean, yeah, I have. Girls Aloud wore some short skirts and some outfits that were quite sexy, but we were singing 'I'm just a love machine' and 'Something kinda ooh, jumping on my tutu'. It was fun, it was quirky, it wasn't trying to be sexual. I would never do something I didn't want to do, or get told that's the 'lane' to be in at the moment. The lane," she sighs. "Everyone is competing in the same lane. F- off, I'd rather be in my own lane."
Is it better for women now than it was when she started?
"No. I think it's kind of the same, if not worse." She is not moaning, just telling it like it is. "The majority of it [the business] is men." She goes quiet for a moment as she thinks. "The music industry is f-ed to be honest with you. With streaming and the internet, and you can buy singles now instead of an album, a body of work. It's a different world to the one it was 13 years ago."
Does she see herself as a businesswoman? "Oh yeah, definitely, 'cos I've learnt from the best. I've learnt from sharks. This industry can be vicious so you have to toughen up. When people ask my advice on how to get into the industry I say, 'Learn about it'. But people just see the shiny lights and the glamour and they're deluded by it. I couldn't imagine going into the industry now, at this stage of my life."
Is she announcing a retirement? Certainly, she doesn't give the impression of someone keen to do another X Factor series. Did returning perhaps exorcise the memory of her American sacking (apparently, nobody understood her accent) and allow her to move on to the next stage of her life?
"Yeah, next stage of my life," she says. "My focus is on the charity this year. It was supposed to be last year, but X Factor's kind of tasking, time-wise."
By the charity she means Cheryl's Trust, a venture she has set up in collaboration with the Prince's Trust to help disadvantaged youngsters. This year she hopes to raise the £2 million needed to open a centre in Newcastle, a place for at-risk youngsters to take refuge. She wants to share the opportunities she has had.
"It's so exciting. I want to branch out, start in the North East, and then at some point I want to be in Manchester, Liverpool."
We talk a bit about politics, and how she might vote in the election.
"It's hard for me, because all my friends and family vote Labour." And Labour's proposed mansion tax would "f- her over". Would she think about voting for David Cameron? She chews her cheeks.
"Not really. I want to hear what everyone's got to say. I've always been Labour all my life but I want to hear what they've got to say for myself. Now that I'm a mature woman." She laughs.
What does being a mature woman mean to her?
"I feel like a greater responsibility now to vote for who runs our country. And I pay a f-ing lot of tax. So I think that I need to have a really well-informed, well-educated opinion."
Would she ever go into politics? "Yes!" she says, completely seriously.
"I was saying that to my make-up woman earlier. I think we need more women. I'd make my own party." She could be Britain's very own Eva Perón, I say.
"Yes! It just interests me."
So is this the start of a new career as Stateswoman Cheryl? "You never know," she smiles. "Stranger things have happened." And I leave thinking, well, she has a politician's evasive language down to a T.
The single "Only Human" is currently on release