Despite her public persona, SARAH HARDING felt she was ugly duckling

Despite her public persona, SARAH HARDING felt she was ugly duckling

09/05/2021

‘I was the blonde bombshell, the crazy party girl’: Despite her public persona, SARAH HARDING, who has died aged 39, felt she was the ugly duckling… and was happier curled up with a good book, writes ALISON BOSHOFF

Charismatic, talented and with a rare gift for honesty, following her diagnosis with terminal cancer earlier this year, Sarah Harding released a solo single and a memoir called Hear Me Out.

With mordant humour, the Girls Aloud star described it as ‘my first and only book’. And in its closing pages, she said she hoped to go out with a bang.

She wrote: ‘What I would really like to do is to see everyone, all my friends all together, one last time and then I would throw a great big f*** off party to say thank you and good bye. Wouldn’t that be amazing?’

However, it wasn’t to be. The ‘hard reality’, as she described it, was that she was already far too ill for a gathering of any sort. Unsteady on her feet due to lesions on her brain, she railed against her loss of independence, which forced her to move back in with her mother Marie.

When Sarah had discovered a lump under her arm early last year, she’d dismissed it as a cyst, perhaps caused by the strap of her guitar. She had her first appointment in March last year and was diagnosed with breast cancer in July.

Then followed a mastectomy, that ‘broke her heart’, chemotherapy and radiotherapy – all endured during lockdown.

Nadine Coyle, Kimberley Walsh, Sarah Harding, Nicola Roberts and Cheryl Cole of Girls Aloud with arrive at the BRIT Awards 2009

When Sarah had discovered a lump under her arm early last year, she’d dismissed it as a cyst, perhaps caused by the strap of her guitar. She had her first appointment in March last year and was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 

And she reflected: ‘It’s strange, this world I find myself in. It’s like I’ve stepped on to another planet where everything seems unfamiliar. I suppose everybody could say that in the midst of a global pandemic, but that’s not it for me.

‘As I write this, it’s a few weeks before my 39th birthday and I have no idea what’s waiting for me in the year to come. I’m doing my absolute best to be positive and to fight it. This is a chance to reflect on everything good and bad and to remind myself what a wonderfully full and colourful life I’ve had up to this point. A life I’m very grateful for, having achieved above and beyond anything I dreamed of when I was a little girl.’

The way she tells it, there were two Sarah Hardings, each as real as the other. One was the party girl, effervescent and risk-taking – but also prone to anxiety and self-doubt (although tall blonde and stunning, she always considered herself the ‘ugly duckling’ of the band).

The other Sarah was a quieter person who was happy cooking, spending time with family and pets, and reading a book.

The ‘hard reality’, as she described it, was that she was already far too ill for a gathering of any sort. Unsteady on her feet due to lesions on her brain, she railed against her loss of independence, which forced her to move back in with her mother Marie (pictured together in 2013)

Charismatic, talented and with a rare gift for honesty, following her diagnosis with terminal cancer earlier this year, Sarah Harding released a solo single and a memoir called Hear Me Out. Sarah Harding is pictured here as a child 

She wrote that in her Girls Aloud years, she became a caricature – a ‘rock chick, blonde bombshell, party girl, the caner of the band’. She added: ‘For me it was like, ‘Oh that’s who I am then. I’ve been looking for my role so this must be it.’ It became easy for me. I liked a drink, I was a bit rebellious, I liked to go out partying so it was a win/win. Until it wasn’t.’

She added: ‘Somewhere among the nightclubs, the frocks and hairdos, the big chart hits and the glamour of being a pop star, the other Sarah Harding got utterly lost… there most definitely is that fun crazy party girl in me, there always was.

‘It was the other Sarah – the one who liked curling up at home with her dog and a good book; the one who enjoyed cooking a roast dinner for her friends; the one who liked spending nights alone, writing songs and making music – who got lost.’

Born in Ascot, Berkshire, to John and Marie in 1981, Sarah grew up in a small house in Wraysbury in Windsor. She was, by her own admission, ‘something of a handful’ and was diagnosed with ADHD as a young child. It meant she ended up attending no fewer than seven schools, including at least two boarding schools, before walking out aged 15.

She went to theatre school part-time and drifted into various jobs: in a call centre, delivering car parts, working in a pub, and training as a hairdresser.

The one thing she did love was music which she’d inherited from her father, who’d performed and sung in various bands. Sarah was never happier than when she was singing and playing her guitar.

She began performing in pubs, social clubs and caravan parks. She was also – briefly – in a girlband called Project G and auditioned for talent shows Fame Academy and Popstars: The Rivals in 2002.

Aged 20, she won her place in the manufactured band that was to become Girls Aloud alongside Cheryl Tweedy, Nadine Coyle, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh. They had four number one singles, 20 top ten hits and two number one albums. By 2010, the group had a £30million fortune.

Merchandise deals were signed with Samsung electronics, Sunsilk shampoo and Eylure false eyelashes. Each girl was also recreated as a Barbie doll. It was, as she wrote, ‘mind-blowing’.

Their schedule was crushing and there were some tensions among the girls. Sarah felt she didn’t fit in. All five lived in the same development in London but Cheryl shared with Nicola and Nadine with Kimberley, leaving Sarah on her own.

Aged 20, she won her place in the manufactured band that was to become Girls Aloud alongside Cheryl Tweedy, Nadine Coyle, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh. They had four number one singles, 20 top ten hits and two number one albums. By 2010, the group had a £30million fortune

After only a year with the band, she felt ‘anxious, on edge, fragile’. She ‘dreaded’ going to work even though it was the fulfilment of a dream.

There were good times and wild times. She spent one night drinking with Boy George after a gig, only breaking off when she had half an hour to get to the airport. Her stamina was legendary.

Her love life was eventful and painful, too. There were liaisons with Calum Best, son of George, and with Hollywood actor Stephen Dorff. One ex-boyfriend sold topless photos of her to a newspaper.

Her great love was DJ Tom Crane and they were together for four years. He proposed to her in the Maldives in 2011 – but they split a few months later.

This seems to have been the cue for her to press a self-destruct button. She wrote of a ‘dark, difficult period’ when she was ‘on a treadmill of booze, sleeping pills and drugs’. In October 2011, she attended a clinic in South Africa where, with typical irony and sense of fun, she organised a ‘Rehab’s Got Talent’ contest. She also struck up an ill-advised romance in the clinic, which ended after a physical fight with her beau.

After Girls Aloud split in 2013, she became a regular on reality TV shows, competing in the BBC gymnastics show Tumble in 2014 and in Celebrity MasterChef the following year. In 2016, she tore a ligament while filming Channel 4 series The Jump. In 2017, she won the final series of Celebrity Big Brother.

She also acted, appearing as Roxy in St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold and briefly starred in Coronation Street in 2015.

And in recent years she had been hoping to go back to singing and working on a new direction as a blues singer.

At the time of her diagnosis, she had signed up to take part in a Girls Aloud reunion and tour in 2022 – the 20th anniversary of the band’s inception. It wasn’t to be.

She did, though, reunite with her bandmates at Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire last year for a weekend – and it was the first time they had all met for years.

Typically, Sarah worried about not looking glamorous enough, about being bloated due to steroids and losing her eyelashes to chemotherapy.

She needn’t have worried. Bandmate Cheryl later recalled: ‘Sarah was at her best. She’s always been funny and sharp-witted but somehow, in all this, she’s even funnier. God knows how!’

God knows indeed… at the end of her memoir, Sarah discusses preparing for the end. She wrote: ‘I’ve also thought about an epitaph for my grave. I’m thinking ‘FFS’ [For F***’s Sake] might be a good one. It’s probably been my most used phrase throughout this, with one crappy event following another.’

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