In early summer 2002, dental nurse Jade Goody was sitting at the hairdresser’s in Bermondsey, south London. A TV producer called her, demanding she not repeat what he was about to say. Reminiscing in the Channel 4 documentary Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain, the producer says: "All I heard is she dropped the phone and she screamed 'I’m in the Big Brother house!'"
She was uncontrollably excited. In fact her life, which ended 10 years ago when she died aged 27 of cervical cancer, is as much a story of control as it is a story of the UK’s first reality TV celebrity.
Existing in a gap in time where normal, working class people could become famous, but only through traditional TV and tabloid newspaper formats, Jade’s celebrity ran away with her. Before social media, her only exit from the wayward world she grew up in – the daughter of two addicts, living in poverty and in close proximity to domestic violence – was via the hellscape of increasingly extreme reality TV shows and the sneering tabloid press.
As her then-boyfriend and father of her two sons, Jeff Brazier says in the documentary: "I don’t know if she was ever in control of it…who was steering, where it was going."
Jade’s disorderliness made her a Big Brother legend. She used her body in slapstick and uncouth ways; clumsily clowning around in the garden, dancing at random, yapping loudly, her feelings showing in her face and her swagger. In a game of strip poker, Jade’s breasts and stomach tumbled out of her hands and out of the cookie-cutter image of the FHM-approved blonde.
While fans appreciated a "not skinny girl", mean journalists called her "pig", "slug" and "baboon". Today, such sexist body shaming wouldn’t fly with readers. And comparing a person with a black grandparent to a monkey tends to result in sackings – just look at BBC Radio presenter Danny Baker and former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie. Perhaps, without viral Twitter threads, people didn’t even know that Jade was mixed race. Maybe racism, back then, was only something a white-passing woman could be pilloried for (more on that later). Either way, Jade’s body was regarded in always sexist ("chav", "slag"), sometimes racist ways, which these days would be called out by social media users.
Jade’s language was just as unwieldy, as she was caught on camera saying things like "Rio de Janeiro, ain't that a person?" and "Where's East Angular [sic] though? I thought that was abroad." Stupid quips still figure in reality shows, but are never centre stage. Despite Love Island's Hayley Hughes not knowing what Brexit was, her work post-villa comprises silent social media modelling. She needn’t say anything, let alone anything stupid, again. Jade, meanwhile, had a career to make out of uncensored gaffes. Jade didn’t win Big Brother but was its first millionaire thanks to chequebook journalism, where interviews with red-tops could fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds. Yet Jade’s story could only be told by the very papers that had called her a pig and the nationally treasured male TV presenters who would wear fat suits to imitate her (Graham Norton) and joke about wanting "to shag her brains in" (Jonathan Ross). These days, reality stars need not play ball with their haters, getting more kudos for tweeting how much they hate, say, Piers Morgan, than for appearing on his show.
Without social media, Jade’s best shot at maintaining relevancy was a stint in the Celebrity Big Brother house. This time, viewers discovered that ignorance isn’t bliss, and the documentary’s second episode details Jade’s racism towards Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty.
Jade’s turbulent upbringing is acknowledged here. Though she could control neither her mum’s mood swings nor her dad’s absence, Jade could construct a sunny disposition. But her mum Jackiey and boyfriend Jack, who joined her in the house, lacked this charm. Jackiey’s presence helped set in motion Jade’s vicious racism towards Shilpa. Jade mocked Shilpa’s accent, made comments about her being hairy, and called her "Shilpa Poppadom", sparking an international incident that, as then-presenter Dermot O’Leary put it, "was a proper crisis, it was completely out of control". Jade apologised profusely before undergoing a stint in rehab.
Tolerance of racism on TV is now lower than ever, in part thanks to a vigilant public. Big Brother insisted it was "always watching", however, social media has a far better claim to that slogan. With millions of users ready to "cancel" a celebrity, reality show stars are media-trained, their social media profiles (mostly) cleared of hateful remarks before they even appear on TV. Production companies act swiftly the moment any offensive material pops up.
Jade tried to reframe her story by appearing on India’s version of Big Brother, promising "I have changed for the better", but days into the show, she received her cervical cancer diagnosis and returned to the UK for treatment. The third documentary in the series deals with how her cancer took hold.
Jade’s story is a cautionary tale for both young women missing smear tests and for anyone attempting reality TV fame. Even if social media had not been invented by now, every reality star’s experience in 2019 has been influenced in some way by what talent agents, TV producers, journalists and fans learned from the Jade Goody method. Luckily, though, social media has been invented. It is by no means perfect – online bullying and our tendency to compare and despair are huge problems – but it’s allowed reality stars the control that Jade never had.
Jade’s most poignant legacy began when she relinquished all control of her most private moments – her medical treatment, her wedding, her goodbyes, her death – to make enough money to determine her children’s outcomes even if she couldn’t determine hers. Her youngest son’s Instagram is set to private, and her older son Bobby’s is a catalogue of his modelling photos. This time around, finally, everything seems to be in control.
The final episode of Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain airs on Channel 4 on Wednesday 21st August at 9pm, and will be available on All 4.