Cher Lloyd’s eyes flash defiance, although a smile plays across her lips. “I didn’t listen to Girls Aloud growing up, no way,” she says scornfully. “Too cheesy, man! I listened to grime, garage, bashment.” Then she bursts out laughing, one of the few times she seems to relax, knowing how ironic her comments sound.
This time last year, Lloyd’s name was known only to those residents of her home town who had noticed the teenager with what she describes as the “quirky clothes and ever-changing hairstyle”, as well as the producers and judges of The X Factor (including her soon-to-be mentor Cheryl Cole, formerly of Girls Aloud). Lloyd had been abroad just once, for a two-day holiday in the Canary Islands, and lived with her parents and three siblings in a council house in Malvern, Worcestershire. Now, on the brink of her 18th birthday, having spent much of the year in America working with some of the world’s most in-demand songwriters and producers, she is preparing to release Swagger Jagger, a debut single that has received more than 5m YouTube views in less than a month.
Lloyd is routinely described as “divisive”, “polarising” and “controversial”; eupehmisms for the fact that she tends to be on the receiving end of some vitriol. It was apparent from the minute she first set foot on the X Factor stage that she was no nation’s sweetheart-in-waiting. Her audition performance of Soulja Boy’s Turn My Swag On was a revelation, not just for the confidence – even arrogance – she radiated, but for the sheer shock of seeing a brash, braggadocious rap anthem gatecrash the programme’s docile glitz. But as Lloyd progressed through the series, she increasingly seemed to walk a tightrope between her own tastes and what a Saturday evening light entertainment audience would find acceptable. “If I had my way, I’d be rapping a Lil Wayne track every week,” she says. I suggest her final performance should have been Roman’s Revenge by her favourite rapper, Nicki Minaj, and her eyes widen. “Ooh. I’d have loved to do that.” Instead, she sang Where Is the Love by the Black Eyed Peas.
Despite The X Factor’s attempts to remould her, Lloyd is still recognisably homemade. Growing up as a hip-hop fan but living in the sticks – “it’s a miracle if we hear sirens,” she says – she scoured blogs for the latest music, and taught herself to rap by rhyming to instrumentals on YouTube. “Cher knows more about music than most A&Rs,” says Sonny Takhar, managing director of Syco, her record label. Her voice developed into a scrappy, charismatic, instantly distinctive sound. Her debut album is out in November, and its sheer range is impressive. From the irresistibly light Grow Up to the industrial-strength dubstep of Dub on the Tracks, it’s held together by the ebullient confidence of Lloyd’s voice. She ended the competition in fourth place.
“From the moment we saw her, it was pretty obvious we had someone incredibly special with a clear identity and the ability to connect with teenagers – young girls, specifically,” says Takhar. “She was completely uncompromising in relation to styling, song selection and staging. It’s a myth that we want puppets. Most labels would love an artist to walk through the door and say, ‘This is who I am’.”
Indeed, Lloyd’s fanbase is a large and loyal one: she refers to them as her “little brats”. Still, there are those “divisive” qualities. Takhar shrugs off the attacks on Lloyd – “The demographic that hates is, frankly, not one we care about” – but the nature of the invective directed at her is revealing. Trawl through internet comments on sites from YouTube to NME, and certain themes begin to recur: “Arrogant, big-headed pikey”, “Dirty chav. We need to rid the country of rats like this.”
As a working-class girl of Romany heritage whose parents have been reported to claim benefits (this is the one subject she asks not to discuss), it’s not hard to see why Lloyd has proved a magnet for such bile. She is the latest target of what Owen Jones , author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, identifies as a class hatred that “has become an integral, respectable part of modern British culture”. Lloyd is also a former recipent of the educational maintenance allowance, and is horrified to learn that the government has abolished it. “I was living off it, and it was really important for lots of kids at school. It’s a ridiculous thing to do.”
Lloyd says that bullying defined most of her school days. “I’ll always stand by my Gypsy roots, and I’ll always help out one of my own,” she states, her defiance now steely rather than bratty. “Growing up around people with the same culture as me made me a lot tougher. I had to grow up fast because we know it’s not all fairytales out there, it’s full of rubbish. You get stuff chucked at you every single day whether you’re in the public eye or not.”
It’s this sense of outsiderdom that has helped shape her tastes: “Most of the lyrics [I like] are about people not quite understanding you. I call it fightback music.” She agrees that much of the bullying she receives on Twitter mirrors what she endured growing up, only no longer just from her peers but from adults. Former News of the World showbiz editor Dan Wootton tweeted such barbed comments at Lloyd that Lily Allen felt compelled to step in to defend her; Lloyd cannot now resist a touch of schadenfreude about the tabloid’s demise. “Ha ha, that’s funny. It came round and bit him on the arse, obviously.” She intends, once her career is in full swing, to involve herself in anti-bullying campaigns.
Still, Lloyd is no fragile victim. She is at pains to point out that reports of her bratty attitude are accurate. Her speech is peppered with mutinous declarations of autonomy and rebellion, sometimes seemingly at random: “This is my life and I won’t let anyone make me out to be a joke,” she says in response to a question about the songs she sang on The X Factor. It’s hard to tell how much of this is due to nerves – this is just her third one-to-one press interview – and how much is habitual. When she drops her guard she is funny and charming, such as when she enthusiastically explains the “11 or 12” tattoos she has acquired since her 16th birthday. She agrees that the tough exterior has built up over the years as a defence mechanism. “Things still hurt me, but I prefer not to show it,” she sighs. “That’s probably why people think I’m so hard-faced.”
Putting the ‘haters’ behind her
The bold carapace cracks when Lloyd discusses her former schoolfriends, who she says now only text her to ask whether she has any parties coming up that they can get into. “You find out who your true mates are,” says Lloyd. “My mum and dad.” That’s it? “Yeah. My dad’s my best mate and he always will be.” Is there anyone she’s bonded with since The X Factor? “There’s quite a few people. I’ve got management that I’m close to.” As she senses my slight shock, her words come in a rush. “I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me because of the fact I haven’t got any true friends! I’m fine the way I am.” It’s not the kind of sentence one wants to hear from a 17-year-old.
For Lloyd, fame is still a dream come true: she was introduced to Lil Wayne while working in the US, is thrilled about getting grime MCs Dot Rotten and Ghetts to guest on her album, and relates how an approving tweet from another, JME, made her “leap around like a kid”. For now, the loyalty of her fans outweighs the existence of the “haters”. But when she asserts that the greatest lesson the past year has taught her is that “I’m stronger than what I thought I was – I can do anything now, I’m not scared any more”, you can only hope this is true.
Alex Macpherson, The Guardian