The tragedy of reality for Jade Goody
London // She is famous simply for her infamy. But her imminent death has Britain in its thrall. Her name is Jade Goody, a loud-mouthed and not very bright Essex girl - she once opined, for instance, that the university city of Cambridge was in London and she thought that Saddam Hussein was a boxer.
But she developed a huge following simply by making a fool of herself on a reality TV show called Big Brother seven years ago. Ms Goody, 27, has been castigated and mocked by the tabloid press for most of those seven years. But now she is dying of cancer and, suddenly, she has been become a heroine. The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, has cited her courage; Larry King and Oprah Winfrey are vying to interview her; and even David and Victoria Beckham, the current reigning monarchs of celebrity's royal family, have sent her messages of support.
It is all a far cry from the time two years ago, when she went on a celebrity version of Big Brother, along with her one-armed, lesbian mother (her father, a career criminal, died of a drug overdose, at age 42). Then, Ms Goody caused international outrage by racist remarks she made to Shilpa Shetty, the Indian actress. Aside from being condemned by Mr Brown, she was mercilessly attacked by the Sun, the UK's best-selling newspaper, which branded her a "vile, pig-ignorant, racist bully". It added that it trusted she would "now slither back under the rock from where she came".
Fast forward two years and the Sun is now paying Max Clifford, her skilful publicist, a small fortune to get exclusive access to Ms Goody, whom the newspaper has taken to referring to as "brave Jade" or "the tragic mum of two". All the other tabloids and not a few of the broadsheets also carry front-page pictures daily of her chemotherapy-induced baldness, most recently as she was admitted to hospital this week, breathing from an oxygen mask, for surgery to relieve intestinal pain caused by the cancer spreading swiftly through her body.
It has arguably become the most publicised prelude to a death that the UK - and beyond - has seen. And far from discouraging it, Ms Goody and Mr Clifford are doing their utmost to maximise the coverage, garnering hundreds of thousands for exclusive interviews and pictures along the way. When Ms Goody married her boyfriend, who was temporarily released from prison to attend the occasion last month, OK! magazine paid her £700,000 (Dh3.62 million) for exclusive rights, while the Living TV channel handed over £100,00 for a programme to be shown next month.
Ms Goody says she wants the money so that, when she dies, there will be sufficient funds to support her two young sons. But the very public nature of her dying is causing disquiet in some quarters, with many suggesting that Ms Goody, who has no discernible talent beyond a desire for celebrity, is literally dying to be famous. Or famous to be dying. "She became a symbol of an exhibitionist coarsening of the culture by leveraging her time on Big Brother into wider notoriety," observed one commentator in The Guardian newspaper. "Now, diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer, she seems likely to end her life on reality television, too.
"Seen in one light, Ms Goody is a quintessential victim of modern media culture, a child of a broken home who has been endlessly debased and served up as entertainment, in death as in life, no humiliation too great. "In another, however, she is the exploiter not the exploited, using the modern media to the bitter end, willing to do almost anything to make some of the money for herself that they have made out of her.
"Either way, Ms Goody is an embodiment of the decade in which she was a player - an amorally live-now-pay-later decade whose wider ethos is now abruptly ending, too." Mr Clifford admits that the UK and, now, worldwide coverage of his client's dying is "unique" in media history. Whether it was right or not to see so much of her suffering was a question for the media, he told the BBC. "The British media acts on its own behalf," he said. "I have arranged only four interviews with Jade, for which she was extremely highly paid. The rest is down to the fact that there is great interest from the British and, now, the world's media.
"Everybody handles these things in their own way. This is the right way for Jade." Yesterday, Miss Goody and her sons were baptised in the hospital, the Sun was revealing she had "only a week to live", Bild newspaper in Germany was saying her publicist was now urging her to live out her remaining days in privacy, and the Times of India weighed in with a report that her health had worsened and that she remained "sleepy and sedated".
One good thing has emerged from the extraordinary coverage: since she was diagnosed with cervical cancer last August - on air, at her insistence, during Bigg Boss, an Indian TV version of Big Brother - tens of thousands more British women have been requesting smear tests from their doctors. So, if Ms Goody dies, as expected, in the next few weeks, her passing might have brought some benefit to someone other than her sons, the media and that great god of celebrity.
Updated: March 8, 2009 04:00 AM