The name Jade Goody and news of her death probably doesn’t register much with many people on this side of the Atlantic. But to the Brits, the reality TV star has become nearly as beloved a figure as Princess Diana – and her modern, public soap opera tale could very well save untold lives.
Goody wasn’t royalty -- far from it: she was a product of hardscrabble South London, born of parents with drug problems. The dental assistant often displayed more crass than class with rowdy behavior that included drunkenness and doffing her top on “Big Brother,” the reality TV show that catapulted her to celebrity in an era where fame and infamy have become interchangeable.
Goody became a new kind of superstar -- the kind spawned by reality TV and a gossip-happy media, where outlandishness is often rewarded over talent. After her 2002 “Big Brother” stint, she parlayed her proverbial 15 minutes into a cottage industry of books, exercise videos and even a perfume. Still, she nearly destroyed her career in 2007 by slurring an Indian actress on a celebrity “Big Brother” edition.
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Her life took a dire turn last summer when Goody learned – while filming yet another version of the show, this one in India -- that she had cervical cancer.
If anything, the 27-year-old’s life became more public as her disease progressed: she sold the rights to cover her recent wedding to the troubled father of her two young sons. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wished her well as the British media followed her every move.
Goody reportedly even mused as late as last week about dying on camera. The cameras apparently weren’t around early Sunday when she succumbed in her sleep.
Whatever the moral of the Jade Goody story, whatever it says about fame and the price it extracts or commands for a life led in public, her legacy is ultimately positive: more women likely will beat cancer because of her.
News of her diagnosis reportedly spurred a surge in cervical cancer screenings, particularly among young women, a phenomena dubbed the Goody Effect. And her struggle bolstered a movement in the UK to lower the starting age for the potentially life-saving tests to 20 from 25.
Jade Goody’s life, from her tough childhood to her unlikely stardom to her death at 27, was anything but a fairy tale, no matter how the British press portrays it. But thanks to her, there’s a chance that many more women will have the opportunity to live happily ever after.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.