Cher Lloyd was a breath of fresh air when she stepped onto the X Factor stage nine years ago.
Striding around in ripped jeans, with a curl in her lip and eyebrows drawn in the shape of Sydney Harbour Bridge, her performance of Soulja Boy’s Turn My Swag On was nothing like the syrupy, safe singers the contest had become known for.
She went into the live shows as the bookies’ favourite, doubling down on her signature style by performing hits by Eminem and Run DMC amidst the endless parade of power ballads.
But it was a tough year – fellow contestants included Rebecca Ferguson and One Direction (and, er, Wagner). Lloyd eventually came fourth, as the public crowned painter-decorator Matt Cardle the overall winner.
Her profile hadn’t been helped by some unnecessarily vicious press, which branded the teenager a “chav” and a “gypsy”, and accused her of being a “hard-faced diva” who had “lashed out at a crew member and waved a spoon in her face“.
The criticism stung, says the singer. But, looking back, she understands that a show like the X Factor needed its heroes and villains to sustain a narrative.
“There’s a fine line between reality TV and creating artists,” says the star. “I realise that you need all your separate characters to play different roles. But you also have to remember that those people are all there for the same reason, the love of creating music.
“When you go on a show like that, it gives you such a fantastic platform, but it’s what you choose to do with that platform after that really counts.”
‘Too many cooks’
In Lloyd’s case, the story is complicated.
Simon Cowell, who called her “his favourite brat”, signed the singer to his SyCo record label and put her to work on a debut album. But you have to wonder what he was thinking when he chose Swagger Jagger – a bizarre mix of electro-house and the US folk ballad Oh My Darling, Clementine – as her debut single.
It entered the charts at number one, but one critic called it “the worst song in the history of pop”. Catastrophically, the song framed Lloyd as a novelty act, rather than the talented, charismatic singer the public had grown to know on TV.
“I think there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen at that time,” the singer says. “It’s difficult when you’ve got a lot of people with a lot of opinions on what you should sound like, even what you should look like, especially when you’re trying to find your identity yourself.
“I don’t think that you can pre-plan and guess what people want you to sound like. And I think there was a lot of that going on.”
Subsequent releases were better, but the damage had already been done. Her second single, With Ur Love, peaked at number four; The third, Want U Back, only got to 25.
In the US, however, it was a different matter. There, Lloyd was launched without the reality show baggage, and Swagger Jagger was consigned to the dustbin of history.
When Want U Back made the Top 20, Lloyd moved to the States and concentrated on her career there, focusing on her song-writing and taking more creative control over the recording process.
Now 26, and mother to an 18-month old girl, she’s back with a single called (appropriately enough) MIA. An expressive, playful R&B banger, it finally captures the singer’s unique blend of pop smarts and urban attitude.
“I feel like I’ve finally entered this new phase of my career where it’s totally authentic,” she says.
“When you enter the music industry at such a young age as I did, you haven’t found your feet as a young adult, let alone as an artist. So I think I had grow up and discover who I was and how I want to be heard.”
It seems to be working. Last year, Lloyd tested the waters with a “warm-up track” called None Of My Business – picking up 22 million streams on Spotify; and 32 million views on YouTube without any promotion.
MIA, meanwhile, launches the campaign for her upcoming third studio album, which has been four years in the making. The infectious song finds the singer abandoning her friends at a terrible house party and finding a better way to spend her night (hint: it’s with a boy).
So what’s her go-to excuse if she wants to escape a toxic Christmas do, or a crushingly boring dinner party?
“Well, I’ve got really, really good excuse now, because I’ve got a little girl,” laughs the singer.
“But I’ve always been quite an honest person – sometimes to a fault – so I probably wouldn’t have an issue saying, ‘This is rubbish. I’ve got better things to do’.”
It’s an philosophy she’s applying to her career these days, too.
“I’ve got nothing to hide any more. My music is 100% me,” she says.
“It’s been me going into sessions and me writing the songs. I’m not from a big machine, and I’m not stuck on the conveyor belt that I used to be on. I’ve jumped off, and that’s really scary. But at the same time, super empowering.”
Cher Lloyd’s single, MIA, is out now. An album will follow in 2020.