Just over a year after her split from Liam Payne, Cheryl is a new woman. Frank, focused, fired up – and ready to talk. She tells Louise Gannon about break-ups, breakdowns and how motherhood has helped her find happiness at last
Cheryl is crying. She is sitting in the middle of a London restaurant pushing a napkin into the corners of her eyes in an attempt to stop the tears falling.
The singer (who now goes by her first name only, following her second divorce), has been telling me how completely she has changed since giving birth to her son, Bear, who is now two. We’ve been talking about everything from her relationship with Bear’s dad, One Direction singer Liam Payne, to her weekly therapy sessions.
Also under discussion has been her renewed passion for music, and how strange she feels when she looks at Bear’s ‘beautiful room and beautiful clothes’ and thinks back to her own childhood, cramped together with her four siblings in a tiny council house in one of the poorer suburbs of Newcastle.
‘Everything changed for me from the moment Bear was born,’ she says. ‘My old brain came out of my head, and all my worries, anxieties and feelings of emptiness went, and a new brain replaced it. I knew the word “fulfilled” but I’d never known what that felt like.
‘Money, fame, success should have made me feel that but they never did, which is probably why I looked for it in my relationships with men, but that never worked either. I was always angry at myself. And then even though I’d had a really tough pregnancy because I had gestational diabetes, I felt more peaceful. The moment I held him in my arms I had that feeling: fulfilment. It’s stayed with me. And I’ve changed so much. I really have.’
It’s not the words that convince me. It’s the tears. This is, after all, the woman who for more than a decade held back any emotion over her private life in public – despite her first husband, the footballer Ashley Cole, cheating on her during their four-year marriage (they divorced in 2010); and despite discovering that her second husband, French restaurateur Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini, was not the knight in shining armour she believed him to be (they divorced in 2016 after two years of marriage). Cheryl Tweedy, then Cole, then Fernandez-Versini – each iteration was a closed book.
She once told me that in the depths of her split from Ashley she went to Thailand for a fortnight with her two closest friends, former Girls Aloud bandmates Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh, who begged her to talk as she sat in stony-faced silence, smoking cigarettes and looking out to sea.
The old Cheryl would never cry in public. Even the new Cheryl is pretty stunned by the tears. ‘I don’t know why,’ she says, recovering herself and half-laughing. I suggest it’s because she is finally demolishing some of the walls she’s built up around herself in the 17 years since she became famous – after landing a place in Girls Aloud on one of the first British reality shows, Popstars: The Rivals. She nods and puts the napkin down.
Cheryl, now 35, became a British obsession when she was plucked from Girls Aloud by Simon Cowell to become a judge on The X Factor in 2008. We couldn’t get enough of the down-to-earth Geordie girl with a face that launched a thousand crushes (one admirer was Prince Harry).
She was soon on her way to an estimated £20 million fortune, selling everything from L’Oréal beauty products to solo albums.
So many things went right for Cheryl, but so many things also went wrong. In 2010 she almost died from malaria, and the following year she had a breakdown after her debut on the US version of The X Factor flopped. ‘Mentally, I wasn’t in the right place,’ she told me when I interviewed her in 2014. ‘I was so desensitised I didn’t react to anything.’
Bear has resensitised Cheryl. She’s writing music. She’s hanging out with other mums. In person, she looks more real than those media images of a super-groomed singer. The make-up is minimal, and she’s suffering from a continual series of bugs picked up from her son. ‘I was so ill with a vomiting bug last week, I had to get my brother to call me an ambulance,’ she says.
Fragility has always suited Cheryl. Today she is wearing the world’s most unflattering top – a thin, Malteser-brown polo-neck – yet manages to look gorgeous in a rumpled Audrey Hepburn way. She picks up her phone to show me photos of Bear. He is a cute, smiling, chubby toddler – with her big brown eyes. She looks incredibly proud. ‘He’s such a lovely boy,’ she says.
‘I’m the strict one; Liam isn’t. I’ll be the one saying “just one square of chocolate”, but Bear is so good. If I get cross with him he puts his little hands on my face and looks into my eyes to see if I’m deadly serious or a tiny bit cross, and it melts my heart.’
But things – as ever with Cheryl – are complicated. When she and Payne got together, eyebrows were raised because of their 10-year age gap: he is 25. They first met in 2008 when he appeared as a solo contestant on The X Factor and she was a judge, but only became an item after she split from Fernandez-Versini and they were reintroduced by Simon Cowell. Then, when Bear was 16 months old, they announced that their relationship was over after two and a half years.
It’s not something she has ever discussed (Cheryl is notoriously private) but I ask her why she ended it. There is a long pause. ‘Who says it was me?’ she responds. So was their separation a conscious uncoupling, à la Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow? She looks up. ‘If that means there’s no screaming and shouting, and you both still manage to get on because you have a baby, then yes.’
I tell her I’ve always found Liam to be a good guy. ‘He is,’ she agrees. ‘Liam is a great dad. He’s much softer than me. But it is what it is, and I’m OK about it. When you have a baby, you are not consumed with just thinking about yourself. It’s your responsibility to keep things settled and happy, so you make the best of everything. And we have.’
I ask her if it’s tough being a single mother, and she shakes her head. ‘How can I say that when I’m so fortunate compared to so many others? I have made good money. I’m not extravagant. I have a nice lifestyle and I spend money on lovely holidays with my family. As a kid, we didn’t go on holiday. First-class travel wasn’t a treat for us; popcorn at Metroland [an amusement park in Newcastle] was. I didn’t know there were differences in aeroplane classes – it was all beyond us.
‘When I had Bear I didn’t want a nanny in the first year or so. I loved all of it. I didn’t care about waking up in the night: in a weird way I was totally prepared for that because of my job. If you work in a recording studio or on video shoots, 5am calls are pretty normal. I breastfed, I made purées, I spent afternoons with Kimberley and her sister and their mates, who all have babies, and Nicola would come over in the evenings and help out. Liam was away working in the first four months, so I got totally used to doing everything. And if I needed more help I’d be on the phone to the grandparents – his parents and my mum – and they’d come down.’
Cheryl did decide to get a nanny when she went back to work last year, but she’s still very hands-on. This morning she was making tomato and courgette muffins with her son, and right now her mother, Joan, is holding the fort. ‘He weighs a ton and my mum can barely carry him. She’s only 4ft 11in and he’s almost as big as her,’ she laughs.
Cheryl’s recent stint as a mentor on the BBC’s The Greatest Dancer has put her back in the frame as one of the nation’s most popular TV hosts. But she confides that she was ‘hysterical’ about having to perform dance routines every week on the show. ‘We’d get about two hours to rehearse, and although I was a dancer as a kid, I’m not a professional like Oti [Mabuse] and Matthew [Morrison]. It was bloody terrifying, but it also reminded me how much I love to dance.’
Her greatest fear about returning to work, she tells me, was ‘that the old Cheryl would come back. The one who was always anxious and worrying about everything.’ The Cheryl who had everything – looks, money, success – but was deeply discontented. She took it upon herself to deal with that fear head on.
‘I went to therapy,’ she says, as she finishes a plate of burrata, blood oranges and tomatoes. ‘I went because I felt I owed it to Bear, owed it to myself, never to go back to having that mindset. One of my friends recommended someone. I’ve been going to her for a year now for cognitive therapy, and I’m actively undoing all the bad thought patterns and traps I used to fall into.
‘I would talk to myself so nastily: “You silly cow. You stupid bitch.” No one could make me feel worse about myself than I did, and that was a massive problem. I haven’t slipped back. I still have that sense of knowing I’m happy, knowing I like my life, not feeling there’s some huge hole. I’m meditating and I’m being aware of myself. I’m being kinder to myself.’ She laughs.
‘There’s things I still can’t change, like I’m definitely OCD, and if I see Bear climbing into the dogs’ basket [she has three dogs at her home, just outside London] or falling in the mud I want to clean him up, but I don’t. I wait till bath time. I love his bath time.’
Is she still looking for love? ‘No,’ she says. ‘Not right now – it’s so not something I’m even thinking about. I wouldn’t rule it out maybe at some point in the distant future. But it’s not a priority. I’ve found the love of my life and he’s absolutely enough for me.’
As motherhood has been such a life-changer for her, does she want more children? ‘Yes,’ she admits, ‘but you don’t necessarily need to be in a relationship. I’ve got a friend who has had two children using donors. Not everything has to be conventional. You can spend ages looking for the right man, waiting for the perfect time to get pregnant, then the right man might turn out to be the wrong man. There are definitely other routes I would consider.’
The hours she now spends talking to her girlfriends have had a impact on her music. Her four solo albums have all made the top 10, and she is the first British female artist to have had five number-one singles in the UK – including Fight for This Love, Call My Name and Crazy Stupid Love – giving her major credibility as a singer.
‘Music is my passion, always has been, and now more than ever it’s such a huge part of my life,’ she says.
Her latest single, Let You, is a result of conversations about men and relationship patterns she has had with her friends, and it’s another team-up with Nicola Roberts, who has been a constant collaborator since Cheryl went solo.
‘I’ve made mistakes in relationships. I’ve been with men who were controlling, who made me unhappy, but I allowed it to happen. Women let these relationships happen, and that’s what this song is about,’ she explains. ‘But once you see it and recognise it, you have to try not to let it happen again.’
It’s a great track, one of the best songs she’s done for a long time. She nods her head. ‘I own my mistakes. I’ve learnt more from them than I have from my successes. I’ve learnt how hard it is to be happy, and now I can honestly say I am happy.’
Cheryl stands up because her mother has called and ‘toddler reinforcements are needed’. She wraps herself in a beige trench coat (channelling Audrey again), puts her hand in her pocket, pulls out a white dummy and laughs. ‘This is it,’ she says. ‘Happiness.’
Cheryl’s new single, Let You, is out in May
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