The singer, actor and model was an irrepressible force of nature who endeared herself to everyone, from rock stars to reality TV fans. Roisin O’Connor pays tribute
Sarah Harding, the English singer, model and actor who rose to fame as a member of pop group Girls Aloud, has died from breast cancer aged 39.
Harding disclosed her illness to the public in August 2020 and said she was receiving chemotherapy. However, in March 2021, she revealed she had been told by doctors she “[would not] see another Christmas”.
Born Sarah Nicole Harding in Ascot, Berkshire, on 17 November 1981, Harding was raised in Stockport and left school early to focus on her music career. She unsuccessfully auditioned for the BBC talent show Fame Academy in 2002, but shot to fame later that year as a contestant on ITV talent show Popstars: The Rivals. There, she formed Girls Aloud with bandmates Cheryl Tweedy, Nadine Coyle, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh. “I was so nervous, I veered off-key slightly,” she later said of her audition in front of judges Louis Walsh, Geri Halliwell and Pete Waterman. “But I held my nerve and got through it.” She sang “Last Thing On My Mind”, a hit for both Bananarama and Steps.
Girls Aloud’s debut single, “Sound of the Underground”, was the Christmas No 1 that year. The group would go on to score a further 20 UK Top 10 singles, earning a devoted fanbase with their energetic pop sound. Guitars added a rockier edge that stood them apart from the identikit, polished acts that had dominated since the Spice Girls disbanded. Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner was a fan, jokingly offering Harding the chance to replace him at the NME Awards in 2007. In 2012, Arctic Monkeys covered the group’s hit “Love Machine” for the BBC Live Lounge.
Harding’s image was considerably edgier than that of her bandmates; her irrepressible personality endeared her to many. She refused to be bullied; when Boy George dismissed her band as “just a bunch of pretty girls prancing around on the stage”, she cornered him at a hotel bar and forced him to apologise. Her idols were other women – Pink, Madonna, Gwen Stefani – who refused to tone it down out of fear of being branded “too loud”. In 2009, Girls Aloud won the Brit Award for Best Single, for their No 1 hit “The Promise”. Once on stage, Harding grabbed the award and punched the air, telling the cheering crowds: “It’s about time!” That same year, Girls Aloud went on hiatus before reuniting in 2012, touring and releasing a new single for Children in Need, “Something New”. They split for good in 2013.
As an actor, Harding appeared in two St Trinian’s movies and acted opposite Dominic Cooper in the BBC made-for-TV film, Freefall. Her short-lived role as Joni Preston in Coronation Street was “a tough gig”, she said in her 2021 memoir Hear Me Out, as she felt her character was too similar to her own persona. “You might imagine that it would be an easy thing to do,” she wrote, “but I think I’d have found it more comfortable playing someone who was the complete opposite of me”.
Harding had greater success on reality TV, where her outgoing, warm-hearted nature shone through. She won Celebrity Big Brother in 2017 and also entertained fans on Celebrity Masterchef, where she served up “half a pint of limoncello with a few raspberries and a splash of syllabub” as a dessert to judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace.
Though she was viewed as something of a “wild child”, regularly spotted emerging from nightclubs in the early hours, Harding’s life of excess was fuelled by deep-rooted struggles with anxiety and self-doubt. In 2011, she admitted herself to rehab for alcohol abuse, depression and an addiction to sleeping pills, citing her split from her DJ fiance Tom Crane the previous year as a catalyst for her substance abuse issues.
“I’ve done the bravest thing I had to do,” she said. “I reined it in. I took myself to rehab, because I knew it was getting out of control. It takes a strong person to admit that. So I did.”
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This matter-of-factness was one of Harding’s most endearing traits. Even in the knowledge that she had just months to live, she said in March that she was “trying to live and enjoy every second” of her life. Revealing her diagnosis was “scary”, she said, but also “the right thing to do”. She admitted, ahead of starring in a stage adaptation of the film Ghost, that she didn’t like to show “weakness”. But there was nothing weak in how she has, undoubtedly, raised breast cancer awareness for thousands of women and girls. She has probably saved more lives than she could ever have known. And she taught many, many more how you should never, ever turn down the volume for anyone.