From beloved pop star to pariah: why public favour has suddenly turned on Cheryl
In 2014, Cheryl Tweedy (then Cheryl Fernandez-Versini), was genuinely discussing the notion of a career in politics.
She was that well-loved, that phenomenally, good-naturedly famous. Cheryl’s down-to-earth Geordie tones told the British public that they were worth it, with a swish of that gravity-defying mane, in a L’oreal advertising campaign that was unavoidable for years. Every weekend, millions tuned in to watch Cheryl’s Bambi-big eyes twinkle at hopefuls, young kids with talent and limited, provincial prospects – just like she had been 15 years earlier. As this newspaper put it, she was “Princess Diana for the X Factor generation”; beautiful, humble and full of grace. Now, she’s back with her first new music in three years. But things don't seem to be going so well.
Possibly the most interesting aspect of her career is that Cheryl (while she’s now reverted to her maiden name, she still aspires to be recognised by her first name alone) has managed to build it atop an assault conviction. In 2003, while she was still topping the charts with the debut single released by her former band, Girls Aloud, Cheryl punched bathroom assistant Sophie Amogbokpa, leaving the 38-year-old with eye damage so significant she was left unable to work for six weeks. Reports at the time suggested the attack was racially aggravated. While Cheryl was cleared of racism, she was found guilty of assault, and made to pay a £3,000 fine and undertake 120 hours community service.
In the years that followed, Cheryl became a pop star of phenomenal proportions. With Girls Aloud, she racked up 20 Top 10 consecutive singles. As a solo artist, she broke another record: in 2014, she became the first British woman to have five solo singles top the charts in the UK. As for that conviction when she was 20? Perhaps Cheryl thought she got away with it.
Except, she hadn’t. The incident was raised during a high-profile race row between L’Oreal and mixed-race model Munroe Bergdorf. Bergdorf had been hired by the company as part of a campaign that promoted diversity. When Bergdorf was found to have claimed that all white people were guilty of “racial violence” on Facebook, L’Oreal fired her. In a subsequent interview about the row, Bergdorf claimed it was hypocritical of L’Oreal to fire her but continue to employ Cheryl, who had punched a black woman. At the time, Cheryl’s publicist released a statement saying the singer was “disappointed” to have been cited by Bergdorf.
On Saturday, The Guardian brought up the Bergdorf row in an interview with Cheryl. Her response was not as managed: “It’s all ‘irrelevant’, Cheryl says; it was 16 years ago; it’s ‘not news”; the subject is ‘boring’. ‘I don’t understand why you’d even bring it up,’ she adds. How would an X Factor-winning girlband respond if a member were involved in a similar incident in 2018? She’d be kicked out, right? ‘Not really,’ Cheryl decides. Is she really surprised that people still mention it? ‘I don’t think they do!” she replies. They do, I say. ‘Not really,’ she says.”
The return to the dictaphone was part of an immaculately organised campaign around the release of her first new single in three years, Love Made Me Do It. In 2010, Cheryl told The Guardian that, after the one newspaper interview she would give that year, she would never discuss her private life in public again. This vow did not last long – two years later she was telling GQ about how “great” it felt to blow up a test dummy of Simon Cowell while raising awareness of improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan.
The Guardian’s interview inspired dozens of write-offs in other publications across the internet, many of which made Cheryl’s assertion that her assault was “irrelevant” the headline. A storming X Factor performance, however, could restore Cheryl’s place in the hearts of the people who made her: the middle-England millions who still watch X Factor years after its Cheryl-starmaking, One Direction-forming heyday.
What ensued, however, was not family friendly. Rather, Cheryl, trussed up in a tasselled leather bodysuit, writhed around the stage to the extent that Simon Cowell was seen asking fellow judge Louis Tomlinson if she was alright due to the singer's lying prostrate on the floor. Between gyrating in the company of a dozen male dancers and being stroked by women whose thigh-high boots matched her own, Cheryl failed to deliver a convincing vocal performance. While the glitchy beat and repetitive chorus of Love Made Me Do It stands up on record, on stage it proved too sparse, the melody got caught among the trappings of the X Factor set, the crowd were shown to be sized-for-TV. On social media, people were baffled by the fact she had started the performance by languidly licking her own hand. So far, 45 complaints have been made to Ofcom about the performance, mostly due to its overt sexuality.
The criticism snowballed; the tabloid press devoured the “raunchy” routine, on social media strangers begged Cheryl to stop performing and continue her career “selling shampoo” instead. The wheels seemed to have come off the press machine: within 48 hours, Cheryl released a statement on Twitter, written in the notes app of her iPhone and without the polish of a PR company. In it, she described the “sheer level of unbalanced negativity towards me” as “quite frankly shocking”, signing off with a postscript: “I did watch my performance back and I LOVED IT!”. Within hours, the Sun had published a story claiming an “angry” Cheryl “watched the performance back over ten times and can’t understand what she did wrong.”
The pop star comeback is rarely a simple thing. The most successful – those enjoyed by Britney Spears, Celine Dion and yes, Craig David – come from a heady alchemy of hard work and opportunistic nostalgia. More often, stars who were once used to Midas-touched success are forced to accept the disappointment of a comeback campaign that flounders, with barely anyone but their former fans clocking the new single, dance routine or tell-all interview languishing at the back of a newspaper.
But Cheryl’s comeback, so far, has proved more enigmatic. Her single isn’t enjoying chart success, but she’s remained in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. A story in last week’s Popbitch sums up the grim appeal: while Love Made Me Do It hadn’t made Spotify’s Top 200 streamed songs, the song’s video “has done surprisingly massive numbers on YouTube” in part, it’s believed, because “people have been obsessively playing [it] to stare at her new cheeks and lips”. Cheryl’s changed appearance, she has said, is a result of her pregnancy.
How has she fallen so far from grace? A change in societal fashion has something to do with it. While Cheryl’s been out of the spotlight, dating former One Direction star Liam Payne and having his child, the world has woken up. To be ignorant of social consciousness, of one’s privilege, of the impact of one’s race and position, is no longer forgivable –certainly among public figures. Cheryl may have opened a trust (The Prince’s Trust Cheryl’s Trust Centre in Newcastle upon Tyne, no less) to help conquer unemployment among her city’s young people, but that does little to counter her comments about the “irrelevance” of her assault conviction, which show she has little remorse for her actions nor understands why they have gained a new level of offence.
But the current tidal wave of criticism that is coming to rest at Cheryl’s heel-clad feet has also, perhaps, been coming. It wasn’t just the assault that was covered up by the advertising campaigns, sparkly television judging and people’s princess demeanour; Cheryl’s career has been pockmarked by tales of demanding behaviour and superciliary attitude even while she was one of the most personable famous people in the country.
In 2010, when she was asked about the assault – again in The Guardian – Cheryl was as equally dismissive of her actions, saying that had the incident happened at home, on her Newcastle council estate, “Nothing would have been made of it. That's how you're brought up – to stick up for yourself." She found the fact that she hired a group of singing dwarves to celebrate Simon Cowell’s birthday “great”.
In 2013, Cheryl’s triumphant former mentee admitted that the pair are no longer friends. Alexandra Burke, who won in 2008, told The Mirror that their relationship “just fizzled out”. “The truth of the matter is, we just don’t speak”, Burke added.
A year later, while Cheryl was storming the charts, it was reported that X Factor warm-up man Ian “Roycey” Royce was subjected to “a withering look” from Cheryl after he called the newly married Mrs Fernandez-Versini Cheryl Cole to the audience. When Royce said he struggled to pronounce her new surname, she said it wasn’t difficult “unless you were arrogant and had no common sense”. Royce later apologised on Twitter after Cheryl’s fans “destroyed” him on the platform. Her return to the show was reportedly sealed by the provision of a £1.5 million, a personal assistant, a £200,000 wardrobe budget, three stylists, a make-up artist and a personal driver.
Beyond the press, there’s also Cheryl’s relationship with her former band-mates. She remains good friends with two of the four: Nicola Roberts, who helped her write Love Made me Do It, and Kimberley Walsh. But Nadine Coyle has said that she never enjoyed a friendship with Cheryl, even while the pair were in a band, and that Cheryl didn’t tell her about her marriage to Fernandez-Versini. Girls Aloud member Sarah Harding, too, has had a long-running feud with Cheryl, who wrote about Harding’s addiction troubles in her 2012 memoir, My Story.
But for a woman so long painted a nation’s sweetheart, Cheryl’s never exactly been warm or approachable. Her 2010 teary television interview with Piers Morgan may have been compared to that Diana, Princess of Wales famously gave to Martin Bashir, but Cheryl still felt somehow removed from the camera. “I’m a real person”, she pointed out at one point, “I don't want to cry, let’s talk about happy things”. She has consistently maintained that the public will never know the real her, and only what is given to them about her by the press. It’s a move that has dated badly in the age of authenticity, when every returning star releasing an album must bare their soul to attract attention.
It’s not fair to damn Cheryl for wanting to keep out of the private eye, but the problem is that she doesn’t: she causes provocation on X Factor, lambasts her critics on Twitter, and still, 15 years on, won’t take responsibility for her actions. Cheryl may proclaim that she’s a new person, that motherhood has changed her, but her words don’t suggest that’s the case. She's still the same old diva, pretending to be a people’s princess.