The reality TV überchav remained in the public eye because of her unerring ability to court catastrophe, says Rod Liddle — and the television-friendly speed at which her grotesque rise and demise have taken place
You can still buy Jade Goody’s fragrance, Jade Goody’s Controversial!, online or indeed in your nearest department store. For £19.99 you get a bunch of perfume with ‘clean and fresh top notes of sweet red fruits’. Sweet red fruits — what they, ed? Strawberries, one supposes. Strawberries with loads of sugar on top. Anyway, it’s the great smell of Jade. Do you want to smell like Jade Goody, like Jade Goody is now? Maybe you don’t want to smell like her but you think you ought to show solidarity with the woman.
I wonder what, right now, her fragrance people are thinking, how they might dig themselves out of a hole. We smell things not through the nose but through the brain. That’s where the smells get sorted out into the good, the bad and the ugly. It was not those heralded ‘top notes’ of sweet red fruits which sold Controversial! but the connotation of Jade Goody herself, a product aimed at people who thought her admirable, who wanted to be like her. Now, though, things have changed. The connotations are different. The brain now tells us that when we are buying Controversial! we are buying the whiff of stage 4 metastatic terminal cervical cancer. Go on, why don’t you, splash it all over.
Jade Goody, if you need reminding, was introduced to us through the medium of reality TV and, by the looks of things, is now about to depart our company in exactly the same way. For a while she was revered as a sort of unapologetic überchav — coarse, fabulously ignorant, common, crushingly low of brow both physically and metaphorically, overweight, sexually incontinent, famously racist — spewed out from a home not so much broken as smashed into little pieces, a home of smackheads and crackheads. A certain sort of faux ironic fame was thrust upon her via the medium of Big Brother, a reality tv show that began as an interesting experiment and turned very quickly into a platform for breathtakingly stupid exhibitionists, the very dregs of Britain.
Her semi-survival as someone who achieved a sort of fame for the price of having displayed her incalculable stupidity on television — she done all right for a time, she was lovin’ it, game show here, mini-doc there — lasted longer than most would have expected. This was down not to even the remotest vestiges of talent or even likeability on her behalf, but to her unerring ability to lurch towards catastrophe at every juncture, whether the camera was pointed her way or not. Catastrophe born most usually of that aforementioned staggering ignorance. Now we have the latest instalment of the Jade Goody catastrophe: she has terminal cancer. Gaw, look what she’s gone and done now, terminal cancer! What’s she like!
The news of her illness was, fittingly, conveyed to her on a reality tv programme — in the diary room of the Indian version of Big Brother. She was called to the little cubicle and told: you’ve got cancer. The telling of this news, and its reaction, was of course filmed for public consumption. I do not believe I could think of a fouler or more despicable use of the medium of television if I stayed here with a crate of alcohol for the next month. How much lower than that is it possible to get? What, actually, could you do that would be more demeaning or depraved?
The latest Jade catastrophe transformed itself into that familiar tabloid trope of celebrity with cancer, except in Jade Goody’s case, like her career, horribly speeded up. At first a certain insouciance, based upon ignorance; then realisation that it was serious, this cancer business; then the travails of early treatment — the hair loss, the nausea — all ‘bravely’ endured; the insistence that come what may she’d fight this; the darkening prognoses from the media quacks; the shattering first signs of metastasis, the stomach cramps and the sickness; the friends close to her who ‘confide’ that she hasn’t got long to go, despite her bravery; the sudden chimera of the miracle drug cure; the rapid and ruthless demolition of the miracle drug cure by the almost gleeful media quacks; the ‘golf-ball’-sized tumour in the abdomen removed during an emergency procedure; the allusions to the end and how she is now making plans for the future of her two kids with her awful partner, just out of chokey, and strange mother.
All this stuff, with which we are terribly familiar by now thanks to our red top newspapers, squeezed into four months. Usually, with the celebs, it is dragged out for ages, largely because proper celebs have a lot of money and better recourse to treatment and still possess a semblance of dignity. Not with our Jade; this was a life speeded up, shoe-horned into an infinitesimally brief period of time, as if designed that way so that we wouldn’t lose interest, given our rapidly diminishing attention span. Two minutes, now, is the average attention span for people accustomed to watching excrement on tv, and it is shortening every year.
This is a woman’s life, or more properly death, we are talking about, of course; this fact has not escaped me. For the bovine middle-class hacks on the broadsheets, Jade Goody is something to berate the rest of us about, for our tastelessness and callousness — but, nonetheless, still, even for them, a form of entertainment. Isn’t it awful? We created this woman and now we have tired of her! Except, of course, we haven’t tired of her, and we didn’t create her. We will watch until the final moments, or some of us will.
Almost everything about the Jade Goody business reminds us, one way or another, how gross we are and how perpetually close to the end. That, I suppose, is the compulsion. From her desperation for the sort of affirmation and lifestyle afforded by popular acclaim, regardless of its provenance, to the terrifying rapidity with which her illness — feared by all of us — progressed. In the last week, the health service is reporting a massive increase in women attending screenings for cervical cancer, and they put this down to the Goody effect. I suspect there has never been a figure in the public eye who has made us worry more about ourselves than Jade Goody. Unwitting though it may have been, this might be her legacy.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 14, 2009