The country has been rocked by the sad news that Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding has died aged 39 after a short battle with breast cancer.
Tributes from her loved ones, bandmates, friends and fans have been pouring in, and a common theme appears to have emerged in many – that Sarah was a fun, likeable, one-off rockstar who inspired many people to be their authentic selves.
Sarah’s love for singing began when her dad, a session musician, took her into recording studios when she was three years old.
“It was all I wanted to do,” she told The Sun.
“I always loved being the centre of attention and ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to be a star.”
Sarah studied hair and beauty at college and had jobs ranging from pizza deliveries to directory enquiries, but she would leave school early to focus on music, recording vocals for dance producers.
In 2002, she auditioned for BBC talent show Fame Academy, but pulled out in order to star on ITV’s Popstars: The Rivals, a decision that would become life-defining.
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Here Sarah would meet Nadine Coyle, Cheryl Tweedy, Nicola Roberts, and Kimberley Walsh to comprise the new girl group Girls Aloud.
“I’m too much of a loon,” Sarah would cheerily tell judge Louis Walsh, when chided for forgetting dance moves.
And upon finding out she had made it into the band’s final line up, Sarah broke down and sobbed with joy, never afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve.
The group’s debut single Sound of the Underground peaked at number one on the UK Singles Chart, becoming the 2002 Christmas number one.
During their reign, the group was also named the United Kingdom’s biggest selling girl group of the 21st century, with over 4.3 million singles sales and 4 million albums sold in the UK alone.
The band also won five BRIT Awards, the first being in 2009 where Sarah hilariously hijacked their thank you speech, grabbing the microphone and shouting: “It’s about time!”
Popstars: The Rivals / ITV)
While the moment became an iconic meme, Sarah’s passion came from years of girl groups being shunned and looked down upon by music industry executives, and Girls Aloud were at last being recognised for their hard work and enormous fanbase.
“As usual, I was the first to grab the award,” she wrote in her book, Hear Me Out. “Holding it aloft and screaming: ‘It’s about time!'”
Multi-talented Sarah would also enjoy a successful acting career with a role in Colin Firth film St Trinian’s, BBC drama Freefall opposite Dominic Cooper, and even guest appearance as Joni in Coronation Street in 2015.
In 2016, Sarah made her stage debut in Ghost – The Musical at the New Wimbledon Theatre in southwest London, before starring on Celebrity Big Brother the following year – where she scooped the crown, beating Amelia Lily and Sam Thompson to the post.
“I was so out of my comfort zone, so many big personalities. I needed a new chapter and start afresh,” she said of her win.
“I just thought what better way to get out of my comfort zone and to show the viewers at home I’m just a normal girl. I’ve gone through a whole spectrum of emotions.”
Sarah was previously engaged to DJ Tom Crane, but they announced the end of their four-year relationship in 2011, and Sarah entered rehab shortly afterwards, speaking openly about her battles with addiction and mental health struggles which she bravely overcame.
“I’ve been to hell and back,” she told the Evening Standard at the time. “I’m just glad I survived.”
Sarah was widely thought of as the party animal of the band, dubbed ‘Hardcore Harding’, originally coined by her karate teacher “because she’s left loads of men injured”.
But the nickname endured due to Sarah’s ability to be the life and soul of the party – as did ‘Half-hour Harding’, an affectionate nickname from her bandmates given on account of her dubious timekeeping.
But she was keen to prove there was more to her than the “party girl”.
“When I look back at my time in Girls Aloud, I feel like I became a caricature,” she wrote in her book.
“Okay, so maybe I put out a particular image, which the press and media latched on to. It was an easy one to work with: rock chick, blonde bombshell, party girl, the caner of the band…
“Somewhere among the nightclubs, the frocks and the hairdos, the big chart hits and the glamour of being a pop star, the other Sarah Harding got utterly lost.”
It was her insistence on staying real and relatable no matter how many records she sold or stages she performed on, that would immortalise Sarah in our hearts.
One particular clip of her singing The Promise with Girls Aloud would go viral due to an unfortunate bum note, but her loving fans would always be laughing with her, not at her.
While she was rarely seen without a smile, Sarah wrote very frankly in her book about how sometimes, fame was not all it was cracked up to be.
“It’s not like we were hard done by or being mistreated, far from it; it’s just the way things were when there was something big to promote,” she wrote.
“We all knew we were leading a charmed life compared with most, and I always tried to appreciate that, but I didn’t feel glamorous a lot of the time, I can tell you.
“Yes, there were moments of glamour, but day to day it was often hard to keep up. Once you had your hair and make-up on, you’d step out on stage looking a million dollars, but sometimes underneath you’d be thinking, ‘Jesus, I’m knackered! How am I going to get through this?’
“It was usually the rush of adrenaline that got me through, especially during a live show.”
Even when she was fighting an aggressive form of cancer, it was important to Sarah that the message got out to others too to check themselves and to not delay making a doctor’s appointment if anything seemed amiss.
“Please girls – please everyone – don’t let anything get in your way – get checked out if you’re worried about something,” she wrote in Hear Me Out.
“Of course, I can’t know for sure, but I believe that if I’d got things moving with appointments and check-ups faster than I did, I’d probably be in a better place than I am now.
“I think I would have had more options for treatment, and certainly less spread of disease. It’s a bloody hard pill to swallow, but the best I can hope for is that my experience might encourage other people to get themselves sorted as soon as possible.”
And when Sarah knew she may not have much time left, her attitude, as ever, was one of positivity and having fun.
“Right now, I’m trying to find joy whenever and however I can,” she wrote.
“It’s definitely spending quality time with Mum and seeing my friends whenever I can. Life has got so much smaller, and my priorities have changed, but the other Sarah Harding is still in there somewhere too, trust me.
“Given half a chance, I know she’d be back with a vengeance, dancing on tables and laughing and joking with everyone.”
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