It's something of a cliche that reality TV has little in common with actual reality, but the ongoing saga of terminally ill UK reality star Jade Goody proves the opposite can occasionally be true.
For those who don't follow British pseudo-celebrity, Goody rose to infamy in 2002 as a contestant on "Big Brother." During her stint on the wildly popular show, Goody referred to her vagina as a "kebab," hooked up with a housemate and displayed stunning ignorance about everything from asparagus to Saddam Hussein. An early favorite for eviction, she instead finished in fourth place and became a national sensation, parlaying her 15 minutes into a small fortune. Along with fellow "chav" Katie Price, Goody became a love-her or hate-her working-class hero, combining the brashness of Roseanne Barr, the intellect of Jessica Simpson and the shameless self-promotion of Paris Hilton, all in the body of a female wrestler. Needless to say, Goody's cultural ubiquity (including numerous reality spin-offs and a series of workout DVDs) has lead to much hand-wringing in the fiercely judgmental British press, all the more so because of her unapologetically "common" roots.
In 2007, Goody's appearance on "Celebrity Big Brother" erupted in an international incident. After calling Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty "Shilpa Poppadom," Goody was branded a racist and evicted from the house. The drama incited the opprobrium of everyone from Gordon Brown to the Archbishop of York. (In America, the President weighs in on Alex Rodriguez; in the UK, it's Jade Goody.)
Despite tearful apologies, Goody's moment in the sun finally seemed to be over, at least until last August. While filming the Indian version of "Big Brother" as a public act of contrition, Goody learned that she had cervical cancer. She left the show immediately, and in the intervening months has been staging a very public battle with the disease in -- what else? -- a series of reality specials on UK television. Not surprisingly, Goody herself has suggested that she might even allow cameras to record her dying moments. "I've lived in front of the cameras. And maybe I'll die in front of them," she told the Daily Mail.
The ongoing saga came to head last weekend, when Goody was told that she had only weeks to live. The next day, Goody's younger, ex-con boyfriend proposed to her, and they will wed this weekend in a hastily planned ceremony. Naturally, the ceremony will be televised, and OK! Magazine has bought the rights to the photos for a reported $1 million (GBP 700,000), all of which is to go into a trust for her two young sons. Goody has not been bashful about her goal: making as much money for her children as possible before she dies. Her outspokenness has also lead to a surge in screening for cervical cancer, and once again Gordon Brown has weighed in -- this time, approvingly.
However it ends, Goody's story is undeniably sad, disturbing and poignant. While it's fair to dismiss most reality show antics as depraved and desperate, there is something admirable in Goody's consistency and commitment to living publicly. Unlike many hypocritical celebrities (see: Madonna, Angelina, Britney) who bemoan their lack of privacy while ruthlessly exploiting the free publicity that comes with it, Goody realizes that her fame and fortune entirely depends on her willingness to be on camera. Her impending death merely represents the ultimate dramatic twist in her already tumultuous life, and she is savvy enough to recognize the monetary worth of this most unfortunate of events. It also brings a sobering dose of actual reality to reality television. Sensationalizing death is one thing, but it's hard to sanitize the image of a grown woman sobbing like a baby or powdering her head before visiting her boyfriend in prison.
As Libby Brooks argues in The Guardian, most reality TV operates on the assumption that the viewer is looking down on the subject. This has certainly been the case with Goody, whose looks, weight and accent have all provided endless fodder for mockery. But in a final twist, hardly anyone seems to making fun of her these days; the formerly merciless press has all but canonized Goody, praising her bravery in glowing editorials while providing endless, occasionally sordid coverage of her every move. In effect, she has become the new "People's Princess." Whatever you might think about Goody and her notoriety, there's something perversely heroic about an undereducated woman from an impoverished background pulling such a dramatic, albeit tragic, switcharoo.