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Manchester Evening News
Manchester Evening News
Jess Molyneux

The day Sarah Harding auditioned for Popstars: The Rivals in Manchester

Today marks 20 years since British girlband Girls Aloud officially formed and the lives of Cheryl Tweedy, Nadine Coyle, Kimberley Walsh, Sarah Harding and Nicola Roberts were changed forever.

The group landed a string of top 10 singles between 2002 and 2009, from No Good Advice to Something Kinda Ooh, The Promise and more. In fact, before launching their solo endeavours, they achieved 20 consecutive Top 10 singles, four number ones, two No 1 ­albums and a Brit Award.

But it's also been two decades since the singers competed on hit talent show Popstars: The Rivals. The series before produced Hear’say and Liberty X, but the objective this time around was to create a boy band and a girl band, managed by hit-makers Louis Walsh and Pete Waterman, with their first challenge to compete for the Christmas number one spot in 2002.

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Hosted by Davina McCall, hundreds of potential stars were selected and whittled down to a final 20, seeing a five-piece girlband and a five-piece boyband formed. Each week ITV viewers saw hundreds of hopefuls audition in front of Pete, Louis and Geri Halliwell (now Horner) in a bid for pop stardom. They would undergo vocal and dance training before making it to the live shows.

The auditions at Wembley Conference Centre in north-west London were by invitation after potential contestants sent in audition tapes and were selected. But the show also came to Manchester to seek out more stars.

Popstars - The Rivals judges Louis Walsh, Geri Halliwell and Pete Waterman pose for photographers outside the Lowry Hotel in Manchester. Friday August 16, 2002 (Howard Walker/PA)

At the time, the MEN reported how bosses of the hit show launched a week of auditions in the city for would-be stars to prove they'd got what it takes to go all the way to number one. Around 600 people queued outside the Lowry Hotel from early that morning for the auditions, after producers invited them after hearing their audition tapes.

But Friday that week, open auditions were also heard at the hotel for people aged 16 to 24. The Manchester open audition was the country's only free-for-all outside London. F irst in the queue was 18-year-old Jonathan Bland who had been waiting since before 6am with girlfriend Alexa Craig.

Do you remember Popstars: The Rivals in 2002? Let us know in the comments section below.

He told the MEN: "I would like to be famous and this is a way into the industry." Alexa said she would be coming to the open auditions on Friday and added: "It would be wicked if we both ended up in the rival bands.''

The show's producer Nicholas Steinberg said: "Pete Waterman said that a high percentage of the people who got through to the second round of Pop Idol came from the North West so that shows the kind of standard we are expecting."

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David Wheeler, 23, from Droylsden, Manchester, Bryan Nisbet, 19, from Dundee, Sarah Harding (sitting), 20, from Hazel Grove, Stockport and Emma Dean, 18 from Skemersdale (Howard Walker/PA)

One image, recently rediscovered shows contestants David Wheeler, 23, from Droylsden, Manchester, Bryan Nisbet, 19, from Dundee, Emma Dean, 18 from Skemersdale - and sitting in the front, a 20-year-old Sarah Harding from Hazel Grove, Stockport. All four pictured got through to the second round during open auditions at the Lowry Hotel in Manchester on August 16, 2002.

Working in salons and bars to pay her way, Sarah played with a band before going along to her fateful Lowry Hotel audition. Sarah Harding was the oldest of the five when she came face to face with the panel wearing a snazzy pair of jeans covered in hand prints and singing her rendition of Step's Last Thing On My Mind.

After making it into the band with Cheryl, Nicola, Nadine and Kimberley, Girls Aloud released their debut single S ound Of The Underground in a bid to win the Christmas No 1 spot against rival boyband One True Voice.

It was reported that one of Sarah's friends suggested she should audition for the show. At the time, Sarah said: "I used to be in a girl band and one of my friends, who was also in the band, rang me the night before the open auditions and asked me if I wanted to do it.

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"I thought I had nothing to lose so we camped out overnight. I never thought I would get past the first stage, I’ve surprised myself. The whole thing is a bit surreal.

"I do cringe when I see some of the mistakes I have made on TV. Sometimes the judges have been fair but other times their comments have not been constructive. They have just rambled on. I hope Girls Aloud are going to have a long career and be successful because being in a pop group has always been my dream."

Geri look-a-like Sarah Belsey, aged 22, from Essex waits in the queue during open auditions for Popstars - The Rivals at the Lowry Hotel in Manchester (Howard Walker/PA)

In September 2021, in a heart-breaking post on Instagram, Sarah's mum broke the news that her "shining star" had died aged 39 after her shock diagnosis with advanced breast cancer the year before, the MEN reported. Winner Girls Aloud became one of the biggest pop acts in the country, after landing the Christmas number 1 with Sound of the Underground, as host Davina McCall announced the big news live.

But it wasn't the end for the other 15 contestants who battled it out on the live shows. Runners up One True Voice carved out their own careers in the entertainment industry, reaching number 2 with their debut Sacred Trust. Javine also who went solo and the other contestants formed their own bands, Clea and Phixx, to rival their alumni in the charts.

Many will remember the series also introduced us to The Cheeky Girls, who scored three top 3 singles in a row with their first singles.

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