Still riding high on a wave of record sales and tabloid fascination, Girls Aloud have beaten all predictions of their imminent demise. As they prepare for a three-night run in Belfast, Jane Graham takes a closer look at the secret of their success
At first glance — and indeed, after several subsequent glances — Girls Aloud had very little going for them from day one. The band came to public prominence in 2002 as the winning girlband of ITV talent show Pop Stars; The Rivals — a follow up to Popstars, which had spawned Hear'say the previous year.
The signs were not good. For one thing, Hear'say, a bizarre combination of hard-faced businesswoman, sex kitten, classical musician, geeky Welsh boy and Shrek impersonator, had already disbanded after failing to extend their initial sales success beyond a few months.
In what looked like another strike against them, Girls Aloud were to be left in the hands of pop manager Louis Walsh, and Walsh did not command an industry respect comparable to his TV rival judge, svengali Pete Waterman, who vowed to continue to steer the career of winning boyband One True Voice.
In a further blow, at the band's conception the tabloids were less interested in the five members than in asking why the public had voted out the most ostensibly talented and attractive contestant, Javine Hylton; the 'mystery' occupied headlines for a week, and also led to popular speculation that while Girls Aloud were likely to go the way of all things Hear'say, Javine could probably look forward to a long and successful pop career. As, it was deemed, could One True Voice.
When the band's first single Sounds of the Underground went straight to No 1 just in time for Christmas (beginning the trend for reality talent shows to fill the feted slot), no one batted an eyelid. Par for the course. So Girls Aloud had a platinum-selling debut single and a four-week run at the top slot? Big deal — Hear'say's debut single had sold more than a million copies before its purveyors had sunk into acrimonious oblivion.
It wasn't long before Cheryl Tweedy stole the limelight back from Javine (something she would turn out to have a talent for). Within weeks of their first hit, a huge tabloid story ensured that Girls Aloud avoided a slow drop out of the public eye. Unfortunately, the story was not a welcome one and threatened to blemish the most high-profile band member's persona to such an extent that a public backlash would have been unavoidable.
Tweedy already had a bit of an image as a tough-talking Geordie lass but she was also becoming a paparazzi and lads' mag favourite (unsurprisingly for a former 'Miss Most Attractive Girl at the Metro Centre').
When an incident in a nightclub saw her in court defending charges of racially aggravated assault against a black toilet attendant, many assumed that Tweedy was weeks from being sacked from the band.
A brawl was one thing, but hurling racist slurs was not a forgiveable offence. As Tweedy was the band's biggest draw media-wise, it looked like the end of Girls Aloud was in sight. But Tweedy and her pals demonstrated a bouncebackability factor that even Sir Alex Ferguson must have admired. The racial elements of the charges were dropped and the singer was found guilty only of assault, for which she completed 120 hours of community service, voicing her deep regret and sorrow in the tabloids at every photo opportunity.
Their profile higher than ever, Girls Aloud released more singles and an album — and found themselves greeted warmly into the Top 10 with each one (the album, Sound of the Underground, was a platinum seller by Christmas 2003). In the meantime, One True Voice quietly spit up, having released only two singles.
The band's continued success was a surprise, with all of the obvious odds stacked against them, but even after that first year no one could have foreseen how the girls would go on to secure a place in the history of British pop music as well as an entry in the record books that saw them out-achieve even the epoch-defining Spice Girls.
While the singles kept coming — and even hardened industry beardos had to admit that someone (UK production house Xenomania to be exact) was writing and producing brilliant contemporary pop songs — numerous factors continued to threaten the harmonious existence of the band.
Rumours of the band's imminent split began round about the time of their second album, What Will the Neighbours Say? in 2004, with Tweedy, Sarah Harding and Nadine Coyle all variously rumoured to be going solo. Then came the stories about vicious bust-ups within the band, usually involving Tweedy having a fight with another member, bust-ups with other popstars, usually involving Tweedy having a fight with Lily Allen or Charlotte Church, or tales of Coyle 'snubbing' her colleagues.
With the third album, the platinum-selling Chemistry, which generated four more Top 10 singles including the much celebrated Biology in November 2005, newspaper interest re-focussed around Tweedy's burgeoning relationship with Arsenal star Ashley Cole, Harding's 'out of control' drinking and Coyle's extreme skinniness.
Tweedy's marriage to Cole in July 2006, by which time he had become one of the most vilified footballers in Britain for his 'greedy' defection to Chelsea (the sale of the wedding to OK" magazine for £1m only serving to support 'Cashley's' public image), did not particularly endear the media to the couple but by then Girls Aloud were a truly unstoppable force.
With their 15th single, a Sugababes-aided cover of Aerosmith's Walk This Way in 2007, Girls Aloud entered the record books, proud owners of 'The Most Consecutive Top 10 Entries in the UK by a Female Group'.
Their Greatest Hits compilation had gone straight in to the chart at No 1 the previous year and fourth studio album Tangled Up, released in November 1997, gave the band another three huge hits, including Call The Shots, which spent more time in the heady Top 10 than any of their previous releases. In short, the band that had once appeared to have a shelf life of less than a year, were stronger and more successful than ever after five.
Not that Girls Aloud have ever been able to ride the waves without rocking the boat. Surprisingly, the most recent act of self-sabotage came not from the Coles, nor the hard-partying Harding, but from sweet little Londonderry girl Nadine Coyle who, seemingly drunk with infatuation for her TV heartthrob boyfriend Jesse Metcalfe, upped her entire family and moved them all out to LA to open a string of 'authentic Irish pubs'.
As far as the press were concerned, the move created resentment among Coyle's bandmates and would spell the end of Coyle's involvement with Girls Aloud. But in true GA style, the threat passed without incident — with Coyle's relationship with Metcalfe long ended, the band are still together and currently embarking on their third 22-date arena tour.
Bearing in mind how they formed, their early tabloid image, the innately evanescent nature of their music and, some might say, the sum of their talents, Girls Aloud now look like the ultimate 'against the odds' success story.
Even Cheryl Cole's marriage to a man who was already hated by thousands of football fans, and recently revealed as less than ideal in the fidelity stakes, has not negatively affected the band — Cheryl Cole's tears have softened her image and seen her re-cast as a 'brave broken' woman, and the central figure in an endlessly newsworthy soap opera. Tabloid columns are assured for the next couple of years at least.
Some may shake their heads — Pete Waterman must cringe every time they effortlessly pierce the Top 10 — but the good ship Girls Aloud looks set to sail on for a long time. Storms will come and go but these girls know how to catch a wave now.
As for how much longer they've got — it looks like they'll get to decide that too.