Cheryl Baker speaks on the stigma of growing up in second-hand clothes

When Cheryl Baker admitted she was “totally broke” two years ago, it was a pertinent reminder that financial hardship has never strayed far from her door. The former Bucks Fizz star, 69, enjoyed a string of chart hits during the 1980s with her bandmates after they won the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest with their famous skirt-ripping routine.

But when the pandemic’s lockdowns arrived, her work dried up overnight, leaving her struggling to make ends meet and forcing her to sell the valuable possessions she had accumulated over the years, including her gorgeous frocks.

This proved especially tough for the pop singer and TV presenter who always felt like the “poor kid” growing up in London’s East End. She was raised in a cramped council flat sharing three bedrooms with her parents and four siblings, Eddie, Colin, Gary and Sheila. And it was the stigma of wearing second-hand clothes she detested the most – and still struggles with today.

Unlike today’s millennials and Gen-Zers who love vintage clothing, wearing pre-owned items then was seen as something only poor people did. What sticks in Cheryl’s mind are the regular Sunday shopping trips she made with her mother Dolly to Bethnal Green Road when she was still a little girl called Rita Crudgington.

“At the top end of Brick Lane, you’d have all the fruit and veg, and the jellied eels and the Bible shops and everything else,” she recalls. “We’d walk through there and there was a little turning at the end and that’s where all the second-hand clothes stalls were. We used to root around the stalls and my mum would go, ‘Oh look Reet, here’s a woolly. Do you want a woolly?’ All my clothes came from there.”

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In fact, the only piece of clothing she ever wore new were shoes, courtesy of her shoemaker father Ted, who worked in a factory. Even in the post-war East End, Cheryl’s second-hand outfits marked her apart from her better-dressed peers.

“There was a stigma,” she says. “Especially because a lot of my school friends, their mum and dad both worked and a lot of them had more money. They had new furniture. All our furniture was second-hand. I did feel like the poor kid, and so that is instilled in me now. If ever there is something that is second-hand and I look and I think, ‘Oh that’s lovely’, I can’t get it. It has got to be new.”

She also has memories of her mother hiding when the man from the Provident, a specialist lender, came knocking on the door chasing loans. “The man from the Provi would come round and my mum would hide behind the settee and say, ‘Go to the door, Reet and say, ‘Mummy’s not here, can you come back next week?’”

Thankfully, Cheryl, who is married to Steve Stroud, bass player with Cliff Richard’s band, and has twin daughters, can shop again today as she’s back working as a prime-time broadcaster from Monday, presenting a lunchtime weekday show on digital station Great British Radio. And this hardworking multi-tasker can’t wait to get started.

“I’m so looking forward to it. I’m going to call it Cheryl’s Lunchbox!” she laughs. “It’s going to be packed with loads of great stuff. Obviously, there will be music but I’ll also have interviews with wonderful people who I’ve met over the years, plus I’m going to include a bit of comedy.” Great British Radio founder Mike Osman says Cheryl’s vibrant personality and quick wit make her a natural broadcaster.

This is her first prime-time role at the station, having previously presented a weekly 80s slot on Saturday evenings. Mike added: “Great British Radio is all about putting a smile back on the face of Britain and Cheryl’s new show will be exactly what the nation needs. We’ll leave all the heavy stuff to the BBC.”

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Over the years Cheryl has proved resourceful. During her Bucks Fizz heyday, she began a career as a successful TV presenter and co-hosted Record Breakers with Roy Castle for seven years. Following his death from lung cancer in 1994, she stayed on the show for another four years.

She’s also appeared on the West End stage in Footloose, and racked up appearances on celebrity talent shows including Popstar to Opera Star and Dancing On Ice. And her success still surprises her as she never believed she would make it as a singer because of her working-class upbringing.

“When [her sister] Sheila got married, I moved into the single room at age 11,” she recalls. “I was there until we did the Eurovision and everything and I lived there for years until I was 29. I had gold discs on the wall, limousines picking me up – and I still lived in our council flat in Bethnal Green!”

She liked learning and worked hard at school, undertaking a secretarial course and working in the City of London from the age of 16 to 21 as a shorthand typist and personal assistant.

“That was the sensible me,” she smiles. “I think I was fairly bright at school. I was in the A stream, I had the
drive to want to be a singer and I always bought the NME and the Melody Maker looking at the situations vacant for the singers required.”

Then one day her prayers were answered. “This particular advert said ‘girl singer required for a harmony band’ – and that was it for me. It was all about the harmonies. I wanted to be in a group, I didn’t want to be solo and I wanted to sing harmony, that was the pivotal moment for me.”

Cheryl went for an audition in Leyton for a band called Co-Co in the 1970s and then worked all year round in the clubs. It was a big break and she had her first taste of Euro success when the band came second in A Song For Europe.

“We came second in Co-Co to Brotherhood of Man and we played at the Albert Hall,” she recalls. “We did the summer season in Great Yarmouth, which was a big thing for me because I’d never been away from home. I stayed with Co-Co for another couple of years.

“I left in 1980 and I went to work for the recording studio where we did all our recording. I did backing vocals, I did their typing, I answered all their letters… and in came the woman who put Bucks Fizz together. She said: ‘Why are you here?’ It was perfect timing.”

But Cheryl says she almost missed out on stardom in Bucks Fizz by failing to return a phone call while out partying over Christmas when her mother took a message from music producer Nichola Martin, who wanted to offer Cheryl a role in the group.

Cheryl confessed: “On Christmas Eve a phone call came into my council flat. When I got home my mum said, ‘A lady rang and left this number.’ I ignored it. On Boxing Day she rang again – and again I didn’t answer. I mean, what sort of an idiot am I? Then on New Year’s Eve, there was another call. Thankfully that time I answered!”

Cheryl subsequently joined Bucks Fizz and the group stormed to victory on Eurovision. She said: “It was just a dream come true. My life just changed because everybody wanted a piece of us.

“After we won, I went back to the hotel to ring home and Sheila, my sister, answered and she said, ‘Oh, you should have been here. You should have seen it.’”

She becomes visibly tearful.

“I had lived in those blocks of flats all my life, it was three blocks together, and everybody came out on the balcony cheering,”she adds. “They all had their windows open. She said it was a magical time and they were all happy because I was one of them.”

Listen to Cheryl’s Lunchbox show on Great British Radio on DAB from noon to 2pm, Mondays to Fridays

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