Credit Ian T Edwards licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via wikimedia commons

Cheryl is still viable

By Jeevan Farthing

Culture Editor Jeevan argues that Cheryl’s stint in the West End attests to her longevity and work ethic.

Cheryl Tweedy Cole Fernandez-Versini. Several articles about the former Girls Aloud member, who is now known as “just Cheryl”, commence with a bricolage of the last names she has accumulated over the years, and why shouldn’t they? It’s an etymological masterpiece – Kimberley Gail Ratcliff (née Marsh, previously Ryder and Lomas) just doesn’t hit the sweet spot! – and a reminder of the chaotic love life that, among other reasons, induces a very British affection for her. Following a long period in the wilderness, Christmas came early for the X Factor generation when the news broke that Cheryl is to make her acting debut this January, starring as Jenny in 2:22 A Ghost Story.

The premise of the play is simple: Jenny believes her house is haunted, so she will stay up until 2:22am, with her partner and dinner guests, to find out how. This is a perfect fit for Cheryl, who already undertook an extremely serious investigation into the paranormal on the ITV2 spinoff series Ghosthunting With Girls Aloud. With the help of former Blue Peter host/professional shit-stirrer Yvette Fielding, the band sat around a ouija board and conducted seances in an abandoned mansion in rural Wales. Cheryl’s “steel balls”, as verified by Kimberley Walsh, meant she was fearless in tackling the anal squires (seen by Cheryl herself), and walking into pitch-black rooms to get “fookin pelted and bombarded with pebbles”.

It is unfortunate that Cheryl’s prior ghosthunting experience is not true of the baffling string of celebrities that have played Jenny in the past. This includes model and TV personality Laura Whitmore, but also (hilariously) Lily Allen, who hated Cheryl so much in 2006 that she wrote a song about her. This gravy train of already established celebrities assimilating the lead role might seem unfair for budding young actors stuck in a perennial cycle of occasional work. But Cheryl’s appearance on Ghosthunting is just one example of her willingness to put herself on the line (what’s more undignified than 90 full minutes of screaming and cursing on air?). Performing six times a week – sometimes twice a day – to a West End audience is a pretty big risk, and the tabloid press will be itching to crucify her.

Indeed, Cheryl’s route to success is one of the most democratic out there. While criticism of the supposed inauthenticity of (mostly female) “industry plants” like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish now runs rampant, this is really underpinned by a dislike of the secrecy surrounding record labels. Popstars: The Rivals, where Cheryl first started out, completely juxtaposes this: openness was embedded into the very nature of the show. The British public could not complain about the groups being manufactured, because we voted for their members – we were the manufacturers! It seems ironic that the format of the now-defunct weekly talent show provides an antidote to the most current criticisms of the music industry. No contestant on Popstars, or The X Factor, could rightfully be labelled a nepo-baby: they had to sing live week after week to prove their ability. The five working-class women who formed Girls Aloud earned their place in the band because they worked bloody hard for it.

But Cheryl’s devotion to accountability has been steadfast. When the breakdown of her marriage to Ashley Cole and her battle with malaria were being reported in intimate detail, she sat down on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories and sobbed to an audience of 7 million. Even her propensity to lip sync for her life when performing on The X Factor as a fully-fledged popstar, while producing questionable optics, demonstrates a commitment to, rather than an avoidance of, scrutiny. There was no cover-up – it was known in advance that she would pre-record her vocals for her debut performance of Fight For This Love in 2009 – and given that she has also been slated on the few occasions that she has sung live, this was a lose-lose situation. Why not instead harbour the point that Cheryl is not Cheryl because of her mesmerising melismas, but because of her ability to entertain? (no one else could consistently slay so hard in a sexy soldier outfit…)

While Nicola Roberts has recently dressed up as a winged insect live on telly, and Nadine Coyle has been busy memeing herself with her infamous pronunciation of “flour”, Cheryl – apart from a brief spell judging the certified flop The Greatest Dancer – has been missing in action: most probably in drama classes. She once said in an interview that footballers’ wives are “just as bad as benefit scroungers”, and while the exacerbation of the moral panic of benefit fraud is disappointingly expected (this was 2007), it further emphasises that hard work is a value she holds dear, and one we can expect her to apply to her debut in 2:22 A Ghost Story.

But Cheryl’s work ethic not only makes her viable for the 2020s; it makes her necessary. Little Mix’s “hiatus” – sure, Girls Aloud were only having a “hiatus” in 2009 – means that for the first time in recent UK herstory, there is no prominent girl band in the zeitgeist. Dorian Lynskey suggests the decline of the girl group can be explained by factors such as the portrait format of TikTok, and the small size of a phone screen, while Alim Kheraj points out the low marginal returns girl groups generate for cash-strapped record labels. But these do not equate to lack of appetite, proven by the success of the original Sugababes’ UK tour last year, so popular that their performance at the Avalon stage at Glastonbury had to be shut down for overcrowding.

The X Factor generation – graduating in thousands of pounds of debt, and entering a saturated jobs market after the best years of their lives were shackled by a global pandemic – need something to yearn, to cling onto, even, because times weren’t so bleak! An inherent optimism encapsulated the early Blair years (think: D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better), and Cheryl’s social mobility is the working-class success story New Labour should have been more effective in actualising and championing. Short of a Girls Aloud reunion, impossible now that Sarah Harding is no longer with us, having the stars of the late 2000s in the limelight transports us back to an era when even pop seemed simpler. What is a sad girl? Inject the deranged “Alouette, ‘uette, ‘uette” refrain at the start of Cheryl’s Promise This, or the “Go girls g-g-go go go” of Girls Aloud’s Something New (at least two waves of feminism behind) into my veins! If the collective excitement generated by the Wagatha Christie trial is anything to go by, we even slightly miss (bigotries aside) those proper gossip-y tabloid front pages: ones about popstars going feral in the nightclub, not the misdemeanour of politicians, or Harry and Meghan.

Cheryl’s collection of last names may have developed icon status, but she’s so much more than the shitty men responsible for them. She is the queen of pop, the ultimate mildly problematic fave, and her dimples alone deserve eternal prominence in the British psyche. We can only hope that 2:22 A Ghost Story sparks a burgeoning career in acting, and that it can realise the casting choice we deserve: Cheryl in Coronation Street. 


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