Ashley & Cheryl Cole: A marriage made in OK! and broken by The Sun

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She has cast herself as the princess in the tower; he will be the recipient of the least sympathy in a public separation since Ike Turner... or perhaps Heather Mills.

The fairytale villain received his comeuppance yesterday teatime as the Ashley and Cheryl Cole marriage – a multi-million-pound conflation of sport, ambition, dubious miming and good looks – reached its dénouement.

Ms Cole, 26, a chart-topping singer and talent show judge regarded by some as the nation's favourite celebrity, publicly ejected her husband from their £6m Surrey mansion after a string of women claimed to have had affairs with him. It caps a bad month for the England left-back, 29, regarded as the best player in the world in his position, who has broken his ankle and his marriage.

Ms Cole's announcement that the couple are to separate was prompted by a report in The Sun that Ashley had text-messaged an image of his genitals to another woman. A grainy image of him in unflattering white Y-fronts accompanied the report.

Ms Cole's appeal to an audience of women in their teens and twenties jumps demographic boundaries and goes beyond the mere construct of publicists and showbusiness journalists. For fans, she represents a dream ascent from a tough council estate to international stardom.

She has successfully projected an image of herself as real – combining her working class upbringing with teary outbursts as she eliminates contestants from The X Factor – and as flawed: she assaulted a nightclub employee in 2003. She had become "human" in the peculiar logic of showbusiness.

She even denounced footballers' Wags (wives and girlfriends) as "just as bad as benefit scroungers... These women have nannies, they don't cook or clean and never do a day's work. What kind of aspiration is that?"

The Coles' comparative standings in the public eye have completely reversed since 2003. Back then, Cheryl Tweedy, as she was, had been plucked from a Newcastle-upon-Tyne estate by Simon Cowell and plonked in Girls Aloud, who topped the charts but were renowned more for their fake tan than lyrical acumen. Her career was soon threatened when she was arrested and convicted of the actual bodily harm of a nightclub toilet attendant.

But Tweedy rode out that storm and 2004 brought the meeting with Ashley Cole, a young footballer already capped by his country. They married two years later in a £1 million OK! wedding gaudy even by the standards of their peers.

Ashley, playing for Arsenal at the time, angered football fans when he publicly attacked his employers for offering to pay him only £55,000 a week: "I nearly swerved off the road! He [the Arsenal executive] is taking the piss!"

But the event which swung the fickle pendulum of popularity firmly in Ms Cole's direction was the slew of newspaper reports, 18 months after they married, that her husband had cheated on her. Then came the disclosure a fortnight ago that Cole had sent intimate text messages to other women, and claims of five affairs.

The Coles' separation was announced yesterday on the stream-of-consciousness internet forum Twitter. Her publicist, Sundraj Sreenivasan, attacked recent red-top speculation as "absolute crap", adding only: "Cheryl Cole is separating from her husband Ashley Cole. Cheryl asks the media to respect her privacy during this difficult time. We have no further comment."

Simon Cowell is expected to help her launch a career in the United States.

Divorce lawyers jostled last night to conject that the Coles could easily "divorce with dignity", should she apply on the grounds of his unreasonable behaviour and they settle out of court. Up for dissection would be the couple's mansion near Oxshott, Surrey, and an estimated collective worth of over £20m.

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