The singer shot to fame on the TV talent show, Popstars: The Rivals, in 2002, when music mogul Pete Waterman, who was a judge, described her as having a special “aura” as soon as she walked into the room.
Her audition for a new, all-girl pop group was the start of a career in show business spanning almost 20 years. She rocketed to stardom at just 20 years old, when she appeared on the cult ITV talent show that saw five young singers chosen for the female super group, out of hundreds of initial applicants.
At the time, Waterman was already a hugely successful record producer, radio and club DJ, songwriter and television presenter. He was also a member of the legendary Stock Aitken Waterman song writing team, who had written and produced a multitude of hit singles for many artists.
Bubbly and enthusiastic
Waterman was a judge on Popstars: The Rivals alongside music manager Louis Walsh and former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. He spotted Harding’s star quality from the outset, describing her as “bubbling with enthusiasm” and “real”.
“She was the ‘girl next door’. The public loved her,” Waterman said, during an emotional interview on Good Morning Britain. Yet despite her talent, the Ascot-born singer didn’t realise just how good she was.
“She had the enthusiasm, but didn’t over-self-believe,” he added. He recalled going to see Harding at her home to tell her she had been chosen for the band. She was so excited, she started jumping up and down on her bed with glee! During the visit, Waterman was invited to have a cup of tea with Harding and her mum, Marie.
She was very down-to-earth and never let her success go to her head. Despite the challenges of being in the public eye continually, she always remained polite and real.
“You were working 20 hours a day. Cameras were in your face all the time. Journalists were on the phone all the time,” said Waterman. “You read about the ‘wild child’, but she was always polite. She and her mum were smashing.”
Rise to fame
The meteoric rise to success of Girls Aloud was amazing. Harding and band mates, Nadine Coyle, Nicola Roberts, Cheryl Tweedy and Kimberley Walsh formed the band after a public vote on 30th November 2002. Their debut single, Sound of the Underground, was number one in the UK singles chart over Christmas 2002.
Their debut album of the same name, released in May 2003, entered the charts at number two and achieved platinum status. The girls went on to release a succession of highly successful singles and albums, being named the UK’s biggest-selling girl group of the 21st century.
They sold more than 4.3 million singles and four million albums in Britain alone. Their most famous hit singles include I’ll Stand By You, a number one hit in 2004; their chart-topper, Walk This Way, with the Sugababes, in 2007; and The Promise, which was number one in 2008, achieving platinum status.
They had 20 consecutive top ten singles in the UK and six platinum studio albums during their highly successful career.
Girls Aloud was named by Guinness World Records as the Most Successful Reality TV Group. They are also world record holder for the Most Consecutive Top Ten Entries in the UK by a Female Group. Despite being formed as a pop group, the also experimented successfully with dance music and electropop, which widened their appeal.
Model and actress
As well as being a talented singer, Harding was also a model and actress. She signed a £100,000 contract to model Ultimo lingerie, following in the footsteps of supermodel Helena Christensen. Girls Aloud had a cameo role in the St Trinian’s movie in 2007.
Harding went on to play a major role in the thriller, Bad Day, in 2008, playing Jade Jennings, a gritty role in which her character was beaten up by a gangster.
In July 2009, Girls Aloud took a break to pursue solo projects, but pledged to reform later to record a new studio album. During their break, Harding focused on her blossoming acting career. She said at the time singing had always been her main ambition, but acting was something else she wanted to achieve.
She appeared in a BBC TV film, Freefall, in 2009, playing Sam, a beautician. The plot was a satire on the 2007/08 financial crisis and Harding’s acting skills received great critical acclaim. She was described as having “real acting potential” in her “convincing” performance.
Later, she returned to the St Trinian’s franchise, this time winning a starring role in St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, portraying rebellious senior pupil, Roxy.
Harding also released three solo tracks for the movie’s soundtrack: Make It Easy, Too Bad and a cover version of David Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging.
In 2012, Girls Aloud reunited following their break and celebrated their tenth anniversary. They went on their successful Ten: The Hits Tour in 2013, before making the announcement that they were splitting up.
Life after Girls Aloud
Harding concentrated on her acting career, winning a role in the ITV soap Coronation Street in 2015, playing Joni, the wife of the character Robert Preston, played by Tristan Gemmill.
A regular on many TV shows including the BBC gymnastics show, Tumble, in 2014, when she was third; the BBC’s Celebrity Masterchef in 2015; and The Jump on Channel 4 in 2016, she also toured with the stage show, Ghost: The Musical, in 2016. In 2017, she won the 20th series of Celebrity Big Brother.
She still carried on releasing solo records and her final single, Wear It Like a Crown, went straight to number one of the iTunes charts after its release on 24th March 2021. She donated the profits to charity.
Tragically, in August 2020, Harding was diagnosed with breast cancer. She moved back home with her mother in Manchester while undergoing treatment, but sadly, it had advanced to other parts of her body. She announced the disease was terminal in March this year.
Following the star’s untimely death on 5th September, aged only 39, family, friends and fans have paid emotional tributes to the woman who never lost her down-to-earth attitude and remained much-loved by the public throughout her 19 year career.
Her devastated mum, Marie, described her daughter as a “bright shining star” and hoped everyone would remember her this way.
Harding’s former band mates posted emotional tributes on social media, with Nicola saying, “My heart is aching; I’m absolutely devastated.”
Nadine wrote, “I can’t think of words that could express how I feel about this girl and what she means to me.”
Kimberley said her “heart was broken”, while Cheryl said Harding would be “forever in our hearts”.
Heartbroken fans left tributes on social media for the star who had become their icon. Fans praised her for being “100% herself, with absolutely no pretence”.
For Pete Waterman, his bittersweet memories of the young, bubbly girl, who was so excited when they first met, will remain with him for ever.
Harding’s memoirs, called Hear Me Out, were published earlier in 2021.