Forgiveness and the Ordinary Girl: Jade Goody 1981-2009

jane-goodyTo translate Jade Goody into American, you require a dollop of Jerry Springer, Paris Hilton in a proper trailer devoid of the redemptive qualities of wealth (because class cannot be bought), and that uncertain something which media exposure confers upon the unwitting or the needy. Jade, as she became known, came to prominence on Big Brother seven years ago, a reality television series on which she only came in fourth. Winners past and present have long since burned up their fifteen minutes of celebrity, but she, initially by default, and later by design, became a beacon of hope to many young girls: The poster child for those who have been told the world belongs to others, the prettier and more privileged than they.

A dental nurse from Bermondsey, a working-class part of London, she displayed an alarmingly unabashed lack of general knowledge. Her antics resulted in a terrible unleashing of misogyny and snobbery in the tabloid press, traits which pointless political correctness cannot stifle or eradicate in Britain. Described as a pig and the most hated woman in the country, this hapless young girl became the victim of a sneering campaign, wildly out of proportion to her drunken, licentious sins. Fears for her safety and sanity were voiced when she left the goldfish bowl of Big Brother. Jade weathered the chorus of media disapproval with remarkably thick skin. Ridicule had, after all, been her staple diet long before fame and notoriety came her way.

Goody's life is the stuff of misery memoirs, and she candidly touched upon it in two spirited volumes of autobiography. Her father, Andrew, a drug addict, hid guns under his daughter's cot and used needles in her bedroom, permitting her to witness his eyes rolling backwards in his head as his body jittered and jerked; he took his final hit in a KFC toilet, his arteries ravaged by years of relentless abuse. Her mother, Jackie, a mercurial crackhead who lost her arm in a bike crash, was an abusive figure for whom the five-year-old Jade would roll joints as the child became her mother's keeper. She explained, “As early as I could remember, I'd spent my whole life trying to protect my mum, frantically trying to hide the stolen chequebooks she used to have lying around the house when the police barged in on one of their raids...desperately denying to the teachers at school that she'd hit me for fear of being sent to social services.”

She deserved understanding, but was easy to sneer at. Common, lacking in guile, and bubbly, she represented a facet of Britain many wish would disappear. She didn't; she had a perfume named after her which rivaled Kylie's and Victoria Beckhams', made exercise videos and numerous television shows, and became very rich, and famous for being famous, a staple of celebrity magazines. There were the usual boob jobs and celebrity trappings as she proved an unlikely icon. When she entered the Big Brother house again, it was as a star on the celebrity version. Her calamitous row with the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, which resulted in her eviction from the series, was more about class difference than it was a racist attack.

Shetty represented a benign sort of cluelessness, class devoid of sophistication, derived from a life of appeased privilege, and that was to prove a red rag to Jade. When she tried to flush a roast chicken down the toilet, the natural thing for a woman bereft of servants to do, a furious row ensued. Bollywood met Bermondsey; Jade saw in her the kind of person who'd a divine right to lord it, but the tabloids went for the easy option. Goody was the pariah again. The pig had resorted to type. Shetty was prettier. Jade wasn't. Shetty won the show, but prolonged exposure revealed a nice girl who didn't have any edge, nor much of an idea about anything beyond her limited experience derived from living in a pampered world.

The non-pampering world turned on Goody. You'd have thought she'd killed someone instead of expressing herself badly. A tabloid fire crept into the broadsheets. Everyone had an opinion and an axe to grind. Endorsements were lost, her image was dropped from projected magazine covers, and her perfume was withdrawn from the shelves. She checked into the Priory for anxiety problems. The Prime Minister expressed his regret at her behavior. But eventually the feeding frenzy of media indignation moved on, and gradually she appeared to be on the road to rehabilitation. Whilst appearing on the Indian version of Big Brother, her penance for the Shetty scenario, she learnt that she had cervical cancer. A cruel fate, and one that she would play out to the end on the small screen that'd created and annotated her crests and falls. Her very public battle with her illness hugely raised awareness of cervical cancer among young women, and requests for smear tests soared. Goody had shown signs of the disease when she was sixteen, but admitted she had no idea of how treacherous it could prove, so her legacy is now swamped in strangely redemptive light.

A lesser chorus of self-righteous indignation was aired: Goody wasn't a respected journalist annotating her struggle in the quality press. But she did it using the tools at her disposal, and it was a harrowing sojourn. When her hair fell out, she took on an almost beatific quality, possessing a haunting beauty. She married Jack Tweed, an occasional model, a minor celebrity in his own right on account of his prolonged involvement with her. Their wedding was a celebrity frenzy undertaken with pain killers concealed in her dress, a gift from Harrods. The groom wore a tag beneath his suit, having only recently been released for an assault charge. The exclusive rights to the proceedings were sold to a celebrity rag for a reputed million pounds, as Goody set about securing a lasting financial legacy for her two small sons. The circus surrounding a death foretold was in town. OK magazine couldn't even wait for her to die, publishing their memorial edition the week before she expired.

Elton will not perform “Candle in the Wind” at her funeral, but as the actor and comedian Stephen Fry observed, “She was a kind of Princess Di from the wrong side of the tracks.” Her final curtain is set to be another blitz in a life lit by flashbulbs. Twenty-one Daimlers will take her body through the Bermondsey streets, and it'll be overblown and tacky, just like the Beckham's wedding. Funerals and pairings permit such laughable delusions of taste. Already the flowers and cuddly toys pile higher, as people express their own unresolved grief via the death of a person they only knew by proxy. The ability to be mawkish, the legacy of that other dead blonde, is now a national prerogative. Jade Goody may have been a symptom of that facet of society, but now that she's gone, who'll be the next to carry the blame? She often remarked that if someone wrote something nasty about her, the following week another article would be written in her defense, and in that way the ball kept rolling.

If Jade became notorious for being stupid, she proved that condition is not a permanent state of being. She went on Big Brother to try to escape a life that she found insufferable, and she succeeded. Some people only need to be given a chance. That she made numerous gaffes is hardly surprising; hapless and spontaneous, she was ungroomed and untutored. Her character proved she had grace under terrible fire. Her last days were a tragedy, but she handled them with sublime decorum and immense bravery. Many opine that her actions were in questionable taste, that she should have closed the doors, died with dignity, keeping the cameras at bay. She didn't, and she explained why. Her children came first.

As a mirror to us all, a tarnished innocent in a more sophisticated world, she was a maverick symptom of a celebrity-obsessed culture. Truman Capote summed it up years ago when he observed, "In any event it shows a finer nature to be unconsciously vulgar than to be consciously virtuous," and strangely, Jade was just being herself, which was why people knew of her, and wanted to know. Like it or not, there was a bit of her in us all, and now that she is no more, that telling facet still remains. - Rob Cochrane

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Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath, will appear via SAF in 2009.

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