CAMERAS were not kind to Jade Goody. However flattering the angle, they could not disguise the fact that, as she breezily admitted, her lips were too thick and her nose too big. Nor could “50 million” different hairstyles—black wigs, blonde dyes, hair extensions—do much to improve the face that stared at her out of the tabloids. It was “just the way I was born”. For much of the time, despite popping slimming pills until it became an addiction, she was fat, too, and the paps captured that unsparingly. By any pool they would be lurking to get the pictures of her “kebab belly” overflowing her too-small bikini, and her DD breasts hanging out.
Cameras also relentlessly caught the odd ways she behaved and the silly things she said. But she was not just snapped tottering out of night clubs or in a clinch with the latest boyfriend. Her eruption into the limelight in 2002 through “Big Brother”, a reality TV show where housemates compete against each other for audience votes, meant she was first filmed daubing toothpaste on her spots; wondering aloud whether “East Angular [Anglia]” was abroad; having a quick fumble with a housemate under a duvet; and then, in the celebrity version of the show in 2007, getting into a vicious row with Shilpa Shetty, a Bollywood star, over the house shopping list, which ended up with her calling Ms Shetty “Shilpa Fuckawallah” and “Shilpa Poppadom”, to the huge enhancement of the show’s ratings.
All this coverage she sought out herself. Sometimes it made her cry; sometimes she laughed and didn’t care; but at the end of the day she had made the choice to live under the lights. The money, of course, was great, especially for a self-confessed “plonker” who came no better than fourth in her first “Big Brother” showing; £11,000 a month, she soon found, was the minimum she needed for posh cars, a big house in Essex and private school for her two boys. The celebrity she loved: her own dance and workout videos, turns on “Wife Swap” and “Stars in Their Eyes”, nights out with Prince Azim of Brunei (who gave her a ring of baguette diamonds almost as big as her hand) and her own perfume, Shh, which outsold Armani for a while. But “Big Brother” had also offered her a lifeline out of “a dark place”.
That dark place was her childhood in Bermondsey, a grubby corner of south-east London. Her parents were drug addicts. As a toddler in a cot, she watched her father at night injecting himself with heroin, his eyes rolling back in his head. Her mother smoked crack. Jade grew to loathe the smell of ash and spent matches and the sight of aluminium foil, but most of all she hated the lying: the fruitless attempts to hide the paraphernalia, the futile pretence that all was normal, and the denials.
In the Big Brother house there was no hiding, except in the loo. Everything was on camera. And though the rows were fierce, they were far more bearable than being out of the spotlight and unseen by others. The lowest point of her life came when, after the fight with Ms Shetty, she was evicted from the Celebrity Big Brother house. Reviled as a racist (though an “escape goat”, she thought), she was confined to a hotel room with the curtains drawn. She lay on the bed for days, swaddled in a black Puffa jacket, not eating and hardly knowing who she was.
Among the dark places she avoided was her own medical condition. The odd faints and bleedings were scary, but appointments for tests were lost or ignored. When she heard that she had advanced cervical cancer (on camera, though not broadcast, on the Indian version of “Big Brother”), she felt at first “as if I was completely starkers, with a big torchlight shining through me”. Fairly rapidly, though, she decided to sell her illness to the papers. Again, it wasn’t just about the money. She could make other young women aware of the risks. And she could deal with death better, she said, if the cameras were on her.
For seven months she died in public. It was the most extraordinary of modern British deaths, orchestrated by Max Clifford, her publicist, in all the nation’s tabloids. On the supermarket shelves, between the beans and the biscuits, Jade was seen with her oxygen tank on her lap, or sucking on opioid lollipops, or with her bald head tied up with yellow ribbon like an Easter egg. (“Stricken Jade: ‘Get me out of this pain’.”) When she could not appear, her small boys were proxies for her.
The British public, never keen to look too long at death, were not invited to go deeper. That mysterious place was illuminated only by Sun and Mirror pieties, where the angels were calling and Jade would be “the brightest star in the sky”. She was baptised, but also consulted a white witch. On February 22nd she married her on-again off-again lover, Jack Tweed, on day-release from jail for assault. Rather than planning her funeral, she bravely wore herself out organising parties and cakes. The wedding rights were sold to OK! magazine for £700,000.
One of her last real pleasures was to watch the clips of that day. Death became her: with her £3,500 Mota dress her bald head looked perfect and beautiful. Exploitation, cried some observers. But her first exploiter was herself, and the cameras, for as long as they could, kept her alive.
Written by Luca Aquilanti