Every reality show needs its archetypes. You meet the quiet girl due to come out of her shell, the boy-next-door that all the mums love, the damaged soul with the mildly traumatic childhood. “And then you’ve got the girl who’s the diva and a bitch and ungrateful and this and that and this,” says Cher Lloyd, swiping with either hand, her lip slightly curled. There are few who might understand this X Factor role better than her. “If the diva wasn’t me, it would’ve been another girl. It just happens; I’m not stupid. At the time, being 16, I didn’t realise that, but it’s taken me until now, at 26 years old to reflect and understand that I was picked as a character.”
A decade ago, that meant Cher Lloyd was the most hated teenage girl in Britain. At 16 she stepped in front of the X Factor season 7 judges, to audition with Keri Hilson’s version of Soulja Boi’s “Turn My Swag On”. With ripped jeans seemingly made solely to confuse your nan, eyebrows like spider legs and a cheeky grimace, she made her future mentor and lookalike Cheryl Cole beam as dollar-signs appeared in Simon Cowell’s eyes. Beside the Matt Cardles and Rebecca Fergusons, she patently displayed the most charisma of the season. Over the following weeks, Cher would become both the bookies’ best bet to win the 2010 show and the subject of genuine tabloid and public vitriol. Within almost ten years, she would feel like a significant part of a forgotten time in UK pop, when televised music competitions were at the height of their powers. Even after an unimaginably unusual start, she’s never stopped working.
The morning we meet, Cher initially looks apprehensive. At an east London photo studio, she is concave in a seat, tiny compared to the make-up artist, manager and publicist grouped around her. In a hushed voice, she discusses her concerns with them. An hour later, half-made up, she sips an energy drink staring straight ahead. I wonder how much she might be worried about giving an interview, knowing that she’s done very little UK press for years. Eventually, she’s ready for the shoot and like a perfect Bratz doll made human, leans towards the camera, chin tilted up, cat-eyes locked onto the lens. The photographer asks her to relax and soften her face, and she does, breaking into a wide smile. Jumping over to see the photos on the camera’s display screen, Cher is delighted. “I never usually like photos, honestly, I don’t,” she says, touching the photographer’s arm and looking to all of us.
Before fame upended her life, she’d been doing her GCSEs in Malvern, Worcestershire. “I was disruptive and resisted authority a lot,” she says, in an accent now only recognisable as “British, somewhere”, once we’ve settled on a sofa in the same yawning studio space. “I wanted to be anywhere but there. I left school with one GCSE: music.” She says she wasn’t liked by people, and conspiratorially adds, “I always felt like people was staring at me. Because I looked so different. I desperately tried to fit into a group and I just didn’t belong.” These years were characterised by being bullied at school, called a “pikey”.
She hit a turning point when – as she describes in vivid detail – her mum came home with a karaoke machine from a car boot sale: a Pop Idol one. “I’d record myself on the tape compartment and the CD I’d use as the backing track. I’d sing through and I’d play it back and critique myself and I’d go back and I’d record again, just re-record, re-record.” She lived across the road from her high school, so every break and lunch-time she’d go back for karaoke practice in her school uniform, watching herself in a full-length mirror.
You only need to watch Cher’s first televised performances and interview segments a few times to see how warm and endearing she was. It’s also blatant how and why she was read as a “brat” and “diva”: she rapped as well as sung, wore sweatpants and heels; she had a Midlands accent and Amy Winehouse mane. This was the year after a demonised Jade Goody was redeemed in death and the year before Owen Jones released his polemical book about the working class, Chavs. Twitter users and tabloids were already calling her a “chav” and “skank” by the time the latter learnt that she had Romani heritage, then she was “gypsy” or “pikey” too. “All of a sudden I’m supposed to be an instant celebrity on one of the biggest TV shows but I’m strolling around in my brother’s tracksuit bottoms because I didn’t have the money to go out and buy clothes. You want me to be what?”
Any school friends she did have were selling stories to the newspapers or gossiping about her online. Housemates on the show – and her own roommate – told papers that she only ate soup and was emotionally unstable. Once, she says she spoke to a woman in the show’s canteen while making a cup of tea, gesticulating with a teaspoon. Papers got hold of photographs and framed the interaction as a fight. “Could you imagine waking up to that in the paper and thinking, ‘I didn’t do it, but no one’s listening to me?’” she says. “I was just chatting. It just so happened I had a spoon in my hand.” She looks incredulous for a moment. “What did they think I was gonna do with a teaspoon? Knock her out?”
At the time she didn’t recognise how her background might have made her a target. Her anguish hit an emotional climax when her uncle died while she was on the show. Cher tears up. I think it’s worth quoting her memories of this time in full. “I couldn’t go to the funeral because they blocked all the roads. So many people turned up to take pictures of me that I couldn’t go to his funeral and they were taking pictures of him being laid to rest. It was horrific, it was horrific. They branded it as this ‘Big Gyspy Funeral’ and they all wanted to go and have a gawp. I couldn’t go and I felt so angry that in that one moment you couldn’t just let me and my family have one moment of privacy that you’ve got to turn up to the church and my nan’s there sobbing her heart out and you couldn’t give her a moment? It was awful. I just felt so guilty, and there was nothing I could do about it. So I turned back. I didn’t go.”
She had to go on live TV the following night for a tearful performance of Shakespear’s Sister’s “Stay”, one that Cowell dramatically declared the best of the season. The leading tabloid news that day had been her uncle’s funeral. “He had kids, five children. They all had to read about their dad in the paper, and they wrote some horrible stuff about him. That was because I chose to go on the show.”
After a big move to America in 2011, she says she had a chance to reflect. She was only supposed to be there with her now-husband for a holiday but the American public loved her (“they found it shocking I was so open and brutally honest”). Epic Records offered her a US deal and it seemed best for her career to live out of her two suitcases and never go back. Luck was on her side: debut album Sticks & Stones was well-received and second single “Want U Back” – after Marmite-like ringtone banger “Swagger Jagger”, which peaked at number 1 in the UK though Cher says she has no intention to revisit it – reached number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Those two singles were where most people left her story. Critics didn’t seem to latch onto her second album, 2014’s Sorry I’m Late. In almost textbook pop star fashion, despite being strong-willed, she was a teenager experimenting and growing up while adults suggested how she should sound, what she should wear. She wasn’t sure who Cher, the artist, was supposed to be. “There was one performance, I think it was on the Today Show, huge opportunity, and I’m stood on stage wearing a tutu. What the fuck?” She leans forward, pulling a Cher Lloyd grimace and I burst out laughing. “What the fuck! A pink tutu.”
Soon after, in late 2015 she split with Syco, Cowell and Epic, and returned to the UK. She cites a combination of factors: a frustrating lack of promotion around her last album, a loss her fanbase of young women echo online, too many industry opinions (“It wasn’t even necessarily Simon. He’s always been great to me, he knows I’m no pushover”), wanting to be close to family. She bought a house near London, had a baby, and started writing. A new album with Universal is in the works, and, trite as it sounds, lead single “M.I.A” showcases a more mature Cher Lloyd. It feels like there’s a space for her in British pop – for girls who want someone properly funny and cutting, like a best mate – between artists like Mabel on one extreme and Charli XCX on the other.
Near the end of our chat, I bring up similarities with Little Mix’s Jesy Nelson of X Factor’s eighth season, who also signed with Cowell’s entertainment company Syco. This year’s BBC documentary, Odd One Out, showed how being cyberbullied and labelled “the fat one” of the group had serious psychological effects on Jesy. In fact, at the Cosmopolitan awards in November 2011, a month before that X Factor series was due to end, Little Mix arrived without Jesy, and after seeing the abuse she’d received on the show, Cher called her up to offer support and advice. In comparison, Cher’s “it is what it is” attitude – a phrase she throws away a lot – might suggest a more steely reaction to comparable abuse. When I ask her about this she rearranges herself on the sofa. “I just know how to make you think I’m alright,” she says, after a pause. “You just get an extra layer of armour and that’s pretty much what I did: front it out. I cried behind closed doors, but no one saw it.”
It turns out Cher was anxious about this interview. Despite the fact she clearly doesn't see herself as a victim and has an upbeat outlook, she’s naturally nervous to discover how the public perceives her. In the past few years of random, short TV interview segments, she comes across as apologetic for her younger self, how she used to look. To me, it seems almost as though she’s pre-empting mean comments or a critical tone. “I was a nightmare,” she says when I ask this. “I think if I had to deal with 16-year-old me I’d be like, ‘get away from me, go and have a day off’. But I didn’t kill anyone. I honestly didn’t. I didn’t do horrific things. I had attitude, and in retaliation to the way that I was being treated. Age is also a factor. I was being a Kevin from Kevin & Perry; snotty little teenager. But I don’t think I need to apologise to anyone.”
She leans in again, to speak quietly, and I can’t work out if she’s being colloquial or genuinely asking a question for confirmation. “I didn’t do anything massively wrong, did I? It’s literally took me up until now to figure out I’m not an angry person. I just needed to be heard, to just be allowed to be me.”