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When Sarah Harding released her memoir in March, six months before her death, she wanted to show the public she was more than just the “rock chick, blonde bombshell, party girl” she’d become known as during her years with Girls Aloud.
In the book, Hear Me Out, she hoped to address the “caricature” she had become known for, but in the end her music spoke for itself. “It’s emotional, it’s earnest and it’s raw,” producer and songwriter Brian Higgins wrote of the ballad she’d written in 2004, the title of her future memoir. “The vocal melody is also skilled, intelligent and finds true and real emotions.”
Higgins was referring to Harding’s powerful chorus, but his words ended up offering a fitting description of the singer herself. The singer, Coronation Street actress and Celebrity Big Brother winner passsed away this week aged 39 after more than a year battling breast cancer, and the tributes have spoken of a woman who was both a party girl and a quiet soul who was happy reading a book and spending time with family.
“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...,” she wrote herself in March. “‘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.”
In the final pages of the book, Harding wrote that her dream was to throw a “great big f*** off party to say thank you and goodbye”, but sadly it was not to be. Her last months saw her far too ill for any kind of celebration and she was unsteady on her feet due to lesions on her brain. She moved in with her mother Marie, who looked after her until the end.
Announcing her passing on Instagram last night, Marie described her “beautiful” daughter as a “bright shining star” who wouldn’t want to be remembered for her fight against cancer. This is a look back at the singer’s life.
Sarah “the catalyst”
Growing up in Berkshire and later Manchester, Harding was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and has described herself as “something of a handful” when she was young.
Teachers reportedly called her “the catalyst” in reference to her tendency for being at the heart of classroom disruption and she attended a total of seven schools, including at least two boarding schools. “I was a bit of a reprobate as a teenager,” she once said.
Her parents divorced when she was 14 and Harding chose to side with her mother, cutting her father, who had left for a younger woman, out of her life and changing her surname.
She left school at the age of 15, choosing to pursue her passion for music, a talent she’d inherited from her father, John, a professional musician who’d performed in several bands. She attended theatre school part-time and worked in several jobs, including waitressing at Pizza Hut, driving vans, answering phones in call centres and training as a hairdresser.
As a singer and a guitarist, she went on to perform her own material in pubs, social clubs and caravan parks in North West England and briefly joined a girl band called Project G and auditioned for talent shows including Fame Academy.
But Harding’s big break came when she auditioned for ITV’s Popstars: The Rivals in 2002 and famously blew judge Louis Walsh a kiss. Her performance won her a place in the final 10 and she moved into a house with the rest of the girls, where future bandmate Nadine Coyle described her as “surprisingly reserved” and more interested in reading than socialising.
She was the last girl to earn a place in the show’s manufactured group Girls Aloud alongside Cheryl Tweedy, Nadine Coyle, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh, beating favourite Javine Hylton to the fifth place.
The making of a star
Beating Hylton to the spot was to be the making of Harding - but it came with its downsides. In her memoir two decades later, Harding described how the moment was tarnished by speculation that the vote was rigged.
“Rightly or wrongly, I started off my whole Girls Aloud journey feeling slightly unwanted,” she wrote in Hear Me Out. The result was she threw herself into every cliché of pop star life, becoming a party girl “to prove to myself and everyone that I bloody well did deserve to be in Girls Aloud. I was good enough.”
The group went on to score four number one singles and two number one albums, with tracks including Sound Of The Underground, Love Machine and The Promise. During their time together, they met the Queen and were nominated five times for a Brit Award and won once. “Can I just say, it’s about time!” Harding famously told the crowd when they were finally awarded for best British single for The Promise in 2009.
Within Girls Aloud, Harding became the party one. She had a tattoo that read “Don’t Be Bitter - Glitter” and during their 2008 tour, she would open shows by shouting: “Big Mouth’s back, and she’s here to say hello!” Alongside her self-described nickname, she earned two others: “Britain’s most glamorous hellraiser” and “Hardcore Harding” - she crashed a Ferrari during their Channel 4 documentary series called Girls Aloud: Off the Record and later spent spells in rehab.
Harding has since admitted she realised it was simpler to play the role of “party girl”, even if it meant she often “felt like a cartoon character rather than a pop star”.
In March she wrote that she became a caricature during her girl band years – a “rock chick, blonde bombshell, party girl, the caner of the band”. Among her most rock’n’roll moments was a night she spent drinking with Boy George after a performance, leaving herself 30 minutes to get to the airport. She is also said to have confronted George in a hotel bar after he once described the band as “just a bunch of pretty girls prancing around on the stage” at an awards show.
“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,” Harding added in the memoir.
At times, she also felt left out. All five bandmates lived in the same development in London, but Tweedy shared with Roberts and Coyle shared with Walsh, leaving Harding on her own. After just a year in Girls Aloud, she was left feeling “anxious, on edge, fragile’” and “dreaded” going to work, despite it being her dream.
“Fiery” romances and the “biggest mistake” of her life
Harding was romantically linked with several high-profile names over the years, from Hollywood actor Stephen Dorff to George Best’s son Calum, who later described their relationship as “eight months of madness”, adding: “It was a whirlwind, an intense, full-on, fiery relationship. But it was a good fire.”
But the great love of her life was DJ Tom Crane. The pair dated for five years and he proposed on a Christmas trip to the Maldives in 2010.
Several months later, they split when Crane called off their engagement via Twitter, which was reportedly news to Harding. She began to drink excessively and became addicted to sleeping pills, which led to her being treated for depression and substance misuse the following year.
Harding has since blamed long-distance for the ending of her engagement, saying she ended up pushing Crane away. “I’ve never stopped blaming myself,” she wrote in her memoir. “Losing him was one of the biggest mistakes of my life, but we just couldn’t seem to find a way through the impasse.”
Branching out from the band
Girls Aloud went on hiatus in 2009 and Harding took this as her chance to branch out. She tried her hand at acting, gaining positive reviews for her performance in the BBC drama Freefall before fittingly playing an unruly student in St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold.
When the band later split in 2013, the singer put her energy into reality shows including celebrity gymnastics series Tumble and winter sports series The Jump.
In 2015 she fulfilled a long-standing dream and returned to her northern roots, guest-starring in five episodes of Coronation Street as Joni Preston, the wife of Robert Preston and a love rival to fiery Tracy Barlow.
The following year she added stage acting to her CV, being cast in Ghost with a chance to reprise Demi Moore’s famously erotic potter’s wheel scene. She once had to be led off stage after getting angry when she learnt that her father was in the audience, and she dropped out after a handful of shows following reports she was slurring and fluffing her lines.
In 2017 she restarted her reality show career, taking part in the twentieth series of Celebrity Big Brother and going on to win after proving a big hit with the public. She secured 35.33 per cent of the final vote, beating singer Amelia Lily and Made In Chelsea’s Sam Thompson.
She later wrote in her memoir: “I wanted to prove I could do it. I also went in there intending to show people a different side of me. I’d also been portrayed in the media as this mad, off-the-rails party girl.”
At 38, Harding made headlines for another reason: she announced she was having chemotherapy for breast cancer and that the disease had spread to other parts of her body.
She went on to reveal that she had discovered a lump in her breast but had been reluctant to seek help during the Covid pandemic, dismissing the lump as a cyst and “popping painkillers like they were Smarties”. She hoped her book would help others stop being in denial like she was, saying her diagnosis was “scary” but also “the right thing to do”.
“In December my doctor told me that the upcoming Christmas would probably be my last,” she wrote in an extract of her memoir, published in The Times earlier this year. “I don’t want an exact prognosis. I don’t know why anyone would want that. Comfort and being as pain-free as possible is what’s important to me now.”
At the time she said she was “trying to live and enjoy every second of my life, however long it might be”, adding: “I am having a glass of wine or two during all this, because it helps me relax. I’m sure some people might think that’s not a great idea, but I want to try to enjoy myself.
“I’m at a stage now where I don’t know how many months I have left. Who knows, maybe I’ll surprise everyone, but that’s how I’m looking at things.”
In the final pages of the book, Harding wrote that her dream was to throw a “great big f*** off party to say thank you and goodbye”, but she became too ill and had to move in with her mother, Marie who announced her daughter’s death on Instagram. “It’s with deep heartbreak that today I’m sharing the news that my beautiful daughter Sarah has sadly passed away,” she wrote.
“Many of you will know of Sarah’s battle with cancer and that she fought so strongly from her diagnosis until her last day.
“She slipped away peacefully this morning. I’d like to thank everyone for their kind support over the past year.
“It meant the world to Sarah and it gave her great strength and comfort to know she was loved. I know she won’t want to be remembered for her fight against this terrible disease - she was a bright shining star and I hope that’s how she can be remembered instead.- Marie x”.