Girls Aloud were the UK’s best pop group of the century so far, and Sarah Harding was the band’s rockstar member. Equally comfortable performing on CD:UK or partying at the NME Awards – where she and bandmate Nicola Roberts presented Arctic Monkeys with the Best Album prize in 2007 – Harding’s infectious spirit and can-do attitude helped to fuel the group’s enduring success.

After being formed in 2002 on ITV’s Popstars: The Rivals, a talent show that looks quaint compared to its ruthless successor The X Factor, Girls Aloud racked up 21 Top 10 hits with deliriously inventive songs that often threw traditional song structure out the window. “I’ve been trying to write them a song and I can’t come up with anything good enough,” Coldplay’s Chris Martin admitted in 2008. “I think they are the ultimate form of life.”

Harding, who has died from breast cancer at the age of 39, was born in Ascot, Berkshire in 1981 and grew up in neighbouring Buckinghamshire. She briefly attended a staunch military boarding school, Gordon’s in Woking, but returned to a more relaxed Catholic comprehensive, Salesians, when the “strict discipline” didn’t suit her. Harding wrote in her recent autobiography, Hear Me Out, that some Salesians staffers called her “the catalyst” because “as far as they were concerned, whenever trouble or mischief was going on, I would be found right in the middle of it”.

Harding lost interest in school after she and her family moved to Manchester when she was 14; by this point, she had already realised music was her calling. “It wasn’t just that I wanted to sing for people – I also wanted to get some kind of reaction for it; for people to think I was good at it,” she wrote in Hear Me Out.

Nicola Roberts Sarah Harding Girls Aloud 2007 NME Awards
Nicola Roberts and Sarah Harding of Girls Aloud at the Shockwaves NME Awards 2007 CREDIT: Richard Lewis/WireImage

Though Harding could look up to her dad – a professional musician who once played at the Royal Variety Performance – she had no formal musical training. So, in between stints as a debt collector and Pizza Hut waitress, she honed her performing skills at pubs and caravan parks in north Wales before auditioning for Popstars: The Rivals in 2002. With Pete Waterman, Louis Walsh and Spice Girl Geri Halliwell as judges, the show formed two five-member groups – one all-female, the other all-male – then set them against each other in a Christmas chart battle.

After singing everything from Bonnie Tyler (‘Holding Out for a Hero’) to Cilla Black (‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’), Harding won a place in the all-female combo, by now named Girls Aloud, alongside Nadine Coyle, Nicola Roberts, Cheryl Tweedy and Kimberly Walsh. Their sensational, genre-smashing debut single ‘Sound of the Underground’, which laid a surf guitar riff over drum and bass beats, was an instant classic that gave the male group, One True Voice, no chance. Beating the boys’ boring double A-side  ‘Sacred Trust’ / ‘After You’re Gone’ to Number One, it kicked off Girls Aloud’s incredible UK chart run.

Girls Aloud worked with various producers on their 2003 debut album, also called ‘Sound of the Underground’, but soon settled into a prolific collaboration with Brian Higgins’ Xenomania hitmaking collective. Based in a converted rectory in Kent, this sprawling posse of songwriter-producers would come up with all manner of melodies, hooks and beats, then piece them together into thrilling pop songs that frequently defied characterisation. The slinky, Smiths-inspired ‘Love Machine’, a standout single from Girls Aloud’s second album ‘What Will the Neighbours Say?’, was so undeniable it got covered by Arctic Monkeys. ‘Biology’, a chart-conquering highlight from the group’s masterpiece third album ‘Chemistry’, ditched the typical verse-chorus-verse format in favour of a dizzying succession of seemingly incongruous pop hooks.

Because they developed such a bond with Girls Aloud, producing four of the group’s five albums in their entirety, Xenomania were able to infuse the music with each member’s individual personality. So when the playful club thumper ‘Close To Love’ needed a risqué payoff, it was Harding who got to deliver it: “Gonna need more wood!” Equally, Harding was able to show a more sensitive side when she sang parts of the pleading ballad ‘Hear Me Out’. Tellingly, she later borrowed its title for her autobiography.

Because they operated in an era when genre divides were more entrenched than they are now, Girls Aloud’s musical credibility was hard-won. When they finally collected a Brit Award in 2009 – Best Single for their stunning chart-topper ‘The Promise’ – Harding’s reaction expressed the frustration of fans perfectly. “Can I just say, it’s about time!’” she roared as she held the trophy aloft. It was an iconic moment, since immortalised as a meme, that captured the core authenticity that Harding brought to the table as a pop star.

Girls Aloud live 2013
Harding (centre) performing with Girls Aloud in 2013 CREDIT: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

A similar spunky honesty shone through when she won Celebrity Big Brother in 2017, her final major  TV assignment before taking a step back from the spotlight. Before then, in addition to frequent reality TV work, she made a valiant stab at an acting career with roles in Coronation Street and the BBC TV movie Freefall.

Harding released a smattering of solo songs before and after Girls Aloud disbanded in 2013, underlining her rock chops by covering Iggy Pop (‘Real Wild Child’) and David Bowie (‘Boys Keep Swinging’) for film soundtracks. Earlier this year, she surprised fans by dropping a swaggering electro bop, ‘Wear It Like a Crown’, that made it to the top of the iTunes chart. By this point, it was public knowledge that her health was failing. In August 2020, Harding revealed on Instagram that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to other parts of her body. In March, she confirmed the disease was terminal and said she did not expect to see another Christmas.

In a characteristically gutsy move, Harding seized control of her own narrative in March by publishing Hear Me Out, offering an insight into the quieter side of her personality. “There is most definitely that fun, crazy party girl in me – there always was,” she wrote in the prologue. “It was the other Sarah – the one who liked curling up at home with her dog and a good book; the one who enjoyed cooking a roast dinner for her friends; the one who liked spending nights alone, writing songs and making music – that got lost.”

Harding became famous in an era when people in the public eye, women especially, were often reduced into cartoony personas that allowed little room for nuance and genuine human frailty. But among Girls Aloud fans, she will be remembered as a vibrant and feisty performer who really relished being in a group that transcended what was expected of them. To paraphrase one of their greatest hits, you couldn’t mistake her biology – the way that she walked, the way that she talked.