In preparation for my UK book tour last week, I did what any good chick-lit author would do: bought new shoes and boned up on British pop culture, a process that made me feel every minute of my age. Evidently, Bob Geldof's daughter is now a Paris Hilton-style star-slash-train wreck over there. Little Peaches! I shook my head and sang a chorus of "Do They Know It's Christmas (Feed the World)," much to my twentysomething assistant's confusion and dismay.
Most of the celeb stuff translated easily: there are the princes, of course, and Kelly Osbourne, back in rehab, and Katie "Jordan" Price, a former "glamour" model/author/clothing designer trying to make it in Hollywood, and big, brave Beth Ditto, naked save for body paint and eyeshadow, on the cover of a magazine. But one name confounded me.
"Jade Goody," said my assistant. "She's a famous former reality TV star..."
"Hold up," I said. "A what?"
"A famous former reality TV star," my assistant continued. "She said racist things on Big Brother, and now she's dying of cervical cancer."
My confusion was understandable: In the states, absent the rule-proving exception of Elisabeth Hasselbeck, a handful of "American Idols" and the people like Paris Hilton who were at least semi-celebrities going in, there are no famous ex-reality-TV stars. They're like blood pudding. Or monarchies. We don't do them over here.
No matter how provocative, how outrageous or lovable, how sexist or badly-behaved you are on the set of Big Brother or The Amazing Race or Survivor or The Real World, no matter if you shove your wife or drive drunk or stick your snot-encrusted fingers into the communal peanut butter jar, once the show is over, so are you. American viewers chew you up and spit you out and, generally speaking, don't want to see you again, save for the "Where Are They Now?" round-up in People magazine.
Jade, though. Jade was different. "Thick as two planks, inn't she?" asked my driver, as we sped from Heathrow toward London. This was not without cause: in her first Big Brother appearance, Jade called East Anglia "East Angular," and complained about being made "an escape goat."
"Common," sniffed a magazine editor I met the next night.
"I think," mused my publicist, "that maybe people identified. She was like the embarrassing relative who shows up for Sunday supper and has too much to drink and says outrageous thing."
Jade fascinated me. While I was overseas, I devoured every newspaper story, every photograph and diary entry and detail about Jade's wedding (she got hitched to her twenty-one-year-old ex-con boyfriend a few weeks before her death) to her and her boys' christening (conducted, with cameras present, at the hospital chapel) to her eventual journey home to die.
The analogy most frequently applied to Goody's life was from The Truman Show, the movie in which Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, doesn't realize he's living on a giant sound stage under constant scrutiny: that he has been, in fact, created for public consumption.
That, it seems, gets it exactly wrong. Poor Truman had no idea there were people watching. Jade never forgot. In courting, and keeping, the fickle public's gaze for an astonishing length of time, Jade proved herself a master at real-time reinvention, crafting a character -- the girl you hate, the girl you love to hate, the girl you hate again and, finally, the martyred young mother, bald from chemotherapy, dying on camera -- that viewers would eagerly consume, pacing her scenes and delivered her lines and photos ops with an expert sense of timing.
By rights, Jade should have happened in -- or, if you like it better, to -- America. After all, aren't we the democracy, the place where C-list celebrity can be yours for just a sex tape and a smile?
In England, where class and accent and family history still matter, Jade Goody should have had her stint on Big Brother, then been consigned to obscurity -- not just normal obscurity, but that especially bleak and lonely corridor of obscurity reserved for reality-TV stars who once basked in the spotlight's glare.
In the end, Jade's story -- at least the story she constructed -- seems to be one of redemption. Whatever she did, whatever she said, the story goes, she made enough money doing and saying it to guarantee a comfortable life for her young sons...and she prompted thousands of young women to get screened for cervical cancer.
Whether Jade Goody, 1980-2009 will usher in a new era of celebrities who vault to notoriety on nothing more than a willingness to live on camera and an ability to manipulate the media into caring, remains to be seen. The only thing that's certain is that not even Truman's evocatively named director, Christof, could have scripted a better exit. As OK! reported this morning,
"Jade Goody passed at 3:14 in the morning on what is Mother's Day in the UK, with her mother at her side."
"My beautiful daughter is at peace," (her mother) said.
Speaking outside her home, wearing pyjamas with a coat over the top, she added: "Family and friends would like privacy at last."