Cheryl Cole: Angel of the North

Millions will tune in to the climax of 'The X Factor' tonight – in large part because of the Geordie judge who herself embodies the quest for fame

Time was when to claim the status of Light Entertainment veteran was to have spent decades hoofing it up in the spangled paying of dues. However, in this age of ready-made celebrity, it has taken the luminous Cheryl Cole a mere six years to come full circle to the point where she who was the creation of the search-for-a-star juggernaut is now its most slavishly adored arbiter. Tonight, she and her fellow X Factor judges will steer the prodigiously successful ITV talent contest to its climax.

To say that this is Cole's moment would be a statement as inadequate as the Minogue barnet next to the baroquely luxuriant growth that is our heroine's crowning glory. The Girls Aloud songstress may be a mere nipper, but her unauthorised biography hit the shelves in November (hot on the heels of an authorised band biog). More recently, it was announced that the 25 year-old performer, WAG and television presenter would be granted the status of Vogue cover girl; something that took Victoria Beckham Byzantine diplomacy and a justificatory essay on the part of the magazine's editor to pull off. Meanwhile, Dorothy Perkins is selling a range of "I Love Cheryl" T-shirts, emblazoned with a throbbing red heart.

Most fantabulously, a Liverpudlian artist has recast Cole as a weeping Angel of the North, beneficently dabbing her eyes over the sins of X Factor contestants. The painter, one Lee Jones, remarked that he sees Cole "as a new icon of popular culture for the 21st century, a beacon of light in these bleak times". Only by mustering a virgin birth in time for Christmas could the comely Geordie's apotheosis be more complete.

In fact, the image most suggestive of Cole is that of the Madonna della Misericordia, or Madonna of Mercy, à la Piero della Francesca, among others. The divine Cheryl towers above her worshippers, extending them the shelter of her cloak (here, perhaps, a modish Burberry cape).

For Cole, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the more recently sanctified Diana, Princess of Wales, appeals to her followers through the pulchritudinous embodiment of suffering. As Diana's appeal rested in lachrymose empathy toward those who would be cured of their scrofula, so Cole spurts tears and embraces for those martyred by ambition. She also shares many of Diana's lesser attributes: a fluctuating figure, philandering husband, brattish period from which she might be redeemed, and tendency to express herself via costume, not least.

Nevertheless, the tears are the thing that enable Cole to fill the hysterical vacuum left in Diana's wake. Cole beat Jones to it as the purveyor of crying as art: her weeping a lavish, prime-time installation. First comes the biting of a glossed lip; next, the doe eyes swell with tears, until, finally, perfect salt pearls issue forth in their cosmetic-defying enormity.

Next to this spectacle, her fellow judges' emotions can appear only contrived, shrewish, constipated. Or, as one YouTube correspondent expresses it: "Aww love cheryl shes o amazign plus i wish i could cry that beautifully shes like a doll none of the like sobing red eye crying stuff." Where the account of La Beckham's path to glory was entitled Learning to Fly, so any tome of Cole's should bear the legend Learning to Cry.

As is the way of these things, it is a lesson she learned young. Cole, then Cheryl Tweedy, was one of a family of five brought up in an impoverished council estate in Heaton, Newcastle. Violence, crime and addiction were all about, not least in the form of the youth whom tabloids are wont to refer to as Cole's "dead junkie pal", former Newcastle United trainee John Courtney, killed by heroin at 19.

Life, as Tweedy ardently desired to know it, only really began when her reality became televised in the form of Popstars: The Rivals in 2002. Cole's audition is immortalised on YouTube. Impresario Pete Waterman may be observed stumbling into a tumescent stupor at Cole's charms, while even Geri Halliwell is forced to come up with some Sapphic action in the form of sighs of "gorgeous!". Despite a pair of resolutely British teeth, one can only conclude that our Cheryl very definitely had the x-factor.

The audition was only the beginning of the young Tweedy's televised and increasingly telegenic ascent. She and her fellow hopefuls became a band – Girls Aloud – and that band, somewhat unexpectedly, became a phenomenon. Their singles – 18 consecutively attaining top 10 status – conformed to that perfect pop formula of being memorable enough to beset the brain when current, while being sufficiently forgettable to give way to the next.

Tweedy was not elevated into the celebrity pantheon unscathed. In January 2003 an altercation in a Guildford nightclub lavatory led to the singer being charged with racially aggravated assault – after allegedly referring to the attendant as a "jigaboo" – and assault occasioning actual bodily harm. The jury found her guilty of assault, but cleared her of any racist charges. Accordingly, she was sentenced to 120 hours' community service (largely sanding benches and caring for the elderly), and ordered to pay various costs.

The cost to her reputation was more significant. The judge described her actions as "an unpleasant piece of drunken violence", noting that its perpetrator had shown "no remorse whatsoever". While Ulrika Jonsson rechristened the band "Girls A Lout," labelling Tweedy "an arrogant bully"; a charge not best countered by Cole's reaction that Jonsson needed "to watch out if she ever bumps into me or the girls".

Marriage – first as fairy tale and then as self-sacrifice – proved her redemption. Then Arsenal player Ashley Cole first wooed his inamorata with the words "Hey, Hot Lips! Nice bum" issued from a car window. However, after guidance from a psychic, Tweedy was persuaded to give the boy a chance. They married at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire in July 2006. The bride sported Cavalli, boasted her bandmates as bridesmaids, and flaunted the requisite bridal tattoo, "Mrs C", on the back of her neck.

Despite a growing preoccupation with the wives and girlfriends of footballers – newly celebrated as WAGs – Mrs C was keen to differentiate herself, not least by being in possession of a day job. Similarly, she eschewed a prenuptial agreement, maintaining that her marriage was "a work in progress".

Our heroine was poignantly unaware of the extent to which this would prove the case. In early 2008, she was forced to exemplify the modern moral that those whom the gods wish to destroy they first marry to chefs/members of the Rolling Stones/ footballers. For the newlywed sportsman was not only reported to have his way with a clutch of fans, but became immortalised for a positively Roman technique involving penetration/vomiting/yet more penetration. His wife reacted with the obligatory weight loss, girl bonding, and a paparazzi-friendly game of hide-and-seek with her marital band.

And, yet, as for Diana, from adversity sprang strength; or, at least, a still more commercially viable persona. Where her husband's alleged infidelity trampled Cheryl's dreams in the ashes, so, phoenix-like, she would rise from said ashes to champion the dreams of others. If Sharon Osbourne was a difficult act to follow, then Cole's monopolisation of The X Factor yields no sign of it. Where Osbourne manifested mere maternal clucking, so Cole raises the game to the full Madonna della Misericordia routine.

No, she will not judge Nikk Mager, her former Popstars rival. Instead, she will smile wetly upon chirpy widower Daniel Evans, and cradle motherless teenager Amy Connelly to her bosom. And when the white-robed contestants warbled "Heroes" to a studio of variously abled veterans, it was Cheryl, head cocked, tears already forming, who gave them benediction.

A life in brief

Born: Cheryl Ann Tweedy, 30 June 1983, one of five children.

Family: Married footballer Ashley Cole in July 2006. The couple live in Oxshott, Surrey.

Early life: Raised in Heaton, a suburb of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She displayed an early interest in singing and dancing, joining the Royal Ballet's prestigious summer school aged nine. Appeared in a number of TV commercials and won several modelling competitions, including Best Looking Girl of Newcastle.

Career: Auditioned for Popstars: The Rivals in 2002, which led to her selection as the first member of Girls Aloud. In the same year the group achieved their first major commercial success with the single "Sound of the Underground". A debut album of the same name was released in 2003, entering the charts at No 2. Also in 2003, Cole was found guilty of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, after an altercation with a nightclub lavatory attendant. As part of Girls Aloud and as a featuring artist, Cole has had 20 UK top 10 singles. This year, looking to expand her portfolio, she became a judge on the reality TV show The X Factor.

She says: "There's something about celebrities having a perfect life. People need to relax and realise we're human too."

They say: "She brings a breath of fresh, young air to the show and isn't afraid to voice her opinions, even with Simon." Dannii Minogue, fellow X Factor judge

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