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Kimberley Walsh: from Girls Aloud to showtunes

As her bandmates cornered pop, Kimberley Walsh needed to find her own niche. The answer, she tells James McNair: Strictly, showtunes, and a future on Broadway

“How can you go to Barbados and catch a cold?” says Kimberley Walsh, sniffling absently. Her fleeting glumness segues to Saturday-night-TV smile and suddenly she's in promo mode. That's showbiz.

Now 31, the Girls Aloud singer and joint runner-up of last year's Strictly Come Dancing hoof-off has been putting her best gloss on things since starring in a George at ASDA advert as a child. When we meet in London's West End to discuss her debut solo album Centre Stage, a big freeze is homing-in outside. Walsh's recent, much paparazzied beach holiday with boyfriend Justin Scott – “Look at that Strictly-toned stomach!” ogled one red-top – must seem a distant memory.

The Brucie and Tess Daly-helmed Strictly has been a profile-raiser for Walsh. Her determination and girl-next-door charm were a good fit for the programme, and, though she won't reveal any details, she confirms she's since been inundated with other TV offers.

“Strictly was a lot tougher than I thought it would be, though,” she says. “I got a shock. I went to stage school [at Stage 84, Bradford], but the dancing there was more 'just try and copy this', whereas with the Strictly stuff, everything I thought I knew how to do, I was doing wrong.”

The programme's producers had been courting Walsh for a number of years, but only last year did her schedule allow participation. She also played the ogress Princess Fiona in Shrek The Musical at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 2012, but the requisite fat-suit, green makeup and fake snoz were small beer, Walsh says, compared to the physical demands of Strictly.

How did her boyfriend feel about she and the Russian-born pro Pasha Kovalev dancing to Beyoncé's “Naughty Girl”? “It is intimate, and it is bizarre”, says the singer in warm West Yorkshire tones, “but Justin's really chilled out and he can see it for what it is: part of my job. It isn't as glamorous as it looks, either. You're standing on each other's feet, knocking each other over, and seeing each other when you're all sweaty. It's hard graft.”

Graft is clearly something Walsh relishes. Before recording Centre Stage, a collection of songs from well-known shows, she returned to singing lessons. In ITV's 2008 documentary series The Passions of Girls Aloud, Walsh gamely auditioned for a West End production of Les Misérables, but it transpired that years of singing low-to-mid range pop in unison had left her ill-equipped to scale the heights of “On My Own.” This time out she's much better prepared, however.

“I learned a huge amount doing Shrek,” says the singer. “It was crazy to get to 30 and suddenly realise that if I changed this movement in my larynx I could belt it out or move up into my third voice. Doing ”Defying Gravity“ [from Wicked] on the new album was a challenge, but I think I nailed it. My producers were like, 'Do you want us to bring it down a notch or two?' I was like, 'Nope.'”

Walsh seems content to pursue a solo musical career that will likely please mums and dads more than it does “the kids”. She says she still loves pop, and she's clearly relishing going on tour with Girls Aloud again. “I didn't want my solo album to be pop or R&B,” she says, stretching out leather-trousered legs that end in Kurt Geiger wedge boots. “Cheryl [Cole] and Nicola [Roberts] have got that covered. This was a way of distinguishing myself from the other girls and I think it's true to who I am at this point.

“I've done a kind of Sixties version of ”Somewhere“ from West Side Story and ”I Still Believe“ from Miss Saigon.”

Walsh was born in Bradford. Her father John, a kitchen salesman, and mother Diane, a music teacher, split up when she was six. Kimberley's three siblings, Sally, Adam and Amy also went to theatre school (“I think they gave us a group discount.”). Sally went on to play Emmerdale's Lyn Hutchinson from 1997-2000.

Little sister Kimberley acted in The Book Tower, the Yorkshire Television children's show that dramatised popular novels, but of course it was talent show Popstars: The Rivals that brought Walsh to the fore. On 30 November, 2002, she and her Girls Aloud bandmates were thrown together by that most curious of agents, telephone voting.

“It gave the public a connection with us,” says the singer. “I think they thought they owned us a little bit, but then they watched us grow as a group and grow up as individuals. After [debut single] ”Sound of the Underground“ went to No 1 we actually had a bit of a shaky spell. It was a difficult time for pop music and our record company nearly dropped us. ”Love Machine“ [a UK No 2 in September 2004] was a turning point, though. That was when I thought, 'OK, we're gonna get a few more years out of this.'”

Two nights before our chat, Walsh and the rest of Girls Aloud had a meeting to finalise the stage-set for Ten: The Hits tour 2013. “Afterwards I couldn't sleep,” she says excitedly. “Everybody's taking it very seriously in terms of making it as good as it can be.”

Girls Aloud go on, then, but what if Broadway beckoned? “It's the ultimate dream for someone in my position,” says Walsh.

'Centre Stage' is out on Decca on 4 February. See Andy Gill's review, page 20

This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar Magazine