The girl’s alone and loving it: Nicola Roberts on going solo
Once considered the odd one out in Girls Aloud, singer Nicola Roberts has blossomed from an ‘ugly’ duckling into a sassy – and business savvy – style icon. And now, as Benji Wilson discovers, she’s ready for her solo moment
Nicola Roberts is curled up on a sofa, face hidden by an avalanche of copper hair and intergalactic sunglasses. She looks a little like a cat, and as it happens she is not the only cat on the sofa. The photo studio has its own, and there’s a dog too, a russet spaniel. ‘I love the fact that there’s a ginger cat , ginger dog and,’ she says, looking over at the goldfish bowl on the other side of the room, ‘even a ginger fish.’ And then she laughs, long and loud, as if YOU had booked an auburn entourage to make the girl Cheryl Cole calls ‘Ginge’ feel better.
Poking fun at herself, happy in her own skin: this is not the Nicola of Girls Aloud folklore. She was always the odd one out, the little china doll who stood at the back and looked unsure while Cheryl, Kimberley, Sarah and Nadine strutted and pouted. Instead, the Nicola we have here is sexy, sassy – and on her own. She has a solo album ready to launch. It’s called Cinderella’s Eyes
and it’s full of confessional, take-me-as-you-find-me statements of intent. ‘I’m a different girl to who I was ten years ago. It’s just my confidence. I still have the same personality, but I’m a lot more sociable now as well. Before, I was so shy.’
She pauses for thought, removing the sunglasses. ‘Do you know what it is? I’m quite good at psychology and reading a situation. But analysing things is not necessarily a good trait to have because you can’t switch it off. We [Girls Aloud] would be on stage and I’d read the reactions. We’d do a gig and all of the boys in the crowd would be staring at Cheryl and Nadine. Because of that, my confidence was so low. I could see what people thought of me, very clearly.’
Essentially, the girl who went from the Halton Brook estate in Runcorn to one of Britain’s biggest girl bands (via Popstars: The Rivals at 16) just didn’t fit in to the pop world. And she knew it. ‘In this industry, at parties, if there’s another celebrity that you don’t know but you recognise, you’re supposed to be all over them, saying, “Hi! How are you?” I’m not from a world like that, so I didn’t follow those rules. I’d say, “Why do they want to talk to me? Why would I do that?” I think I seemed quite aloof in that respect.’
‘Aloof’ soon morphed into a rumour that she was the moody one. And that was on a good day – at other times, in waspish website comments and spiteful press, she was just ‘the ugly one’. Chris Moyles called her a ‘sour-faced cow’.
As Girls Aloud grew bigger, Nicola seemed to wilt. It was only when the group started landing
Brit nominations (they won one in 2009) and being taken seriously that they began to give interviews individually. Suddenly, people noticed Nicola had something to say for herself. Her look changed, too. Rather than smearing herself in fake tan in a bid to look like the others, she learned to love her skin and hair, launching her own make-up range Dainty Doll in 2008 for girls with her pale, porcelain complexion. In 2010 she presented a BBC Three documentary highlighting the dangers of sunbed abuse. A press that had declared her a shrinking violet suddenly decided she was a role model. She went from being the least interesting Girl Aloud to the one at the top of the interview list. ‘I might have been seven years late but I got there. All those insecurities I had when I was younger started to fall by the wayside.’
Nicola has had to grow up in public. She was born in an RAF camp in Stamford, Lincolnshire, then her family moved to Runcorn. She always had a passion for performing and went to the Olwen Grounds School of Dancing. Then, at 16, she auditioned for Popstars: The Rivals. And that, as one of Girls Aloud’s most famous songs puts it, is that: all of her adult life has been spent in a monstrously successful girl band.
It’s brought her wealth but it hasn’t been a picnic. Nicola was once asked what was her worst year: she said 2003…to 2007. The shared experience did, however, make the girls close. If one thing gets Nicola’s back up, it’s the idea of rifts and feuds between them. ‘We didn’t have management for four years, so we would fight our own battles with the label. Cheryl and I used to get called into the head of the label’s office all the time to discuss budgets. We were the ones who fought for the fact that we needed time off. I remember once, during the recording of a show at Channel 4, we all went into the loo, locked the door and went to sleep for an hour!’
Louis Walsh was supposed to be their manager after Popstars. ‘Yeah, he was contracted…but we didn’t feel managed. Louis just didn’t work like that. We felt very on our own. One time we were in Guildford recording our first album, just after Christmas. I remember one night sitting round this table trying to eat dinner, saying, “We are so lonely. We are so alone.” None of us were sleeping. But when it actually comes down to it, because of all those things we’re like sisters. It is us against the world when we need it to be. No one is going to tell us what to do.’
Which is why she insists – and she’s bored of having to say it – that the band has not broken up
but is on a break. The girls will return next year to celebrate their – gulp – tenth anniversary.
The band has now been on pause for two years. Sarah has tried acting, Nadine moved to Los Angeles, Kimberley has presented TV shows and Cheryl…well, we know all too well what Cheryl’s been up to. And Nicola? Nicola has gone back to what she’d been doing since she was 11 – singing and writing songs.
‘I couldn’t deal with not making music,’ she says. ‘The band were approached with all sorts of ideas for TV shows. It was almost like, “Don’t insult me. Presenting? You know that’s not me.” I was so frustrated that I had to get into the studio.’
Nicola has spent the best part of a year working, initially without a deal, with top names such as Beyoncé producer Diplo, Joe Mount from Metronomy and Dragonette. The album is quirky, electronic and surprisingly noncommercial; in fact, in parts it is about as radio-friendly as a bucket of water. It’s also rather brilliant, like Kate Bush in a room full of synthesisers. But Nicola hasn’t played it to the rest of the girls. ‘I was afraid to play anything to too many people. Because this is different. And not a lot of people are in to different. I didn’t want to be swayed. I didn’t want to put it on and think, “I need it to be more commercial because the girls weren’t smiling.’”
Performing without the band has also come as a shock. ‘I did this radio gig, 10,000 people in Newcastle. And I felt, oh my gosh. I am so tiny on this massive stage. It’s just me. No big sparkly costumes or flying in from the back of the arena or glitter bombs or dancers or anything. I felt very bare. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience.’
Five years ago, Nicola couldn’t have done it on her own. Now she can. Suddenly the music critics are paying attention, and the shy one is being heralded as a bold new voice. But Nicola knows that the press can be fickle – she’s seen it with Cheryl and the stories about her relationship with Ashley Cole. ‘It’s the world that we live in. You can’t fight against it. It’s so big that it would wear you out. So you ignore it,’ she says.
She’s also learnt to ignore speculation about her love life – she’s still with boyfriend Charlie Fennell after three years – and ignore everything she reads on the web. ‘For so long, when I read people’s comments and saw their reactions, I’d get upset. People get so opinionated about how someone looks. You’ll read the same comment about you as about somebody very beautiful, like Angelina Jolie. “She’s ugly.” It’s like, “Oh, please!” That makes it not feel so bad if they’re saying it about you.’
What Nicola has discovered is that many of the people who once dismissed her now consider her a style leader, and invite her to sit on the front row. ‘Fashion can represent your personality if you need it to; it can make you feel good. You don’t even need a big budget.’
Today she’s wearing an orange blazer, skinny jeans and flats. ‘Vintage, Topshop, Chanel,’ she says, working from the top down, laughing again.
‘Fashion is a representation of how you feel. If you need a greater sense of identity, fashion can give you that.’ She gets up and gives us a twirl, dodging neatly between the ginger cat and the ginger dog. Safe to say that if Nicola used to suffer from an identity crisis, she doesn’t now.
Nicola’s single ‘Lucky Day’ is out now and her album Cinderella’s Eyes will be out on 26 September; both on A&M Records
WHAT TICKLES NICOLA
I’m listening to the Metronomy record The English Riviera. I’ve got Adele in the car and I listen to a lot of Rihanna. Oh, and I like James Blake — we’re on the same label and he’s just amazing.
I’m just about to start reading Alan Sugar’s book What You See Is What You Get. I like business. I have to deal with it with my make-up range, Dainty Doll.
Hard to say. Too many of them!
Sarah Jessica Parker. She dares to wear. She might be wearing neon flowers all over her head and African print trousers at the same time, yet somehow it looks so cool.
Coffee. Far too much of it, probably.
Saving up for
I’d like to get a studio at home, so I can make more records of my own, on