It might feel like a distant memory now, but as recently as a few years back, pop stars – and certainly rock stars – did and said whatsoever they pleased. No marginally off-key comments took on the epic proportions of a Twitter storm. No drunken behaviour in clubs was captured on a hundred smartphones and beamed around the world within seconds.
Sure, their antics were often well-documented. Some became the stuff of legend. But until the advent of social media and camera phones, the landscape was far more permissive.
That, at least, is how one pop star who was there at the time sees it (the time being any period before the current decade or so). Nicola Roberts, the self-described “quiet one” from Girls Aloud, is in reflective rather than quiet mode today. And she’s keen to stress that just because the band was a product of the reality television system, assembled by public vote on a precursor show to The X Factor called Popstars: The Rivals in 2002 (remember that?), we should be under no illusions that the quintet’s behaviour was in any way tame.
“We were fortunate we didn’t have camera phones or social media,” she says. “We’d go out and have wild nights and not worry about anyone being like that” – she mimes someone taking a picture – “with their phone. Honestly, we got away with absolute murder. We’d go from the club to [breakfast] television. We were wild. Just young and free. [It was] great fun. [I have] great drunken memories. So don’t be fooled: just because it’s a pop band and not a rock band it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a goody two-shoes.”
No. But it might now. “I do think it’s harder for bands these days,” she says. “Everyone has to be so, you know, PC, and look great, because the scrutiny is there so much more than it was. Now you can’t move without someone being on their camera phone.”
We’re sitting in a modish room in a central London PR office. Roberts, 32, is serious and thoughtful, with an endearing sincerity to her. As someone who’s been knocked about a fair bit – she was publicly taunted for her pale skin and once said she “felt like the ugly one from Girls Aloud” – I had expected to find her warier. Yet she has a habit of weighing up questions and solemnly proffering answers that feel genuine. There is nothing frothy nor fake about her, as far as I can tell, and her earnest up-frontness is bracing. But then, she and her band mates, she says, were never media-trained: “[If] we felt like saying something we said it.”
Today’s crop of pop stars, she suggests, are obliged to be more circumspect – “which kind of takes the fun out of it for the public, I suppose, because their entertainers are safer, a bit more guarded. It’s like, who’s the new Liam Gallagher? Where’s our Liam Gallagher? Where’s our Robbie [Williams]? We don’t have them. Personality. Authenticity. Just someone being able to be who they are…not feeling the fear of ‘am I going to say the wrong thing? Am I going to look the wrong way?’”
Indeed, where once we had Liam Gallagher (who, incidentally, is making a comeback with a solo album this month and remains as foul-mouthed as ever, but through the medium of Twitter), or even Geri Halliwell (who Roberts describes as “so full of personality”) we now have…Ed Sheeran?
Still, if big personalities, and that slippery concept of “authenticity”, are lacking from today’s pop scene, social media has not only been a force for bad. As Roberts sees it, it has also rendered acceptable a more diverse range of physical appearances. The singer from Runcorn in Cheshire, who has been announced as the face of Freixenet Prosecco, has a striking look; the type you might see in an editorial fashion shoot. Yet her failure to fit the aesthetic mould celebrated at the time she rose to fame in her late teens – a look for which bronzed skin was a must – made things tough for her on occasion. So far outside the mainstream aesthetic was her natural skin tone, she even set up her own make-up range, Dainty Doll, to cater for women as pale as her.
“For years I hated being pale,” she says. “I used to put fake tan and body make-up on just to go for a fitting because I was so conscious that the stylist might look at me naked and so pale and just be like ‘oh my God, she’s so pale.’ I thought it looked ugly, [so] I would go to great lengths to try and not be that colour.”
Now, however, it’s ok to look a different way, she suggests. “There isn’t that uniform pop star [look] like there was. There’s so much more diversity, and I think social media like Instagram has been helpful for that because we’re constantly scrolling and seeing all different types of looking girls, all different skin tones, different sizes, different looks, different hair colours.”
That said, even now Roberts still receives the odd nasty comment about her skin: “Sometimes I’ll have someone – very few [people], maybe one or two – be like, ‘Oh my God, she’s so pale, get on a sunbed or put some fake tan on.’”
But if insecurity about her appearance is something she’s put behind her, the friendships she forged within the group are still very much front and centre of her life. She describes herself, Cheryl and Kimberley Walsh as best friends who talk on WhatsApp almost every day.
What about the other two, Sarah Harding and Nadine Coyle?
“I don’t have a close relationship with Sarah and Nadine,” Roberts admits.
Did you ever? I ask.
I wonder if that made things difficult when she was in the band with them. She gets as far as answering “no, because-” before the PR interjects with a polite suggestion that I move on to another question.
So we return to Cheryl, whom Roberts still sees most weekends, even since March, when Cheryl had her son Bear with One Directioner Liam Payne. Roberts, who is single, confesses she has “been broody since I was 18” and adds, touchingly: “I look forward to the day when I have my own little baby.”
In the meantime, she is busy writing songs both for herself and other artists, including Cheryl. And Roberts is someone who can say this with credibility: her first solo album, called Cinderella’s Eyes and released in 2011, garnered widespread critical acclaim. A Telegraph review praised it as “an assured solo debut that suggests she may outlast her flashier bandmates as a pop star of substance.”
But it was with these “flashier bandmates” that she found the greatest commercial success: during their 10-year run, the group racked up 20 top 10 singles and four number ones, plus six top 10 albums, a hit rate that can be largely ascribed to the fact that they had some genuinely good pop tunes; not the forgettable sort so frequently churned out by those who’ve triumphed on reality TV.
As Roberts says, “anyone of any age or background who loved pop music liked our songs. And then I think we were just five very normal girls. We were put together by the public, they voted for us to be in the band. So we were very much the public’s band.”
But the public are a fickle lot, and this alone could not explain the group’s endurance.
“We weren’t censored,” offers Roberts, returning to an earlier theme. “We made mistakes publicly. We were all different characters. Honestly, it might have just been fate; it might have just been meant to happen.”
So will there be a reunion? A big 15-years-on comeback gig? “Do you know what?” replies Roberts, “Who bloody knows?”
Nicola Roberts is the face of Freixenet Prosecco. See more on Facebook, Twitter and on Instagram @FreixenetUK