Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Goodbye to Jade

Woman with blues by Pants

‘A Primark Princess’, that’s what Russell Brand dubbed Jade Goody. I wonder if he realises how insightful an observation he’s made. Perhaps he’s also sat on the top deck of the No 55 bus as it crawled through East London on a Saturday afternoon and tried to focus his attention on The Guardian but registered only half a dozen prattling girls arguing over who has the flyest ever boyfriend/nailart/ringtone. Perhaps it was also obvious to him that they were on their way to Primark, Oxford Street’s grand cathedral of clobber, in the perennial search for the flyest frayed skirt ever sweat-shopped. When I was on that bus I was often going there too, but for a slightly less fly stock-up of cotton knits. Primark is the antithesis of style and originality while being the embodiment of ready-to-shag fashion. It’s the most overt commercial example of the paradigm shift in post-millennium British turnoutery which saw the concept of exclusivity sent to Coventry in a Burberry mac. Even I once had no choice but to buy my long-sleeved vests at Marks & Spencer, or as we Australians used to call it marked ‘expensive’.

Jade Goody was a dominant figure in the superficial egalitarianism that came to epitomise the new millennium Britain. The dotcom geek dag look that transformed ‘jumble’ into ‘vintage’ legitimised every stressed garment lurking in a wardrobe and made potential models of us all. Whether we liked it or not, we were fixated with noticing and commenting on each other’s outfits. It’s hard to credit now but there was a time in the not so distant past when that didn’t happen because clothes were too expensive to stalk with intent to purchase every Saturday. Consequently, you saw the same people in the same attire for months if not years on the trot. Primark clothes are cheaper than chips and even more popular. That Jade Goody should be considered a figurehead of the pound-stretching flagship is, well, fitting. She was to Primark what Princess Diana was to Versace even though by the time Primark conquered Oxford Street, Jade was wealthy enough to be shopping at Harrods.

There were over 22 million hits on Google for Jade Goody last time I looked. Of those, several thousand were news items. It’s fair to say Jade had well and truly arrived before she unexpectedly left. She’s been called the ‘ultimate’ reality star. That kind of presupposes there were others. I can’t think of any apart from James Hewitt who came with inbuilt infamy and has been louching his way across our unfortunate collective consciousness for interminable decades. No one could deny that Jade did sculpt a very credible silk purse from a most lamentable sow’s ear, but she did rather more than that. She was given just one big opportunity and she not only ran with it, she came first. My own path is littered with squandered opportunities so I can appreciate, however grudgingly, the insight, focus and acumen required to turn an active vocabulary of thirty-seven words (half of them made up) into a multi-million pound fortune.

Predictably the comparisons with the death of Diana, the former diva of attention magnetism, have proliferated to mark Jade’s departure. Just as Diana’s life and early death were compared to that of Marilyn Monroe a generation before, Jade’s demise seems now to complete an unlikely trinity of martys to femme fatalism. What’s it all about? Many have tried to explain. None of it looks either logical or pretty. Let me try to make sense of it – I don’t imagine I’ll do worse than any of the thousands who’ve already been there.

Marilyn Monroe was a screen siren and very beautiful. Diana was a pure princess and very beautiful. So far, so archetypically sustainable as explanations go. But then along came Jade and she was, like one of her implausibly successful product lines, Just Jade. Enter the paradox. How does the ordinary become the exceptional by doing nothing more than remaining resolutely ordinary? Some qualities Jade shared with those other thick, peroxided birds with kamikaze sex genes we can’t seem to stop missing.

She had that whole absurdly vulnerable and needy yet hard as nails when it comes to protecting your self-interest thing going on. But Paula Yates had that in spades. She was bleached, blithering in the love department, died shockingly and left young children but there were no teddy bears and helium-filled, heart-shaped balloons left outside her house. Is it because she wasn’t thick or because she didn’t have the compulsion to share the minutiae of her daily existence? (That was a lucky break. Too much information about Bob Geldof and/or Michael Hutchence may have rendered the concept of tomorrow untenable).

Jade was compulsively confessional. Like Diana and Marilyn before her, she wanted everyone to hear about her trials and triumphs. To know the intimate details of a person’s life renders them a kind of proxy intimate. Many commentators have drawn the comparison with soap opera – a scenario of long-term tribulation trailing. That’s not so interesting. Historically it’s women principally who emote over the early demise of the famous. In 1926, the entire American supply of smelling salts was exhausted by the ‘grief’ of the nation’s women at the premature loss of the laughably camp, even for the whoring twenties, silent movie actor Rudolph Valentino. Plenty have argued that this sentimentalising belongs in a time when women were given nothing more meaningful to do. So how come it’s still happening? What perversion of the feminine mystique is this?

Stand up Britain (with apologies to Bridget Jones), the weird and wonderful place in which I spent nearly half my life. The buttoned-up, no-nonsense, sensibly shod society whose truck with the saccharine sentimentalism of Hollywood was permanently parked on L’Avenue d’Isdain, hurrumphed rather than sobbed at Ali McGraw’s character dying in Love Story and Debra Winger’s in Terms of Endearment but felt moved to buy flowers and personally convey them to deepest Essex on Mothering Sunday. Sure Jade Goody was a real person, but not one most of the mourners personally knew. It would be very comforting to think that Britain had finally rid itself of its class-consciousness to the extent where it was able to celebrate the most ordinary as if it were the most extraordinary. For one brief shining moment, pigs sort of did fly, albeit business class.

That’s not what the whole Jade hate/love/grief triangle is all about however. Her life and death tells you everything you need to know about Britain’s relationship, ancient and modern, with women. Like all disempowered groups in society, women’s lives are represented in the media as a minority experience with separate and confined interests. Women are expected to be upset if a breakfast television host dies of breast cancer just as black people are expected to protest if there’s a coup in Kenya. You’ll even find the white male population wanting to accommodate you with space and understanding if such a thing should happen and you’ll then often be in the embarrassing position of asking ‘Melanie who?’ whilst refusing a condolence Polo mint.

I often wonder if British men understand that women are a separate gender rather than inferior men in drag. Britain has a very uneasy relationship with women in positions of power, yet over the last 450 years, 190 of those years have had a woman occupying the throne. A hundred of the last 170 years have seen a queen as monarch. I can’t help speculating about the origins of gay men calling each other ‘she’ and ‘queen’ and straight men wanting to group women and gay men together as a combined sexual ‘other’. And gay men being not entirely unhappy with that provided they were top bitch. Jade Goody fell into that area of fascination for gay men which is also very useful for attracting straight men. Graham Norton was never able to get enough of her and he was instrumental in launching her post Big Brother career.

As a woman, I always feel as if my bippy’s being yanked when I’m asked to produce sympathy where it’s clearly not required and I wonder what the men are doing while I’m searching for a clean hankie. There’s an inexplicable zeitgeist embodied in the late Jade Goody, the fascination for which I hope doesn’t last very long. I especially hope the phenomenon that was Jade, laudable as her considerable personal achievements might have been, doesn’t morph into a hideously crass role model for aspiring girls from deprived backgrounds that absolves the government of the day from providing them with an equal and decent education. And I pray, oh yes I pray, that Elton John is not penning V3 of CitW as I type. If there is a god, let her smite him now before such an evil thought should enter his mind …