In praise of Katie and Jade

More and more lately I have become preoccupied by the chasm between rich and poor in this country. After three years living overseas, in a society that has no formal hierarchical class structure like the UK does, the disparity between Britain’s rich and poor seems even more resonant to me. But more than the mere crudeness of comparing people that can afford to shop in Waitrose to people that can only afford ASDA, I find myself left increasingly incensed by the attitudes towards class.
In a way, it doesn’t even come down to money anymore. It comes down to perceptions of worthiness. Never is this more apparent than with media phenomenons like Katie Price and Jade Goody. Here we have two working class girls, with no discernable talent at all, that went on to make an absolute fortune by documenting every inch of their lives, packaging it and selling it to the highest bidder.
Price invites derision because she appears morally ambiguous. A former glamour model, the papers are constantly full of pictures of her spilling out of bars half-cut. She is seen as a media whore, and perhaps in a way she is, I am certainly not saying that I approve of every aspect of how she chooses to live her life. But what I also don’t approve of is this snooty notion that she is somehow undeserving of her money because of it.
Katie Price is just an ordinary girl from Brighton, as far as I can tell she wasn’t especially gifted and was not born into any type of privilege, but she found a way to make a life for herself that didn’t involve working behind a checkout, or photocopying all day in an office. And she did that by showing her boobs to people. Without the option of ‘going to uni’, which the twittering middle classes would do well to remember is the stark reality for most young working class kids in Britain, she found another path. And it paid. It paid well.
As far as I am concerned Katie Price is a self-made woman and good luck to her, she would not be famous if no one wanted to buy pictures of her, so if we are going to hold her up as an example of all that is morally bankrupt in our society, perhaps we should also take a look at ourselves. Because we created the demand that she fulfils. If she is a media whore, then, as the consumers of her wares, that surely makes us her kerb-crawling punters.
It is our hunger for the media circus that created ‘Jordan’. And who says that you have to have talent to have money. What about the royal family? What about the vacuous offspring of countless rock stars that do nothing but trade on their parents’ fame. Do we resent their fame and wealth? Do they constantly get demonised by the tabloids? Do they get accused of being bad parents?
Madonna has made a vocation of prancing around onstage in a leotard, of actually simulating masturbation, and charging a cover price for it, yet she is heralded as a feminist icon. People actually revere her, universities teach ‘Madonna’ modules as part of degree courses. What exactly is the difference? Or is it that Madonna’s behaviour is condoned because she is deemed ‘worthy’ of her success. She is seen as a businesswoman; a marketing machine; she is talented.

The difference really between Madonna and Katie Price is that Madonna is a mistress of metamorphosis; she changes her persona with every new album cover. She can play the role of ball-breaker; siren; little girl lost or demure earth mother equally well. She plays the game, Katie Price, on the other hand, has no such airs and graces.

Despite the designer clothes, Katie is still just a working class girl from Brighton. She has no affected accent, or pretences of being anything other than she is. She even looks the same as many girls from Brighton; the fake tan, French manicure and hair extensions, only in Katie’s case the designer labels are real, unlike her southern sisters, her Gucci always has two ‘cs’.

But of course it is this very coarseness that we revile about Katie. We tut when we see her spilling out of bars, we hate to hear her dreadful southern accent, and her love of commercialism is just all too crude for us. You see, we only like to see a working class girl-made good if she becomes middle class. If she does all she can to distance herself from the cheapness of her background. If she learns to speak nicely, and behave well. Then we will call her ‘inspirational’.
But if, like Katie Price, you refuse to leave behind the essence of where you’re from, if you still speak the same, and act the same, only with money in your pocket, then you become an object of derision. Then people will say that you are cheap, that you are tawdry and crass, and you are selling yourself to the highest bidder, whilst seemingly ignoring the fact that we are all selling ourselves in one way or another. We sell our time, our skills, our dreams, to ungrateful employers that often don’t even know our names. We spend our days toiling for people that mostly don’t care a jot about our lives, or our families, and for a far cheaper sum than Katie Price does.
And on to Jade Goody. The girl from Bermondsey who shot to fame as a Big Brother contestant, mainly we liked to laugh at Jade because she was ‘stupid’, she thought ‘pistachio’ was a painter and ‘East Angular’ was abroad. And that was okay. Because it is still okay in Britain to laugh at the working classes, Matt Lucas and David Walliams have made a fortune doing it. And we, as consumers of popular culture, sit by smirking, seemingly ignorant of the fact that there is something quite Victorian about two former public school boys mocking the white, underprivileged classes. Would we all think it was so hilarious if Vicky Pollard was black?
Jade was a peculiar phenomenon and nothing played out so poignantly as her very public death from cervical cancer. What struck me most about what transpired in Britain’s media during those weeks in March 2009 was not that Jade was dying in the public eye, but rather that her doing so incited such indignance among the middle class left. Only last week I got into a debate with someone about this when they labelled  Jade’s very public death as ‘tasteless’. Well, guess what, there is no ‘taste’ in death.
Death is messy, raw and inconvenient. No one though, seemed to mind when John Diamond documented his own demise from cancer in his memoir, which was serialised in The Times. That was okay, of course, because Diamond was a respected broadcaster and columnist. He was literate, educated and articulate. His musings on his own struggle with terminal illness was considered ‘brave’. He did it, as one person said to me, with ‘more class’. And there we have it: it comes down to class. Even in death, the likes of Jade Goody should know their place.

Because no one wanted to hear, much less see, the struggles of a dying 27-year-old mother-of-two from inner-city London. Jade Goody was not educated or articulate; she was in death as she had been in life, loud, uncompromising, breathtakingly raw. She shared her pain, every single inch of it, with the public that had followed her, by the same medium that made her famous – reality TV.

And maybe her depiction of a life cut tragically short was not beautiful prose serialised in a broadsheet, maybe it was colour photos in OK! and a 24/7 camera crew, but it was no less real for that, no less poignant, in fact maybe it was more so. Maybe it brought home to us, in all its unflinching gruesomeness, the tragedy of this young mum who refused to go gentle into that good night.

And yet her making money from her death was considered in some circles, ‘obscene’, labelled grotesque, ghoulish, again, an example of everything that is wrong in a society obsessed with commercialism, where everything, even death, is for sale. Never mind that because of Jade Goody and the publicity surrounding her death, an extra 400,000 women were tested for cervical cancer, a staggering number that almost certainly saved lives.
Jade Goody didn’t allow the cameras to keep rolling out of ego; anyone who saw the moment her hair starting falling out in clumps after chemotherapy, all played out on camera, could see that there was a young woman who was at times extremely uncomfortable with the presence of a camera lens in her most vulnerable moments.
She did it, because like countless working class women before her, she needed to provide for the two young children who were soon to be left motherless, and she knew she had very little time in which to do it, so she worked her arse off. She worked until she could not work anymore to ensure that her little boys did not have to grow up in the type of Dickensian poverty she did.
She worked to secure their future, a private education, and the type of opportunities that no one ever provided for her. She worked, because at that point, she knew it was a matter of weeks until she’d never be able to do anything for her children again, so she made sure she did all she could, while she could.
And that is what I find so hard to accept about this constant sneering criticism about Jade Goody, because here was a girl that grew up in the most appalling poverty. That cared for her disabled, crack-addict mother from the age of five, whose heroin-addict father used to hide guns under her cot and finally met his maker with a needle in his arm in the toilet of a KFC.
And yet there was outrage that someone like Jade could find fame and wealth. She was vilified for her lack of talent and stupidity, and yet no one seemed outraged that the education system in a so-called developed country had failed someone so badly. A failure resulting in the type of unworldly ignorance that ultimately led to her death as she ignored the warning letters about her abnormal smear test results.
Instead of being angry at the system that had let this young girl down so badly, the public turned its anger onto Jade. As is so often the case with tales of abuse and neglect, it was the victim who got blamed, rather than the heartless perpetrator that had made her what she was. In this case, we all had something to learn from Jade Goody, and yet instead of feeling the sting of shame for laughing at someone who had been hadicapped by hardship, we just laughed harder.
The public lapped it up when they saw Jade strip on national TV, they jeered at the banners screaming ‘kill the pig’ when she was evicted from the Big Brother house, they fell about laughing at her continual malapropisms – when she though Rio de Janeiro was a footballer and Portugal was in Spain. Oh, how they laughed.
And yet, when this same young woman showed extraordinarily bravery in the face of adversity, when she found the words to articulate how she felt about leaving behind her sons with such heartbreaking clarity, many of the same people that had created the media phenomenon that was Jade Goody preferred to look away.
It is one thing to laugh at a naked working class girl on a reality show, but quite another to watch her death played out on camera, and at that point, far too many people just wished Jade would go away and die quietly, cleanly, somewhere where they didn’t have to see it.

But, let’s get one thing straight here. Jade Goody was girl from Bermondsey who suffered a life of poverty, dysfunction and neglect. Big Brother changed all that. It gave her a route out of what would surely have been a far more miserable existence.

She got drunk and made herself look silly on live TV, but she did nothing that I haven’t seen countless undergraduates do a thousand times in halls of residence up and down the country. The only difference being that all Jade’s antics were on camera. Does that make it worse? Is it okay to get drunk and have casual sex as long as no one sees you do it?

She was a 21-year-old kid that was, probably for the first time ever, letting her hair down and acting her age. People like Jade Goody don’t get three years at uni to get drunk and sleep with strangers, they don’t get gap years to make fools of themselves in before finally getting a ‘proper job’, people like Jade Goody don’t get proper jobs. They have to make do with three months in the Big Brother house, if they’re lucky, before being plunged back into the endless cycle of poverty that they came from.
But for Jade, Big Brother was a way out, it catapulted her to a different life; a better life than the drug-infested hell that she had come from, it gave her choices and chances and opportunities that this simple girl from Bermondsey would never have otherwise have known. Who cares that the only thing Jade had to trade on was herself. Who cares that she didn’t have any ‘talent’. Why does it matter? And who are we to begrudge her the small bit of security and happiness that she did manage to make for herself?
For a paltry seven years before her death Jade managed to realise her dreams; she bought her own house, she took her children on nice holidays, she had a white wedding, and she paid for the best education money could buy for her sons. Are these really the values of someone that is morally corrupt? Tawdry? Lacking in insight? Or are they the very same values that the same disapproving middle classes aspire to for themselves, and for their own children.
What these Katie and Jade haters need to realise is that not everyone has the chance of a university education in this life. Not everyone has functioning families and mummies and daddies that will bail them out, or bank-roll them into posh jobs in air-conditioned offices. Not everyone can afford not to join the real world until they are in their mid-twenties.

Some kids, like these two battlers from working class England, just have to do what they can, with the very limited opportunities on offer, in order to make a better life for themselves and their children. And until any of these moralisers have lived in a council flat in Bermondsey or Brighton, have toiled for 12 hours a day for minimum wage, have been molested, beaten or had to wrestle the needle from their parent’s hands, they would do well to return to the leafy sanctuary of their privileged lives, pour themselves another latte and keep quiet.

© Laury Jeanneret, 2010.


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