Harder Better Faster Stronger

She had everything and then it all fell apart. But Cheryl Cole is a survivor. This is the untold story of her journey back from the brink.

Cheryl Cole is talking about her bucket list. The life to-do list that included eating at her dad’s local chippy, skydiving and that tattoo. I suggest that usually only dying people make bucket lists. She nods. ‘That’s why I did it. I got to a point just over a year ago where I felt I was dying. I felt dead inside.’

The Cheryl sitting with me in the empty garden of an East London pub – her fingers clamped around a Marlboro Light – couldn’t be more different from the Cheryl of our past few meetings, when interviewing her felt like chipping at granite. I haven’t seen this happy, luminous woman since 2009, when we sat in her hotel laughing at photos from her early Girls Aloud days, when, she recalls, she pronounced Hervé Léger ‘Harvey Ledger’ and belly-baring tops with bootcut jeans were standard daywear.

How sad it was to watch the sweet, insecure girl retreat into her shell, Bambi eyes becoming cold and distant and dimpled smile hardening into a grim mask. Sad, but understandable – I can’t imagine anyone enduring what she has in the past few years without shutting down. ‘There were extreme highs and lows: bang, bang, bang; one thing after another,’ she says. Those lows were obsessively documented in the tabloids, but bear repeating: in 2010, a messy divorce from her husband, footballer Ashley Cole, after a string of humiliating kiss-and-tells, followed by a near-death brush with malaria. In 2011 came a public sacking from The X Factor USA – Cheryl was ousted after just one episode of the show was filmed.

She coped the way you might expect of a woman who has been working full-time, and full-throttle, since the age of 19: by working even harder. ‘I didn’t stop and didn’t let anything sink in, because I just couldn’t absorb it.’ This meant pain was piled on top of pain until she reached breaking point. ‘It only hit me at the beginning of 2013 that I’d completely lost myself. I’d look in a mirror and think: “Who the hell is she?” I didn’t know what I thought or felt about anything, couldn’t make decisions – I didn’t even know what to eat or drink.’

Having previously spoken about her battle with depression – something she says runs in the family – it seems likely Cheryl was sinking again. ‘Something was seriously wrong: it felt like a nervous breakdown. I had to stop, get out of the life I’d been living and find myself again. The consequences if I didn’t were just too frightening.’

The grit to fight back was there, though; it always has been. Her background is well-known: single mum, four siblings, a heroin-addict ex and barely a qualification to her name when she left school at 16. I’ve seen the steely inner core that this forged first-hand. I remember watching Cheryl at the Brit Awards in 2010 as she rehearsed for her first live solo performance. That same day, details of her husband’s latest liaison were splashed over every red top. She walked into her dressing room with dignity, then emerged an hour later to perform. She didn’t miss a step or a note – the perfection was as robotic as it was mesmerising.

I saw the same determination when Cheryl was 19, back in 2002, having won reality TV show Popstars: The Rivals. Louis Walsh, who put together the group – Nicola, Kimberley, Nadine, Sarah and Cheryl – watched them top the charts with debut single Sound Of The Underground, then stopped taking their calls when the show ended. Cheryl’s response? To phone venues, pushing them to book Girls Aloud. They paid for their own travel, bought their own outfits, did their own make-up. They went on to become the UK’s biggest-selling girl group of the 21st century. Cheryl – now worth an estimated £16m (incidentally, millions more than any other Girls Aloud member) – was never and will never be, a pushover.

'It hit me that I'd completely lost myself. I'd look in the mirror and think: "Who the hell is she?"'

So why then, at least where Ashley was concerned, did Cheryl silently allow herself to be painted as the victim? Well, she says, mud-slinging isn’t her style: ‘I don’t want to be one of those ex-couples who hate each other. Let it rest and just move on. That’s something that I Iearned from my mum.’

Not only did she refuse to talk about the emotional fallout from the split in the press, she refused to talk about it at all. ‘Even with my closest friends, I was a closed book. They never dared say anything as they knew how fragile I was. Plus, nobody really knew what to say.’ Instead, she hid out in Thailand with bandmates Nicola and Kimberley, ‘smoking cigarettes in silence, looking out to sea’, then holed up in LA for an extended period. Not that it helped. ‘Everywhere you go, your brain goes with you. That becomes the thing you can’t stand.’

It was shortly after this, on a break to Tanzania in July 2010, that she contracted malaria. In typical Cheryl style, she tried to work through what she thought was a bad bout of flu. When she had to be rushed from a photo shoot to A&E, she realised it was far more serious. ‘My mum was told I had 24 hours to live.’ Instead of giving herself time to recover, though, she took barely a fortnight off. ‘And I was in hospital most of that time.’

Having won over her home turf in three seasons of damp-eyed sincerity on The X Factor – has there ever been a bigger sucker for a back story? – she agreed to be a judge on The X Factor USA. Simon Cowell promised it would kick-start her career over there, but it proved to be just another kick in the guts. Within a matter of weeks, her American dream was over. Cowell didn’t even bother to sack her face to face. The text she sent Simon on receiving the news read: ‘F*ck you. F*ck Fox. F*ck the orange and purple outfit. F*ck big hair. F*ck the UK X Factor. F*ck you all. I hate you.’

By now, every man she put her trust in, from Walsh to Cole to Cowell, had somehow betrayed her. She gives me a wry smile, and leans back in her chair: ‘I can talk about this because I’m OK about it now. But I went through hell and it literally drove me mad. I became so desensitised, you could say terrible things to me and I wouldn’t even think about it. I’d read awful stuff about myself and not blink. I shut down because I didn’t know what else to do.’

'I can talk about this because I’m OK about it now. But I went through hell and it literally drove me mad.'

Rumours about why she was dismissed from Cowell’s judging coterie – and replaced with Nicole Scherzinger – circulated, but neither party ever spoke about it publicly. What Cheryl will admit is that it was for the best. ‘Now, I can say that Simon was right to get rid of me. I wasn’t well in the head when that was going on, so it wasn’t going to work. But he wasn’t right not to tell me to my face.’

Overwhelmed by illness, unhappiness and rejection, and after back-to-back tours – first solo, then with Girls Aloud – she ground to a halt. ‘I got calls about going into a studio, but I just couldn’t. I was worried if I threw myself back into another album, I wouldn’t cope. I called everyone and said I had to stop. I stood up for myself. I hadn’t stopped working for 10 years. I was turning 30 and I needed to deal with everything I’d been avoiding.’

She didn’t do therapy, eschewed rehab (‘I’ve seen people drink and do drugs, and that was never going to be me’). Instead, she sat down and wrote her bucket list (‘My f*ck-it list, actually,’ she laughs). Right at the top was ‘dolphins’, and the first trip she booked was to Hawaii to swim with them. ‘It was a beautiful day and we were just off an island. There was a family of them swimming – leaping, brushing past me, showing off. I cried because I was so happy. Actually, it wasn’t exactly the happiness: I was crying because I was feeling emotion, any emotion, after stopping myself feeling for so long.’ And the tattoo (Cheryl’s tattoo artist tweeted an image of her bottom last year, covered in giant inked roses from her lower back to the tops of her thighs), was that on the f*ck-it list too? ‘It’s my roses, my life: some are in bud, some are in bloom. That’s how I felt about myself, coming into flower.’ It might not have been › well-received, but she loves it, and she doesn’t care. ‘And it makes me angry when people try and turn it into a class thing. To me, it’s art and it’s personal.’

If her 20s were defined by men – and she’s self-aware enough to admit they were – Cheryl’s 30s are all about women: specifically, a tight-knit support group she’s had for years. ‘People think they’ll hate 30, but for me the whole thing was incredible. I felt like an old, wet raincoat was falling off my shoulders. And it made me closer to my friends than ever.’ She spent the day itself with 25 of them at a house she’d rented in Malibu. Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh – ‘the two girls who saved my life’ – gave her 30 presents, including a Chopard ring with three diamonds to represent their friendship. ‘But the most amazing gift was a surprise. They told me to close my eyes, and when I opened them, a lady dressed as a mermaid was swimming in my pool! I burst into tears. I hired a plane the next day and we all went to Vegas, then went back to the house for a party. We had a barbecue and everyone was dancing to stupid songs. I laughed like I hadn’t laughed since I was 19.’ Nineteen was just before she shot to fame in Girls Aloud.

So the start of her fourth decade has been good to her – and it shows. ‘I spent a year doing all the things I haven’t had time for. Baking, playing with my nephews and nieces, seeing my dad, being with my mum, walking my dogs [Buster and Coco]. And sitting with Kimberley just talking and talking.’ Cheryl was the first friend Kimberley told she was pregnant. ‘I cried,’ she laughs. ‘I was so happy because I love her so much. When I do finally grow up, she’s the woman I want to be. You open my front door and it’s chaos, suitcases bursting with clothes, nephews running around. You open hers and it’s perfect, everything is in place, there’s food in the fridge, scented candles burning, soft music playing. I go there and I feel calm. And now I’ll be going to look after her baby. I’m getting a Moses basket for my house because the baby is going to be part of my life, too. I honestly can’t wait.’ And is there any envy that it’s not her expecting a baby? ‘I thought I had every box ticked, career and personal. I was the first to get married. I was the one everyone thought would be the first to have a baby. And then the rug got pulled out from under me. I’ve learned there is no such thing as a plan. You can’t make them. I’m just enjoying finding out who I am. That’s good enough right now.’

Having returned to The X Factor judging seat, she is obviously on good terms with Cowell now, but it took a while. ‘I don’t bear grudges. All that toxicity poisons you.’ It takes a woman, not a girl, to handle a man like that – and it was Cheryl who broke the ice after their falling out. On his birthday, she organised for a plane to fly over his LA home with a banner that read: ‘Simon Cowell is 52 today! Ha ha ha! Love Cheryl xoxo.’ Another tick on the f*ck-it list, then? She laughs: ‘I had to make the first move. He sent me a text immediately saying, “I.AM.GONNA.KILL.U,” then the next day asked me to see him.’

Perhaps, she thinks, Cowell had been just a bit scared of her. ‘I actually understand him more than he’d ever dream I do,’ she says. ‘I get him enough to know he just couldn’t tell me to my face. I was angry when it happened but I’ve learnt a lot about the industry I’m in. It’s run by men and I have to deal with that, to have the confidence to make the moves, take the decisions.’

The thawing in relations was instant once the pair were face to face. ‘I went to his house. He apologised for the way he’d handled things and we had a nice evening. We started to meet up and he’d always ask me to go back to The X Factor.’ Before Cheryl first agreed to appear on the UK series back in 2008, it took Cowell three years of begging. She made him wait this time, too – I suspect she understands that someone like Cowell appreciates things more if they don’t come easily. ‘I always took great pleasure in turning him down,’ she smiles. It has to be said, the show has been lacking a certain sweet-natured charm since her departure. She picked her moment to backtrack (and, one suspects, made sure the money was right: she’s reportedly signed a £1.5m deal). ‘I felt I was ready to do it.’

She’s been working on her music, too. I’ve listened to some of her new album, and the songs sound like they were written by, or for, a woman in control. Quirky and upbeat, there isn’t a single sad song on there. There could have been, though – courtesy of Nicola Roberts. ‘She sent me a song I couldn’t sing because it broke me just to listen to it. The words were her perspective on what I’d been going through and there’s a line: “It’s so silent / Everyone is quiet / They are just waiting for their hands / To catch my heart.”’ Cheryl cries as she tells me.

‘I know I’m really lucky because none of what I’ve been through broke me. It actually taught me everything I’m going to need for the rest of my life. I love feeling that I’m strong because I have good women at my side. And I don’t give a f*ck what people think any more.’ ●

Crazy Stupid Love is out 20 July

Words: Louise Gannon / Photography: Ben Morris / Fashion: Anne-Marie Curtis

'Everywhere you go, your brain goes
with you. That becomes the thing you can't stand'

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