After selling millions of records as part of The Saturdays, Mollie King admits she was left feeling bruised and humiliated when her solo career flopped. She tells Sarah Oliver how she swallowed her pride, got back up and staged a stunning reinvention.
What do you do when you’ve been the super-glamorous star of one of Britain’s biggest girl bands – 18 top-40 singles, more than five million record sales, sold-out arena tours – and suddenly the music stops? And when you then throw your heart and soul into a solo career you find, to your bitter disappointment, that the British public isn’t interested?
Mollie King, of girl band The Saturdays, found herself facing this dilemma aged 27 when, after the group split, she reckoned on moving seamlessly into solo stardom but was left reeling when her debut single and the follow-up bombed.
‘I put out two solo singles and they didn’t find chart success. It’s really sad – and embarrassing – when something fails so publicly,’ she recalls. ‘I had grown up living and breathing music, and after The Saturdays all I wanted was to carry on. So it was hard to put my music out there and not be successful.
‘With a girl band there will always be a decision time. Am I going to start a family, continue with music, try presenting? Before that it’s hard to think ahead – you’re consumed by the band and life’s going at 100mph. So when we said we were having a hiatus and two labels offered me a deal on my own, I thought, “Of course, I am going to keep doing this.”
‘It wasn’t a half-hearted attempt, and I was proud of the songs, but I remember when the second single was out and not doing anything, I couldn’t say, “Oh well, on single three I’ll give it 100 per cent,” because I already had. I just had to accept that a solo career wasn’t going to happen. It was a struggle, and it cost me a lot of my self-confidence. It was what I wanted to do, but I started to feel a bit lost when it didn’t work because it had been my vision for my future. I had to ask myself, “What am I going to do now?”
‘I guess it was like being in a relationship where you are really in love with someone but you know that you need to move on.’
And move on she did. Mollie still can’t quite believe her luck – the second chance she was given when she landed another dream gig in the music business last October. That was when she was announced as co-host of the Weekend Breakfast show on Radio 1 (having started at the station last March) alongside DJ Matt Edmondson. It’s a career pivot that tethers her to the music industry while building the foundations of a serious broadcasting career.
Today Mollie, along with Matt, finds herself in the same league as some of the biggest names in BBC breakfast broadcasting: Greg James is their Radio 1 Monday to Thursday counterpart and Nick Grimshaw, now on the drivetime slot, was their predecessor. Given this rapid ascent, it would be easy for her to polish her pop-star CV and shout about her past success with The Saturdays but, a lifelong grafter and doubtless still insecure about the failure of her solo singles, she is taking nothing for granted.
Instead she is putting in extra unpaid hours, shadowing veteran DJ Scott Mills (who presents Radio 1’s afternoon show), having lessons on studio technology and listening to new-music guru Annie Mac’s evening programme on the station to hone her own pick list. She’s even thinking of moving from her home in Southwest London to the heart of the city near BBC Broadcasting House. (‘If I can find a flat close enough I could just zip wire in,’ she jokes.) For her millions of fans – many of them young women who grew up with The Saturdays – it’s a masterclass in professional resilience and humility.
So, after her solo setback, where did she find the psychological strength to start again? Her answer is both surprising and incredibly obvious: it was beneath the glitterball of the Strictly Come Dancing set that she found the perspective she’d been missing and the courage she needed.
Mollie credits her appearance on the 2017 series with giving her the impetus to reinvent herself. Partnered with pro AJ Pritchard, she made it to the semi-finals, surviving two dance-offs along the way. ‘Strictly brought me back to life,’ she says, and it sounds heartfelt. ‘It had me in a team, which was like those years working together in the band. Above all, it gave me something to achieve every Saturday after two years of putting out songs and wondering what was going to happen at the end of it. I realised it was time to close that chapter, to be brave and just jump.’
Acosy home life would have been a bulwark against these years of showbusiness buffeting, but by then Mollie and her on-off boyfriend of five years – the Dolce & Gabbana model and Marks & Spencer designer and ambassador David Gandy – had parted. Officially their 2016 split was by mutual agreement, but gossip columns suggested it was because he wouldn’t commit. Mollie has always been open about her longing to settle down and start a family.
Of Gandy she says now: ‘David and I are quite different people. You can really love somebody but still have it not work. I give a relationship everything. I don’t want to look back in a year and ask, “Should we have had one more try?” Since then he has eschewed celebrity girlfriends and gone the full Clooney, settling down with a barrister specialising in criminal law with whom he has a baby daughter, born last November. I ask Mollie if she’s sent a new baby gift. ‘No. We’re not in touch. It was so, so long ago. A different lifetime.’
She is currently single but dated England cricket hero Stuart Broad last year. They had known each other for eight years before he asked her out, but their relationship ended as gently as it began. ‘There’s no drama. He’s a lovely guy but our schedules made it hard to see each other.’
She is also happy to rule out any Strictly romance with AJ, saying that their relationship – the subject of intense speculation at the time – was purely professional. ‘Because we were both single, people assumed there would be a romance. He was brilliant with me because my confidence was so low. He helped me get back on my feet. But more than that? No.’
All of which means that the man who matters most in her life at present is her Radio 1 co-host Matt, a happily married father of one. Is he her office husband? ‘He feels like my brother. I don’t have a brother; he does have a sister and he says that I remind him of her. It is a completely new dynamic. It’s rare at this point in your life to meet someone and think, “OMG, we could be best friends.”’
The pair are on the phone to each other by 4.46am every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, discussing the show to come. (Mollie has three alarms – at 4am, 4.05am and 4.10am, one on repeat by her bed and another on the far side of the room so she has to get up to turn it off – to ensure she is in the car by 4.45am.) Their broadcast chemistry has earned their show a healthy 3.8 million listeners and secured her a nomination for best newcomer in the Radio Academy awards last year. (She was the runner-up.)
It must be tempting to stick one of her own records on the turntable, but she would never indulge herself. ‘That would be a surprise to the team,’ she smiles. Usually she sings along to other people’s music in the studio, doing the middle harmonies as she used to in the band. Sometimes she busts out some of her best dance moves, too. ‘I must drive them bonkers,’ she laughs.
I ask her what makes a good breakfast show – in addition to music choices informed by her previous career – and she doesn’t hesitate. ‘Fun, light-hearted stuff that puts people in the right frame of mind for the day. You have to have a lot to say and Matt and I do.’ Since the intense scrutiny of Strictly she has been less afraid of sharing the minutiae of her life. ‘People turn on the radio for company, and they see through you if you don’t give yourself honestly. It’s nice to stop living behind a façade – but then, I don’t have much to hide.
That’s true. There have been no drink-and-drugs scandals, no stints in rehab or bankruptcies. She might have dated Prince Harry once but, even now he’s happily married, she’s still not talking about that. The Saturdays, meanwhile, had a ‘hiatus’ rather than a toxic split – Mollie won’t rule out a reunion one day: ‘You never know, it would be fun.’
She was always billed as the posh member of the band, but she’s not really. She is the daughter of an accountant and a doctor’s receptionist who grew up in Surrey, a high-achieving Home Counties child, one of three sisters in a solid, happy family. As a teenager she skied for Great Britain but she always knew that music, rather than sport, would be her future. She ducked university to try her luck as a singer, a gamble that paid off spectacularly when she was signed for The Saturdays in 2007.
The band members were famous for getting on well, and they still do. Mollie loyally watched Rochelle Humes standing in for Holly Willoughby on ITV’s This Morning last year and used to text her after the show. She lives close to Frankie Bridge. ‘I go to hers looking like I have just woken up, I have a cuppa and am still there a day later – we’re like family.’ She is also doing what she can to help Una Healy, who split from her rugby-star husband Ben Foden last summer. ‘Una is beautiful inside and out, and so strong about everything. She deserves the best, she’s such a fantastic mum [Una has two children with Ben]; I give her all the support I can.’ Mollie is also in touch with the fifth member of the band, Vanessa White, who has remained in the music industry but traded pop for edgy R&B.
It might have taken her a little longer than her bandmates to work out exactly what she was going to do next, but now she’s relishing it. She doesn’t even mind the early starts because she’s never been one for a party. ‘I am trying to kid myself that I used to be a wild child but then I ask myself, “Mollie, when were you ever out anyway?”’
Does she think she’ll ever pull an all-nighter, as Holly Willoughby famously did in 2016 when she turned up at the This Morning studios hungover and in a white evening gown stained with piccalilli after winning a National Television Award? ‘You have to do it once,’ she concedes, ‘if you have something great to celebrate. Though I think I’d fall asleep at the desk.’
For now, however, Mollie is to be found at home, running a bath and closing her curtains at 8pm ahead of those 4am alarm calls. ‘I’m not complaining,’ she says, ‘because this is such a huge gig for me. I went through a stage of thinking, “If I’m not performing music, then how am I going to connect with it?” Now I know.
‘I’m putting everything into it because I feel I’ve been given a second shot at something. If you had told me a year ago that Radio 1 would happen, I wouldn’t have believed you, but now I feel I have found my niche. It’s an honour to be waking people up and it’s nice to feel I’m half decent at it. It’s helped me believe in myself again.’
Mollie co-hosts Radio 1’s Weekend Breakfast with Matt Edmondson, Friday to Sunday from 6am