The darker side of Our Cheryl

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Lucia Hodgson

For most, hailing from a “heroin-ridden” council estate with a heavy Geordie drawl won’t give you the best start in life. Throw an assault charge in further down the line, and you can more or less kiss goodbye any dreams of fame. But, at just 26 years of age, Cheryl Cole has upset the odds and become the nation’s surprise sweetheart.

She is the highlight of millions of viewers’ Saturday nights; her dimpled cheeks light up our screens as she bestows her benevolent judgement on dozens of expectant hopefuls. Of course, Cheryl was herself found on a reality show, and now — six years later — she sits behind the panel rather than performs in front of it. How one woman has managed to become so adored so quickly is truly baffling. But does it suggest a darker side to her character?

Girls Aloud have taken a backseat in Cheryl’s life, allowing for new ventures: becoming the face of L’Oreal, a solo number one single, and of course ITV’s flagship tack-fest, The X-Factor. Behind the judging panel, she appears glowingly to the nation, full of praise for the hapless contestants; breaking the bad news to the ones she dislikes with sugar-coated clichés.

In fact, Cole is rarely caught on camera without a carefully orchestrated tear or gushing sympathy for the banal sob stories of her equally moist-eyed underlings. Her masterfully constructed public image has even helped her slide into The Guardian’s Media Top 100 list for 2009, sandwiched between political blogger Guido Fawkes and the editor of the Mail on Sunday, Peter Wright. Wonders never cease.

Tabloids delight in noting her transformation from, as the Daily Mail put it, “working class convict to A-List celebrity”. The Times Online referred to her as the “chav princess supreme.” These days however, we’re reminded each week by the glossies how girls across the country can, too, look like Cheryl Cole — even without the advantages of her continent-sized bank balance or a petite size 6-8 frame!

The Daily Mail, ever eager to scrutinize women’s appearances, recently modelled one of Cheryl’s thigh skimming dresses on someone they described, bizarrely, as a “mere mortal”. (What? So only the un-famous age, disease and die?) The results were apparently disastrous, with the so-called ordinary girl managing only to make the garment look “frumpy and twee.” Ordinary? Is that not exactly the reason we’re supposed to love Cheryl?

Unfortunately for Cheryl, being so eye-wateringly gorgeous is demanding enough without her plethora of other professional commitments. “From the moment I step out my front door”, she says, “even if it’s just to go to the supermarket, I’m working. So looking good and not being caught out can be very consuming.” Hopefully, the £500,000 L’Oreal deal will make her life just that little bit easier.

Her “chav” image hit its peak in 2003, when Cole — then Tweedy — was found guilty of assaulting a toilet attendant, though she was cleared of the charge of racial aggravation. The attack has been largely glossed over as a blip on her otherwise flawless track record. Most third-rate celebrities would be sunk in an instant for such an unforgivable indiscretion, but not our Cheryl.

The first real spike of interest in Cole — the event that suggested she could be more than just your run-of-the-mill Pop Stars success — was provoked by husband Ashley’s affair (recently named fourth in a list of “life’s most confusing things”). With scientific precision, Cheryl and her publicity team milked public sympathy for all it was worth.

There was a slow drip-feed of stories in the celebrity press — fuelled by Cole’s astute PR team — that described how Cheryl led Ashley on a journey to redemption and worked selflessly to salvage their romance. The outcry of public compassion was unprecedented; women came to admire (revere?) Cole and men were left pondering why on earth you’d trade a woman like her for anyone else.

One thing Cheryl never does is pass up an opportunity to remind us of her tough upbringing on an impoverished estate on the outskirts of Newcastle (she has claimed that class A drugs could have been an easy option for her). The truth is, though, that Cole’s origins are a little less humble than she would have us believe. Even as a toddler she had designs on celebrity. As soon as she had learned how to walk, she entered beauty and dance contests that, of course, she comfortably won, and in her teens she attended an exclusive ballet school in London. During the Pop Stars audition process, she was filmed saying she always knew she would be famous. Clearly, hers isn’t quite the rags to riches story she has worked so tirelessly to project, and yet, we the Great British Public, have lapped it up.

Combined, Tweedy and Cole are millionaires many times over. The Cheryl Cole brand reaches far and wide into popular culture, and seems to just keep on growing. But behind the twinkly eyes and ice-white teeth there may lie a less charming character. The history of violence, the juvenile “chick with a dick” Lily Allen insults, and the pathological desire to be the apple of the public’s eye, should perhaps make us all think twice about our current idolatry of the starlet.

But, astonishingly, Cole has managed to persuade arch-cynics like Julie Burchill that she is a “national treasure,” and even David Cameron — the likely next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom — claims she is his favourite member of Girls Aloud (why does he have to have one at all?)

In the Daily Telegraph, Becky Pugh’s obsequiously complimentary article labelled Cheryl “the victim, rather than the perpetrator, in what little tabloid scandal has surrounded her glossy new persona …Cheryl remains poised, down to earth and delightful — at least in our perception, which is all that counts.”

So, according to Pugh, it doesn’t matter if Cole is presenting an honest face to the public or not; we should love her because she can maintain her lovely smile and good posture in a moment of crisis. Some people might think that such steely reserve was, well, unnatural…

When asked who would qualify as a feminist icon today Germaine Greer sagely replied, “Not Cheryl Cole, there’s not enough of her, she’s too thin.” Greer’s reasoning may be contentious, but her sentiment is right. Cole’s public displays of sweetness and purity, forgiveness and affection, have somehow tricked us all into thinking of her as the angelic embodiment of womanhood.

Perhaps this explains why she is becoming ever more ubiquitous. The woman is plastered on the front of a different magazine every week and appears on television more frequently by the day. The rise of Cheryl seems unstoppable, but what is truly worrying is that no-one in Britain, it seems, has any desire to try to put a stop to it.