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The Life and Death of Jade Goody Changed Celebrity Culture

A new Channel 4 documentary about the late 'Big Brother' star is a sobering reminder that the way we treat reality stars has barely changed.

by Lauren O'Neill
08 August 2019, 8:30am

Images courtesy of Channel 4

In a room with dark walls, Kevin O’Sullivan is looking through newspaper clippings and laughing. He scans the pages, flicking them between his fingers, and is laughing and laughing, as if someone has told him a good joke. O’Sullivan used to be a TV writer at the Daily Mirror, and was billed as the paper’s ‘Anti-Big Brother’ correspondent as he chronicled the British edition of the seismic reality TV programme in 2002. One of the contestants that year was Jade Goody, a woman whose fame established the template for reality stardom in the UK as we know it now. The articles in his hands are some he wrote 17 years ago, mostly about her.

O’Sullivan is being filmed looking at his old work for the first episode of a Channel 4 documentary series about Goody, Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain, which debuted last night (Wednesday 7th August.) “BOOZED UP JADE LOOKS A REAL FRIGHT,” read one of his pieces – in which he compared her to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Sun took a similar approach: “VOTE OUT THE PIG,” read a headline at the time. “Those were different times. Looking at some of the stuff I wrote now, it’s quite shocking. You wouldn’t get away with it now,” O’Sullivan reasons.

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Jade Goody was a lot of things. She was the gobby south Londoner who thought East Anglia (“East Angular”) was abroad, and who once cried real, heartbroken tears on-camera because she believed she had a verruca on her finger.

She was the daughter of parents with serious substance abuse disorders, who could roll a joint for her mum at the age of five; she was the girl who convinced Big Brother producers to cast her by climbing through an elastic band for her audition tape. In 2007, she entered the Celebrity Big Brother house and was involved in the racist bullying of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, for which she received a considerable and rightful media backlash. Two years later, Jade died of cervical cancer, aged 27. She left a husband, two young sons, and a legacy as the first real, proper British reality star – famous simply for being herself.

Jade Goody VICE

Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain recounts how this happened. It is, therefore, about Jade Goody’s life, but also about much more than that. Jade’s star rose at a time when the traditional press was the most significant mediator between famous people and the public. And as such, her story is also one about the British media, celebrity, and how, even though our newspapers no longer compare human women to pigs on their front pages, things have not changed as much as we might want to believe.

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Jade emerged from the Big Brother house in the summer of 2002 as the most in-demand of all the contestants. As host Davina McCall puts it in the documentary: “She came fourth, but she was the winner.” She quickly signed with celebrity agent John Noel, in a partnership that grew lucrative: she could command between £60,000 and £80,000 for a magazine interview and appeared on the chat shows of legacy presenters like Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton.

By 2005, her own reality TV show – Jade’s Salon on Sky Living – and a perfume launch had followed. She became Heat magazine’s most popular cover star ever at the time of release; she was, by all accounts, properly famous – though without social media, that fame was always filtered through journalists and the media. And as Noel comments in the documentary, “The snobby attitudes towards her displayed the class system that we have in the UK, and if you happened to be a posh journalist, it might be quite hard for you to get your head around being Jade Goody.”

In a nutshell, this explains the relationship between Jade and much of the media. When she was on Big Brother, her drinking, swearing, unhealthy eating, perceived ‘stupidity,’ and general demeanour were viewed in the press as emblematic of 'chav' culture. But despite any distaste of journalists’ own, the public couldn’t get enough. Here, maybe for the first time, was a famous woman who was also a normal girl, ate chips, wasn’t a WAG, and spoke like everyone else. In particular, she rode the 'thick' part of her public image all the way to the bank on a plump cash cow. For one, she’d parody some of her own most notorious Big Brother moments in TV appearances. But beyond that, as Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain forthrightly discusses, she ran a lucrative paparazzi racket, arranging to be ‘candidly’ photographed living up to her persona for a cut of the money the papers paid for the images – most infamously once even crashing a car so that the pictures would sell for a higher amount.

Jade Goody VICE

According to her mum Jackiey, Jade loved it all, especially the pap shoots: “There was millions of times that she would ring behind the agent’s back to set up… no-one would know,” Jackiey remembers. “Why not? Why not? One big gameplayer, Goody was – and enjoyed every bit of it.” In her relationship with the paparazzi and controlling her own narrative, Jade both pre-dated monetised social media, and bizarrely foreshadowed it (now, on top of social media, celebrities have established relationships with paparazzi photographers).

Indeed, she created the mould for a different type of British celebrity – one open to people from working class backgrounds, with ‘aspirational normality’ as its central tenet, elevating Geordie Shore and TOWIE alums to stardom. Social media has also played a key role in this, meaning that the support of traditional British media is less vital for celebrities than it was in Jade’s day. The press, however, does remain part of the ecosystem that keeps reality stars famous, and its old ‘open season’ approach has informed how the public now interact with celebrities. Jade’s early career saw her branded a “FAT PIG” daily by the papers, before more was publicly revealed about her difficult upbringing, and media opinion towards her softened. In the documentary, O’Sullivan reflects that “In those days it was a harsher world. Nobody ever said, ‘Do you really think you should be calling this young lady a pig lookalike?’ It was just like, ‘Oh, that’s funny. Put it in the paper.’”

We no longer see abuse of celebrities so openly splashed across the front covers of tabloid newspapers (though they’ve not lost their touch entirely, and politicians remain fair game – The Sun lead with an image of Jeremy Corbyn in a bin the morning Brits went to the polls in the 2017 general election). But you don’t have to go far to catch it in full swing elsewhere. If you scan the comments section under an Insta post by basically anyone from Love Island, you’ll see criticisms of their appearance and outfits, containing as much vitriol as anything The Sun published 15 years ago.

Jade Goody VICE

Indeed, as a public, it seems we’ve felt entitled in particular to these people’s bodies ever since Jade drunkenly referred to her vagina as her “kebab” after stripping naked in the Big Brother house. After her death from cancer in 2009, Laurence Scott wrote about the press and public’s obsession with her body for the London Review of Books. “The macabre successor to the kebab, in terms of public interest, was a malignant cervix, and we have diligently followed the media’s detailed mapping of the disease proliferating from her genitals. The press has hacked its way through her body, so that we have been made to think about Jade’s ‘liver, bowel and groin’, the stark trio unfailingly listed in all reports of her cancer’s metastasis.”

Millennials grew up amid a climate which, as Scott puts it, “hacked its way” through celebrity bodies, and now many of us – as well as younger generations which have grown up with the luxury of the internet’s anonymity – do the same, when we publicly comment on the ‘imperfections’ of reality stars. And while Jade’s death was a cruel result of biology, the press’ invasion into her life, in particular via the News of the World’s phone hacking, had begun to degrade her personal relationships, rotting them from the inside, as the father of her children Jeff Brazier attests at the end of the first episode of Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain.

It is important to consider what the press and public’s entitlement – to celebrity bodies and their personal lives – can wreak. Jade, of course, is not the only reality television star to have died. Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis, who appeared on different seasons of ITV’s Love Island, struggled to cope with life after the programme. And yet: in our hundreds and thousands we continue to type hateful comments – in particular about people’s appearances – as though they were nothing.

We think our culture has advanced, that we’re no longer a country giddily mocking women on the front pages of news sources. And that may be true, but Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain is a reminder that, since the days of Jade Goody, many of our attitudes have hardly changed. We just don’t have to rely on the papers to proliferate them.

@hiyalauren

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reality tv
Big Brother
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Jade Goody
jade: the reality star who changed britain