There are a few legendary moments that have transcended terrestrial television to become staples of hun culture: Tiffany Pollard thinking David Gest was dead on Celebrity Big Brother. Lisa Scott-Lee finding out that “Electric” didn’t make the Top 10, despite being B-list on Capital. And, of course, the mother of them all: a 16-year-old Nadine Coyle on Popstars: Ireland saying, “I’m Nadine Coyle. I’m from Lark Hill in Derry. Date of birth 15th of the sixth 1985, making me a Gemini, and… what date of birth did I say there?”
It’s been 20 years since that fateful moment on Popstars. The premise of the show is well-trodden now, but in 2001 it was revolutionary – Eurovision winner Linda Martin, music executive Bill Hughes and Louis Walsh, the man who gave us Boyzone, choose six ordinary Irish people with vocal talent and the “whole package” to form a band that would hopefully become the next big thing. It was only a year after the advent of Big Brother, so it’s hard to overstate the buzz that surrounded the country when auditions were held in the hotel meeting rooms of Ireland.
“I remember watching it in a somewhat state of awe because the first series on UK TV was awesome, and how amazing it was to have an Irish version, pure notions of us having it,” viewer Damy Redmond, 40, recalls.
Eventually, six hopefuls were chosen to form the imaginatively titled Six (5ive, eat your heart out) – Sinéad Sheppard, Emma O'Driscoll, Kyle Anderson, Andy Orr, Liam McKenna and Nadine Coyle. Nadine was the jewel of the show’s crown. To quote Louis Walsh, she looked like a popstar, she sounded like a popstar.
Only, something went catastrophically wrong. On the 20th of December, hundreds of thousands of viewers tuned into their TV on a Saturday night to see Nadine – assumed to be 18, the minimum age for entry to the competition – give a date of birth during a to-camera interview which would have made her 16 years old. The moment Nadine realised what she’d said instantly became the biggest scandal Irish television had ever seen (to be fair, all we had prior to that was Miley and Fidelma’s roll in the hay on rural soap Glenroe).
“I think everyone in Ireland gasped along with Nadine when she realised she gave the wrong date of birth,” Irish drag queen Candy Warhol, 31, says.
Rather than immediately confess her real age, Nadine embarked on an admirable search for her passport that surely should have beaten Halle Berry to the Best Actress Oscar in 2002. She earnestly rooted through her suitcase, before calling her mammy and explaining she’d “accidentally” given the wrong date of birth and asking if they could dig out her passport, which she had seemingly misplaced and got through an entire TV show for a national broadcaster without showing. Even when Popstars judge Linda Martin sat her down and told the teen that she was “breaking her heart,” Nadine stayed firm and insisted she was 18.
However, when the cameras stopped rolling, Nadine stopped searching for her passport, broke down and admitted that her true date of birth was the 15th of June, 1985, making her 16 (and a Gemini).
“She was extraordinarily good vocally, she was a beautiful girl and she got along with everybody. So it was almost, ‘Oh Christ, the whole thing is going to fall apart’,” Linda Martin remembers today. “Louis chose who he thought was the six best, and now you’re missing one, and the band had already been called Six, so I was just seeing everything about to fall apart.”
“To be honest with you, we all take chances in life and tell little white lies to move forward and get on in our jobs,” she continues. “I wouldn’t have said anything, because so what? If nobody had said anything else, I would have just let that go. But it was sort of taken out of our hands, just because of the conditions of the contract.”
The episode sent shockwaves through the homes of Ireland. “My mammy was so upset, she couldn’t talk about it,” Damy says. Artist Sarah Devereux, 32, adds: “It changed me, it changed us all. I believed in her and I believed her when she was on the phone to her mammy. We all did, even Linda. Maybe, just maybe the burgundy passport had indeed lodged itself in one of her many, many tiny handbags.”
Nadine was then driven away from the band’s shared house in floods of tears and replaced with Sarah Keating. Six went on to have the fastest-selling single in Irish history with their debut “There's a Whole Lot of Loving Going On”, before disbanding in 2003.
The lost passport probably would have been consigned to Irish meme history – alongside clips of now Mrs Spencer Matthews Vogue Williams on Fade Street – were Louis Walsh not to convince Nadine to sign up for another reality show, ITV’s Popstars: The Rivals.
“She didn’t want to go,” Louis says. “She was at home in Derry, and I told her I was doing this show and she just had to go for it. She had just lost her mojo, she didn’t want to know about music. It was very damaging for her, because it was such a public story. But luckily she went. I pushed her because I thought she deserved it.”
Nadine ended up being picked by the British public as one of the five members of Girls Aloud. The newly formed girl band beat One True Voice (RIP) to the Christmas number one and went on to become the UK’s biggest selling girl group of the 21st century alongside some of the two last decade’s biggest pop bangers. But there was no way the Irish public would let that national scandal be forgotten.
Fast forward 20 years, and Nadine’s lost passport is synonymous with her as “Sound of the Underground” and her pronunciation of “flour”. The moment has been quoted on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK and performed as a dramatic lip sync in the drag tour Gals Aloud. Nicola Coughlan even based her accent for her character in Derry Girls on the monologue.
The theatricality of Nadine’s fruitless search for her passport is the epitome of camp: the sheer audacity, the 2001 lip gloss, the chunky highlights so relatable that it has been embraced by huns – the true archives of 20th and 21st century reality TV and soap operas – wholeheartedly.
Devereux has based a lot of her art on Nadine, including a show called Nadine The Music-Coyle. She’s also found success with her Nadine prayer candles and commemorative plates, akin to the kind you find on the wall of your Catholic nan’s house, which have been ordered by Nicola Coughlan and inspired unlikely lectures. “At a market once, a guy told me that he is a lecturer of philosophy and when ‘It’ happened, he did an entire class on morals and ethics centred around Nadine and her passport,” Devereux remembers.
The plates have even been noticed by Nadine herself, as she recently told The Sunday World: “There’s a plate, it says ‘Never Forget’ and it’s a picture of me with the date of birth, and some fans gave it to me at one point. They were selling them at a market, I was like, ‘You have got to be joking’. But it is funny.”
Now a staple of the Pride festival circuit, Nadine rarely discusses Passport-gate. Louis – the driving force behind her career – also seems a bit fed up that her false date of birth still follows her around. “Anytime anyone mentions her name, they talk about that. They don’t talk about the great songs she sang. She sang the lead on nearly every Girls Aloud record, but they talk about that other thing, the passport.”
But for huns, remembering Nadine’s lost passport isn’t mockery, it’s a form of endearment. Hun culture, as described by the Instagram phenomenon Love of Huns, is “being able to recite Nadine’s whole passport sequence in one take or when someone describes a pair of shoes as ‘old maiden shoes’, knowing exactly where the quotes come from (thank you Tiffany Pollard). It’s having a deep love for pink gin, 2-4-1 cocktails and happily wearing ‘jeans and a nice top?’ on every night out.” Anybody can be a chart-topper, but not everybody can be a hun icon, and sometimes it takes a retro throwback to an era of teenage brass neck-ery to give you that title.
The owner of Love of Huns, who keeps their identity anonymous, tells me: “It has to be the rawness of Nadine’s acting that makes it such a hun culture moment. How she went along with genuinely lying through her teeth that her passport was somewhere to be found when she was actually just underage and not eligible for the show. To this day I’m still deeply confused why she has not been awarded a BAFTA for her acting work.”
“Although she probably cringes when people mention it, Irish people just love absolute chancers and we love to celebrate the fact that she was the ultimate chancer and it paid off big time,” Candy Warhol, who has a drag act celebrating Irish queerness centred on the Nadine saga, explains.
“Someone asked me recently why is Nadine such a queer icon and apart from the fact that she is campness personified on stage, it's because we love an underdog who comes out on top and Nadine is a sparkling example of that.”