Love them or loathe them, pop stars hot-housed on reality TV shows continue to appear. Whoever wins The X Factor this year, however, would do well to emulate the success of Girls Aloud. Created on ITV's Popstars: The Rivals in November 2002, the group were a reminder that team selection can be as important as the music where lucrative pop is concerned. In cherry-picking a redhead from Runcorn, two blondes from Ascot and Derry, and two similarly pretty brunettes from Newcastle and Bradford, Popstars' creators were mindful of the "catch-all" template that proved so fruitful for the Spice Girls. Give every boy his "type" and every young girl a look they might aspire to, runs the theory, and you've one hand on the prize.
Such savvy groundwork - together with some decent songwriting - was undoubtedly a factor in Girls Aloud scoring a Christmas No 1 with their debut single "Sound of the Underground". Three studio albums followed between May 2003 and December 2005, and now, less than four years since the band's inception, Cheryl Cole, Nadine Coyle, Sarah Harding, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh have released a greatest hits package, The Sound Of Girls Aloud.
While a "best of" CD seems decidedly premature, career years are as dog ones in pop's fickle universe. Besides, as Cole points out, Girls Aloud have packed a lot in thus far. Their 13 consecutive Top 10 hits, for example, constitute a feat unsurpassed by any other girl group. Such are the indignities, some moan, that the reality TV-moulded Girls Aloud have wrought upon Diana Ross and the Supremes, and, erm, Bananarama.
Today, I meet Cheryl Cole (née Tweedy) and bandmate Walsh at Highgate Studios in north London. Cole - pink tracksuit, hotel-issue slippers, occasional use of the "F" word - is the most vocal, while Walsh - mustard Sixties-style coat, black jeans, homely Lancashire accent - comes on like a younger, shyer Melanie Sykes. Both girls are poised on high stools with legs crossed, their sparkling eye make-up clearly the work of trained professionals. They are aware of their beauty, and to meet their gaze is to be temporarily disarmed.
Cole is quick to defend the reality format that spawned Girls Aloud, pointing out that for every hopeless fantasist that sees such programmes as a fast track to wealth and fame, there is a hardworking "diamond in the rough" for whom such shows are a lifeline. "It's definitely a great opportunity," agrees Walsh, "but I was naïve about how gruelling it would be. The first two weeks of the band, we slept about three hours a night and even today, we were up at quarter to six."
"Tomorrow it's 4am," adds Cole. "We've got to get ready to lead the Harrods Christmas parade. I'm not complaining or anything; the Spice Girls had to work twice as hard as we do because they did America and the whole shebang in no time. When I was sitting next to Victoria [Beckham] at the World Cup, she was like, 'Are you sure it's all right for you to be here? Shouldn't you be doing a gig or something?'
"Another time she said, 'We were just like you lot, Cheryl: five random girls auditioned and thrown together.' The only difference was that the Spice Girls were groomed and media-trained before they came out, and we had to do all that in the spotlight. It was like selling your soul to the devil."
And what of Girls Aloud's comparative longevity? How have they survived in a market where careers last about as long as a Popsicle? "I think it's a mixture of things," says Walsh. "It's partly the quality of the songs, and the fantastic relationship we have with our producer Brian Higgins and his main songwriter, Miranda [Cooper]. We connect with our material and we always try to bring something fresh to our performances. People have to be wowed by your new look and your new sound, otherwise they're not willing to buy the records." "We've always had a bit of an edge, too," adds Cole. "We're not little kittens who just sit there and purr. We have strong opinions."
Credibility, one realises, is the commodity that most manufactured pop acts would give their eye teeth for. The boy band that plays its own instruments; the girl group that writes its own songs - both gain a slighter higher rung on the ladder of authenticity. For Girls Aloud, though, being poptastically successful seems to be enough. Though they and their band mates have dabbled in co-writing, both Cole and Walsh are comfortable with the fact that their job is primarily to sell what others have crafted. But don't dare belittle their half of that quid pro quo. "It would be a shame if someone like our producer Brian Higgins went unnoticed," says Cole. "He can't sing a note and he definitely couldn't front 'Love Machine' or 'Biology'. Those songs would never have come to light if it hadn't been for us."
"It infuriates Brian when people say bad things about us not writing our own songs," adds Walsh. "He's like, 'I couldn't have this kind of success without you and the whole team of people around us.' The way we look, the way we are as people - all of that inspires Brian to write. We just sing bits and pieces of the songs and he builds the music around us. Our vocal performances are a big part of the song, though."
What about choosing the songs they record - do they have much say there? "The songs go to our A&R man," says Cole. "He chooses his favourites and then it's kind of up to us to pick from them. But we're not naïve about the process, and we don't always know what's best for us. We hated 'Love Machine' when we first heard it, but then it was a huge hit and we were forced to eat humble pie.
"That's why you have a record company and a manager," Cole continues. "You have to let them do their job. Look what happened with the Spice Girls when they sacked [manager] Simon Fuller. It all went tits-up."
Jokes about how fetching such an eventuality might look aside, things have yet to go "tits-up" for Girls Aloud. Even E4's fly-on-the-wall documentary Girls Aloud: Off the Record seems to have worked in their favour - and this despite Cole's regular mini-tantrums. Some of her outbursts are archived at YouTube.com; one of the best sees her flip out when faced with the challenge of climbing a steep hill in stiletto heels. "Does anyone actually care that we're going to be at the highest point in Greece?" asks Cole, arms outstretched imploringly. "It smells of shit here."
"I watch it and go, 'That's Cheryl - that's how she is'," smiles Walsh. "But other people go, 'My God! She's a real moaner!' Cheryl just talks everything that she's thinking, but if you don't know her you're not in a position to judge her. The best thing about doing that show was that we've got six months of our lives logged for when we're older, and I know we're going to appreciate that. We went to Australia. Who knows if that will ever happen again?"
"People said I was complaining all the time," laughs Cole, "but a lot of it was the way they edited the footage. They make it look like you can only be bothered to climb five steps when you've actually climbed 5,000."
Despite reality TV's double-edged sword, Girls Aloud clearly have the people's vote - and that of some of their fellow pop stars. Arctic Monkeys have covered "Love Machine", Lily Allen has said she'd like to look like Cole, and the girl group's appearance in the forthcoming Oasis documentary Lord Don't Slow Me Down should help their visibility in 2007.
The cameo came about when the girls stumbled across the Gallagher brothers while working at the same studio, Cole's less forward band mates goading her to make the introductions. "Noel went, 'Our kid! Come on out - it's Girls Aloud!'" laughs Walsh. "We had our photo taken with them - it meant a lot to me coming from their neck of the woods." Given that Liam Gallagher is married to Nicole Appleton, one quarter of rival girl band All Saints, this is all very intriguing, of course. Who knows - perhaps the Girls Aloud footage will end up on the cutting-room floor.
Still, what of their own relationships? With Cheryl married to Ashley Cole, Nadine dating Desperate Housewives actor Jesse Metcalfe, and Kimberley seeing Triple 8 singer Justin Scott, the reportedly single Sarah Harding must feel a certain pressure to bag a celebrity of her own? "It's not really like that," says Cole. "It's more about trust and finding someone who likes you for yourself, not being in Girls Aloud, someone who supports what you do, but isn't intimidated by it." Like Ashley? "Exactly!"
What's his favourite Girls Aloud song? "When he joined Chelsea he had to sing a song to the other players as a kind of team-bonding thing, and I printed him out the lyrics for 'The Sound of the Underground'. He didn't go for it, but I know he really likes that song."
From the twanging, almost Monkees-like pop of "Love Machine", to the fabulously melodramatic, cod R&B-imbued "Biology", Girls Aloud have "fronted" (to use Cole's term) some great pop tunes. Not (quite) for nothing has their producer Brian Higgins been called a Phil Spector for the 21st century. Still, as Higgins and his Xenomania production house team also pen tunes for Sugababes and others, and competition for the cream of their crop is fierce, Girls Aloud's greatest hits collection is peppered with cover-versions.
Last Christmas, your scribe found himself in the somewhat embarrassing position of being genuinely moved by their take on The Pretenders' "I'll Stand By You", though, in my defence, I'd have to cite its limpet-like adherence to the arrangement of the fine, Chrissie Hynde-penned original. Make no mistake about it: Girls Aloud can carry a tune.
Throughout today's interview, one of Cole and Walsh's PR bods has been perching on a nearby stool, a lifeguard ready to wade in if necessary. Recent spats with Boy George and aforementioned rivals All Saints - together with persistent, but untrue rumours that Harding is leaving Girls Aloud - have led to a line of questioning that the group would rather avoid. Much more pressing, it seems, is plugging "I Think We're Alone Now", a cover of the Eighties Tiffany hit with which Girls Aloud hope to secure this year's Christmas No 1. "The higher it gets, the better the album will sell," says Walsh, "and ultimately that's what we're trying to promote."
The girls have filmed a video for said song in which the storyline sees them attempt a heist at a Los Angeles casino. It's being billed as a "fans' choice" video, since customers of 3 Mobile can download three different denouements: "shocking", "funny" and "sexy". No prizes for guessing which will prove most popular.
Of course, only a fool would deny that the girls' sex appeal - as milked in promotional videos, calendars and regular shoots for FHM and the like - is a huge factor in shifting their CDs. As in 2005, this year the aforementioned magazine featured all five Girls Aloud members in its "100 Sexiest Woman" list, but on the surface at least, Cole (sixth, down from second), and Walsh (66th, down from 44th) seem unaffected by any tensions these ridiculously arbitrary rankings might spark.
Boy George, on the other hand, is currently a source of great irritation, largely because the singer recently called Girls Aloud and their music "vile". "I knew George didn't like us from the moment he walked in the room," says Walsh, choosing her words carefully, but her ever-feisty band mate is more colourful. "While we were playing our arena tour Boy George was sweeping shit off the New York streets," says Cole, her silver-painted eyelashes sparkling. "He's bitter that he's not succeeding and we are."
Download the 'fans' choice' video for 'I Think We're Alone Now' via 3 Music until 15 November ( www.three.co.uk)Reuse content