SARAH Harding would be the first to admit that life hasn’t always been exactly kind or panned out in the way she’d hoped.
The heartache at the hands of unsuitable boyfriends, the wild partying, heavy boozing and eventual crash and burn that saw her wind up in rehab – all on top of the struggle to establish herself away from Girls Aloud… none of it has been easy.
But if fortune favours the brave, then Sarah is well overdue a truckload of luck.
With a cameo role in Coronation Street and the possibility of a reprisal further down the line, her long-awaited debut solo material about to be released, plus a new (entirely suitable, it appears) boyfriend, it feels like she is finally getting the fresh start she’s been searching for.
This, she says, is her new chapter.
“It really, really is. And it’s about time! My 20s were all heartbreaks and hangovers.
“I’m done with that and now it’s time to get real.”
She sounds hopeful yet jittery, like there’s a lot riding on the next few weeks.
Perhaps with good grounds, she attributes much of her problematic past to men – their bad behaviour and her poor choices – although she acknowledges that her extreme personality has also landed her in hot water.
Sarah, 33, doesn’t handle boredom well.
But it was the breakdown of her turbulent four-year relationship with DJ fiancé Tom Crane, 34, in 2011 that hit her the hardest, and she checked into rehab shortly afterwards.
“Bloody men!” she shrieks, covering her face with her hands.
“I probably could’ve picked a few better ones. But I think we’re put on this planet to learn, and if it wasn’t for those experiences I had in my life, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I don’t regret things.”
Sarah isn’t what you might expect.
Her reputation as lairy, brash and brimming with cockiness precedes her, but she’s actually none of those things.
She is, however, sweet-natured, a little scatty and eager – anxious, even – to please.
There’s a vulnerability about her, an awkwardness, and her conversation is punctuated with nervous laughter.
“I’ve got that sort of fierce-looking face where people think I’m actually like that, but I’m the total opposite when you get to know me. I’m a bit more guarded because I’ve been let down quite a bit in the past.
“So I’m a lot more selective about who I let into my life,” she says.
“I definitely have a lot more acquaintances than I have friends now. I think that’s all part of the journey.
“I’ve been through the mill, definitely, but I’ve turned it around and I hope people can empathise with that. I’ve come a long way from where I began.”
Not half. These days “green-fingered” (her words) Sarah is more likely to be tending the veg patch at her country pad than staggering out of clubs.
Hardcore Harding? You’ve changed.
“I know! Me and Jason have been re-planting all my beetroots, because I’m mad on beetroot juicing.”
And so, to Jason.
After splitting with music producer Mark Foster last year, Sarah has been seeing this new man, known only as Jason, for the last six months. She starts off by insisting that she doesn’t want to “jinx” things by talking about him when it’s still “early days”.
“I don’t wanna talk about relationships!” she says. “That’s all I’m gonna say on that one.”
Pfft. It actually only takes the tiniest bit of teasing to get her to open up.
What does he do?
[Vaguely]: “He’s just a businessman.”
What sort of business?
[Clamming up]: “He’s in IT.”
So, just really ordinary then?
[Slightly aghast]: “No, I wouldn’t say ordinary!”
But he has a normal job?
[Practically affronted]: “Well no, he, like, owns his own offshore IT company.”
Ah! Not so ordinary then.
“But he’s at completely the opposite end of the spectrum compared to the other guys. God, ‘other guys’,” she checks herself. “That sounds terrible! Ha ha!
“What I mean is he’s definitely more stable, much more career-focused – the pair of us are, which means we don’t see much of each other at the moment, which is quite sad. But we’re both really hard-working people and we just want the best for our futures.
“Some people say it’s nice to be with someone who is involved in the industry because they understand your job and blah, blah, blah. But, you know, the last few boyfriends I’ve had have been in the music business and they’ve not gone so spiffingly.”
She bursts into peals of laughter at her own turn of phrase. “I’ve known the guy a long time, we had mutual friends, so it’s not like we were strangers. He lives in London and I live way out, and so when I’m busy I don’t really get to see him.
“I feel like a single mum with all me animals. I’m like a mad cat and dog woman.”
Does it feel different this time then?
Sarah smiles with the weariness of a woman who has had more than her fill of hurt and replies simply: “It always feels different.”
Leaving London for Buckinghamshire a few years ago has helped her settle down and refocus.
She briefly moved back to the capital before Christmas, but found it too noisy, too busy and impossible to readjust.
“I’m so used to it out in the country now, I don’t think I could live central again. I’m definitely wiser and a lot calmer. Well, most of the time. I’ve grown up a lot.
“I was young back then, you know? And sometimes very stupid. I hate it when papers use pictures of me from the past and I’m just like: ‘Who is that girl?’
“I haven’t been to a nightclub in god knows how long!
“I sound like an old woman, but I haven’t even heard of most places now. People say: ‘Oh, have you not been to that place?’ and I’m like: ‘Where? What place?’ Ha ha!”
That’s not to say she’s given up alcohol completely.
“No, I wouldn’t say I’m teetotal. I’m just not the lunatic I used to be.
“I used to think I was Liam Gallagher, flicking the Vs at the camera, thinking I was rock ‘n’ roll.”
She says she’s always been all or nothing, wearing her heart on her sleeve and throwing everything she’s got into whatever it is she’s doing. But at the other end of that comes an inevitable crash. Sarah describes herself as either a “hyperactive puppy or a dead dog”, with nothing in-between. “There’s no happy medium with me. It’s so weird. But I’ve been like that since I was a little girl – my poor mother!
“A lot of [the partying] was just boredom and I was living in London, going out with a DJ, and I think that just became a way of life. I think being busy is good for me, you know? When I’m not busy, that’s when I get bored, and I’m like: ‘Ugh!’ I need stimulation. I’m your typical hyper sort of girl who always needs, I dunno, something.”
Just as well, then, that she happens to be extremely busy at the moment. She’s in the middle of a short stint on Coronation Street, which sees her playing Joni, the wife of Tracy Barlow’s first husband Robert. It might be her first truly high-profile acting job, but Sarah wasn’t given the part purely because of who she is.
For the last few years, she’s been gaining experience with a series of smaller roles in both St Trinian’s movies and Brit flick Run For Your Wife. She got called back three times for the part of Emma Frost in X-Men: First Class, a role eventually won by January Jones. Nevertheless, she knows there will be scrutiny and that some will be gunning for her.
“There was a lot of pressure, and I know there’s gonna be real soap fans who are like: ‘What’s she doing, she’s a singer!’
But I’ve played my role to the best of my ability and I hope I’ve done everyone proud. I felt really honoured to be on a soap that I’m a fan of.”
Corrie will also act as “a little springboard” for her music, which remains Sarah’s first love. She describes the single Threads as “very gritty for a first song”, having written it while she “had the hump” with someone who shall remain nameless. “Nooo! I’m not saying who, no chance! Ha ha ha! I’m not gonna give them the satisfaction. It’s quite moody, but I think it’s got quite a nice feel to it as well, and there’s a message in it to say you’ve just got to let things go.”
Sarah has been saying for years that her solo stuff is imminent, but it’s never materialised until now. Apparently, she’d be working on tracks for so long that when the time came to think about releasing them, they were “outdated”. Last year, she “scrapped everything and started again”.
But the charts can be a brutal business, and Sarah is mindful of what has happened to the likes of Leona Lewis, whose latest single reached a lowly 51. Alesha Dixon had a similar setback, and even Cheryl Fernandez-Versini’s last offering Only Human failed to scrape into the Top 40.
“It is really unpredictable and you can never tell. That’s why I thought it would be better to start with an EP and see what happens, rather than spending s**tloads of money making a full album and it just not going anywhere.
“But I hope people like what I’ve done, because it’s more ‘me’ than anything I’ve ever done before.”
She’d never say never to a Girls Aloud reunion if it was for a one-off special occasion, but admits she rarely sees the others these days.
Nevertheless, she looks momentarily stung when reminded that Kimberley wrote in her autobiography that she wouldn’t have been friends with her (or Nadine, for that matter) had it not been for the band.
“I think me and Nadine were just more independent,” she explains.
“I had my own set of friends outside the band, because when you’re together 24/7 of course you’re not going to get on with each other all the time.
“I spoke to Cheryl and Kimberley a few months ago and was like: ‘I really miss you guys,’ so it would be really nice just to get together and reminisce.”
Ask her how her confidence is and she describes a constant tussle. “I think it changes day by day. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m working on it.”
Four years ago, Sarah admitted to Fabulous to having had fillers in her lips. She said that approaching 30 had prompted a mini-crisis and she’d panicked. But the backlash was enough to put her off any other form of surgery forever: “No chance! I think it’s pretty obvious I got a right good ribbing for [the lips].”
Her incredibly smooth skin would suggest otherwise, but she insists it’s all down to some miracle facial that tones and tightens muscles and is completely au naturel.
“It’s a bit like what Amanda Holden has – the collagen waves – and it’s amazing,” she enthuses.
Whatever is keeping her so wrinkle-free, Sarah is wholeheartedly positive about her future. “I know what I want out of life now, and in the next few years: kids. I want some little bubbas, some mini-mes.”
And would Jason be the potential father? “I’m not going to try and predict the future, because I tried to do that in the past and it didn’t work out.
“I’m definitely happier,” she says. “I’m just myself, and to some people it’s annoying, but I’m not going to be someone I’m not.”
You can’t help but root for her. She deserves a break.
“Thank you,” she says. “Maybe if I hadn’t gone through what I had, then who knows? But I think it’s finally all coming together. This feels like it’s how it should be.”
Sarah’s single Threads is released on August 7 and is available to pre-order now.