LONDON — Jade Goody, a dental assistant turned reality-TV star whose whirlwind journey from poverty to celebrity to tragedy became a national soap opera and morality tale in Britain, has died. The 27-year-old had cancer and died in her sleep early Sunday at her home in Essex, southeast England, her publicist Max Clifford said.
Goody gained fame at 21 in 2002, when she joined the reality television show "Big Brother," in which contestants live together for weeks and are constantly filmed. Loud and brash, she became a highly divisive star — initially mocked as an ignorant slob, then celebrated as a forthright everywoman by a hungry tabloid press.
It was a pattern of praise and condemnation that followed her for the rest of her life. Goody became a national touchstone who sparked debate about race, class and celebrity in Britain.
For some, Goody was a survivor who had overcome a tough childhood on a London housing estate. Her father was absent and often in jail, and her mother struggled with drug addiction.
But she also was reviled in the press during her stint on "Big Brother" for her weight, her big mouth and her apparent lack of general knowledge — she branded the English region of East Anglia "East Angular," and asked whether it was abroad.
She didn't win the show, but she did become a celebrity, earning millions through television and magazine appearances, an autobiography, a perfume and a series of exercise videos.
It was during a follow-up stint on a celebrity version of "Big Brother" in 2007 that Goody was labeled a racist bully for her treatment of another contestant, Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. Goody bad-mouthed Shetty's cooking of Indian food, mocked her accent and referred to her as "Shilpa Poppadom." While complaints against the show skyrocketed, so did ratings.
Goody's treatment of Shetty sparked anger in India and Britain — even becoming the topic of debate during a House of Commons question-and-answer session with then Prime Minister Tony Blair. A major sponsor suspended its advertising deal with "Celebrity Big Brother," and a chain of perfume shops pulled a Goody-endorsed fragrance, ironically named "Shh..."
After television viewers voted to evict Goody from the show, Goody — herself of mixed race — insisted she wasn't a racist. "I argue like that with everybody. It wasn't just because of the color of her skin that I was that aggressive," she said during an interview on Britain's GMTV.
After the eviction, the Indian Tourism Office invited Goody to travel to the country. She did, visiting charity projects and later agreeing to appear on an Indian version of the show.
"The people of India have only seen a small part of me and I'd like to show them that there is more to me," Goody said. "I'm a mother of two, a businesswoman. I can't be all that bad."
It was during filming of the show in the summer of 2008 that Goody received a diagnosis of cervical cancer by telephone from a doctor in Britain. The camera captured the deeply personal moment, which was shown repeatedly on TV in Britain, though not in India.
The progress of her illness was chronicled in detail in the tabloid press and weekly magazines, to the unease of many.
"Goody isn't rich or famous because she won the lottery: she's rich and famous because we bought all those papers and magazines and ghosted books with her on the cover, because we watched her television series, because we cheered when she was good and booed when she was bad, because we sat around discussing her over lunch," wrote columnist India Knight in The Sunday Times. "Now she's dying, she's making us all feel bad so we want her to go away, like a broken toy that's stopped being fun."
In February, a bald and frail Goody, married fiancee Jack Tweed in an elaborate event staged at an elegant countryside hotel outside London. She reportedly sold the photos for more than $1 million.
Goody defended being paid for interviews and photo shoots.
"People will say I'm doing this for money," she said. "And they're right, I am. But not to buy flash cars or big houses — it's for my sons' future if I'm not here. I don't want my kids to have the same miserable, drug-blighted, poverty-stricken childhood I did."
Before her rise to fame, Goody worked for a period as a dental nurse. She had an unhappy childhood in a poor south London neighborhood. Her father was a heroin addict who served jail time for robbery and died in 2005, her mother a former crack addict who lost the use of an arm in a motorcycle accident.
While many empathized with Goody as she underwent surgery and chemotherapy in the public eye — filming part of the experience for another television series — she still inspired vitriol in others. A Web site was even set up, devoted to predicting when she would die.
In February 2009 Goody's publicist said the cancer had spread to her liver, bowel and groin.
Goody is survived by Tweed and her two sons Bobby and Freddie, with an ex-boyfriend, television presenter Jeff Brazier. She also is survived by her mother, Jackiey Budden.
Budden told reporters Sunday: "Family and friends would like privacy at last."