Reality TV's Tragedy
In a Daily Beast exclusive, British TV sensation Jade Goody—who was diagnosed with cancer on live TV—talks about cashing in on her illness, and dying in front of an audience of millions.
UPDATE: Early Sunday morning, Jady Goody lost her battle with cervical cancer. "My beautiful daughter is at peace," said her mother, after Goody died at home, surrounded by family.
We know how the story of Jade Goody—the chubby British dental nurse turned bankable reality TV star—will end.
Last August, tabloid junkies read with grim interest how Goody first learned she had late-stage cancer while filming a Big Brother spin-off in Mumbai. Rapt Indian audiences—and anyone curious enough to pull up the scene on YouTube—were able to watch as the mother of two sat on the floor of the show's diary room convulsed with tears. It was a cruel new low for reality TV.
‘I never was one of these girls who was hungry for fame. I had this hard life at home that I needed to get away from. I just wanted to get out of that life.’
But for Jade, it was only the first chapter of a bleak, profitable journey. In the last six months, Goody's illness has been relentlessly televised and photographed, every detail of her demise sold to the highest bidder and slapped with the tag 'Exclusive!'—the profits said to be set aside in a trust for her two young boys, Bobby, 5, and Freddy, 4. As Goody's team of publicists and handlers have discovered, death can be great for business. Last Sunday, when Goody wed Jack Tweed, a 21-year-old recently paroled after attacking a teenager with a golf club, OK! magazine and Living TV reportedly bought the rights for 1 million pounds. Harrods' chief Mohammed Al-Fayed, presumably grief-stricken, threw in an elegant $8000 wedding gown.
It may well be one of the last chances for Goody's team, led by PR impresario Max Clifford, to cash out. On February 13th, in spite of a hysterectomy and a punishing course of chemotherapy last fall, the 27-year-old was informed by her doctors that the jig was up. Cervical cancer, which had gone undetected for several years, had spread to her bowels, her liver, and her groin, and would kill her in a matter of months.
Until she learned of her imminent death, the weird Jade Goody fairy tale went something like this: in 2002, Goody, the plucky daughter of a disabled lesbian with a crack addiction, escaped life in a dreary corner of south London by winning a place on the third series of Big Brother. Hilarity ensued. Unabashedly loutish, Jade came to stand for the worst of council flat Britain, drunkenly doling out a blow-job for a fellow contestant, referring to her expanding waistline as a “kebab belly,” at every turn displaying a crass hotheadedness that was, let's face it, great TV. Ten percent of the country's population tuned in to watch her eventual eviction from the house, during which she was greeted with gleeful banners that cried “Kill the pig!” That summer, according to reporter Neil Simpson, who has written a biography about Goody, “more newspaper column inches were devoted to stories about Jade than to anyone else, including the Queen.”
By 2007, when Jade Goody appeared as a guest on Celebrity Big Brother, she had become an unavoidable pop culture phenomenon—an over-sharing Octomom meets Paris Hilton—the working class girl who exposed her back-story and her antics for the sake of Louis Vuitton handbags, spray tans, and boozy trips to the Costa del Sol. There was the morning chat show circuit, a series of hokey exercise videos, even a perfume. But when Goody called a Bollywood actress “Shilpa Poppodom” during a row over bouillon cubes on the popular show, the red-top supermarket tabloids and the national press feasted on the gaffe and pilloried Goody as the latest face of British racism. She was subsequently stunt cast in Big Boss 2, the Indian version of Big Brother she began filming last summer, an opportunity for redemption in the country she had insulted and a chance to prove to Britain's riveted couch potatoes that she was a good person—worthy of their love—after all.
I spoke to Goody last fall, two weeks into the chemotherapy that would ultimately prove to be ineffective. She was, at the time, oddly circumspect about her illness playing out like a soft-focus telenovela and hopeful that there would be more reality TV opportunities for her in the future. Having lived her entire adult life in front of cameras, perhaps it just seemed natural. “All that footage that you see,” she said, referring to the jarring moments on Big Boss 2 after she learned of her cancer, “I didn’t know they were filming that. And I did find that a little insensitive.” But ultimately that unsettling feeling that perhaps she had been exploited passed quickly. “What can I do? My whole life has been in the bloody public eye, now hasn’t it? It is what it is.” Because the pictures would come out anyhow, Goody said, she then posed for shots in a British tabloid—for a price—revealing her hair cropped short in anticipation of losing it all. The real issue, said Jade, was why her cancer went untraced for so long, not whether or not the press was interested in her sickness, which she took as an inevitability.
For years, said Goody, despite repeated visits to NHS doctors, “Nobody told me I had cancer, it wasn’t even in the question. The cells that they said were pre-cancerous got burned off, and the doctors were all, 'Jade your fine.' I was collapsing and in horrendous pain and loads of blood gushing out and they would say it's just a heavy period or stress. I think they thought, oh it's Jade Goody having another stupid drama.” Her normally shrill, rapid-fire conversation pauses for a moment. “I never was one of these girls who was hungry for fame. I had this hard life at home that I needed to get away from. I just wanted to get out of that life. I’ve never done drugs, I don’t like all that scene and I didn’t want to be around those people. If Big Brother don’t come off,” she remembers thinking, she'd try to work as a dental hygienist in America, a country she imagined she'd do well in. “I’ll go to the States. America, you know, it’s all about the teeth.” But, said Goody, “I guess that's not what was supposed to happen for me.”
Goody also says she'd allow, even encourage, her young sons to pursue a life in reality TV if that's what they wanted to do. “My children love having their photo taken. I’m taking them to school and they’ll be like, posing for the photographers outside of our house in Essex. Like, 'Mum, I’m having my photo taken.' So if they said, you know, I want to be on the telly, I would say, 'Oh boys mummy did that.' I would say to them, you know, it doesn’t always turn out as you want it to. But without it, I wouldn’t have been able to send them to the school they go to, or have the house we live in, or take the holidays we take. So no, I wouldn’t tell them no.”
The fact that her sickness seemed to have turned the tide of public affection back in her favor after Poppodom-gate came as a relief for Goody, albeit at a steep price. “It was so hard thinking I'd let people down,” said Goody, recalling her public shaming in 2007. “I wanted people to like me, above all. I talk to my cab drivers, I’ll sign anything, I’ll stop in the street for anybody. You should see the things, the flowers, and notes that get sent to the hospital. People do see something in me that they like, after all.” And that seems to be the crux of it for Goody, willing to do just about anything so that she will be accepted by the public, even to the end. It seemed to be working. In February, after news of her terminal cancer broke, Prime Minister Gordon Brown sent his condolences, addressing the star's illness at a press conference. Said Brown, who called the situation “tragic,” “Her determination to help her family is something that we have got to applaud. I wish her well and her family well and I think the whole country will be worried and anxious about her health.” It was the sort of official seal of support that Goody, the ill-fated girl from the wrong side of the tracks, would appreciate. Instead of banners screaming “Kill the Pig!” her fellow countrymen were now sending chocolates and stuffed toys.
“She became this emblem, the unlikely person who was notorious for doing nothing, or who made the worst odds into this strange sort of career,” says Simpson. “She wasn't the most beautiful girl but she was attainable, and she seemed to be lurching from one disaster to another. Now that the working class Everywoman is facing death, the British public feels invested in her—as dark as it is, there's this insatiable interest to know how the story will turn out.”
As for the critics who've said that having cameras trail her as she went through chemo somehow pushed the limits of human dignity, Simpson says, “If you were Jade Goody, what would you do?” Goody answered that question for me herself. “Do you know what? Living for me is working. I am a one man band. Every bit of income is me. And my work is in the public eye.”
Sarah Horne is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn, NY. She was a contributing editor for Radar magazine and Page Six magazine. Her reporting on pop culture, fashion, and celebrity has appeared in Elle, Allure, Fashion Week Daily and more.