As with most groups who cross over the credibility gap, it's hard to pinpoint when S Club moved from a group beloved almost exclusively by kids to one youths and adults no longer muttered they liked under their breath.
The moment it most likely happened was around May 2001, when Don't Stop Movin' entered the charts at Number 1. It was S Club's third chart topper, but this one seemed special, a fact recognised when it was voted by the public as Record of the Year and Best Single in the 2002 Brits.
Such phenomena are rarely simply about statistics. There was also something ineffable going on. Partly it was due to respect; the naysayers were being proved wrong and everyone could see this group was in for the long haul. The 13 million people worldwide who have bought S Club records must know something. It was also clear to anyone who cared to check it out that the S Clubbers were not ciphers, each had a clear vision of who they were and where they were going.
The group understood why people called them cheesy. It was a notion the TV series played around with, creating extreme versions of the group's personalities, poking fun at themselves and show business while never forgetting the central tenet of things S Club, that it's all about fun. They don't want to take themselves too seriously and only want others to respect them as artists and professionals. There's no time for prima donna behaviour in S Club world. They're a creative force who knows no bounds.
If there is an X factor about S Club it's their ability to glide across different media. They can do the CD-video-promo-tour cycle. But with their own TV series, upcoming movie, documentary on endangered wildlife and advertising commitments, they prove they are a band ready to stretch the limits of where a band can go.
The group has grown up and their audience is maturing with them. Hannah Spearitt was 16 when she joined the group, she's now 21, likewise Bradley McIntosh. Jon Lee was 15; he's now 20. "When I look back to Miami 7 (their first TV series) I look about eight years old," says Jon. "I'm so tiny, so young. But I don't feel any different in myself. Maybe I'm a little wiser about how the whole thing works."
Hannah does think she's a changed person. "I was quite different then, more innocent and naive. I'm still naive," she jokes. " I analyse things more now."
The summer's Party in the Palace concert celebrating Her Majesty The Queen's Golden Jubilee was a crowning moment for the group itself. Alongside the group's subsequent appearance at the Commonwealth Games finale in Manchester it was proof that S Club now occupy a place at the heart of the nation. The Jubilee show was the final performance of S Club 7 before it became simply S Club. Paul Cattermole gave his farewell performance with the group before seeking a new life as a rock musician. It was a sad but euphoric moment, with the group themselves finding it hard to believe they were in the elevated company of legendary musicians and royalty in Her Maj's back yard. No. Prince William did not chat up Rachel Stevens or Hannah, though Hannah says she would have given him her phone number if he'd asked. Prince William seemed more interested in talking music, revealing to Paul that he listened to Eminem in his car.
Paul's departure is also documented in the new fourth 13 part TV series aired in the UK this autumn where the band are seen waving him off. The S Club TV shows have been one of the phenomenal successes of British television having been sold to over 100 countries. There's a new sophistication about the next series. It's the first not to be shot in America; all filming was in Barcelona. The storyline is stronger, the acting better and the characters more developed, though still recognisably S Club. Jon sums them all up. "Jo has a short fuse, Rachel is a princess, Bradley is always after women, and he's a slob. Hannah is dizzy; she's the female version of me. And Tina has very set opinions."
In late 2002 they will begin working on the first S Club movie, "Seeing Double" due for release by Columbia Tristar in autumn 2003. Fans will get two S Clubs for the price of one as a mad professor clones the band. The clones take the place of the real group who are held captive and struggle to regain their identities.
The group has also been busy working on the fourth album. Traditionally Jon and Bradley have taken the strongest role in writing and interest in production. Tina Barrett joins them this time. One of her priorities is to develop as a songwriter, something she has only felt confident about recently. "I enjoy performing, but I'm also very creative and that's the part I haven't really used until now, so I definitely feel more fulfilled," Tina says.
Old style S Club songs like Reach and Bring It All Back have given way to more of a dancey feel, and there will be stronger ballads. Queen of the ballads Jo O'Meara says the album is more emotional. "The ballads are a lot more grown-up. There's one in particular, Straight From The Heart, which I think is particularly good."
Individuals ganging up on each other and the inevitable split inspired usually mark this far into the pop lifespan by so-called artistic differences. The group had always said that if one of them left that would be the end. But when Paul announced his departure, to the dismay of his colleagues, they realised they were coherent enough as a unit and had still had too many ambitions to realise to quit now. No one was forcing them to stay together and it was because they were allowed freedom to be who they are that they still have mutual respect and enjoy the band process. "I don't think anyone would have been able to survive if we'd been told what to wear and who to be," says Rachel. "We're living our own life and we are six individuals." No one pretends there haven't been difficult moments; the isolation of filming in America for three months and the 24 hour demands of constant recognition. Group members have had their tiffs, but all now instinctively understand when someone needs an arm round them or just needs to be left alone. "We're all still good close mates," says Bradley. Against the odds their strength as a team, respect for each and camaraderie is firmer than ever.
The band still has some holy grails to seek. Last year they became the first British act since the Spice Girls to score simultaneous Top 10 hits in the UK and USA with different singles, Don't Stop Movin' and Never Had A Dream Come True respectively
In 2002 they also enhanced their reputation as performers with their 25-date UK arena 'Carnival' tour. The visual scale of the show and the band's building confidence as performers was a marked improvement on their previous outing. Those mums and dads seen bored and yawning at the start of the shows were left dancing in the aisles by the end of the evening long after their exhausted offspring had taken to their seats. The band's third 'S Club United' tour begins in April 2003.
The release of a new single and the fourth album in November marked the start of a yearlong cycle that will see S Club take an even firmer grip on the public imagination worldwide. S Club is established in most of the world's major markets. They've gone number one in Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. Gold in Chile, Mexico and the USA, and Platinum in Canada. The UK is still their strongest market. Last year was capped by their fourth number 1, Have You Ever. They have sold 2.1 million records in Britain, and their last album Sunshine went quadruple platinum in eight weeks. As Bradley says, "I love that we are a successful band. We could have easily come into this industry and become a complete joke, forever known as the band that lasted five minutes. But in fact we've done quite well. We worked hard at it. I'm proud of me and proud of everyone in the band."