Sarah Harding, untameable to the end, left a vital last message

Girls Aloud was a manufactured entity. The late ‘Hardcore Harding’ was anything but

Sarah Harding: the singer was brimming with life, albeit in the end making do with a much more intimate stage. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Sarah Harding: the singer was brimming with life, albeit in the end making do with a much more intimate stage. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

 

Sarah Harding, the Girls Aloud singer, described in the memoir she published earlier this year as the prospect of her death loomed, how she often felt “a caricature” and “like a cartoon character rather than a popstar”.

The persona she was known for was a kind of tomboy Jessica Rabbit – all high notes and edgy glamour; loud and unapologetic; a messer, a chancer and a rebel.

The irony is that her death at the age of just 39 from metastatic breast cancer has made her real again, revealing the woman behind the tabloid magnet the press liked to call “Hardcore Harding”.

The Sarah Harding behind the caricature was a woman with insecurities and contradictions, one who both craved celebrity and frequently hated it. The loudest Girl Aloud was shy and socially awkward; she was a people pleaser who could be brittle; an insecure outsider who famously crashed a Ferrari during a Channel 4 documentary; a self-confessed diva, prone to occasional tantrums, who loved cooking and curling up with a book.

Tragically, many of us know someone who delayed a hospital appointment because of Covid

She is the woman who confronted Boy George in a hotel bar after he dismissed Girls Aloud as “just a bunch of pretty girls prancing around on the stage” – but also the one who put off going for a hospital appointment because she didn’t want to make a fuss during the pandemic.

Her 2021 memoir Hear Me Out, which was written during lockdown as she went through cancer treatment, revealed much more about her than nearly two decades of tabloid headlines.

It begins with the kind of frank straight talking her fans would recognise. “I have cancer,” she writes on the opening page. “Cancer that has spread from its original site in my breast to my lungs, make it much harder to treat … even with the best immunotherapy, I’ll be looking at two years maximum.”

She didn’t quite make that long. In all of the coverage of her death this weekend, one tragic detail stood out. She had gone for an ultrasound after she found enlarged and tender lymph nodes under her arm, and her breast size changed. The results weren’t good and she was advised to schedule an MRI. But it was March 2020, and Covid hit. “I was aware I needed to get this heath issue sorted, but with everything that was going on, it was tough,” she recalls in the memoir.

Sarah Harding (second from left) with her Girls Aloud bandmates in 2007. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Sarah Harding (second right) with her Girls Aloud bandmates in 2007. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

“At the start of the pandemic, there was so much conflicting information about hospital appointments, with the main message being to stay away unless it was a real emergency.” She convinced herself it was just a cyst, even as the pain became so intense she couldn’t sleep.

This, I think, is part of the reason why her death has affected so many people beyond her immediate fan base. Everyone knows someone who has died shockingly young from cancer, or someone who ignored and niggling worry and left it too late. And tragically, many of us know someone who delayed a hospital appointment because of Covid.

There’s a sense of urgency in the book, of time running out, but what is remarkable reading it the day after her death was announced is the absence of anger or self-pity. She talks about her regrets and the relationships that didn’t work out, her stints in rehab, the time she was viciously assaulted by a partner, why she wished she hadn’t gone on Celebrity Big Brother – there’s a sense that for her, this was a reckoning.

The book starts out as mostly a memoir – from her childhood growing up the daughter of working-class parents of Irish descent, suffering from ADHD and moving school seven times, to her days in the band – but as it progresses, the cancer intrudes more frequently.

Between funny stories about her life as a celebrity, she unflinchingly catalogues her growing list of symptoms. She writes about her exhaustion, her loss of concentration, her aching joints, the increasingly grim prognosis after a tumour was discovered on her brain, the bloating from steroids, and her exhaustion.

Harding shook things up, stormed through their stage performances, refused to be sit down and be quiet and suck it up

She writes bluntly about her mastectomy and her sadness at the realisation that she will never have children, never feel like herself again.

But only occasionally does she directly confront the prospect of her death. At one point, she writes that her doctors told her Christmas 2020 would be her last, and how “silly little things” were making her happy – lie-ins, roasting a chicken – were making her happy.

Harding’s death has seemed to unleash a wave of public feeling, the way deaths of well-known people sometimes do. Caroline Flack’s death sparked a – sadly short-lived – movement for more kindness online. Jade Goody’s death from cervical cancer in 2009 led to a surge in women booking smear tests.

After Harding’s death was announced at the weekend, the internet was filled with people sharing breast cancer warning signs and visual charts.

This, you suspect, would have pleased her. “There had been so much reporting on the news about people missing out on check-ups during Covid lockdown, even though they might be worried about something. People who had left a cancer diagnosis too late. Maybe if I spoke out, as a public figure, a celebrity, it could help get the message across how important it is to get checked out if you have concerns. That’s something I plan on doing if I can.”

“Girls”, she writes, “please everyone – don’t let anything get in your way – get checked out if you’re worried about something.”

Harding’s mother, Marie, has said she hopes her daughter will be remembered for something other than her disease. That will come in time.

Chris Martin once called Girls Aloud “the ultimate form of life”, and you didn’t have to be a fan to know what he meant. It was arguably more true of Harding than any of the others. She was part of the cookie-cutter manufactured pop band – recruited through a TV show and managed by Louis Walsh – but there was always something untameable and unknowable about her.

She shook things up, stormed through their stage performances, refused to be sit down and be quiet and suck it up. Unlike others of her era, she was never defined by whatever man she was in a relationship with. And like her musical heroes – Lady Gaga, Madonna, Gwen Stefani – she was more intelligent and thoughtful than many gave her credit for.

Right to the end, she was brimming with life, albeit in the end making do with a much more intimate stage. “The other Sarah Harding is still in there somewhere,” she wrote. “Making people smile is one of the things I’m missing most because it’s what makes me smile.”

In the final pages of her book, she describes how she has been thinking about funerals and the kind of send-off she’d like. “I’ve also thought about an epitaph for my grave,” she writes, a flash of Hardcore Harding there at the end.

“I’m thinking ‘FFS’ might be a good one.”

I hope that’s the one she ends up with.

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