'Nobody believed me when I said I had a part on Corrie'
As she makes her soap debut with a guest role in Coronation Street, Sarah Harding tells Susan Griffin about her 'nerve-wracking' first scenes, cooking on MasterChef and keeping in touch with the Girls Aloud clan.
As a life-long Corrie fan, Sarah Harding was ecstatic when offered a guest role in the popular soap, but managed to abide by the rules and keep the information to herself.
"Well, I told my mum and fella," confesses the 33-year-old, who's taken a perch in the Coronation Street Bistro between scenes.
When the news finally broke, the Girls Aloud singer didn't quite get the response she'd been expecting. "No one believed it. I was like, 'Yeah, it's true'," exclaims Harding, who's playing Joni, the glamorous wife of chef Robert (Tristan Gemmill), who recently turned up in Weatherfield keen to rekindle things with ex Tracy Barlow (Kate Ford).
"It's going to be a bit of a shock for Joni. She's moved up to help with the restaurant and he's obviously still holding a torch for Tracy, which she's not happy about," reveals Harding, who recalls the baptism of fire she experienced on her first day on location, at a restaurant in Didsbury, Greater Manchester.
"I was thrown into the deep end, I really was. I started filming with Kate (Ford) on the first day, who's actually the exact opposite (of her character) in real life. She's lovely, but it was really nerve-wracking. There were paparazzi and it was a really long day with a lot to learn."
That won't be the first that audiences see of Joni, however. The character actually makes her debut next Thursday, July 23, when she turns up on the cobbles looking for Tracy, although the pair won't come face-to-face until the following night's episode.
It wouldn't be Corrie if there wasn't a dramatic slap, but "it was choreographed", Harding points out. "Health and safety!"
If the slap doesn't cause a sting, then the verbal insults just might.
"I do say something to Robert, like, 'I was expecting something more, the way you go on about her'. She's been made to feel like she's not living up to Tracy's standards, and then she meets her and goes, 'Really? That's what I'm against?'"
It was during a visit to the Street last year that the idea of Harding making an appearance came about.
"I said I was a really big fan of the show and I had a wonderful time getting pictures outside the Rovers and Roy's Rolls," recalls the singer, who's appeared in Freefall and the St Trinian's sequel. "I said something like, 'You do cameos, don't you?' And they said, 'You've done a bit of acting, haven't you?'"
A short while later, producer Stuart Blackburn got in touch. The plan for now is for Harding to appear in a few episodes, but she's not averse to popping up in the future. It's just a matter of logistics.
"Obviously, I'd love to come back and do some bits and bobs, but I've got my music coming out so there's loads of stuff going on," notes Harding, who was born in Ascot but grew up in Stockport.
It's now 13 years since she, along with Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, Nicola Roberts, Kimberley Walsh and Nadine Coyle, were plucked from obscurity on the TV talent show Popstars: The Rivals, and landed the number one spot in the charts as newly formed group Girls Aloud.
They went on to have 20 consecutive top 10 singles and six platinum-selling albums and, following a break, reunited for a tour in 2012 to mark their 10th anniversary.
Now Harding's on the cusp of forging a solo music career, with her debut single Threads set for release next month.
"It's really exciting, it's quite a gritty song. I co-wrote it and was in a bit of a bad mood that day," she reveals with a laugh. "It's quite rock chick, which people might expect because I was always a bit of a rock chick in the band, but with a poppy edge to it."
Harding, who as a child would spend time in the studio with her musician father, enjoys the "cathartic" experience of writing.
"I love that process of creating music and want a lot more say in what I'm doing, because I didn't really get to do that back in the day with the girls."
The Girls Aloud clan have all "been great, really supportive and congratulating me", she says. "I saw Kimberley and Cheryl a few weeks ago. But we're all so busy, it's impossible to get us all in one room at the moment. I was supposed to be there the other week when they were all together, I arranged it, but missed out because of work."
Harding was recently on the small screen in Celebrity MasterChef, a show she now refers to as "ManicChef".
"I think I cook better in my own kitchen, when you've got more time and you're not under pressure with cameras in your face, and John Torode asking what you're doing. You're literally living off adrenaline on that show, and I was a nervous wreck by the end of it, because I was flustered the whole time."
Although Sarah feels "more content" these days, she also feels "out the loop on a lot of things".
"I need to get my head around social media more," she says, sighing - though she's not sure she'll be embracing it on the night of her Corrie debut.
"I know it's going to be a mixed reaction, because people are going to be expecting high standards, and so as long as I'm prepared for that, that's fine. I hope I've done the soap justice, but there are going to be people who go, 'Oh, she can't act'. I'm just going to go, 'It is what it is'."
- Coronation Street, ITV, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 7.30pm