Celebrities tell you more about the countries that produce them than any guidebook could. Take the mouthy, pugnacious Londoner Jade Goody, 27 and famous in the U.K. simply for being famous. Her joyfully lowbrow chatter struck a chord with the British public in 2002 when she appeared on the TV reality show Big Brother. Five years later, when Goody graduated to Celebrity Big Brother, Britons were less comfortable seeing themselves reflected in her instinctive hostility toward Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, the slinky, bejeweled personification of newly confident India. (Read TIME's TV blog, Tuned In.)
Yet in each of Goody's incarnations and in her hardscrabble past as the daughter of a drug-addicted, mixed-race petty criminal and a needy mother (a lesbian who lost the use of her arm in a motorbike crash and no, that's not made up), Goody has been both icon and exponent of a wide strand of Englishness. Inadequately educated, a single parent to two boys, spilling out of nightclubs and ill-fitting dresses, she gave a human face to all those hand-wringing reports detailing Britain's stubborn social inequality and boozy irrepressibility. (See pictures of people drinking on the London Underground.)
That's why Goody's imminent death from cervical cancer that has metastasized to her bowel, liver and groin is a matter of national importance, discussed at the highest levels and boosting the number of women in Britain seeking cervical screening 21%. "It's very sad and tragic that someone so young has got this deadly disease of cancer," Prime Minister Gordon Brown mused at his Downing Street press conference on Feb. 18. "I know the whole country will be worried and anxious." (See pictures of Gordon Brown.)
Until Goody's cancer diagnosis revealed to her as she filmed the Indian version of Big Brother, called Bigg Boss, alongside her erstwhile nemesis Shetty a small number of Britons somehow avoided the Goody circus. They failed to buy either of her memoirs, Jade: My Autobiography and Jade: Catch a Falling Star; they never dabbed her fragrance, Shh ... Jade Goody, behind their ears; they didn't perform physical jerks to any of her five fitness DVDs or try recipes from her cookbook; they even missed her many broadcast and print appearances. Yet enough of their compatriots did these things to transform the penniless girl without obvious prospects or talents into a wealthy tycoon and eponymous brand.
Of all Goody's ventures, the one predicted to net her the fattest profit is her death. She had already signed up to star in another reality series (in one of the many ironies that define her life, it happened to be for a channel called Living TV) when she learned of her condition in August. Since discovering last Friday Friday the 13th, no less that her illness is terminal, she has secured a series of deals that will reportedly swell her sons' inheritance by £1 million to £1.5 million ($1.4 million to $2.1 million, roughly). These include a televised interview with America's Got Talent judge Piers Morgan and extensive coverage in OK! magazine of her wedding to her boyfriend Jack Tweed, recently released from prison, where he was serving a term for assault. "It's weird, but it's like a film I'm happy, but then I'm sad, obviously," Tweed said of his forthcoming nuptials.
The marriage is scheduled to take place on Sunday at the kind of snooty country-house hotel that is usually expert at making Britons of Goody's class feel out of place. At the end of her life, though, Goody, bald and frail, has most definitely arrived. Shetty confided in her blog that a "shoot in Kuala Lampur" (sic) prevents her attendance at the ceremony, but homegrown celebrities are expected to turn out in force to honor Goody, including the megasuccessful pop group Girls Aloud, originally brought together by a TV talent show.
Amid the swirling confusion of reality, hyperreality and surreality, it's easy to forget there's an actual person and a genuine sadness at the heart of all the activity. Even Goody seems confused. "I have lived my whole adult life talking about my life. The only difference is, I am talking about my death now," Goody told the documentary crew following her final days. "I've lived in front of the cameras, and maybe I'll die in front of them." Her p.r. representative later denied that the public will witness the moment of Goody's death. Sometimes even reality has its limits.