On the day Sarah Harding auditioned in August 2002 for the ITV talent show Popstars: The Rivals, the judges made up their minds in a trice. “You’re through, you’re going to London,” the record producer Pete Waterman told the 20-year-old singer before she had finished the first verse of the Bananarama song Last Thing on My Mind. Whatever he saw in her – then just nerves and a blistering voice – was justified four months later, when the public voted her into the newly minted quintet Girls Aloud.
Much greater than the sum of their parts, Girls Aloud were as masterful a pop outfit as Britain has ever produced, and in Harding, who has died aged 39 of cancer, they had both a powerful vocalist and a self-described “loon”.
“I’m mad, aren’t I?” was her semi-explanation when the group’s manager, Louis Walsh, asked why she found it hard to learn their dance routines.
Every band has a member who views the perks of stardom as a challenge, and Harding took on that role; a picture of her drinking whiskey from a bottle at the 2007 NME awards became a defining image, and she acquired the nickname Hardcore Harding.
At the time, she was not displeased. “I used to think I was Liam Gallagher, flicking the Vs at the camera, thinking I was rock’n’roll. [But Hardcore] was just a nickname. I’m not on that party scene any more, and I don’t want to be,” she said in 2015. She had reason to distance herself.
Girls Aloud at Wembley arena in 2004. From left: Kimberley Walsh, Nadine Coyle, Cheryl Tweedy, Sarah Harding and Nicola Roberts. Photograph: Dave Hogan/Getty Images
In 2009, Girls Aloud had taken a break that, apart from a brief reunion four years later, turned out to be permanent, leaving Harding a free agent. But being handed the reins to her career was not an unalloyed blessing. “We didn’t have advice when we ended. It was very quiet – the calm after the storm. I wasn’t prepared. It was like all or nothing and suddenly there was nothing.”
Around the same time, her fiance, the DJ Tom Crane, with whom she owned a bar in London, called off their engagement via Twitter – it was news to her, apparently, and she began to drink excessively. She also became addicted to sleeping pills and in 2011 was treated for depression and substance misuse. After leaving the clinic she began a brief relationship with another former patient, which ended in a drunken fight during a Christmas trip to Austria.
Two years later she received a driving ban after nearly colliding with a police officer while using her phone. Once Harding’s vulnerability had been revealed, the tabloids and social media rarely stopped gunning for her.
Sarah Harding in 2007. Photograph: Stewart Kendall/Allstar
Running alongside the personal-life stories were her attempts to find an identity after being one-fifth of a girl group for seven years. Girls Aloud had had a straight run of 22 Top 20 singles (including four No 1s) and five Top 20 albums, but the window for solo opportunities was open only for a brief spell. The other ex-Girls released solo records, but Harding, who had had the leading role in St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold while still in the band, considered acting a more interesting goal. Other than a four-part role as the cheated-on Joni Preston in Coronation Street, however, few decent parts came her way.
On the other hand, celebrity reality TV vied for her reliably witty services. She gamely learned gymnastics on Tumble, tore a ligament in The Jump, made pig on toast in Celebrity MasterChef, cried while revisiting her childhood bedroom in Wraysbury, Berkshire, on Celebrity Home Secrets and won the 2017 series of Celebrity Big Brother.
Persistent pain from the ligament injury forced her to pull out early from the starring role in the 2016 British tour of Ghost: The Musical. Reviews had been scathing – “Sarah Harding explores the afterlife of a pop music career,” said the Irish Times, and that was one of the polite ones – and the episode marked the end of her attempt to establish herself as an actor. She had already had a go at reviving her musical career in 2015 with a dance song called Threads; it failed to reach the main singles chart.
Her next major work project would have been a tour with Girls Aloud in 2022 to mark the 20th anniversary of their formation. All five members had agreed to participate and she saw the reunion as a profile-raising lifeline.
Sarah Harding winning Celebrity Big Brother in 2017. Photograph: Karwai Tang/WireImage
But in August 2020, she announced that she was ill. “Earlier this year I was diagnosed with breast cancer and a couple of weeks ago I received the devastating news that the cancer has advanced to other parts of my body. I’m undergoing weekly chemotherapy sessions and I am fighting as hard as I can.”
In March this year she released a single, Wear It Like a Crown, which reached No 1 on iTunes – her only solo song to do so – after a persistent campaign on the Popjustice website, and published a memoir, Hear Me Out.
Born in Ascot, Berkshire, Harding was the only child of John Hardman, a professional musician, and his wife, Marie. Her parents separated when she was 14 and she and her mother moved to Stockport; Marie divorced John when he met a much younger woman. This development so disgusted Sarah that she changed her name to Harding and did not speak to her father again.
She left Hazel Grove high school without taking her GCSEs. The intention was to become a singer, to which end she studied performing arts at North Cheshire Theatre College. To pay the bills, she got an NVQ in hair and beauty.
Gigs with a local band and as a solo performer were getting her nowhere; trying to “get some profile”, she sent a topless picture to FHM magazine’s High Street Honeys competition, and made the final 100. As it turned out, she did not need the boost. Months later, having auditioned for both the Fame Academy talent show and Popstars: The Rivals, she was picked by the latter.
She is survived by her mother.
Sarah Nicole Harding, singer and actor, born 17 November 1981; died 5 September 2021