Cheryl Cole: My new fashion line
It has been an annus horribilis for Cheryl Cole, thrust into the Ex-X Factor wilderness. "I know," you're probably thinking. "Why doesn't she cheer herself up by launching a fashion line?" The pickings seem easy and the duties relatively light, especially compared with the grinding routine of touring or sitting in a music studio.
Yet fashion's no doddle. The roll-call of distinguished celebrity labels is shorter than a Wag's miniskirt.
Now Cheryl is stepping into the lion's den, strapped not into her beloved Louboutin platforms, but a pair from the new range of shoes she has put her name to for stylistpick.com
The collection is very Cheryl. Concealed platforms, a dash of animal print, a smattering of studs, an undertow of S&M, a nice-looking biker boot (one of her favourites) and a whole load of height.
"I need height. Even the slipper I designed has a little wedge. I love slippers," she contests, somewhat implausibly, though I've read that she's prone to kicking off her heels whenever possible and always carries a pair of fold-up flats.
No kicking off today. She doesn't seem likely to relax any time before 2015. That could be because the initial launch of her Stylistpick range during London Fashion Week was a bit of a debacle, what with the scrum and the mismanaged schedule that meant the average audience granted to each journalist was about 90 seconds.
Or it could be because the chaperone accompanying her appears to have a stopwatch plus a list of taboo subjects that includes almost everything.
Since I've had to sign a document as long as the Magna Carta just to get this close to Cheryl, we must scrupulously stick to matters of fashion. At least it's a subject that engages her. Presumably. But here's a snapshot from the early minutes:
Me: "There was intense pressure on the way the five of you looked in Girls Aloud. Was it ever overwhelming?"
Cheryl: "We didn't really think about it . . . all we wanted was to sell records.
"There was a stage when we didn't look that great. We were all told to lose weight by the record label."
Me: "What was your reaction? Because you're all quite feisty."
Cheryl: "We lost weight, but naturally. We were so young."
Me: "Do you ever take to heart what's written about you?"
Cheryl: "I don't read it. It's absolute crap, most of it."
Me: "I'm sure that's the only way to stay sane."
Chaperone: "I'm sorry, but can you go back to fashion and style, please."
Cheryl says she sketched every last pair in her range. "Then they did the most amazing detailed drawings where they came on cardboard, like 3-D. Then I'd choose the fabrics. They'd do a swatch, and finally you get the finished shoe."
This is not how Manolo Blahnik approaches a collection, but what the heck. Even in her current Poor Cheryl Phase, who wouldn't want some of what she has?
Tiny (5ft 3in), she's spectacularly pretty in the flesh: flawless skin, adorable dimples and soulful yet twinkily mischievous eyes. Except there's not much twinkle today.
The hair is less brassy and more tawny than in the summer and contract- fulfillingly "Because I'm Worth It" shiny. She's perfectly polite. What she emphatically isn't is either happy or enthusiastic.
She tells me she has at least 1,000 pairs of shoes; that she can't get rid of anything. She works in Los Angeles. "But home is England. All my stuff is kept here."
In fabulous rotating, sliding cupboards? "I wish. It's like a crazy person's house.
"Everything's attached to a memory, whether it's the huge black dress I wore for the final when Joe McElderry won The X Factor or the split harems for the launch of 'Fight For Your Love'."
When she was 16, she "used to get loans from a man who came round the houses and pay him back weekly so that I could buy lots of clothes. I was always experimenting. Some looks were horrendous".
She spent her first pay cheque from Girls Aloud on a diamond cluster ring.
It is, she notes wistfully, one of the few mementos she no longer has. "I lost it in all the travelling."
She is jewellery-less today. Despite the early passion for clothes and the numerous modelling competitions she won, including Boots Group's 'bonniest baby' and 'Best Looking Girl in Newcastle', she claims to be utterly indifferent to her image.
Yet it was Cheryl who turned The X Factor into a fashion show: her first outfit for the live performances was a dress from the then undiscovered Jonathan Saunders. There was no clothing allowance.
"They pay you to do a job. It's up to you to decide whether you want to dress nicely or not. Once I decided to do The X Factor, I had four days to prepare. I went crazy on net-a-porter.com.
"I was so nervous because I was replacing Sharon Osbourne and everyone loved her. The styling got a bit silly if you ask me, because that was the least of my priorities. It was about the contestants."
Today, she's wearing an oversized block monochrome mohair jumper from Joseph, a lot of immaculately applied make-up and trademark bouffant hair.
When I ask her where her leather jeans are from, she has to check the label (Balenciaga). She owns a lot of leather trousers.
"I couldn't care less what anyone says about the way I look," she adds wearily. She's not mad on shops, either. "I hate those changing rooms. And the lighting -- you leave there and you're pretty miserable."
Her alleged indifference to fashion seems a bit odd given she's launching a fashion shoe line.
She says Girls Aloud didn't plan their image, but that they quickly realised "audiences want to be visually entertained. Clothes are a key part of the performance. You could go back to the '60s and it was the same".
Girls Aloud always looked slick, I say. "Yeah and to start, it was all on a budget. Some designers wouldn't lend to us, even when we were successful, which was really snobby. I remember who they are."
What about the infamous purple flares, orange top and double-decker beehive? "I'm not being funny, but everybody else started wearing orange and purple. It's a fact.
"I love those trousers. I don't give a shit if everybody else didn't like them.
"If anyone believes that [they had anything to do with her sacking from US X Factor], then they're even sillier than the person who wrote that."
I'm not sure Cheryl has the inclination to emulate Victoria Beckham's re-invention in the fashion world -- there's a tinge of rancour mixed with her feistiness.
She's probably more interested in her music than fashion -- with the 10th anniversary of Girls Aloud coming up, a reunion would work for all of them, she says.
2012 could be a good year for her. Her third album is released, and Tulisa and Kelly Rowland don't have a fraction of her charisma between them.
"Really?" she says, sounding sad. "I haven't watched it."