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Letter From London: The life and near death of a reality TV star

A British tabloid columnist wrote last week: 'It is a morality tale on so many levels that society is not really sure what to think.' He was not referring, as you might assume, to the humbling of the arrogant banking industry, but to the other major story on these shores: the dying of Jade Goody.
February 23, 2009

A British tabloid columnist, Robert Hardman of the Daily Mail, wrote last week: ‘It is a morality tale on so many levels that society is not really sure what to think.’ He was not referring, as you might assume, to the humbling of the arrogant banking industry, but to the other major story on these shores: the dying of Jade Goody.

Before Goody had even exited the Big Brother house in 2002, which she entered as an uneducated, unknown dental nurse from South London, she was a national phenomenon. The 21-year-old’s televised antics, including an extra fleshy naked romp, and a shocking ignorance of geography, led to a new obsession in Britain’s famously rabid tabloid press: Jade-baiting. Upon leaving the house to boos and signs reading ‘kill the pig’ she confounded everyone by refusing to fade to gray, and instead refashioned herself as a popular tell-all celebrity, a sometimes fitness guru and entrepreneur. Her face shined on a best-selling perfume, autobiography and countless magazine covers. She became the darling of the tabloids who had been gunning for her, and the most successful ex-reality contestant in the land.

In 2007 she returned to the Big Brother brand, entering the Celebrity Big Brother house in royal fashion with mother and boyfriend in tow. But this time her stint ended disastrously. Her clashes with another royal housemate – Bollywood superstar Shilpa Shetty – led to widespread accusations of racist bullying, and Goody departed the house in disgrace. The outcry was global: Gordon Brown, traveling to India at the time, was forced to comment on a program he clearly knew next to nothing about.

Vilified once again by the media, Goody’s many lucrative sponsorship deals collapsed around her. Trying to regain popularity, she retained the services of PR supremo Max Clifford, and this past summer became a contestant in the India Big Boss house. Her stay there lasted two days: she left abruptly after being informed, on television, that she had cervical cancer.

That cancer proved to be advanced, and now Jade Goody is dying in the full glare of the media which she has consistently welcomed into her life, giving numerous interviews and continuing her Living TV series which follows her every move. She is once again feted by the tabloids. Yesterday she married boyfriend Jack Tweed, in a ceremony explicitly planned for the money that it would raise for her two young sons through magazine and television rights; with OK Magazine coughing up £700,000 ($1 million) and Living a reported £100,000 ($143,000).

In the midst of huge public interest in the nuptials, the British government stepped in to relax a curfew for Tweed, who is on parole for assault, allowing him to spend his wedding night with Goody. Gordon Brown found himself commenting on Goody for the second time in his career (although she is still so low on his radar he referred to her as Jane); this time to offer his sympathy.

The saga is pushing many class buttons here, for although dying has been documented before in a nation obsessed with recording the trials of life, it has not been done by a reality television star in such a public, money-grabbing way. But for every blogger and broadsheet columnist questioning the taste of such a spectacle, Goody has earned a league of supporters endorsing her right to die as she chose to live – playing herself on television. And there is no doubt that viewers are tuning in: Living TV earned record ratings for its latest documentary, Jade, which chronicled her illness in all its difficult detail.

How long the cameras will continue to track Goody is uncertain. In an interview this weekend Max Clifford said that, if he has anything to do with it they will be turned off well before she dies, noting that ‘reality TV can only take so much reality.’ It remains to be seen whether Jade Goody agrees.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.

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