The passing of Jade Goody in Upshire, Essex on Sunday reflects a particular mood present in Britain at this time. Not since the passing of Princess Diana has a country been so enraptured, captivated and aggrieved by the daily pronouncements, movements and actions of a national celebrity. Once she reached the television screens in the form of that Orwellian experiment called Big Brother, she never left. Fame came to her in spades, a celebrity for merely being a celebrity.
It was fitting, and cruel, that she should have discovered that she had cervical cancer on camera. She acknowledged it as much. ‘I’ve lived in front of the cameras. And maybe I’ll die in front of them.’ Big Brother, transmogrified into a daily documentary and news sequence, with regular updates in the age of the instant update – Twitter, Facebook, CNN – came to be her modus operandi.
What explains the British obsession for a person described by so many as devoid of talent, knowledge, and refinement towards her fellow humans? She appeared on Britain’s Big Brother in 2002, one-time dental assistant and daughter of drug addicts and. Few would forget the shallow snipes at fellow contestants, the ignorant observations (Rio de Janeiro as a person, her distinct lack of political awareness) and her lewd behaviour on set.
Easily forgotten amongst the tributes was Goody’s behaviour towards Bollywood starlet Shilpa Shetty on ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ in early 2007, a figure she branded ‘Shilpa Poppadom.’ The issue stirred passions in India to breaking point. All was in time forgiven, glossed over as the act of an impulsive, honest Goody. She was simply being Jade, an approach which won her both friends and foes.
Goody became something of a warrior against the odds, her image fashioned by a British public yearning for models in time of crisis. While Diana became the ‘people’s princess’, Goody was the vicarious vessel of ordinary living, coarse and appealing. Yet the celebrity machine continued to generate her as a phenomenon, propelling her into the perfume market, the exercise industry and, unsurprisingly, more television programmes.
In her success she became, as comedian Stephen Fry commented, the Princess Diana from the wrong side of the tracks. ‘The whole country,’ said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, ‘admired her determination to provide a bright future for her children.’ A natural instinct, but one that had become prominent, even remarkable, merely because it was Jade Goody, ordinary, unspectacular, rendered exceptional by the screen. While Greta Garbo intrigued the French social theorist Roland Barthes with her ‘archetypal human face’, Platonic and oddly sexless, the British public was no less intrigued by the face and form of a suffering, all-feeling Goody, a head rendered bald by chemotherapy, a life raw, direct and supposedly accessible to viewers of the daily screen. Garbo, in stark contrast, wanted to be left alone.
What was, however, more impressive, was her role in promoting awareness for cervical cancer. It smoothed her hard edges. It revealed an attuned humanity. She was not merely a concerned mother, but a citizen advocate combating a lethal disease. Fellow cancer sufferers rallied. More women started having pap smears. According to Harpal Kumar, head of Cancer Research UK, she performed ‘a great service by raising awareness of the importance of screening during her last few months in life.’
Whatever Goody’s opinions and conduct, few would deny her strengths in the last days of a very public life. She was, at the end, quite right to feel little interest in the thoughts of others. ‘Now, it’s about what I want.’ Much of Britain agreed, captivated by, in the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, those ‘different kinds of making peace.’
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org