Raking Over Old Coles

Even the most ardent Cheryl Cole fan had to admit that there was something a little fishy about her recent nuptials, but that’s the trouble when your entire life becomes one long media narrative. No-one trusts you any more. And when they don’t trust you, you start to invite the strangest speculation…

On July 14th 2014, Cheryl Cole made a rather surprising announcement:

Technically, it’s two surprising announcements as “I usually do not discuss my private life” is every bit as unexpected as the part about her secret marriage. But there we have it. Cheryl Cole went and got hitched again.

Certain cynical elements of the press thought this wedding was nothing more than a promotional gimmick. Admittedly, the timing was pretty fortunate – what with Cheryl having a new single to shill, a new fragrance for sale, a forthcoming album and a stint on The X Factor to prep for.

The language doesn’t sound particularly passionate either. The announcement could hardly have sounded more corporate if Alan Sugar had been given copy approval. And, as everyone has been quick to point out, the groom in question (Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini) makes that Mormon ballroom dancer Cheryl used to ‘date’ look like The Rock in comparison.

But even despite all of that, marriage still seems like a rather drastic step to take for a front page, doesn’t it? Surely there are a hundred things she could have done instead if publicity was her only goal?

So what if it wasn’t just for publicity? It’s possible that Cheryl just wanted to get married again – but that’s too simple. And nowhere near as interesting as the other theory as to why this sudden bombshell dropped.

This theory involves a rumour that we’ve been hearing on and off for a few years now – one we initially dismissed on account of it sounding utterly ridiculous. In recent months though, this same rumour has been coming around again and again.

The rumour? That Cheryl Cole and Kimberley Walsh have been in a secret lesbian relationship for the last ten years and that almost everything Cheryl has done in the past decade has been specifically planned to cover that up.

Sound crazy? Of course it does. That’s because it is crazy. But if you’ve got a minute, you should hear it out. It’s an interesting theory. And it starts, like all the best love stories do, in a nightclub toilet.

Once Upon A Time…

In early 2003, Cheryl Tweedy threw the future of Girls Aloud into turmoil. The newly-formed band had just scored a Christmas No.1, reviews of Sound Of The Underground were universally favourable and pop fans and critics alike were all genuinely excited to hear their debut album.

Then Cheryl punched a black toilet attendant in the face.

This was a big problem for Cheryl, but an even bigger problem for her management. Because as far as personal popstar PR goes, a charge of racially aggravated assault is about as bad as it can get. Even though she was eventually cleared of any racial motivation, she had become toxic. The name ‘Tweedy’ was  synonymous with hate crime and it’s hard to market a music career on that.

If Cheryl had any hope of reaching her full pop potential after this, she would need fully rebranding. Not just a Madonna-style “Kabbalah Yogi/English Lady/Granny Dominatrix” makeover. We’re talking Witness Protection level stuff here.

Around the same time, over in the Premier League, whispers were beginning to be heard around Highbury about the sexuality of one of their players, defender Ashley Cole.

Rumours in football do not need to be particularly substantial to take hold –particularly when homosexuality is involved. Graeme Le Saux was famously taunted for being gay on and off the pitch, mostly because he read the Guardian. But this one was then rather unfortunately fueled by a News of the World blind story which nonetheless fingered Ashley Cole for a “gay sex romp”. (The Screws ended up paying Cole and DJ Masterstepz damages and publishing an apology but the story still stuck.)

The bullying sustained from such allegations – from fans and from team-mates – is bad enough, but there are professional ramifications too. If advertisers, sponsors, even certain clubs get the feeling that you are ‘that footballer everyone thinks is gay’, you won’t find yourself inundated with contracts.

The story goes that someone, somewhere, who is paid an extortionate amount of money to make sure that celebrities remain marketable had a brainwave. These two rising stars had complementary problems. One stands accused of being a racist; the other stands accused of being gay. Two, hugely unprofitable birds that could easily be slain with one small stone. All it would take is an introduction.

And so, using the Beckhams as a blueprint, Cheryl and Ashley became Britain’s new power couple. A pop princess and a football champion, whose powers combined made them an unstoppable force in the very lucrative field of selling lottery tickets and shampoo.

However, unlike the Beckhams, the Tweedy/Cole alliance wasn’t built to last. In fact, if the theorists are to be believed, the exit strategy was the whole point.

You may be wondering how a divorce could possibly boost the profile of both parties. Well, here’s one suggestion.

If you had the constitution to sit through one of the kiss-and-tell accounts of Ashley Cole’s supposed infidelities, you’ll have been surprised to see quite what a fanny hound the usually meek Ashley was. Forensic attention was cast over these alleged romps. Even perennial shaggers like Russell Brand or Steve Coogan don’t get such a level of lurid detail paid to theirs – and love-rat romping is part of their personal brands.

By the end of a double-page spread, readers were left in no doubt as to how much Ashley Cole loves skirt. Man, he loves it! In one of the stories it turned out that he was humping a lady so hard that he puked! Puked!

Ask yourself this: Would a gay man be sick when having sex with a woman? Exactly. No way. It’s just not possible.

And as for Cheryl? Poor, heartbroken Cheryl? Well, she has the nation’s sympathy now. No longer the spiky little scrapper who picks fights with minorities in nightclubs. She is the vulnerable victim in all this. The spurned lover with the sad, shiny, zoo-animal eyes.

More than mere sympathy though, she now has a new name. She is legally Cheryl Cole and never need be Toxic Tweedy again.

While some pop conspiracists feel that the story ties itself up quite neatly there (she, absolved of racism; he, a proven swordsman), that’s not where the theory necessarily ends. To some dedicated lesbian gossips, this is just where it starts.

Chim ’n’ Her

There was one other strange phrase in Cheryl’s wedding announcement. Aside from “I don’t usually discuss my private life…” and “…Jean-Bernard and I married”, the other bit that rang a little odd was “…to stop the speculation”.

It was odd because, as far as we knew, there was no real speculation to speak of. Nobody appeared to be wondering if Cheryl had married her ‘boyfriend’ of two months – at least not out loud. In fact, the only thing that came close to being described as speculation was this same old rumour that had cropped up time and time again. Namely, that she and Kimberley Walsh were pop culture’s most prominent closet-case couple.

Rumours about members of pop groups being in gay relationships with one another are nothing new. Every band has them. What’s strange thing about Cheryl and Kimberley rumours, however, is how unbelievably pedestrian they all are. It’s not your usual, feverish, typed-one-handed stuff. It’s all stories about how they possibly own a property together. Or how they hold hands all the time. Or how the two of them were whining like orphaned puppies when they got separated on a Comic Relief expedition.

Oh, and this one.

Talk about their secret lesbian love is so widespread in certain internet circles it’s even developed its own nickname. They are known as Chim (a portmanteau of Cheryl and Kim) and fans who believe they are in a romantic relationship are known as Chim Shippers.

But this has all been going on for years. Ever since Girls Aloud first formed there were people on the internet suggesting that the two of them were more than just friends. So what could have happened last month that seemingly forced Cheryl’s hand in marriage? What was all this so-called ‘speculation’ all about? Well, after almost a decade of postulating and pontificating, the Chim Shippers got tossed a little something they could really get their teeth into.

The day before Cheryl’s 31st birthday, she sent out a picture on Instagram showing the candle-lit, rose-strewn setting for her surprise romantic birthday celebrations. Most showbiz reporters scouring Twitter for stories assumed it must have been the work of her immaculately bearded boyfriend, Jean-Bernard, although he wasn’t mentioned by name and Cheryl didn’t think to thank him publicly.

Then keen-eyed Chim Shippers spotted that Cheryl’s intimate evening looked awfully like the same place Kimberley that was at, seemingly away on a spa weekend with her other friends.

A little bit of research showed that Cheryl and Kimberley were indeed at the same resort. Kimberley’s tweet included a mention of @chewtonglen, the Twitter account of Chewton Glen Hotel and Spa. The picture she included very clearly showed a treehouse that looks uncannily like one of Chewton Glen’s Treehouse Suites. A quick look at the Chewton Glen website gives you a short photo tour of the interior of one of their Treehouse Suites. Quelle surprise! It’s where Cheryl’s supposedly romantic tête-à-tête with Jean-Bernard was taking place.

And so the speculation started to spread.

Not Wholly Matrimony

For a so-called ‘secret’ marriage, it’s fair to say that Cheryl did a pretty terrible job of keeping it quiet. She managed to last just seven days. If that doesn’t qualify it for the title of Worst Kept Secret Ever, it’s more than enough to secure it a podium place.

But if the intention was to keep it a secret, why the change of heart? And why such a swift one?

It depends who you ask…

Theory #1

The conspiracy theorists who believe the marriage to Ashley Cole was merely a set-up to detoxify the Tweedy brand couldn’t help but notice the fortuitous timing. On July 13th (the day before she made the announcement), news broke that Cheryl had recently shut down an Irish company which she used to collect her international earnings.

Being the sole owner of an Irish international entertainment company is often consistent with tax-dodging, but Cheryl announced very clearly that she only had a company set up in Ireland because her accountant was Irish – recommended to her by her then-manager, the inarguably Irish Louis Walsh.

However, Cheryl and her people know that it doesn’t matter whether she was actually tax-dodging or not. All that matters is how many column inches the story generates. So, in order to stamp it out before it spread, the Ashley Cole conspiracists (the people who think Cheryl uses her love life to deflect attention from negative headlines) will tell you that she decided to play the ace up her sleeve. She revealed her big secret wedding and eclipsed the comparatively dull financial story.

That’s one theory.


Theory #2

Then you’ve got your jaded pop fan who, like a surprising swathe of the media, suggested that the marriage was a publicity stunt, executed to plug her single (and various other wares). It’s the Occam’s Razor theory – the least complicated; the most plausible – and a little bit of digging does show that the X Factor part in particular holds a bit of water.

Remember a couple of years ago when the Tom Bower biography of Simon Cowell came out? It ended with Simon dating a Brazilian socialite, Ana Paula Junquiera. This is Ana Paula Junquiera.

And who’s that dashing young gentleman next to her? Why, none other than Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini. Mr Cheryl Cole. Pictured in 2012 – the very same summer that Simon Cowell was allegedly dating Ms Junqueira.

It was widely reported that Cheryl and JB met at Cannes Film Festival, at the pop-up nightclub that Jean-Bernard was running. This gave reporters plenty of reason to namecheck Cosy Box. Cosy Box, Cosy Box, Cosy Box. But was that true?

People noticed that Cheryl had spent New Year in Cape Town with one of her best friends, who coincidentally seems to have known Jean-Bernard. Suddenly the story from Camp Cheryl changed.

All those “sources” and “friends” in the tabloids stopped saying it was a whirlwind romance. They now said the pair had actually been dating for about six months. The media had misreported. So the Cannes stuff was a bit of a red herring – but it did gain a lot of free promotion for Jean Bernard’s business venture, so it wasn’t a complete waste of everybody’s time.

The cherry on top of that? Two days before the wedding (/nine days before the ‘reveal’) the Mirror ran a story about Jean Bernard and Simon Cowell starting up a business relationship. We rarely put much stock in the anonymous sources that the tabloids use but there’s something oddly prescient about the line “Simon recognises him as a shrewd businessman”. And that does square very neatly with the brand-merging tone of Cheryl’s announcement.

That’s another theory.


Theory #3

The Chim Shippers though – the people who are convinced that Cheryl is in a lesbian relationship with Kimberley – will tell you something different. They’ll tell you that the tax-dodging rumours were never going to damage her career. They’ll tell you that Cheryl would have scored a number one without the help of a ‘husband’. They’ll tell you that The X Factor would be watched by millions, regardless of Cheryl’s relationship status. And they’d be right on every count.

So why did Cheryl get secret-married? To put Chim even deeper undercover, of course.

Yet if Cheryl was hoping that wedding bells would drown out the whispers, they haven’t. If anything, they’ve made it worse.

Cheryl herself isn’t helping matters by saying things like this: “I’m really happy. I’ve had a great couple of weeks, I’ve had a number one record, the sun’s shining –I couldn’t ask for more to be honest.” No mention whatsoever of the fact that, you know…she got married. This stuff is catnip to Chim Shippers.

Then there were stories about how Jean-Bernard, the famous international playboy, would never have to lift a finger again – indeed that Cheryl is demanding it. Which doesn’t do much to quash the idea that there are ulterior, non-romantic incentives for this particular union.

Even the sort of innocuous nonsense that the weekly glossies print every week about any celebrity in a relationship strengthens the Chim Shippers’ belief.

For example: shortly after the marriage was announced, Closer ran a piece ‘Cheryl Fernandez-Versini: “We’ll raise our baby in France”‘. Was this a pregnancy announcement? So soon after the wedding? Is that why they got married?

Of course not. It was idle chitter-chatter – but, unwittingly, Closer gave the Chim Shippers further ammunition.

Why? Because Kimberly Walsh is pregnant. And that’s the baby Cheryl is talking about. Obviously.

That’s the other theory.

The Truth Of The Matter

So, how true is any of this? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. And that’s the really curious thing, because no matter whose side you take in this – be it the Chim Shippers, the Ashley Cole conspiracists, the cynical side of the media, or Cheryl and her people – no-one seems to be telling a convincing whole story.

What makes it even trickier to unpick is that each of these camps have chequered track records.

At various points in the Cheryl Cole saga, her people have been telling the truth, while rampant internet gossip-mongering has obviously been way off the mark.

Other times, her people have been so desperate to whip up a bit of press interest they’ve pushed a load of old horseshit our way and enthusiastic amateur detectives have quickly shown it up as such.

Occasionally, the party line becomes so hopelessly muddled that it’s impossible for anyone to figure out what the hell is actually going on. Remember her ignominious hoofing from X Factor USA? Three years on, she’s still trying to spin a convincing excuse for it all.

With no reliable authority on the Cheryl Cole narrative (and not that much to the Cheryl Cole package), she becomes a bit like a dolly at a playschool. Whoever picks her up get to decide what her story will be. Whether that’s her PRs pushing the fairytale romance (which also happens to launch the business career of international playboy Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini) or whether it’s the internet gossips acting out the cute, kitchen-sink lesbian drama with Kimberley Walsh – Cheryl is now completely at the mercy of others, with no more say in the way she is presented publicly than anyone else.

This is, of course, a tale as old as time. The most obvious exemplar in pop music is Michael Jackson. Michael instigated rumours that he slept in an oxygen tank, and would only talk to his monkey to make sure that he was more interesting to the media than his rivals, Madonna and Prince.

Then he lost control of it. The stories about him started to get really weird. Then they started to get serious. Before long, he was Wacko Jacko. By the end, his reputation was a wreck.

Now, while we aren’t expecting Cheryl to start hitting the Jesus Juice and attempting to buy the bones of John Merrick any time soon, there is something undeniably odd going on with her at the moment – and it’s clear she has started to lose control of her own story.

The announcement she made in the hope of quelling speculation has done anything but. The Chim Shippers have always been there but it’s only now, in the absence of any more reasonable alternative explanation for her behaviour, that people are seriously taking note of them.

And for someone who once could get a newspaper to solemnly speculate if she was dating will.i.am, that is quite the fall from grace.