It is fashionable not to be interested in Jade Goody. Public commentators who seem eager to be done with her have, in the last few weeks, published a succession of irritated articles decrying public fascination with such a tawdry figure. They imagine what other people find troublesome in the surrounding media storm and dismiss these problems as non-issues. They reply to the question of whether Goody should have profited from her terminal illness with a blasé ‘who cares?’, as though she shouldn’t be further dignified with having prompted an ethical dilemma. But her story has produced an interesting and prevailing sense of unease, of which this irritation is just one expression. People are creeped out by what has happened to her, but are unsure why.

Jade’s trajectory doesn’t follow the pattern of other untimely celebrity deaths. If we think of Heath Ledger, Judy Garland or Elvis Presley, we think of people exalted by an industry whose demands and pressures contributed to their downfall. This is the stuff of drink and diet pills and cocaine habits, a classic tragic form whereby these stars were destroyed by the forces that created them. Jade’s case is different. Her tragic ending would have been Diana-like, death by paparazzi, but instead her body intervened to thwart this particular irony. For this reason her story trades tragedy for melodrama in a collusion between media and matter, flash and flesh.

This latest, and final, instalment is disturbing because it succeeds, through its creepily tidy structure, in converting Jade into a fiction. Although we’ve known for years that reality TV is as contrived as soap opera, we had always assumed that beneath Jade as the Max Clifford product, there was a flawed, deceptively charming, real woman of the same name. But now it seems that even her body, the real matter behind the gabby image, has been conscripted into this modern-day fable of ill-gotten fame and karmic revenge. We are being held witness to a pathological crossing of the fourth wall, biology infected with tabloid sensibility. Having made a career out of being ordinary, Jade is now firmly lodged in the realm of the fantastic, with her body finishing the story that the press and her PR team began.

Jade’s life, as it has been publicly fashioned for us, is the stuff of 19th-century French pulp fiction. In 1842, Eugène Sue’s serialised novel, Les Mystères de Paris, was a pop culture phenomenon with an international readership. It tells the story of Fleur-de-Marie, a young girl raised in Paris among feral crones and forced into degradation and sin. Her purity of spirit transcending this life of vice attracts the attention of a powerful stranger who turns out to be her long-lost father and prince to a far-away kingdom. Eventually, Fleur-de-Marie is installed in the kingdom as Princess Amélie, but a change of name can’t erase the past. Realising that her body is irreparably stained by her old life, she abandons her throne for a convent, and then swoons into a self-willed, shame-ridden death.

Just as the princely father noticed a purity of spirit in the girl from the city’s underbelly, we, or at least the media-makers who cater to our guilty interests, saw a brand of charm in Jade. She had the quality which most excites reality TV producers: the ability to stay relatively natural in the most artificial circumstances. After her first Big Brother she was likeably self-deprecating, laughing along when the tabloids unfondly christened her Miss Piggy. Like many people who were bullied as children, Jade often used the strategy of pre-emption, broadcasting her insecurities about her weight and intelligence before others could make fun of them. Britain likes its public figures to be aware of their own shortcomings, and thus Jade became a soothing antithesis to Jamie Oliver’s confident over-achieving. Suspicious of tireless do-gooders, the country embraced its Goody.

But happiness, as the melodrama goes, was short-lived. Jade’s decline began, we irrationally feel, during her argument with Bollywood ‘princess’ Shilpa Shetty on 2007’s Celebrity Big Brother, and even here there are eerie parallels to her French counterpart. The thing with bullied children is that they can tire of putting themselves down, and this lapse of courage is often accompanied with outbursts of long-suppressed rage. Though considered racially motivated, Jade’s fury seemed triggered more by the sense that she was being looked down on; her abiding impression of Shilpa was as a palace-dwelling, servant-commanding snob, whose head ‘was so far up her own arse she could smell her own shit’. The argument and its immediate aftermath settled itself along notions of pretensions and dignity, with Jermaine Jackson telling Shilpa that ‘it’s not that you’re Indian, it’s because you have class.’

Jade’s run-in with Shilpa corresponds to the moment when Sue’s Fleur-de-Marie encounters a young farm girl named Clara. She confesses to a priest that the sight of Clara, ‘so charming, so virtuous, has conjured up the recollection of the distance that exists between us … for the first time, I have felt that there are wrongs which nothing can efface.’ The priest agrees. Jade, in the confessional of the Big Brother Diary Room, mused sheepishly that ‘Shilpa comes from a different life completely.’ Explaining to Big Brother how she would explain the altercation to Shilpa, Jade continued: ‘You’re Indian and you’re quite soft within your speaking … I’m common … and my talking is quite abrupt.’ At that moment she was unapologetic about what Channel 4 eventually termed a ‘cultural and class clash’, but in a later interview with News of World, a sobbing, repentant Jade admitted: ‘I just don’t know how to argue, I’ve only ever been brought up on watching people argue with swearing words in it and the aggression that I held, and I don’t want that aggression.’ During Fleur-de-Marie’s eventual breakdown, ‘each word she uttered breathed the most unfeigned horror and disgust at the mode of life to which she was so fatally condemned.’

Critics of Eugène Sue have argued that, despite his sense of himself as a radical public reformer, Les Mystères de Paris displays deep moral conservatism in its refusal to grant a happy ending to a girl from the slums. A similar moralism is at work in Jade’s story. Sue’s melodrama is rooted in the ancient, misogynist belief that a tainted woman can never be absolved of her exposure to sin, whether or not it was voluntary. The way in which Jade is characterised has been shaped by comparable values. In her first Big Brother career, she was basically seen as a thick chav who was up for drunkenly taking her kit off. The first media debate surrounding her was whether she had actually, on-screen, given fellow housemate PJ a BJ. That summer of 2002, Jade’s vagina – her famously nicknamed ‘kebab’ – was nightly fodder for Graham Norton’s skits. And because she was a bit fat and a bit plain, the persona made sense to us.

It dictated later public reaction to her, too, despite a personal CV of serial monogamy and cheerful, loving motherhood. The national offence taken over the Shilpa episode had a whiff of bloodlust to it, a chance to lay into the slutty commoner who dared to be rich and famous. There was in her various enterprises – fitness videos, perfumes, reality show spin-offs – something of the presumptuous vigour that put people off Jamie Oliver and his dinners. When news first broke of her cancer, some people, particularly the ghouls of YouTube message boards, interpreted it as punishment for her politics. But never far behind these theories were attacks on Jade’s physicality: they targetted her looks, her ‘cheapness’, her ‘trampiness’. The macabre successor to the kebab, in terms of public interest, was a malignant cervix, and we have diligently followed the media’s detailed mapping of the disease proliferating from her genitals. The press has hacked its way through her body, so that we have been made to think about Jade’s ‘liver, bowel and groin’, the stark trio unfailingly listed in all reports of her cancer’s metastasis.

Journalists have not missed the ironies of Jade’s story: the documenting of her terminal illness on Living TV, the fact that she learned her cancer was untreatable on Friday 13th. The textual analysis of Jade’s life is a postmodern post-mortem, temporally perverse because it began before her physical death. She lived to see OK! magazine’s premature eulogy, its cover displaying the dates of her life. Jade’s life felt complete before it was biologically over – a story with a beginning, middle and end – and as such it could be judged in advance as an aesthetic totality. Jonathan Strauss, in Subjects of Terror, argues that during the French Revolution, the guillotine was always late for a death that had already happened; the period between condemnation and the fall of the blade was a twilight of the walking dead. Jade’s final days were imbued with this zombie uncanniness, which further contributes to our sense of unease.

Summarising the theory of Ernst Jentsch, Freud writes that ‘a particularly favourable condition for awakening uncanny feelings is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one.’ Here Freud is addressing Jentsch’s claim that an uncanny element in Hoffmann’s story ‘The Sandman’ is the ambiguous doll, Olympia. Jade, pale and hairless in her final weeks, embodied this ambiguity. Her body’s minor act of rebellion was not to expire exactly on cue. However, in accordance with the tempo of melodrama she was, in our minds, already dead, and so the lag between her front-page wedding and her death inevitably produced an uneasy limbo. Indeed, the stories of this period lurched from the banal (‘Jade resting after wedding’) to the absurd (Wacko Jacko’s phone call of support, and the mysterious hammer-wielding female intruder at her hospital bedside). In yet another aspect of the collusion between the real and the mediated, Jade ended her days literalising her professional life as a mannequin, a blank frame on which to hang lucrative tales of sentimental maternity and head-shaking fuck-ups.

‘Stranger than fiction’ is nothing new, but the story of Jade Goody is weird because it is one of artificial life imitating art. Never have we seen such an uncanny oscillation between the real and the unreal. Sue’s blockbuster serial ended each instalment with the titillating ‘Suite à Venir’, and it was at moments when I imagined Jade watching her story along with the rest of us, somehow expecting that there will always be ‘more to come’, that I felt a glimmer of sympathy. Much of the mediated goodwill towards Brave Jade has centred on her highlighting the importance of cervical cancer screening, but her lasting legacy should be to warn against indifference. On 7 February, an ITN online news clip reported that a ‘golfball-sized tumour’ had been removed from Jade’s intestines. The clip opened with the ITN logo and the word ‘GOSS!’ drifting in jolly pink across the screen. The filing under gossip (jauntily abbreviated) of such a bleak event surely signals the daily threat to our compassion.

Jade’s total conversion from person to text thus takes away, as collateral damage, our ability to empathise. A friend of mine said that he found it hard to treat ‘the cancer thing’ seriously; to him it seemed like yet another of Jade’s kooky, indiscreet adventures. When Jade learned of her illness on camera, in the midst of a conciliatory stint on India’s Big Brother equivalent, conspiracy theorists suspected a hoax to win back public affection. Indeed, the episodic nature of Jade’s tabloid existence, which required carefully serialised sensation to maintain itself, short-circuits our sense of decency. And while the extent to which we can ever sincerely mourn for celebrities has been questioned before, Jade offers a further challenge because her death functions most logically as a plot device.

If comedies end in weddings, while tragedies end in funerals, Jade’s story has ended with the two in rapid succession, completing the melodramatic structure that privileges sensation over sense, melodrama’s particular mix of pathos and farce. Just before her Gothic swoon, Fleur-de-Marie enters a convent, and even here we see Jade tracking the same arc: she reportedly took to bathing in holy water, and ‘her last public act’ was supposedly the christening of herself and her two sons. After her wedding, Jade’s words (across the cover of OK!) were: ‘Now I’m ready to go to heaven.’

Jade had two deaths, the melodramatic and the real, the latter being the commonplace, local tragedy of a young life ending, of small children losing a parent. Besides an uneasy feeling that God is back with a 19th-century moral vengeance, we are left with images of Jade’s nuptials, the ‘sweet veneer’ of a magazine deal. After the literary critics come the punsters. Indeed, one final, irresistible irony in the story of Jade is the poly-semantics of her name: nominally, both a semi-precious stone that can take a high polish, and a wanton woman; as a verb, to exhaust through over-indulgence.

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